Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bread And Circuses

Star Trek has tried several different ways of setting up the parallel Earth concept. None of them entirely successful. Miri and The Omega Glory both make a big deal over their respective planets' miraculous resemblance to Earth but keep utterly quiet over any hint of an explanation. The societies in A Piece Of The Action and Patterns Of Force were both contaminated by visitors from Earth. This works a little better but there's a limit to the number of worlds which can be contaminated by meddling earthmen before that concept wears thin. Ironically the best approach is seen in The Return Of The Archons not technically a parallel Earth story, but one in which the locals wear old style clothing and live in a recognisably Earth-like town. The vaguely Amish manner, in terms of how they dress and act, of the locals on Beta III subtly cues the audience in on what type of society to expect (no technology, peaceful, friendly) and then surprises when red hour strikes and everyone goes crazy. So, the most successful way of making a parallel Earth story is to adopt a sort of don't ask don't tell policy. Dress your guest cast in a historical style appropriate to the story you are telling, and film on location, but don't tell the audience you are doing a parallel Earth story. Let them work it out for themselves. However, while The Return Of The Archons approach would allow for a Roman allegory, it wouldn't work for Bread And Circuses itself which actually wants to be about Space Rome.

So, Bread And Circuses uses a variation of Miri/The Omega Glory's parallel Earth set up. The episode imagines a 20th century version of the Roman Empire, to be more precise a 1960s version. For the sake of brevity assume everything said in The Omega Glory review about the lack of explanations applies here to Space Rome. Even allowing for that Bread And Circuses is a more successful episode than either Miri, or The Omega Glory, and the lack of any explanation for how Space Rome developed (complete with the same Gods, gladiators, centurions, etc) doesn't nag nearly as much. 

Miri and The Omega Glory both want the audience to be amazed at their respective planets' miraculous similarity to Earth, but neither episode wants the viewers to think about it in too much detail. The result is two episodes which are not actually about the planets on which they are set. The plot of Miri could take place on any planet, while The Omega Glory's version of the USA isn't revealed until 35 minutes into the episode. In both cases there's a separation between the story the audience is expected to follow, and the parallel Earth concept, and that separation is hard for the audience to resolve. Imagine trying to watch a version of The Apple in which the end of act two surprise is a reveal that Vaal looks like Mount Rushmore. By contrast Bread And Circuses is most definitely about Space Rome, and exploring that culture, and seeing what it would be like, and how it differs from and also resembles Earth. Miri and The Omega Glory also don't want to talk about their parallel Earths. In both stories characters express amazement but then quickly shut up. In Bread And Circuses people keep talking. Someone, normally Spock will harp on about the amazing parallel development. “This atmosphere is remarkably similar to your twentieth century.” “Complete Earth parallel. The language here is English.” “Colloquial twentieth-century English. An amazing parallel.” (Actually Spock ixnay on the Englishway, if this really were Space Rome everyone would be talking Latin). Also mentioned is “Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development,” a fig leaf piece of cod future science which doesn't explain events any more than Doctor Who's Blinovitch Limitation Effect explains time travel paradoxes, but at least shows someone on the writing side is aware of the need for an explanation. 

Bread And Circuses may be better than both Miri and The Omega Glory, but that's still a pretty low bar. On it's own terms the episode is engaging but never great. The story is written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon, and directed by Ralph Senensky. In theory this should be the ideal set up for an episode. Gene Roddenberry's vision filtered through Gene L. Coon's ability to make engaging television. In a single episode Bread And Circuses should be everything that made Star Trek work as a series but it isn't. There's some clever attempts to imagine how a modern Roman Empire would work -slavery as an institution with rights and pensions, and gladiatorial contests on television- but the story just ends up feeling like Spartacus without the spectacle. The ending is a mess, Kirk is sentenced to be executed but gladiator/Christian/slave Flavius interrupts proceedings by suddenly rushing on shouting, “murderers! If you want death, fight me!” It's not clear how Flavius is able to escape and make his timely intervention. Presumably Merikus, formerly Captain Merik of the SS Beagle, lets him loose although Merik's sudden change of heart also isn't really explained. He's spent five years as First Citizen and Lord of the Games watching his own crew die in the arena, and then suddenly he's babbling to Proconsul Claudius Marcus about Kirk's spirit. “He commands not just a spaceship, Proconsul, but a starship. A very special vessel and crew. I tried for such a command.” Likewise Claudius Marcus' attitude to Merik abruptly alters, out of nowhere he starts flattering Kirk and doing Merik down. “Because you're a man, I owe you that. You must die shortly, and because you are a man... Would you leave us, Merik? The thoughts of one man to another cannot possibly interest you.” Essentially it seems as if nothing more than the awesome manly presence of Captain Kirk is enough to wreck their five year working relationship.

When the landing party are taken to the arena there's some mild nose tweaking of the television industry. The arena is a cheap studio backdrop, and the crowd noise just sound effects. It's overstating the material to call it satire, there's not much more than a couple of lines “you bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you,” and Claudius' comment that Kirk's execution will be, “in full colour. We guarantee you a splendid audience.” Frankly it comes across more as a private joke between the two Genes and the production team. A realisation that the only way to make arena scenes work on Star Trek is to shrink them down to a corner of the studio, and that this provides the opportunity to have a little fun at the fakery of television.

Ralph Senensky is one of the most distinctive Star Trek directors. His work on This Side Of Paradise and Metamorphosis is outstanding. However his website makes clear that by this point in the series he feels the reduced shooting schedule (on paper six days, but in reality closer to five and a half) was damaging the finished episodes. Certainly there are very few stylistic flourishes here. Act one, which unusually is all shot on location even the cave interiors, is the strongest. There's a lot of hand held camera work, and some very wide shots which give a sense of scale to the Bronson Canyon location. There's also some really good attention to detail in the news broadcast Uhuru picks up. There's a clear difference in filming styles, as you would expect to see between the news and sports footage. The opening shot of dissidents is filmed using a hand held camera, while the arena footage is shot from a fixed tripod. The success of the final reveal of the slaves religion as Christianity is largely due to Senensky's careful work, aided by film editor Fabian Tordjmann. There's a terrific piece of misdirection when Septimus says, “may the blessings of the son be upon you.” On the word “son” Tordjmann cuts to a very low angled shot of the landing party and Flavius heading towards the city, with the sun in the top left of the frame, and the rest of Septimus' line continues in voice over. It's this sort of deliberate sun/son confusion which makes the final reveal work. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None, after a few rough weeks for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 46

The television cameras used in the Empire television studio set appear to be genuine video cameras. As far as I can tell they are the RCA TK-10 model. If they are TK-10s then Claudius is wrong to tell Kirk his execution will be in full colour. The TK-10, introduced in 1946, was a black and white camera only.

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