Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Conscience of the King”

“The Conscience of the King”
Written by Barry Trivers
Directed by Gerd Oswald

Season 1, Episode 13
Production episode: 1×12
Original air date: December 8, 1966
Star date: 2817.6

Mission summary
This week on Masterpiece Theater… Shakespeare’s Macbeth! We get a play within a play with this episode as Kirk and a Dr. Thomas Leighton quietly watch Anton Karidian ask, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hands?” (Answer: Umm, no.) Dr. Leighton is convinced that the man is actually “Kodos the Executioner,” a former governor of the Earth colony Tarsus IV who ordered the execution of 4000 individuals nearly 20 years ago. Leighton, under the pretense of having invented a synthetic food that could end famine on a nearby colony, has invited Kirk to the performance to prove his theory.

Kirk, furious at being duped, assures Leighton that Kodos is dead—his charred body was discovered after the massacre. It was never positively identified, but he’s definitely totally 100% dead…isn’t he? Leighton pleads with Kirk, the two of them being only a handful of people who ever actually saw Kodos, to expose Karidian for who he really is. Kirk firmly tells him this is nonsense and returns to the ship.

Leighton has decided to ferret out the mass murderer…with a cocktail party! He invites the entire theater troupe to his house, and Kirk relents and shows up at the party anyway, to satisfy his own curiosity. Anton Karidian doesn’t show up, but his hot and barely legal daughter, Lenore, does. Kirk, in a display both sickening and fascinating (kind of like all flirting, yeah?), decides to warm up to the pretty young thing in the hopes of learning more about her father. This is one of those plans that makes sense on paper or in Bond films, until you realize it’s sort of awkward to bring up daddy in the middle of interactions that are ripe with sexual tension.

The two take a sexy walk on this phenomenally boring planet (that looks like all the other phenomenally boring planets they’ve landed on, right down to the foam core terrain) and discuss Kirk, which is luckily his favorite subject. The two are about to make out when Kirk notices a dead body in the distance. What a mood killer. It turns out it’s Dr. Leighton, murdered.

Kirk puts on his suspicious face and phones up the Astral Queen, the ship that’s supposed to transport the acting troupe to their next scheduled performances. He asks the captain to do him a favor—not make the pickup. Kirk then waits on the bridge of the Enterprise for the inevitable help request from the troupe. Right on schedule,  Uhura announces that (the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named) Lenore has beamed aboard.

SPOCK: How did you know this lady was coming aboard?
KIRK: I’m the Captain.

That you are. Wearing some kind of repurposed shag carpet, (the sainted maiden whom the angels named) Lenore pleads ever so tactfully for Kirk to give her and her troupe passage aboard the Enterprise to their next performance destination. Kirk asks her, “What have you got to trade?” a line so creepy that even Spock raises an eyebrow. She agrees to trade a performance (no not that kind of performance) and returns to the surface. Kirk, pleased with his ruse, inquires with the ship’s computer about the other remaining eyewitnesses. Of the nine total, seven (including Leighton) are now dead: leaving only Captain Kirk and a young Kevin Riley—yes, that Riley, who sang “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” over and over again. Kirk informs Spock that Riley should be promptly demoted back to engineering (with no explanation), and then exits the bridge.

Spock doesn’t like being left out of the loop, so he re-queries the computer and discovers the Kodos connection. Deciding to consult Kirk’s other close friend, he heads to sick bay to get Dr. McCoy’s opinion. Bones is convinced that Kirk is just following his…erm…heart (who is he kidding?), and that it’s nothing to worry about, but the Vulcan is not so soothed.

Meanwhile, Kirk and (the lost) Lenore are on the observation deck. This is one of the most horrendously written scenes on the show, with dialogue both stilted and offensive. It covers all the bases: disturbing sexual metaphors (“And this ship. All this power, surging and throbbing, yet under control. Are you like that, Captain?” Blue blistering barnacles, that’s obscene!); overt sexism (she asks of Earth women, “Has the machine changed them? Made them just people instead of women?” to which Kirk resplies, “Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman.” Vomit), and even more sexist historical references (“The Caesar of the stars and the Cleopatra to worship him.”). Then they make out in that nice chaste television way.

Back on the ranch, Spock has done some more research about this Kodos figure so that we can all get our infodump. Tarsus IV was a colony of 8,000 citizens. An alien fungus contaminated and destroyed all of the planet’s food. In an attempt to stretch out the few rations that remained and “save” half the colony, governor Kodos declared martial law and ordered the execution of 50% of the citizens—using some kind of arbitrary system that Spock describes as his “own theories of eugenics.” Spock’s convinced that Kirk, as one of the few eyewitnesses, will become a target.

