Star Trek 1.13: The Conscience of the King

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.)

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