• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

Star Trek – The Conscience of the King (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

The Conscience of theKing continues the work of Balance of Terror in fleshing out the fictional universe of Star Trek. While the first few episodes of the show gave little thought to this universe’s shared history and our characters’ origins, The Conscience of the King offers us a glimpse into the past of Captain James T. Kirk. Like Dagger of the Mind, another episode borrowing its title from Shakespeare, it builds off the suggestion that humanity is still a long way from perfection, and that the fact we have reached the cold expanse of space does not mean that our troubles can be left entirely behind. In contrast to some of Roddenberry’s later decisions about the Star Trek franchise, it is clear that utopia is a path, and not a clear destination.

His mask is slipping...

His mask is slipping…

It is worth noting that The Conscience of the King is Ronald D. Moore’s favourite episode of Star Trek ever produced. Moore is, I would argue, among the most consistent writers ever to work on the franchise, and I think it’s worth sharing his commentary on the adventure:

I have a few favorites, but the one that tops my list is “Conscience of the King”. I liked the backstory of Kirk as a young man caught up in a revolution and the nightmarish slaughter by Governor Kodos. I liked the Shakespearean overtones to the episode as well as the use of the plays themselves. And I absolutely loved Kirk in this episode — a troubled man haunted by the shadows of the past, a man willing to lure Karidian to his ship under false pretenses, willing to do one of his more cold-blooded seductions on Lenore, willing fight with his two closest friends, and risk his entire command in the name of justice. Or was it vengeance? Kirk’s aware of his own lack of objectivity, his own flaws to be in this hunt for a killer, but he cannot push the burden away and refuses pull back from his quest to track down Kodos no matter what the cost. It also has some of my favorite lines in TOS:

“What will you do if you decide that Karidian is Kodos? Carry his head through the halls? That won’t bring back the dead, Jim.”

“No, but they may rest easier.”

“If the supply ships had arrived on time, this Kodos of yours might have gone down in history as a great hero.”

“But he didn’t. And history has made its judgement.”

The scene with Spock and McCoy in Kirk’s quarters is one of the series’ highlights. The brooding tone and the morally ambiguous nature of the drama fascinated me and definitely influenced my thinking as to what Trek could and should be all about.

You can definitely see Moore’s approach to science-fiction is heavily influenced by the ambiguities of The Conscience of the King. Moore tends to like the ambiguities of guilt and responsibility, and the legacy of past actions haunting the present. It’s something that recurs throughout Moore’s writing, from Star Trek: The Next Generation through to Battlestar Galactica.

Taking a stab at it...

Taking a stab at it…

Star Trek was – generally speaking – rather forward-looking. Of course, that was built into the premise of the show. It is set in the future, about a space ship exploring and charting the unknown reaches of the universe. William Shatner’s iconic introductory monologue promises the viewer glimpses of exotic “new life forms and new civilisations” as the ship ventures out “where no man has gone before.”

And most of the episodes so far have been about new encounters and forging forward. Where No Man Has Gone Before featured an evolutionary leap. The Corbomite Manoeuvre gave us first contact with the First Federation. The Naked Time allowed the Enterprise to witness the death of another world, and – according to Spock – a glimpse towards the death of our own. The future is a blank canvas, just waiting for mankind to make its mark, perhaps expressing the unbridled enthusiasm of the sixties, the last gasp of Kennedy’s fabled Camelot.

His goose is cooked...

His goose is cooked…

The past has mostly been confined to ghosts or relics, echoes of a distant past. The society of Exo III is long dead before the Enterprise arrives in What Are Little Girls Made Of? The salt vampire is the last of its very alien kind in The Man Trap. These are old artefacts from the universe, left over from a time before memory. The only real link to mankind’s past appeared in Balance of Terror, when the Enterprise encountered a race that had engaged in warfare with Earth a long time ago. Other than that, The Cage and Charlie X referenced a few ship crashes, and Where No Man Has Gone Before featured a destroyed ship. There’s nothing too specific.

The Conscience of the King, then, represents an interesting shift. Here something emerges from the past to haunt our crew. It’s not just the recent past of the Federation, it’s the past of James T. Kirk. This is the first real reference we’ve had to Kirk’s past, to his life before the Enterprise. And it is a past that involves an act of utter barbarity, mass murder on a human colony overseen by a tyrant history has named Kodos the Executioner.

Really, "Kirk's old friend" is a more lethal role than "anonymous red shirt"...

Really, “Kirk’s old friend” is a more lethal role than “anonymous red shirt”…

I’ve discussed before that Star Trek is a product of the sixties. The show is, in many ways, an extension of American’s fascination with the stars. It’s no coincidence that the show aired between Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon and Nixon’s fulfilment of that promise. It’s a show that is generally about an optimistic future, one where mankind has not only survived the Cold War, but also where social, sexual and racist discrimination have all been worn down and removed. It’s about daring to hope for a brighter tomorrow.

