Archive for October, 2010

Star Trek 1.13: The Conscience of the King

Friday, 1 October, 2010

The Conscience of the KingNow we reach an episode that I remembered virtually nothing about: “The Conscience of the King“. The title is of course part of a famous line from Hamlet:

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

And the episode begins appropriately enough with a cast of actors performing a Shakespeare play, alluding already to the “play within a play” structure of Hamlet. The play being performed is, however, Macbeth. The reason for this becomes clear in hindsight, as we see the actor Anton Karidian, playing Macbeth, murdering Duncan and proclaiming, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” – a line that resonates with later developments in this episode.

As I watched this episode, I got the feeling that it didn’t need to be a Star Trek episode at all. The story doesn’t hinge on anything futuristic or technological. It would work just as well as an episode of Monk, say, or as a Hercule Poirot adventure. About the only significant restriction is that it needs to take place after Shakespeare, just in order to make all the allusions. In that sense it’s somewhat disappointing. It’s also not a particularly scintillating episode in itself. The story is somewhat intriguing, with an air of mystery over the true identity of Karidian (the plot basically concerns Kirk’s suspicion that Karidian is in fact Kodos the Executioner, the presumed-20-years-dead dictator of a planet). But it seems too contrived to be a really convincing story.

Anyway, it opens with an awkward profile shot of a friend of Kirk’s, Tom Leighton. Leighton has tricked Kirk to his planet in order to show Kirk the actor Karidian, whom he believes to be Kodos. After the Macbeth performance, we again see Leighton in awkward profile, trying to convince Kirk. This culminates in Leighton turning to face the camera, revealing an eyepatch and mask covering half his presumably horribly disfigured face. Kirk remains unconvinced, and takes the opportunity to flirt with Karidian’s lovely daughter Lenore, until they stumble across Leighton’s body while taking a romantic jaunt under the moonlight.

This is enough for Kirk, who now takes over Leighton’s desire for revenge. He has the acting company’s transport leave without them, stranding them on the planet, with only the Enterprise as handy transport. Lenore beams aboard to ask Kirk to take the company to their next destination. This is an inexplicable bit of an excuse for more flirting – why didn’t she just call by radio? Anyway, the Enterprise ends up carrying the actors.

Kirk discovers Lieutenant Riley – who had his moment of glory back in “The Naked Time” – is also a survivor of Kodos’s regime and has him transferred to engineering to keep him out of the way. It doesn’t help, as Riley is poisoned and ends up in sickbay. Spock gets suspicious of Kirk’s motives and confides in McCoy, who tells him to stop worrying and have a drink, leading to this very interesting exchange:

Spock: My father’s race was spared the dubious benefits of alcohol.
McCoy: Now I know why they were conquered.

This is the first I ever recall hearing about Vulcan being conquered! And in fact this is noted on Memory Alpha as contradicting other canonical information known about Vulcan.

Now there’s only Kirk left who has ever seen Kodos. He goes to his quarters, revealing a bizarre pattern of coloured lights shining on the wall outside his room. The purpose of these coloured lights escapes me. Spock confronts Kirk, but is interrupted by the screech of an overloading phaser, prompting Kirk to declare a “double red alert“(!). Disaster averted, the actors begin a performance of Hamlet for the crew, now falling fully into the “play within a play” allusion.

Without spoiling the ending, we learn that Karidian is indeed Kodos, and he suffers an ironic and tragic death, echoing further Shakespearean parallels. It’s actually wrapped up quite neatly in the end. Okay, it’s kind of a satisfying story, really – it suffers mostly because it’s so out of place for Star Trek, and so the 23rd century setting and the characters we know and love seem entirely superfluous to that story.

