Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Conscience of the King" (December 8, 1966)

Stardate 2817.6

The U.S.S. Enterprise is drawn to Planet Q by an old friend of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. Thomas Leighton (William Sargent), but under false pretenses.

Instead of having made progress on his life’s work to cure hunger in the galaxy, Leighton has brought Kirk to the distant planet to see an actor named Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss).

Leighton believes that Karidian is actually Kodos the Executioner, the former governor of Tarsus IV, and a man who, twenty years earlier, executed 4,000 colonists so that the colony could thrive in a time of scarcity. 

Both Leighton and Kirk were living on Tarsus during that crisis, and can thus identify Kodos. The problem: Kirk doesn’t recognize Karidian as Kodos. He is uncertain.

After Leighton is murdered, however, Kirk starts to believe his friend’s suspicions were accurate, and arranges for Karidian and his troupe -- including his lovely daughter, Lenore (Barbara Anderson) -- to come aboard the Enterprise for transport to their next show on Benecia Colony.

As Kirk attempts to determine if Karidian is indeed Kodos, another murder attempt is made. Kevin Riley (Bruce Hyde) -- another survivor of Tarsus -- is found poisoned.

Star Trek and Shakespeare: perfect together?

Since early in its first season (and including episode titles such as “Dagger of the Mind”), Star Trek has taken pains to connect its universe to the works of Shakespeare. 

This connection continued into the Next Generation (and in episodes such as “The Defector”), and even into the movies series, especially Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). We have heard about Shakespeare translated from the “original” Klingon, for example, and learned that Captains Kirk and Picard share a favorite author in the Bard.

“The Conscience of the King” is an intriguing and distinctive episode of the original series for its two-track references to Shakespeare and his plays.  

On a literal level, the episode involves an actor's troupe that performs Shakespeare’s works. The episode opens with a performance of Macbeth, and closes with a performance of Hamlet, granting the installment a nice book-end structure.

On a much deeper level, however, “The Conscience of the King” alludes to Shakespeare and his recurring themes by putting characters, essentially, in roles that one would immediately recognize from a reading of the author’s tragedies.

Take for example, our protagonist, James T. Kirk. He plays the role of Hamlet in a very real way. He encounters not the ghost of his father, specifically, but a ghost from the past nonetheless. 

A friend reminds him of a bloody incident from his youth, and Kirk must seek justice for the ghosts of those who died on Tarsus IV.  Significantly, Kirk demonstrates Hamlet’s inability to act decisively and quickly to resolve the matter.  In other words, Kirk inherits Hamlet's hesitance. He doesn’t want to condemn Karidian as Kodos unless he is absolutely certain of the man’s guilt. By contrast, Spock is certain about Karidian's identity and expresses that certainty.  Kirk still can't act until he is satisfied, in his gut, that he is right.

But consider the mode in which Kirk does act, for a moment. 

He goes to great lengths to orchestrate the equivalent of "a show" to entrap Karidian. He agrees to transport the troupe aboard the Enterprise. And he romances Lenore, when he may or may not be legitimately interested in her romantically. 

In other words, Kirk sets the “stage” to entrap Karidian, manipulating people and events so it is possible for him to learn the truth.  It’s not precisely the play that Hamlet "produces" to ensnare his father’s murderer, Claudius, but it is very close.

Uniquely, Lenore views Kirk not as Hamlet, but rather as Julius Caesar. 

She terms Kirk a “Caesar of the stars” and contextualizes herself as his Cleopatra; there to worship him.  Yet, this is only a surface.  

Of course, Caesar was assassinated and some part of the mad Lenore's psychology must realize that Kirk is, similarly, bound for assassination. He is one of the few men left alive in the universe who can harm her father.  Therefore, he must die.  Like Caesar, his time is nearly up.

Although he says it jokingly, Kirk also notes with “interest” that Lenore plays the role of Lady Macbeth in a performance on Planet Q. 

Lady Macbeth is a villain and a manipulator; one who facilitates and urges her husband’s (bloody) ascent to power. Lenore is a manipulator certainly -- though so is Kirk in this episode -- and she facilitates her father’s freedom and continued survival, she believes. So the comparisons to Lady MacBeth are a bit displaced, it seems.  What she is doing she does for love; not out of avarice.

