Saturday, January 7, 2017
STAR TREK: "BREAD AND CIRCUSES," "ASSIGNMENT EARTH" (1968)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
At the top of this section I put a photo of the "slave girl" from "Bread and Circuses,"because this was the last season that sported Gene Roddenberry's direct involvement as producer. Thus it seemed appropriate to pay homage to Roddenberry's most politically incorrect trope: that of the "sexy female slave" who, in this episode at least, gives Captain Kirk a little friendly "torture." There might have been some inappropriate feminine characters in Season 3, but hardly any sexy slaves.
I was reluctant to give a "poor" rating to "Omega Glory," since it recapitulated some vivid myth-motifs in spite of its absurdities. But "Bread and Circuses" gets no such break. There's a half-baked attempt to justify, through some made-up "law" of parallel evolution, why this time the Enterprise comes across a world where Rome rose to glory yet somehow continued into a rough 20th-century milieu. The heroes are first made aware of this when they receive television broadcasts featuring gladiators fighting and dying in an arena-- which, Kirk later smirks, isn't that much different from the television on Old Earth.
Much like "Omega Glory," the spacemen are constrained to investigate the world of Magna Roma because they suspect that one or more survivors from a wrecked statship may have taken refuge on the planet. The heroes learn that the only survivor is Captain Merik, who became an aide to the Magna Roman emperor. He was the only surviving crewmember to throw in with the Romans, for all the others remained loyal to the Prime Directive of non-interference and so died in the arena. In contrast to Captain Tracey or even John Gill, Merik's motives for his actions are hazy and ill-defined, and his sacrificial death at the end fails to evoke much emotion.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy are initially captured by a resistance-group fighting Roman hegemony. They are much puzzled by the members' claim to be worshipers of the Sun, and McCoy even states, with amazing falsity, that the Romans of Earth had no sun-worship. By the end of the episode, though, it's revealed that the renegades are actually the Christians of this pseudo-Earth; they just took an extra 2000 years to show up. Despite an early claim in the story that the Federation embraces many religions, the story ends on an egregiously proselytizing note. Safe back on the ship, the crew-members content themselves with the ideal-- derived from many a Cecil B. de Mille movie, no doubt-- that in due time the evil of the Romans will be conquered by the goodness of the Christians. One may safely assume that Magna Roma's destined religion will also eventually lead to liberal democracy.
Refreshingly, at the opening, McCoy briefly fantasizes what it would be like to come down to a primitive planet and claim to be "the archangel Gabriel" rather being restrained by the Directive (though it never seem to hold Kirk back that much). There's a lot of running around and escapes, and one nice character-moment between McCoy and Spock.
Happily, though "Assignment Earth" isn't overly deep, it doesn't suffer from the major intellectual gaffes of "Circuses." "Earth's" myth is also sociological, in that it presents a character out to save Earth-society from itself. This is Gary Seven, whose purpose is to guide 1960s Earth through a critical stage of its development. In this endeavor he's aided by an intelligent black cat, who possesses the power to morph into another species of feline, and a young Earth-woman, Roberta Lincoln.
"Earth" is indubitably a "back-door pilot," in which Roddenberry sought to set up a new set of series-characters by introducing them within an established series. The Enterprise time-travels back to 1960s Earth for purposes of "historical research," and the ship accidentally intercepts a transporter beam from another galaxy. A man holding a cat materializes aboard ship, and identifies himself as Gary Seven, an Earth-human raised among alien benefactors. The same aliens have sent him to 1960s Earth to shepherd the planet to the destined future from which the Enterprise hails. Kirk doesn't know whether Seven and his cat are really sent to save Earth, or to destroy it.
Seven escapes the ship and inserts himself into an office apparently arranged for him by at least two other agents, meant to help him implement his first mission. However, those agents have perished in a traffic accident. Secretary Roberta shows up at the office, having been engaged for secretarial duties by the deceased agents. Seven deceives Roberta into thinking he's a government operative and uses her as a front while he plans to interfere with a U.S. missile program.
Kirk and Spock pursue Seven, determined to find out his motives. Again, much of the plot relies on captures and escapes, but the story does terminate in Kirk being forced to evaluate Seven's claims not on sure knowledge, but on "intuition." Obviously, no series developed from this concept. I tend to doubt that the situation of Seven continually correcting history would have proved all that winsome, but it couldn't have been worse than some of the TV shows that were made. I also doubt that dour Robert Lansing would have been that much of an attraction, but Teri Garr (billed as 'Terri") is a delight as the sincere but scatterbrained Roberta, and would have been a great incentive to watch even a mediocre series.