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The Trek Nation - The Conscience of the King

The Conscience of the King

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at August 19, 2005 - 4:51 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Conscience of the King' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise is summoned by an old friend of Kirk's, Dr. Leighton, who had claimed to have developed a synthetic food to stop a famine but admits to the captain that he really wanted him to see a performance by an actor, Anton Karidian, whom Leighton believes to be Kodos the Executioner - a tyrant who slaughtered half the population of an Earth colony when famine threatened those he deemed worthy to survive. Soon after, Leighton is found dead. Kirk offers Karidian's acting troupe, which includes his daughter Lenore, transportation aboard the Enterprise to their next performing destination, which arouses the suspicion of Spock. While Kirk attempts to learn from Lenore why there are no records of Karidian during Kodos' lifetime, Spock discovers that all potential eyewitnesses who could identify Kodos have been murdered while the acting troupe was nearby; the only remaining survivors are Kirk and Lieutenant Riley, both aboard the Enterprise now. An attempt is made to kill Kirk with an overloading phaser, but he escapes; Riley is poisoned, but recovers and overhears McCoy saying that Karidian is believed to be Kodos. The lieutenant goes to the ship's theatre intent on vengeance, but Kirk stops him and calls for security. Lenore reveals that it was she who murdered all the eyewitnesses to Kodos after discovering her father's true identity. She snatches a phaser from a guard, but when she attempts to fire it at Kirk, Karidian gets in the way and is killed.


Analysis: An episode that plays much better than it summarizes, "The Conscience of the King" has a number of moments that should be cheesy and predictable yet manage to be moving, piggybacking off the Shakespearean dramas to which they make reference. The plot is quite intricate - a mystery with an underlying horror story, and a present-day romance used as a tool to unravel a drama from the past that was never resolved, though watching nowadays one wonders how it was possible the writers did not envision DNA testing, which should have revealed conclusively that Kodos did not die long before the events of this story. Not having had a crack CSI team to work on the case, however, Kirk is left alone to catch the conscience of the king...a line from Hamlet referring to the prince's plan to prove his uncle guilty of murder by staging a play-within-a-play, which is what happens here as well, as Lenore's madness is revealed just like Ophelia's along with her culpability.

The historical Kodos is a monster, a mass murderer who used his private theories of eugenics to determine who should live and who should die out of over 8000 people on Tarsus IV. Karidian, however, is a tired old man and an impressive actor: he makes us feel sorry for him when Kirk confronts him even though at that point we have plenty of evidence to agree with Spock's conclusion that the man must be Kodos, even though Spock seems strangely emotional in his use of logic, determined to protect Kirk from this threat to his life even before he has the proof he needs to convict the actor of past crimes. The drama of the episode depends upon our finding Karidian intriguing, even sympathetic, and believing in Lenore's innocence and ignorance; otherwise they would be a pair of conniving evildoers hiding behind masks of public respectability, like Hamlet's uncle and mother or like the Macbeths before their downfall.

Both Arnold Moss as Karidian and Barbara Anderson as Lenore give memorable performances even while struggling with a script that can't live up to its Shakespearean antecedents. Anderson in particular must walk a fine line, first playing a femme fatale who somehow maintains a charming naiveté, seemingly incapable of conceiving of her father as a butcher, then becoming the dazzling madwoman who can carelessly dispose of anyone threatening her private world. It's Oedipus and Electra rather than Hamlet and Ophelia who come to mind, for this daughter is far too close to her father from the earliest moments when we see her playing ruthless Lady Macbeth to her father's murderous Macbeth.

One wonders how much his observation of Kodos has shaped Kirk's command style, for certainly he has to make decisions at times about who is likely to live and who to die based simply on who he puts on which away teams. Leighton's entire life seems to have been distorted by Kodos, not only in that his face has been badly injured; his area of expertise is discovering synthetic foods to eradicate famines like the one that lead to the murders on Tarsus IV. Riley, who has always seemed rather young and somewhat carefree - even here our first image of him is sitting lonely in engineering, fretting over his possible demotion and asking Uhura to sing for him - snaps completely when he learns that the man responsible for his parents' deaths may be on the ship, stealing a phaser and committing exactly the sort of infraction which belatedly justified keeping him belowdecks. Riley would have to have been very young when he saw Kodos, and one wonders that Lenore considered him a sufficient threat to be worth killing; she ended up risking exposure far more by attacking him than she might have by ignoring him.

