Star Trek: The Original Series – The Conscience of the King
|Episode Title||The Conscience of the King|
|Air Date||December 8, 1966|
|Written By||Barry Trivers|
Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are diverted to Planet Q, where one of his old friends, Thomas Leighton (William Sargent), believes he has found the infamous Kodos the Executioner. While investigating, Kirk’s friend is murdered to ensure his silence, Lt. Kevin Riley is nearly poisoned, and decades’ old crimes are unearthed, with new ones piled on top for good measure.
Let’s Dig Deeper into The Conscience of the King
Twenty years before, Kodos was the governor of Tarsus IV, a colony which suffered from a desperate lack of food and other supplies. As a result, Governor Kodos began implementing a radical eugenics philosophy in which he selected those colonists, whom he deemed fittest, for rations, while the rest were executed swiftly and painlessly. All in all, he murdered four thousand colonists. Eventually, supply ships arrived and the colony was rescued, but Kodos was murdered.
Only nine survivors, including Thomas Leighton and James T. Kirk, saw Kodos with their own eyes and could identify him on sight. And so, when the Karidian Company of Players arrives on Planet Q to begin a series of Shakespeare performances, Leighton meets the leader of the troupe, Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss), and is convinced of Karidian’s true identity as Kodos the Executioner. He has called Kirk there to help verify this claim and to ensure that justice is done. Kirk has a difficult time believing his old friend, mainly because these events are firmly behind him.
KIRK: Kodos is dead.
LEIGHTON: Is he? Is anyone sure? A body burned beyond recognition?
KIRK: Tom, the authorities closed the book on that case years ago.
LEIGHTON: Then let’s reopen it. Jim, four thousand people were butchered.
The enormity of this claim and the need for justice weighs on Kirk’s shoulders. To his credit, he does not leap into action, running to Karidian and shaking a knife in his face, calling for blood. He does his due diligence, needing to feel assured in his claim that he will not send an innocent man to his death based on a hunch.
This is what really works: despite his deep misgivings, Kirk begins his investigation at once, especially because his friend turns up dead shortly after confiding in him. Kirk immediately starts playing the long game by cozying up to Karidian’s beautiful daughter Lenore (Barbara Anderson). Under the guise of some heavy flirting, he draws her in, trying to gain her trust and confidence. He arranges for the Karidian Company of Players to come aboard the Enterprise so that he can keep an eye on Kodos, yet he’s also played right into her trap. Lenore is just as bloodthirsty as her father was in his younger days. She’s behind the deaths of the eyewitnesses, including Leighton, and she has her sights set on the final two: Riley and Kirk.
This is a brilliantly complex episode, a game of intellectual cat and mouse between Kirk and Kodos and Lenore, with Spock and McCoy putting the pieces together when Kirk doesn’t feel right confiding in them. It’s excellent. Lenore plays Kirk just as much as he does her, maneuvering him into bringing the Company aboard, then poisoning Riley and somehow planting an overloading phaser in Kirk’s quarters (which, by the way, makes me wonder if they did just a little bit more than look at the stars on the Observation Deck…).
Ultimately, “The Conscience of the King” is about whether or not to seek vengeance or justice, how far mercy can be extended in the face of horrific actions, and if we can ever be free of the sins of our past.
Why all the Shakespeare?
All of this is done with some of the best writing that Star Trek has to offer. The episode begins with a snippet of Macbeth, in which Karidian plays the titular role. He’s performing the scene where Macbeth kills King Duncan, then opines about his guilt. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hands?” From moment one, it’s clear that Karidian is Kodos, but that this is more about escaping guilt and seeking justice. The question is: can a man be free of his past sins? Who better to explore these heady questions than the Bard himself?
To wit, Shakespeare’s words infuse this episode. Even the name, “The Conscience of the King” refers to “The Mouse Trap” play that Hamlet puts on to try and figure out whether or not his stepfather/uncle Claudius murdered his father. In the same way, Kirk works to identify Kodos but places himself in the way of a trap set by Kodos’ daughter.
One of the best scenes in the episode – maybe in the entire original series – is Kirk’s confrontation with Kodos. It’s entirely a battle of wits as Kirk hopes to suss out Kodos’ identity, while the aging actor rails on about vengeance and escaping guilt. It’s a scene filled with sheer acting brilliance.
For those really hoping for a deep dive into Star Trek geekdom, check out the Star Trek Shatnerverse, a series of novels penned by William Shatner with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. Starting with The Ashes of Eden, Shatner tells tales of Kirk leading up to and following Star Trek Generations, in which he posits Kirk didn’t actually die but went on to have crazy adventures that crossover with the other series in the franchise. They’re surprisingly compelling and well-written, getting increasingly epic in scope with each installment. I mention them here because the third in the series, Avenger, deeply discusses the events on Tarsus IV as a part of a larger, galaxy-spanning conspiracy. It’s really an engaging book.
This is Riley’s final episode as a part of Star Trek the show, but he appears in quite a few books, particularly The Lost Years miniseries. It’s really sad that he’s not ever promoted to a series regular. He’d easily add a lighter flavor to the bridge crew.
This is by no means the last time that Shakespeare is utilized in Star Trek – it’s in the franchise’s bones, and it elevates the show on a regular basis.
“You are like your ship – powerful, and not Human. There is no mercy in you.”
“If he is Kodos… then I’ve shown him more mercy than he deserves.”
– Lenore to Kirk, about her father
“I find your use of the word mercy strangely inappropriate, Captain. Here you stand, the perfect symbol of our technical society. Mechanized, electronicized, and not very Human. You’ve done away with Humanity, the striving of man to achieve greatness through his own resources.”
“We’ve armed man with tools. The striving for greatness continues.”
– Karidian to Kirk, revealing his luddite philosophy
After this episode, how can you not? This is a compelling entry in the series, utilizing Shakespeare’s words as a vehicle for exploring guilt and justice. It’s excellent. Keep on keeping on!
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Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.