Cut to Riley, in engineering, bored out of his skull. He patches into the rec room (hey, no private calls!) and asks Uhura to cheer him up with a love song. She sings “Beyond Antares,” distracting him long enough for a mysterious figure to pull out a squirt bottle and spray something into his milk. This has the subtlety of the Hamburgler. Riley drinks it and winds up in critical condition, but McCoy isn’t certain that it was poisoning. He’s wrong, of course, and Spock insists that they finally confront Kirk.

They do, and Kirk nearly flies off the handle at this perceived invasion of privacy. Bones is able to calm him down somewhat, abut Kirk explains that he’s interested in justice.

MCCOY: Are you? Are you sure it’s not vengeance?
KIRK: No, I’m not sure. I wish I was.

McCoy leaves and Spock notices a humming coming from somewhere nearby. He realizes it’s a phaser set to overload that has been planted in Kirk’s room. Kirk finds the phaser in time to dump it down the garbage chute, but he’s sufficiently troubled by this assassination attempt that he finally does what he has been putting off since the beginning of the episode: confronts Anton Karidian. The two exchange overly dramatic dialogue about the nature of mercy and who was right about what happened that day twenty years ago, and Kirk has him record some dialogue to test against the records to see if it really is Kodos. They’re interrupted by (the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named) Lenore, who rebukes Kirk’s cruelty in confronting the old man, and accuses him of being like his ship: “powerful, and not human.”

The final scene is the play, a performance of (can you guess?) Hamlet. Riley, recovered and escaped from the medical bay, has made his way backstage with a stolen phaser. Kirk intercepts him just in time, and persuades Riley that even if this could be the man that killed his family all those years ago, they’re not sure, and it’s not worth it to “throw away your life on a mistake.” I’m a little surprised that worked, but okay. Meanwhile, Karidian is sweating bullets, and tells his daughter that he heard “a voice out of the past”—Riley’s voice, who he must’ve overheard onstage. (The sainted maiden whom the angels named) Lenore assures him that he has nothing to worry about, and that “all the ghosts are dead—I burned them!” Wait, huh? She confesses that she’s the one who has been killing all of the witnesses, because of her love for him, an expression of her urge to protect him and erase his past. Horrified, Karidian says, “Oh, my child, my child. You’ve left me nothing! You were the one thing in my life untouched by what I’d done.”

But Kirk has been listening this whole time.

LENORE: But you’re safe now, Father. I’ve saved you. Now, no one can touch you. Not even Captain Kirk. See Caesar come? He’s awed by your greatness, your shining brightness. Bright as a blade before it is stained with blood.
KIRK: Bright as a blade. Come with me, both of you.
LENORE: Of course. After the play.
KIRK: The play is over. It’s been over for twenty years.

(The Lost) Lenore finally goes Ophelia, grabbing the phaser from a red shirt and aiming it at Kirk. “I know how to use this!” she shouts. Her father attempts to talk her down, but in a moment of confusion she fires—hitting her own father. Shakespeare-style, she hovers over his dead body, monologueing on his loss to the world with a Fortinbras speech. By the end, she’s lost all sense of reality—and is convinced that her father’s still alive, giving performances to adoring crowds.

Analysis

The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King

Let’s start with the title, which is one of many Hamlet (and Shakespeare, generally) references in the episode. It refers to a line by Hamlet himself, when he hatches his scheme to expose King Claudius by putting on the play that exactly depicts the crime the king committed. Here, too, we have the murderer exposed during the play, a murderer who’s clearly haunted by what he had done. We have Kirk, our brooding hero, who can’t quite make up his mind about what to do about this terrible crime, and we have Lenore, who winds up going completely insane after the accidental death of her father.

More indirectly, there are a lot of moods and ideas evoked through Shakespeare references. It’s no coincidence that Karidian’s final performed lines are as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. We only catch the end of it onscreen, but the whole speech is very telling:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—

Karidian is equally a ghost—unable to live a normal life, reclusive, and emotionally devastated by what he has done. He tells Kirk at one point, “I no longer treasure life.” Dr. Leighton invokes the same image when he says that he is inviting a ghost to his cocktail party. Karidian is doomed to re-live his crimes night after night, until his own “foul crimes done in my days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away.” His secrets, the ones that would harrow thy soul, are responsible for this condition. I think the last line is most telling: in the play it is finished with “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Here, Lenore’s love is perverted and terrible, and her own actions are responsible for his death. The ghost is asking Hamlet to kill; Karidian is asking her not to. I think it’s a great twist on the play.

