Star Trek: The Original Series often referenced Shakespeare, both in its themes and in its style. This is only to be expected, as elevated themes of tragedy and highly stylized stories of great people pulling the levers of power are rarely expressed more effectively than through the Shakespearean idiom. Also, the mid 1960’s were an era of daring Shakespeare on stage and screen – Orson Welles himself was shooting Chimes At Midnight as Star Trek’s first season was being produced. Shakespeare also was a neat way to get around network censors who may have otherwise objected to the violence and darkness inherent in some of the plots. The “but it’s Shakespeare!” defence worked then, and it sometimes works now. So, it isn’t as if “The Conscience of the King” is the only time Shakespeare was brought out during Trek‘s three year run, but it was one of the more obvious, and uses the audience’s supposed familiarity with the original text to enhance ancient themes of revenge, regret and madness.
One of the most comforting things about Star Trek in its portrayal of the future is that there is any theatre at all, let alone Shakespeare. The fact that people in the 23rd century are depicted as going to plays, sitting through soliloquies the old-fashioned way is charming and actually quite moving – it’s another example of Gene Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about our collective culture and its future. For those who despair that the future will turn into some grim Idiocracy where mass entertainment comes in the form of professional wrestling (something all too easy to believe in these times), Trek is a tonic that suggests we’ll make it after all.
That optimism is, of course, balanced in this episode by the assertion that other elements of the human condition will also carry over across the centuries, including the struggle for power, competition over resources and the occasional rise of charismatic dictators who wield their power in regretful ways. The plot of “The Conscience of the King” revolves around exposing a man now performing as the lead in a traveling company of Shakespearean actors, but who may, twenty years before, have been the notorious “Kodos the Executioner”, Governor of an earth colony who slaughtered thousands of his people when supplies ran low in order to preserve who he thought of as worth saving. In an interesting peek into Captain Kirk’s past, it’s revealed that Kirk himself was part of that colony as a child, and was spared. He is one of only a handful of others who remain alive who actually saw Kodos in the flesh. Another is his old friend Dr. Thomas Leighton, who has become convinced that actor Anton Karidian is Kodos. When Karidian’s theatre company visits the planet where Leighton now lives and works, Leighton fakes a message to divert the Enterprise. Other, lesser episodes might have focused on that diversion and its consequences, but this episode resolves all of that in the pre-credits teaser.
Before getting further into the plot, it’s interesting to note how the characters are written in Season One, as opposed to later episodes, and how straight everyone plays them. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that this is a science fiction show in the mid-1960’s, a time when the dialogue was often elevated and cartoony and the stories were pitched mostly to children. But look at the way Kirk and Leighton interact with each other. These are just… two ordinary guys. They talk like anyone would about the situation, with Kirk basically saying, “Man, Tom… You’ve just created a big problem for me. How am I supposed to explain this to my bosses?” These people know each other. Kirk even plays a history with Leighton’s wife, calling her by her first name as if they’ve known each other for years, and she responds in kind. (“Can you talk some sense into him, Martha?” “I’ve tried, Jim…”) We might not notice it now, but that sort of relaxed, adult tone was fairly daring for the time.
All of that implied history makes it more tragic when Leighton turns up dead a few scenes later, killed during a dinner party he’s hosting for the Karidian company. It emerges that actually all of the surviving witnesses of Kodos have been turning up dead lately, and always when the Karidian company is close at hand. In face, the only two living witnesses are now Kirk and the wonderful early-Trek character Lt. Kevin Reilly, previously seen warbling in “The Naked Time”. Curious about Karidian’s true identity, Kirk arranges for the group to be “stranded”, so they have to use the Enterprise to get to their next destination. While aboard the ship, Kirk of course takes a shining to the company manager and leading lady, Karidian’s own daughter Lenore.
Both Barbara Anderson as Lenore and Arnold Moss as Karidian do fantastic work with very difficult characters. Moss has to play Karidian as haunted, guarded but dignified. Like so many Trek villains, he has to come close to going over the top without actually going over, and he succeeds for the most part. Ostensibly the episode’s Big Bad, he instead comes across as more than a little sympathetic. It comes as no surprise when it’s revealed that he is indeed Kodos and has been living under an assumed identity for all these years, but just think of the lifestyle he has chosen for himself, playing out great tragic kings for the rest of his life, digging deep into flawed leaders who make bad a tragic choices. It’s his own personal purgatory. (The clear metaphor is of an ex-Nazi leader living in hiding, but he really isn’t hiding as much as punishing himself each and every night. It’s strong dramatic stuff.) But Anderson has the even more difficult role of playing a woman whose entire life has been built upon doublethink – she worships her father as a “Great Man”, but is fully aware that there are many who accuse him of being a mass murderer. And she’s intelligent enough to know that those accusers many be right. She’s clearly, obviously insane, and is really the tragic victim of the whole piece. She has to play many colours here, including seductive with Kirk (she’s attractive and knows how to manipulate men like him), vicious in the shadows (she’s the one who has actually been killing the witness, something that’s a mystery even to her own father), yet a strong and capable theatre manager and leading lady. It’s probably the most challenging role in the episode, and Anderson is very strong and almost always convincing.
The social issues that this episode brings up are part of the landscape of even the most starry-eyed science fiction of the classic era. The scenario faced by Kodos – mass starvation vs a selective population purge – is not difficult to imagine in reality. As far as Kodos is concerned, his actions were for the good of the best, highlighting those anti-science yet seductive notions of eugenics and possibly offering a critique of a society without a religious centre with clear laws against this sort of thing. Kodos, in his mind, and in the minds of many, was operating in a logical and scientific way, even a humanitarian way, because he managed to save parts of his colony. But the reaction to him, Kirk’s reaction included, offers a counterpoint to that amoral, purely scientific measure of the value of human life. Roddenberry might not have been religious, but he was a humanist, and there is a moral centre to that philosophy that would be appalled at the actions of Kodos. So, underneath all of the Shakespearean tragedy and machination, there is a legitimate debate in this episode regarding how a society not founded on religious principle can still embrace compassion and empathy.
A special final note must go out in this episode to William Shatner himself. Shatner is so often accused of having a hammy and overstated acting style, but just watch this episode – with so many elevated performances around him, Shatner chooses not to compete, but to fade into the background and tone down his performance admirably. He’s not even really the hero at the end of the story (it’s Reilly who kills Kodos while Kirk remains undecided as to how to proceed), and his thoughtful, nuanced performance here is one of his best.
And in terms of the series continuity, this would be the last time we would see Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Rand until Star Trek: The Motion Picture over a decade later. The reasons for Rand being written out of the show are legendary, many and varied. The party line was always that she was removed so Kirk could have a different love interest every episode. That seems fair enough, but the deeper reason might have been that the character herself didn’t really serve any function besides eye-candy. She’s not part of the command team (unlike Uhura), she’s not a scientist or a specialist – she’s just Kirk’s secretary and housekeeper. Sometimes that sort of character can be His Girl Friday, but not Rand. And so, Whitney steps away from the Trek world for what for her would be a long decade in the wilderness of drugs, alcohol and (to put it mildly) questionable career choices.
Spock, for his part, is almost absent from this episode and not given much to do. That would change in the next episode shot, “The Galileo Seven”, where Spock and McCoy’s relationship would take centre stage.