It is true, however, that Lenore falls well into the tradition of the Shakespearean “mad woman,” (of which Lady Macbeth is also a club member) but she is more like Ophelia from Hamlet, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Karidian is both Macbeth and Claudius in terms of character. All three are men who have committed acts of great violence and cannot escape the repercussions of that violence.  They wish to escape their "ghosts," but the die is already cast.

The two-tracks of Shakespearean references in “Conscience of the King” nicely reinforce each other. The play is the thing, one might say, that brings out the truth about each main character.

William Shatner performs particularly well in the episode, I feel, primarily because he doesn’t play up, literally, the connection to his literary counterpart, Hamlet. Kirk is tortured by his choices, and the morality of his decision (to trick Karidian and his daughter, and to expose them). 

But he never goes big and stereotypically Shakespearean in terms of expression or word choices. He stays in character -- stays grounded -- as Captain Kirk. Kirk just happens to be grappling with a choice of Shakespearean proportions.

By contrast, Arnold Moss and Barbara Anderson go over-the-top a bit in their performances from time to time, doing the “full” Shakespeare, so-to-speak. 

The purple nature of some moments in the episode is, finally, a detriment. I know that both performers are playing actors, but in their moments as 23rd century “people” -- Karidian and Lenore -- respectively, they transmit as a bit too theatrical within the hard sci-fi world of Star Trek.  Moss's wail or lament -- "I am TIRED" -- might be fine in the universe's theatrical play, but is a little too much outside those confines.

There’s Shakespeare after all, and then there’s bad Shakespeare. Occasionally, Moss, goes too big for my taste.

Outside the Shakespeare references, “Conscience of the King” is one of the last episodes of Star Trek episodes to include the paradigm I have termed “lower decks.”  

As you may recall, this paradigm tells a story not only among the lead characters (Kirk, Spock and Bones, basically), but features important complementary moments with the lower-ranking crew members. This approach makes the Enterprise feel like a real ship, populated by a real crew.

In this story, for example Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) sings “Beyond Antares” in the rec room.  She serenades Kevin Riley, who is alone in Engineering.  

But importantly, Riley represents another Hamlet type-character; one seeking justice or vengeance, and attempting to dispel the ghosts of the pasts. He is a lower decks surrogate for Kirk too; sharing Kirk’s history and family tragedy.

Importantly, "The Conscience of the King" also depicts the crew enjoying a play, Hamlet. We learn from this episode that theater and literature both survive and flourish well into the 23rd century.  Despite all the technological development of this new age, live performance and literary classics are still cherished.

A compelling and unique first season entry, “The Conscience of the King” also seems to be the episode that time -- and the franchise -- forgot. Specifically, Kirk is given an entire detailed back- story here. We learn that at as a teenager, he was at the Tarsus IV colony, and that his life was jeopardized by Kodos’ survival plan. The J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films completely elide over this background, but in fairness, the original series never goes back to it, either. 

Later in the series run, we meet Kirk’s brother Sam (“Operation: Annihilate,”) but we never learn if Sam was also present on Tarsus. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) tells us James Kirk was born in Iowa, but doesn’t make mention of his time on the planet Tarsus, either.

Still, this episode suggests that the Tarsus interlude was one of the most important events in young Kirk’s life. He could have been murdered. He also saw, at close-up range, a leader who had to make a tough call…and made the wrong one.  Or, at least Kirk has seen how history can decide which is the right call and which is the wrong call.

It seems like this event is a pretty formative one for Kirk, something that would shape his adult perception of politics, leadership, and morality. Yet there is no mention of this again in the official continuity. It's a blind alley, character-wise.

“Conscience of the King” is a unique outing for Star Trek, but also, perhaps, a really odd one.  The series keeps bringing back Shakespeare (in titles and quotations) yet ignores the episode’s contribution to the series’ lead character.

Next week: “Balance of Terror."