However, while the sixties were a time of optimism and hope, they also found themselves in the shadow of the Second World War. There were elements of that unease to be found in Balance of Terror, a cautionary tale about the dangerous of a generation too young to remember conflict courting their own war. However, The Conscience of the King deals more directly with the legacy of the Second World War, dealing with guilt and justice in the wake of mass murder.

The play's the thing...

The play’s the thing…

Kirk is summoned off-course by an old friend who claims to have found Kodos the Executioner. Kodos was in charge of a colony decades ago, and oversaw mass extermination of those he deemed unfit. There were only a handful of survivors, and those who lived through it will carry the physical and psychological scars with them until the day that they die. Kirk’s friend, Thomas Leighton, believes that Kodos did not die on Tarsus IV, and instead escaped justice by posing as a member of a travelling theatre troupe.

Apparently Kodos’ mass murder was sparked by a food shortage, but the other details feel uncomfortably familiar. “Kodos began to separate the colonists,” Spock tells us. “Some would live, be rationed whatever food was left. The remainder would be immediately put to death. Apparently he had his own theories of eugenics.” Even McCoy acknowledges that this isn’t anything new. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first.”

Talk about a harsh review...

Talk about a harsh review…

However, Spock makes it clear that Kodos was brutal in his pursuit of genetic purity, “But he was certainly among the most ruthless, to decide arbitrarily who would survive and who would not, using his own personal standards, and then to implement his decision without mercy.” That description can’t help but resonate, especially since Dwight D. Eisenhower took such pains to document the systematic attempt to exterminate the Jews as part of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Indeed, Kodos’ defence of his action evokes the defence used by prominent Nazi officials at Nuremberg. “I was a soldier in a cause,” he states. “There were things to be done, terrible things.” He was in charge of the colony, so he can’t use “I was just following orders”, but his defence is close enough that the comparison stands. Although these atrocities had occurred more than two decades before the show aired (just as the atrocities on Tarsus IV took place more than two decades before the episode in question), the legacy of the Holocaust and the Second World War still loomed large.

All the Enterprise's a stage...

All the Enterprise’s a stage…

In particular, several high-profile Nazi officials had escaped justice at the end of the conflict, scattering around the world. One of the more outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the end of the war suggests that even Hitler might have evaded justice. As late as 2009, former Nazi officers were still being tried for atrocities committed during the war. During the sixties, Israel committed a number of high-profile extraditions of former Nazi party officials, most notably of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The horrors themselves might be consigned to history, but they leave an open wound, and one that demands closure that it might simply be impossible to offer.

Kirk finds himself wrestling with the weight of that responsibility, unsure how to deal with the accusation that Kodos might be masquerading as a seasoned theatrical performer named Karidian. Early in the episode, Kirk determines that the computer will be of little assistance in determining guilt in this case. All the evidence is weighted on the nine eye witnesses who would possibly identify Kodos. And, even then, how can they be sure that they are truly objective – that they are seeing Karidian for who he is rather than who they’d like him to be?

He really slayed that audience...

He really slayed that audience…

And so Kirk finds all this machinery and technology is of little use to him in determining the guilt of the man appearing in MacBeth. “Are you Kodos?” Kirk demands of his guest, directly. Karidian responds by asking if Kirk believes that he is, which Kirk concedes. “Then I am Kodos,” Karidian confesses, “if it pleases you to believe so.” It is easier to believe that Karidian is Kodos, to afford his victims a chance of closure, to wrap up the case rather neatly. However, despite what Karidian might say, Kirk’s belief doesn’t make it so.

Like a lot of these early Star Trek episodes, there’s a suggestion that space is not necessarily a wonderful place. Instead, it’s something big and vast and empty and terrifying. However, while the universe offered existential horrors in What Are Little Girls Made Of? and The Man Trap, here that existential horror stems from ourselves. It isn’t that space is inherently terrifying. It is simply that we are not build for space.

Details are patchy at best...

Details are patchy at best…

When Lenore jokes about Kirk creating mood lighting – something I wouldn’t put past him – Kirk explains that this is something the ship does to make its human occupants more comfortable. “On the Enterprise, we try to duplicate earth conditions of night and day as closely as possible,” he assures her. Lenore wonders whether living inside the hull of a metal beast might take its toll, one of the rare times that the question is raised in the series. Inquiring about the female crew, she wonders, “Has the machine changed them? Made them just people instead of women?”