Karidian’s power as an actor comes from his genuine emotion, his conflicting belief that what he did was right and just and that it was equally terrible and unforgivable. In the opening scene he is Macbeth, trying desperately to cleanse Duncan’s blood. As an actor he can disappear into these roles, becoming someone who has done terrible things but who felt justified in them. Brutus, Macbeth, Hamlet—they all believed they were acting justly. Karidian tells Kirk that he was a “soldier in a cause”—just as Brutus felt he was. In Shakespeare there are few villains, and I think Karidian felt a validation that he yearned to have in reality. It was a way of fighting his own demons. Kirk asks who Karidian was twenty years ago. He answers, “Younger, much younger.” His guilt and his regret are impossible to hide.

I also unabashedly loved Kirk-as-Hamlet, but that may be because Hamlet is among my favorite people in literature, ever (I’m an emo-lover, what can I say?). It’s an entirely different side of Kirk. He’s clouded by his own anger and hatred. He’s sure, but he’s not sure; he’s convinced, but he needs proof. He lacks the courage of his own convictions, but has the moral fortitude to be genuinely worried about Kodos coming to justice properly. McCoy asks him if it’s justice or vengeance, and Kirk does not know. It felt like the first time Kirk was a real person and not just a cut-out hero: he’s scared of his own thoughts, he’s not sure that his actions are the right ones, and he has enough of a shadow of doubt that he questions his own motives. And Spock as Horatio? Love it.

My major disappointment was with Kodos’ crime. I never felt that they made a convincing case that it was the right thing to do. It kept reminding me of one of my favorite Onion articles, “In Retrospect, I Guess We Might Have Resorted To Cannibalism A Bit Early” (about a group of people trapped in an elevator). Karidian’s regret isn’t much more sophisticated: “Gee, so maybe I resorted to mass murder a little early.” It just felt entirely unjustifiable, and I had a hard time sympathizing with his claim that he saved as many people as he executed. Spock’s speech specifically evoked Holocaust imagery: eugenics, kids separated from parents, families destroyed, innocents murdered arbitrarily—an issue that, I think, makes the viewer immediately see him as a monster. Casting a Hitler figure as behaving justly would be entirely inappropriate—so I think they went to far in his crimes. His reasons for them were weak, and his crimes were too great for sympathy.

As for all that stuff about being a machine more than a human, and how you have to be human to make a decision, and mechanized culture is responsible for the kind of man Kirk is, and striving towards greatness blah blah blah—I don’t have a flippin’ clue. I couldn’t parse that nonsense at all. What about you?

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: Well, I think I should probably leave most of the literary analysis to Torie on this one, since she’s better qualified with her English degree. From my vague recollection, I knew that this was an even more Shakespearean episode than usual, with another title drawn from the Bard’s plays. Thus I had high expectations, which were ultimately disappointed.

I thought it was off to a great start, with Kirk watching a performance of the Scottish play (an opening unlike most in Trek, until TNG when crewmen frequently perform in holodeck versions of Shakespeare’s plays), followed by the surprising reveal of Tom Leighton’s awesome mask, which evokes a bit of Batman’s Two-Face—especially with the revenge angle. It’s also great to learn a bit more about Kirk’s past and focus on him as both a romantic lead and a brooding seeker of vengeance, while Spock flits about trying to figure out what’s wrong with him.

The setup is excellent, placing Kirk as one of only three surviving witnesses to Kodos’ massacre of innocents twenty years before and raising the question of whether the infamous Executioner is actually still alive. There’s the potential for some real soul-searching and examination of morals; there’s some of that, yes, but it’s handled rather simplistically. With all the interesting implications of Kirk’s quandary, it boils down once again to logic vs. emotion. Logic says the actor Karidian is Kodos, but Kirk needs to “feel” it.

What, Kirk? Are you insane?

Having recently sat on a jury for a difficult murder trial, I became quite familiar with the concept of “reasonable doubt.” Maybe they have different standards of justice in the 23rd century, but Kirk’s gut feelings are not reasonable. Where’s the decisive captain who makes life and death decisions every day? He acts as though he’s afraid to accuse the wrong man, as though he doesn’t want his blood on his hands. (One would think if he identified Kodos there’d be an actual trial, but Kirk insinuates that he would kill the man himself.)