Body count: Tom Leighton, Anton Karidian/Kodos.
Tropes: Literary Allusion Title, Never Found The Body, Two Faced, Evil Is Hammy, Tampering With Food And Drink, Red Alert, Cold Equation, I Did What I Had To Do, Show Within A Show, Villainous Breakdown, Daddy’s Little Villain, Karmic Death, Please Wake Up
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

Struggling with Hofstadter

Friday, 1 October, 2010

I’m still working my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot, mentioned twice before. I set it aside for several weeks because it was just getting too painful to keep reading it. I picked it up again this week.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is a true work of genius, and I’ve enjoyed a couple of his other books. And this book, Le Ton Beau de Marot, has all the hallmarks of being something I would really love. It’s about translation, which I am interested in, and particularly the difficulties of doing a faithful job of translating that captures the “true spirit” of the original, which is an aspect that I also am particularly interested in. And Hofstadter wrote this book as a healing epiphany after the tragic loss of his beloved wife, and it is sprinkled with anecdotes about their life together and how they relate to a shared love of language. It should by turns be poignant and moving and inspired and intelligent and well-argued and full of little details that have you marvelling at what a great writer Hofstadter is.

But I am struggling to get through it. And not in the good way that I struggled with Gödel, Escher, Bach, which requires concentration and clarity and deep thought to absorb the import of what is being said. I’m struggling with Le Ton Beau de Marot because Hofstadter appears to have written a curmudgeonly and unapologetically polemic screed that promotes his own opinions about translation as incontrovertible, obvious, and inviolable for any reason whatsoever, and he attacks without mercy any and all authors who disagree with his stance. His stance, moreover, is built on a house of cards.

Basically, Hofstadter’s opinion can be summarised as: a translation MUST preserve the form of the original, otherwise it’s weak, limp, unworthy, a cop-out, a travesty, and of absolutely no worth whatsoever. In particular, through exhaustive examples, he hammers home the point that a translation of a rhyming poem must also rhyme, even if that demands sacrificing some of the meaning of the original to enforce the rhyme in the new language.

From small poems he than launches into an analysis of English translations of Eugene Onegin, the classic Russian novel, written by Alexander Pushkin in verse. There have been several English translations which preserve Pushkin’s verse structure, and which Hofstadter applauds to various degrees. But there is also a well-known English translation by Vladimir Nabokov, which is an attempt to preserve as much of the meaning of Pushkin as possible, line by line, but sacrificing the rhyming verse structure. Hoftsatder is scathing in his excoriation of how ridiculous this so-called “translation” is.

The really sad thing about all of this is that Hofstadter then goes on to describe how Nabokov also wrote an extensive accompanying volume about how he approached his translation of Eugene Onegin, in which Nabokov ridicules the verse translations as unworthy travesties, and how only a more literal-minded non-verse translation can possibly convey the true essence of Pushkin’s novel to an English speaker. Hofstatder absolutely rips this opinion to pieces, blind to the irony of himself doing exactly the same thing as Pushkin, just with the opinion reversed! It’s even worse because Hofstatder actually admits that he has found Nabokov’s translation helpful to understand the true literal intention of Pushkin’s original Russian when comparing different verse translation versions to understand where their differences and divergences come from – while at the same time saying that Nabokov’s translation is a useless travesty of the original!

If Hofstatder is deliberately setting himself up as an overblown and ridiculous straw man, only to later in the book knock himself down as an example of how uncompromising black and white thinking cannot be applied to such a fluid and dynamic problem as translation, then he is doing a brilliant job. Because at this point of the book, I find his argument not only unsustainable and full of logical holes, but also rude, crude, and downright offensive. Surely the man can see that he’s using the same bitter and vindictive argument that he is criticising as unsupportable?

I don’t know what continuing to the end of this book will bring. There is interesting material about translation, to be sure, and it’s fascinating to read those nuggets. But the more I progress, the more I find myself losing respect for Hofstatder, and that’s an extremely painful thing to find happening, both after the brilliance of Gödel, Escher, Bach and given the fact that Le Ton Beau de Marot is his tribute to his dead wife. I’m finding this an extremely sad book, but for all the wrong reasons.