  1. John,

    This is one episode I hated as a kid but love as an adult. All references to Shakespeare went flying over my younger head at warp speed. You've elucidated each one quite well.

    While I don't really have any great insights, I genuinely love the moment on the Observation Deck, when Lenore hits Kirk with "All this power, surging and throbbing yet under control...Are you like that, Captain?" The look on Kirk's face when the camera cuts back to him is absolutely priceless.

    A few years ago, I was visiting my Mom and this episode of Star Trek came on ME-TV. I watched it while having dinner with Mom. She never gave me any indication that she was looking at the television, or paying attention to the show at all. When the episode ended, she looked over at me and said, "I knew it was her." I just burst out laughing. You can wrap up a murder mystery in all the sci-fi and Shakespeare you want, but you can't fool Mom!


  2. I really like this episode because it is so different from many of those that surround it. The main storyline is a solid one and written well. I agree that some of the acting is suspect, but as the images you captured suggest there is a darkness to this particular episode. Visually there are lots of shadows and characters stepping into and out of them. It gives visuals to the hidden truth that Kirk is struggling to uncover. This one is under appreciated, but every time I revisit it I really enjoy it.

  3. Donald G3:39 AM

    Along with "The Corbomite Maneuver," this is one of my favorite first season episodes, and, yes, I have used the theatrical Arnold Moss "I AM TIRED" when the kids wouldn't settle down for the night, much to their amusement. I like the Shakespearean resonances of the Kirk-Kodos-Lenore vengeance/justice storyline. Barbara Anderson's vocal delivery over the slain Karidian reminds me of young Jean Simmons in Oliver's Hamlet.

    My wife, on the other hand, likes what we've dubbed "Conspiracy Theory Spock," who, while being correct, has a melodramatic intensity of someone in the Lone Gunmen's extended circle of contacts.

  4. Outstanding episode. When I became an adult (it did happen) I appreciated and admired the way the script integrated "Shakespeare" into a space-travel television series.

    The scene on the shuttlecraft observation deck is lovely, visually and dramatically. To boot, it's a cool set that we see just once, which only adds to the feeling of visiting a large vessel. And it's 'hand made', as per were all the Enterprise sets, and not just a rearranging of the same wall units/panels.

    Joseph Mullendore's score is marvelous; his "Lenore" theme is gorgeous. The cinematography by Jerry Finnerman is beautifully in sync with the material.

    Arnold Moss gives the episode a lot of gravitas, as does Shatner.

    "The Conscience of the King" is, no kidding, awash in humanity. Yet another example why Star Trek works so splendidly... and why we're still talking about this series decades later.

    Trivia: "Conscience" is the favourite Trek episode of writer/producer Ronald D. Moore.

    Possibly due to the heads-up promotions for this episode, revealing a notable lack of interstellar action, it did not win its time slot. Nielsen estimated that 'only' about 23 million souls witnessed this "Macbeth".

  5. Sheri2:36 AM

    Kirk's Tarsus experience is not explicitly referred to again, but the lingering trauma's effect on his relationship to food does seem to become an attribute of the character. He repeatedly expresses fear of starvation: he hates McCoy's dietary restrictions in "The Corbomite Maneuver"; he's especially dismayed when his lunch is destroyed in "The Trouble With Tribbles"; he's the only landing party member eating in "The Apple"; he notes in "What Are Little Girls Made Of" that the pleasure of eating distinguishes his human self from the never-hungry android Kirk; in "The Wrath of Khan" we glimpse his shift into survival mode when he expresses his hunger as starvation -- "Is there anything to eat? I'm starved." -- and is derided by the diet-conscious doctor ("How can you think of food at a time like this?"

    It's remarkable to think that "The Conscience of the King" is one of just two episodes for Bruce Hyde, whose Kevin Riley was so likeable and memorable. Incredible also to realize the actress playing Lenore was only 19 at the time!

  6. You are right.

    When you know this series as well as I do, you know that events from "Conscience" 'show up' later, many times. Kirk was always a little rattled when he had to make the big decisions, certainly when a lot of lives were involved... or one life.

    Shatner is a smart actor. He knows about "character".