“Bread and Circuses” is a good, if largely average, episode of Star Trek. We’ve seen more than one episode where the Enterprise visits a world where the inhabitants look human and live in a world that looks a lot like 1960s Earth. This time around, it’s an Earth where the Roman Empire never collapsed. And if you think that means we won’t see Captain Kirk in a gladiator’s arena, well, that’s almost correct.
But there was something else I picked up on.
Before I get to that, a quick episode run-down. Kirk and the Enterprise find the wreckage of the S.S. Beagle on a routine patrol. Beaming down to a nearby planet, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy discover that the captain of the Beagle, a Starfleet Acacemy drop-out Kirk knew in his school days, has risen to a high rank in the native society. The landing party also discovers a rebel group of mostly pacifists that worship the sun.
And yes, there is televised gladiator matches that can end in death. However, it isn’t Kirk who ends up there, fighting for the amusement of the masses. No, the local Proconsul wants Kirk to surrender his crew for the arena. Kirk obviously doesn’t do that. The other captain did, but Kirk won’t. That means it’s actually Spock and McCoy in the arena, and if and when Spock wins, he can’t help McCoy or else.
Spock totally wins and then stops to help McCoy.
He’ll later claim he did it because, logically, Starfleet needs qualified doctors. McCoy doesn’t buy that. Spock cares. The Vulcan will just never say so.
Ultimately, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all barely escape thanks to some quick thinking from both Kirk and Scotty back on the Enterprise.
But this brings me to where I really wanted to go. See, a bunch of sun-worshipers being all into universal peace and brotherhood makes no sense. What was up with the Children of the Sun?
Cue Uhura to explain that it wasn’t “Children of the Sun” but rather “Children of the Son (of God)”. And from there, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all stop to consider that the introduction of Christianity will make the planet all better.
That was actually a minor point of contention between Spock and McCoy this time around. McCoy was disgusted with the fact the planet still had slavery. Spock pointed out Rome prevented all three World Wars and the millions of casualties that came with them. So, is slavery a good trade-off to prevent world wars?
That’s probably an academic question, but it does seem weird that Star Trek decided to address Christianity. While various alien races on various series may have some kind of religion going on, humans have always been somewhat atheist. Gene Roddenberry might have wanted this way, and I think I heard he didn’t really want to do this ending. The network essentially pressured him into it.
So, what does this inclusion of Christianity mean? Why would Roddenberry be more comfortable with a pro-American message than a pro-Christian one? Most Americans then and now identify as some kind of Christian.
That’s actually a thing in a lot of futuristic sci-fi, so much so that I know I am more likely to notice it on the rare show that actually does address human religion. Two such shows I really dug did cover it. For the Battlestar Galactica reboot, religion was a major theme as the polytheistic humans tried to survive the plans of the monotheistic Cylons. Plus, the show featured a few atheists sprinkled into the mix.
By contrast, Babylon 5 showed a future where some people were still religious. Some throwaway lines mentioned the Pope was a woman. And, famously, for an episode where the station celebrated religions of all the representative worlds, what did Earth have? A simple receding line where the station’s human commander introduced the aliens to representatives of scores of faiths, starting with an atheist.
But Christianity on Star Trek? That just seems…wrong somehow. Star Trek is that idealistic future where there doesn’t seem to be any real political barriers on Earth, people may or may not need money, and yeah, humans don’t seem to have much to say about religion. Basically, humanity lives in a kind of strife-free harmony of some kind. If they didn’t have space exploration to deal with, they might not even have anything to do.
And yet, here we have an episode that all but spells out that the Christian religion leads to peace and universal brotherhood. Now, I’m not here to debate whether or not Christianity does anything like that. I’m not stepping on that landmine.
But that sure is a strange message for Star Trek.
Additionally, the escape from the planet feels a bit abrupt. Scotty manages to beam the landing party away just as the Proconsul orders his guards to shoot their machine guns. The former Beagle captain remembered whose side he was really on and died for that. Does it feel like the crew didn’t actually fix anything or make the planet a better place?
Well, it may not matter because that’s where the religion angle comes in.
Essentially, this episode just has an odd and abrupt ending.
But at least Spock realized he couldn’t logic his way out of a gladiatorial competition.