But clearly Lenore has never been rational, though she has been careful, and her not insignificant personal charm is a great asset. The lines she uses to seduce Kirk about the great surging throbbing power of his ship are pretty excruciating yet the scene works anyway, in part because we know Kirk is trying to get close to her no matter what feeble excuses he must find and later because we realize that she, too, is playing to what she thinks he wants to hear. She calls him "Caesar of the stars", a theme which carries through when she turns the tables and accuses him of being a tyrant bullying a poor old man when he questions Karidian, then when she shoots at him with the words "Beware the Ides of March", as if the assassination is political rather than an entirely personal assault on a threat to her family. In fact Kirk is extremely restrained with Karidian, demanding only that he submit to a voice test by reading Kodos' horrific speech, and there is no doubt by the time Karidian finishes that he has performed these words before.

It isn't a door Kirk wants to reopen - one gets the impression when he talks to Leighton that he needs Kodos to be dead for personal reasons, so that he does not have to revisit his own memories. He is uncharacteristically short with Spock, who takes Kirk's secrecy so personally that he goes to McCoy to object, but whereas the doctor sees only a captain trying to secure a little time with the exotic Juliet of the acting company, Spock says he rejected the notion that Kirk would have put the ship in service to his libido and remains convinced that something far more sinister is at stake. In fact Kirk never confides in Spock or anyone else about what he witnessed on Tarsus IV, and in the end he will not even answer McCoy's question about whether he really cared for Lenore. The captain has chosen to live alone with his ghosts, to play the part of the strong and isolated hero in which Lenore had guessed he feels most comfortable.

There isn't a slow moment in this episode as it moves between mystery, romance and horror story. We are distracted from Leighton's bitterness by Lenore's charm, then from her flirtation with Kirk by the discovery of Leighton's body; Kirk's angst in deciding to take the acting troupe aboard his ship is broken up by the lighthearted way in which he breaks the news to Spock and the hilarious moment in which Lenore and Janice Rand pass near the turbolift, glare at one another's miniskirts and sheathe their claws; Spock's concern about his discoveries are offset by McCoy's jovial drinking, though the doctor becomes instantly sober when he recognizes the seriousness of the charges Spock intends to level at Karidian; Riley's moping is balanced by Uhura's singing, and just when that scene is about to drag on too long there's a poisoning. In between we get familiar moments of McCoy ribbing Spock about being unable to appreciate either alcohol or women, a couple of scenes of Kirk as investigator and prosecutor trying to track down Karidian's past, and one of the finest scenes all series involving the main trinity, with Spock telling the doctor that he must learn the difference between empiricism and stubbornness while Kirk insists that logic alone is not enough here, that he must use intuition as well.

It's hard to make sense of all the talk of mechanization versus humanity, acting versus feeling, that comes out in the overwrought dialogue. Lenore accuses Kirk of being as cold as his ship but both she and Karidian seem oblivious to the implications for Kodos' actions, employing a means of mass murder in which thousands of people could be wiped out without requiring the culpability of numerous others, guards and officers and ordinary citizens trying to survive. I often find myself saying that I wish evil worked in the world the way it works in genre fiction, where a single villainous individual or a small cabal can be held responsible for such crimes as genocide. Kirk seems aware of the theatricality of the storyline, for he lets Lenore deliver her final soliloquy before a captive ship's company in the theatre prior to calling for the guards to imprison her. There is almost no science fiction in this episode yet it has always stuck with me, one of the most unusual and unforgettable offerings of the original series, and yet another example of the way Star Trek ignores expectations of what a space opera should be to become something greater.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.