You want a feeling, Kirk? Your man Riley is just as sure as Spock that Karidian is guilty. Kirk pursues one piece of evidence after another, then refutes it because he just isn’t sure. Hell, doesn’t even know if he wants justice or revenge, possibly the only time he’s being honest in this episode. We never find out whether Kirk lost any family on Tarsus IV, but it was obviously traumatic for him. The only way I can excuse his aberrant behavior is to assume he’s just too close to the situation.

But that doesn’t excuse him, because we (and Starfleet) hold him to higher standards, and Kirk handles almost every aspect of this case improperly. He hits on Lenore to get to her father, manipulates the theater troupe onto the Enterprise, flaunts regulations, and sentences poor Riley to Engineering to push a button every 108 minutes, or whatever he’s supposed to be doing down there when he isn’t whining. Lenore was probably just trying to put him out of his misery when she squirted that Windex in his milk.

So one of my problems in this episode is I just don’t like Kirk and I can’t understand his actions. When he first meets Lenore at that swanky cocktail party, I believed he was genuinely interested in her. I wasn’t sure if he was just using her then or not. But when she comes aboard the ship, and we know he’s manipulating her, his flirtation takes on a more sinister nature. She later tells him, “There’s a stain of cruelty on your shining armor, Captain.” She’s right. Then we have one of the most bizarre love scenes in the series, with dialogue like “All this power, surging and throbbing, yet under control. Are you like that, Captain?” Um, WOW. Subtle, much? That sure isn’t Shakespeare. (On the other hand, I liked the reference to the “soft lights” that always signal a romantic interlude on the show.)

But even Shakespeare doesn’t sound like Shakespeare here. Maybe you just have to hear it in the original Klingon. The actors in the troupe are fairly mediocre, and the episode pushes the themes a bit too far, throwing quotes out seemingly at random because they sound nice and they’re in the public domain. The parallels with Macbeth and Hamlet could have been very effective, if handled more delicately. I do like the “twist” that it’s Lenore killing people, not Karidian—but the contemporary murderer was never the real question. It was always a matter of his true identity, and Kodos already has 4000 lives to atone for. Lenore’s guilt and eventual breakdown does have an air of tragedy to it, mainly in Karidian’s horror that she had killed for him, since she was the only thing unstained by his past. But Lenore, as it turns out, is more Ophelia than Cordelia. And in the end, it’s Lenore who finds “respite and nepenthe” from her memories (let’s throw some Poe in here to really muddy things, shall we?), and she forgets about killing her own father.

Spock doesn’t come off well in this episode either. He becomes a bit emotional about Kirk shutting him out, sighing and huffing on his quest for the truth, though he’s well in his rights to feel put out as second-in-command and Kirk’s friend. As much as Spock and McCoy’s interactions are entertaining and consistent, his relationship with Kirk is somewhat skewed.

There are also some other interesting themes touched on, but not explored. I assumed that Kodos was an attempt to engage in the guilt of Nazi war criminals, a la the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg (which also featured William Shatner as a different captain), but the episode spent more time debating Kodos’ identity rather than his guilt. Then there’s a whole mess of nonsense over whether Kirk is even human because of his reliance on machines, but I can’t even begin to figure out where the hating on technology came from or how it’s relevant in this situation. Feminism takes a pretty hard hit too; Kirk is asked whether women on Earth are “just people instead of women” and he responds, “Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman.” That charming line wins him a passionate kiss. Great.

In the final analysis, this episode is most distinguished because it inspired the name of one of the aliens on The Simpsons. Kodos’ sibling Kang is named for a Klingon who appears in a later episode of Star Trek, and they both hail from Rigel VII, which figured in “The Menagerie.”

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: Lenore: “And this ship. All this power, surging and throbbing, yet under control. Are you like that, Captain?”

Syndication Edits: None listed, though I find that hard to imagine. Did Uhura’s singing really make it into the final cut?

Trivia: You see her only for a split second on the bridge, but this is the last appearance of Janice Rand, who was finally forced off the show by studio pressure (both to enable Kirk’s various romantic entanglements and because of the actress’ own personal problems). Roddenberry said he always regretted her departure.

Other Notes: The planet is named Tarsus after Saul of Tarsus, the Biblical figure who underwent conversion on the road to Damascus and became the apostle Paul. Kodos became Karidian in much the same way.


Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 12 – “The Menagerie” Part II.

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 14 – “Balance of Terror.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.


This post originally appeared on Tor.com.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.