In these early episodes of Star Trek, space has seemed empty and lonely. Barring the First Federation and the Romulans, it seems that the only things to be found in space are the ghosts of long-dead civilisations. However, The Conscience of the King makes it clear that this isolation extends to life inside a ship as well. Kirk remarks that the crew would love a performance of MacBeth, as it seems they rarely get to celebrate the arts. “The crew has been on patrol for a long time. They could use a break in the monotony.”

And Kirk wonders how he develops a reputation...

And Kirk wonders how he develops a reputation…

Kevin Riley finds himself alone in Engineering, and he might as well be stranded on a distant moon. Talking to Uhura over the communications system, Riley makes a request. “A song. Make it a love song. Just something to reassure me I’m not the only living thing left in the universe, huh?” Indeed, had Riley not been communicating with Uhura over the comm, he would likely have died. The only human being who could help him was a disembodied voice.

And yet it’s Kirk’s humanity that clouds the issue. Kirk is at his most passionate here, his most blinded and flawed. He even snaps at Spock when Spock points out that Kirk is ordering the ship off course. “Benecia Colony is eight light years off our course,” the Vulcan notes. “If my memory needs refreshing, Mister Spock, I’ll ask you for it,” Kirk replies. “In the meantime, follow my orders.” At the same time, Kirk’s growing attraction towards Lenore, Karidian’s daughter, seems to be clouding his own judgement.

Curtains for you...

Curtains for you…

Lenore is an interesting character – at least by the measure of the show at the time. There are problems with her portrayal (in that she’s a crazy woman with obvious daddy issues), but at least the show seems to respect her as a character in her own right. She’s shown to be manipulating Kirk, and she’s not seduced by his charm. In fact, she plays to it in a rather unflattering way (“the Caesar of the stars and the Cleopatra to worship him”), clearly trying to distract the Captain from his concerns. She gets the better of Kirk, something that rarely happens. She’s not exactly a strong female character, but she’s stronger than most of the female characters we’ve seen so far.

And Kirk continues his streak as a womaniser here. I can see how he developed that reputation among casual fans and die-hard Trekkers alike. After all, this is the fourth episode in a row that involved Kirk’s sex appeal causing problems for the ship as a whole. That said, Kirk was show to be the aggressor in Miri and What Are Little Girls Made Of?, taking advantage of his irresistible sexual magnetism to fool androids and three-hundred-year-old teenagers. Here, there’s a sense that Kirk is the victim, that he is the naive and romantic partner, the one who has been taken advantage of.

A commanding performance...

A commanding performance…

Granted, that final scene with Lenore (and subsequent exchange with McCoy) might carry a bit of weight if Kirk hadn’t been shown (in two of the last three episodes) as cynically ready to use his sex appeal to get what he wanted. It’s a lot easier to accept the tragedy of Kirk “the horrible judge of character” if he hadn’t been so recently manipulating female characters using their attraction for him. Obviously his intentions were a bit easier to justify than Lenore’s motivations, but it still seems like turnabout is fair play. Still, there is something quite touching about the way the whole drama plays out.

The production is pretty fantastic. The Conscience of the King is a melodrama, and the show acknowledges that. There’s lots of fancy costumes and designs, as you might expect in the story of a former dictator who might be hiding undercover as an actor. The lightening design is wonderfully heavy, with the script justifying it as “night on board the Enterprise.” It’s a concept that doesn’t really work if you think too much about it. Surely each of the duty shifts would have different nights and days – it would be crap to simulate night for the late shift when they could just count it as their day.

He really died out there...

He really died out there…

Still, it works very well for dramatic purposes, playing well to the episode’s “stage” motif. Similarly, the musical score is incredibly heightened, creating the impression that absolutely everything has been amped up and the dramatic tension has just been set to boil. The classic Star Trek had an absolutely wonderful way of dealing with all these heightened elements in a way that they still managed to carry a great deal of weight, and that the individual stories never seemed too ridiculous, even if the individual elements were highly questionable.

As the story requires, we get a sense of history about this fictional universe, a sense that Star Trek is not taking place in a vacuum and that this is a fictional world with a shared and rich back story that will be developed and expanded over time. Like Balance of Terror, The Conscience of the King suggests that humanity isn’t quite as far from the brutality and horror of the twentieth century as they might like to believe.

Back stage trouble...

Back stage trouble…

It’s interesting to note that the last season of the prequel Star Trek: Enterprise would make a point to connect that show with both Balance of Terror and The Conscience of the King, two of the earliest episodes of Star Trek to suggest the history of this shared universe. The Romulan and Federation arc of that final season obviously plays of the back story established in Balance of Terror. However, an unseen read-out in In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II suggests that the character of Hoshi Sato would die during the purge of Tarsus IV.

