CLAUDIUS: Which world do you prefer?
What is the cost of peace?
The superior contents of the episode "Bread and Circuses" have woven their way into the DNA of the entire Star Trek series — from its patently archetypal character depictions and rollicking adventure to its speculative ideology and biting satirical edge.
A Starfleet dropout happens upon an Earth-like planet on which Rome never fell, defying the Prime Directive to become to become its ruler.
When the Enterprise crew comes searching for his lost crew, they discover a world that has existed without war for over four centuries. But at what cost does this peace exist? The answer, so often echoed through Earth’s own history, is freedom.
MERIK: This is an ordered world, Jim, a conservative world based on time-honored Roman strengths and virtues.
It is made clear by the new leader and his controlling consul that this stability can be "contaminated" by "dangerous ideas". Spock logically admires this systemic avoidance of the carnage humans suffered across their three world wars. McCoy naturally counters by indicating the culture’s current reliance on slavery, gladiatorial games, and despotism. When queried which of these world’s Kirk finds preferable, he offers his oath as his world. A champion of ideals over the stark dialectic of these parallel worlds, synthesizing the logic of Spock and the passion of McCoy into an active dedication to duty and service.
The previously intimated "prime directive of non-interference" is defined for the first time as the now-iconic "Prime Directive", and is detailed thus:
No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, or the fact that there are other worlds, or more advanced civilizations.
Kirk is forced into one of his signature no-win scenarios: he could use his formidably advanced firepower to free himself and his away team, but doing so would undeniably go against the Prime Directive — a principle which he refuses to compromise, despite the interloper having thoroughly broken it upon his arrival and rise to ruler. The conflict between survival of self and survival of the ideals he holds true makes for compelling drama.
The captain elects to put himself into the games rather than sacrifice his crew or the Prime Directive. The sequence of broadcast combat is imbued with just enough camp to exploit the playful fun of the core concept without compromising the drama. A perfect balance, unique to the tonal identity of Star Trek.
A throwaway piece of dialogue is elevated to modern-day precience when it is implied that the home viewing audience will “Name The Winner!”, a harbinger of interactive media that inspires more questions within the functional context of the episode than its casual flavor likely intended. (The implication of any kind of public vote regarding performance would seem to be at odds with the explicitly lethal competition.)
In the arena, Spock and McCoy are pitted against Flavius and Achilles. The situational dynamics of this confrontation, and their ensuing imprisonment, are perfectly designed to test each of Trek's Triumvirate. Spock’s Vulcan training serves him well, and he easily dispatches his opponent. McCoy struggles to compete as a comparatively evolved Earther thrust into regressive combat. Kirk, their leader, is forced to watch as his embodied yin and yang are tested against the frailties from which his species long ago escaped.
In a delightful surprise, this arena confrontation contains some of the best combat staging of the series, including judicious use of hand-held cameras. It also presents theatrical flourishes of topical media satire with the reluctant Flavious being whipped and threatened, if he "lowers network ratings," they'll, "do a special" on him.
CLAUDIUS: We believe men should fight their own battles. Only the weak will die.
Claudius’ unique brand of Darwinism prioritizes the individual. One-on-one, strength in isolation. This continues to establish their singular despotism against the emerging ideological disruption of the Sun Brotherhood.
Prior to their scheduled execution, imprisonment gives McCoy an incisive observation of Spock:
McCOY: Do you know why you're not afraid to die, Spock? You're more afraid of living. Each day you stay alive is just one more day you might slip and let your human half peek out. That's it, isn't it? Insecurity. Why, you wouldn't know what to do with a genuine, warm, decent feeling.
The dedicated actions of the captain are proven to have taken root as the new ruler earns a last-moment redemption by calling the Enterprise to beam up Kirk and company before being stabbed by his consul. A tragic and decisive end for a man who was kicked out of Starfleet after a single moment of indecision in a psycho-simulator test.
The day is won in spectacular fashion as they beam out amid a hail of machine gun fire. True to its establish tonal spectrum, the crew’s own episode of bread and circuses culminates in a delicious bit of wordplay:
SPOCK: I wish we could have examined that belief of his more closely. It seems illogical for a sun worshiper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion.
UHURA: I'm afraid you have it all wrong, Mister Spock, all of you. I've been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion. But he couldn't. Don't you understand? It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the Son of God.
KIRK: Caesar and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading only now.
Regardless of the relative degree of historicity of these figures, the crew is acknowledging the ideological shift which preceded their own utopia: the shedding of tyrannical elitism in favor of universal egalitarianism.
FLAVIUS: The Message of the Sun, that all men are brothers, was kept from us. Perhaps I'm a fool to believe it. It does often seem that man must fight to live.
KIRK: You go on believing it, Flavius. All men ARE brothers.
For the crew, it becomes a reaffirming testament to the concept of the still-shaky Prime Directive: that though the development of this parallel Earth found itself on an alternate timescale, the ideals that form the bedrock of their socialist future are inevitable developments which come into being regardless of their intervention. The ideals of the Federation are so strong, they require no proselytism.
It does not concern the specific appearance of a literal man or the vagaries of their worship, but rather the power of an idea to spread and overtake injustice. It persists, escaping the dogma of its historical expression and evolving into a secular ethos by reaching back to its reasoned source.
The distinction between seeing life as a zero-sum game, a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself arena, and seeing it as a community of “brotherhood” where everyone lifts each other up, with shared victories and shared struggle. Must we capitulate to our most barbaric tendencies, or can we join together in the dream of transcending them?
This is the ambition that lies at the heart of this Federation of interstellar travellers, and of Star Trek itself.
MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.
SPOCK: It will replace their imperial Rome, but it will happen in their twentieth century.
KIRK: Wouldn't it be something to watch, to be a part of? To see it happen all over again ...