It’s a very bold move, and one that I’m surprised that Enterprise made. killing off a main character (even an underdeveloped main character) as a statistic on in an event referenced once in the franchise. It’s one of the nicer uses of the whole prequel concept, even if it didn’t make it to the final cut of the episode, acknowledging that death comes in many random ignoble forms, and that is inevitable and cruel. In a way, Hoshi’s off-screen death in an event that occurred two decades before the original Star Trek is much more effective than the franchise’s other attempt at a “meaningless” death in Skin of Evil.

And I always wanted to be remembered as "Karidain the Damn Fine Actor"...

And I always wanted to be remembered as “Karidian the Damn Fine Actor”…

But that’s still a few years in the future, due to the cyclical nature of the Star Trek universe. Still, the mention in that continuity-heavy final season of Enterprise seems to affirm the importance of The Conscience of the King in offering proof of a rich and shared back story to the Star Trek universe, building off the history hinted at in Balance of Terror.That said, there are a few hiccups, demonstrating that Star Trek still doesn’t quite have a unified continuity or history.

“Starfleet” and the “Federation” remain unnamed. Apparently the crew work in “the Star Service”, which makes them sound like badass space waiters. There’s also the rather surreal suggestion that Vulcan has been colonised. Based on the dialogue, it almost sounds like they were conquered by Earth. “My father’s race was spared the dubious benefits of alcohol,” Spock assures McCoy. McCoy responds, “Now I know why they were conquered.”

Never work with children or psychopaths...

Never work with children or psychopaths…

It’s not only contradicted by later episodes, but feels weirdly out-of-character for this optimistic future. From the way McCoy states it, are we to assume that the Vulcans are (or were) a slave race? I know that Star Trek hasn’t yet entirely embraced Roddenberry’s idealised utopia, but the notion of a colonial Earth still feels somewhat strange. (Although, I suppose, it would contextualise Kodos’ conduct.)

The way McCoy says it – not specifying it who conquered Vulcan, the fact on occupation had even been hinted at before and Spock’s mixed parentage – would suggest that humanity invaded, but that is a decidedly surreal suggestion. Of course, it can easily be categorised as an error in show that had yet to formalise its continuity and back story. If you’re really obsessive about that sort of thing, you could probably suggest that McCoy was being sarcastic, and referring to how Vulcan had been assimilated into a space-faring body clearly directed by Earth. The sort of logic Eddington would use in For the Cause.

The show must go on...

The show must go on…

I might not entirely agree with Ronald Moore’s assessment of The Conscience of the King as the best episode of Star Trek ever produced, but I am fond of it. It’s a fantastically-produced hour of television, and one packed with moral ambiguity and complexity, developing and expanding the Star Trek tapestry in a number of directions which later writers would run with.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

11 Responses

  1. Dude thats a lot of info about Trek, you know your stuff

  2. This is a very good episode. I’ve watched it a number of times, and both the writing and acting are of a generally high standard.

    That said, I have to admit that this is one where the science has dated pretty badly. I know it is a minor detail, but it ALWAYS jumps out at me. When I was re-watching this episode in the late 1990s, I was simultaneously amused by and incredulous at Kirk’s attempts to identify Karidian as Kodos. He compares photos of the two men, and listens to recordings of both their voices. I vividly recall thinking “What, Federation doesn’t have access to DNA testing or retina scans? Not even any fingerprints?”

    Yeah, yeah, I know, in the 1960s DNA matching and retina patterns really were even more far-fetched science fiction concepts than the idea of traveling in outer space. Even so, fingerprints had been regularly used by law enforcement for decades before this episode was made. Kodos was a high-ranking government official, exactly the sort of person whose prints and other identifying info would be kept on file. I have always thought that there should have been some sort of line added to the script explaining that right before he disappeared Kodos arranged for all of his official records to be destroyed, and that was why Kirk was having such a difficult time proving that Kodos and Karidian were one and the same.

    • Ah, I don’t mind. I accept that the original show will always be a sixties version of the future, which is why I was less bothered than most when Enterprise did not match up aesthetically.

      And I think the voice scan fits well with the theme and tone of the episode – after all, the play itself is the trap. Using a voice sample emphasises that, tying it all back to performance and expression.

  3. I have to ask, why do you refer to this episode as “The Conscience of a King” as opposed to THE king? I’ve never seen this alternative name in any other place, and yet you use it consistently throughout.

    • Good catch. Corrected here. But correcting it elsewhere will take a lot of time.

      • Cool. I thought you may have had a personal taste preference for doing it, since it was so clean and consistent throughout.

        I have to say, I’m really loving your in-depth looks at these episodes. I watched them in syndicated reruns as a kid, and I’ve seen every one of them at least 10 times. I’m very happy to have found your site.

      • Not at all. I wrote these early reviews ages ago. I did a bunch of research between the first and second season reviews, when I noticed people were actually engaging with them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: