Star Trek: The Conscience of the King

Star Trek Opening TitlesThe play may be the thing to catch The Conscience of the King, but it sure didn’t capture his brain!

There’s an intrinsic problem with this episode that goes right to the core of the story.  Let’s review…

Kirk gets a space telephone call from his old pal, Lon Chaney.

“Jim, you’re probably on a mission for Space Command, Starfleet, Star Control, Space Central… whatever we’re calling ourselves these days, but I have a… um… synthetic food source to show you.  Can you stop by?”  Kirk does and is first treated to a play.

“Listen, Claude Rains, I know we’re old friends and I like a play as much as the next guy, but … you’re not my type.  I like women and I really like it when they have a fully formed…. face.”

“But Jim,” says Michael Crawford, “I needed you to see!  That actor.  I think he’s Kodos the Executioner.”

“Hold on a minute, Robert Englund, you’re saying the governor of 8000, who killed 4000 so the other 4000 could live is an actor now?   That’s as weird as an entertainer becoming president!  Besides, that was 20 years ago!”

“Yes!” says Patchy McPhantom.   “And wherever he goes, one of the 9 people who ever saw him, dies.”  (With this, Gaston Leroux spins to reveal his previously hidden left side, and we see, he’s wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask!)

Set phasers to Holy Crap!

Let’s get this right: Kodos did these terrible deeds 20 years ago, when Kirk was … 10?  15?  What 10 year old remembers any adult they meet?  What 15 year old looks up from his Tricorder long enough to hold a conversation??  Then, you mean to tell me, that 4000 people were killed by a man no one ever saw?  How does anyone know he did the killing?  Why would anyone do what the Governor said?  What happened to the other 3991 people who survived the execution?  Why are only 9 left?

And that saintly maiden whom the angels named Lenore; she ends up being the actual killer.  How old would she have been 20 years ago? 2?  4?  I’m sure she had a memory of all “9” people.  (Lucky for her it is only 9 of the 4000 that are still alive, because that would be a hell of a murder spree!)

And where’s all the footage of Kodos?  We have video footage of Mussolini; the 23rd Century has… only audio?  And we have to compare printed versions?!  What happened to those high tech computers?

Alright, Spock, I’ll turn off the logic centers of my brain.  But you can’t watch this without laughing at the clumsy flirtation between Kirk and Loony Lenore.  If the flirtation isn’t clumsy, at least Kirk does get a great line.  Spock: “How did you know this lady was coming aboard?” Kirk: “I’m the captain!”  And if Kirk doesn’t have some ulterior motive here, I don’t know who does: “What have you got to trade?”, he asks Lenore.  (Rogue!)  If timing is truly the difference between tragedy and comedy, this has no sense of timing because I can’t tell if I should laugh or cry!  Riley is one of the only people who saw Kodos (besides Jim and Phantom) and Spock doesn’t think to mind meld to see what Kodos looks like?  Oh, back to the murders: Lenore, who is 5’ nothing, puts an overloading phaser… in the red alert light, above the door.  Luckily, Kirk’s room opens to a chute to… hell!  If an overloading phaser could take out half a deck, what the hell powers them?  But a garbage disposal chute leads to… I guess if you blow up the garbage deck, no one notices.  And exactly what is “double red alert”???

Now, we can look at some interesting things about where people are in their careers.  Riley, last seen drunk as a skunk, singing in the engineering section of the ship in The Naked Time has been moved to communications, but is reassigned to engineering for this mission.  It’s a rare moment of cohesiveness between episodes.  You almost get the feeling that someone was paying attention to the crew.  There’s also a yeoman wearing yellow.  And I do love that Spock confides in McCoy; this is another great moment of seeing the strength of their friendship, despite the constant teasing.  But McCoy is actually the one I’m worried about.  After Lenore goes barmy and kills her dad, the illustrious doctor says she’s recuperating and won’t remember a thing.  Um… I don’t think that’s a good thing.  I think, psychologically, that’s probably unhealthy.  Well at least Helen Noel is still on board.  She can probably help.  And even with a killer on the loose, no member of the crew died, so there is that.

Honestly, it’s Lenore who redeems the episode.  Our sorrow for the lost Lenore is due only to the actresses superb portrayal of madness.  The light glinting off her eyes and she stares madly into the void… she is truly the one bright spot in the story.  Oh, I’m not saying that because the actress is pretty; the truth is I was never that enamored of her, but she plays her part well, as each man in his time, must.  She exits, stage left and another curtain falls on the stage of the Enterprise crew.   ML

The view from across the pond:

“May I extend my appreciation?”

It’s maybe a bit soon to ask that when you’ve just met the girl, but Kirk is a quick worker, especially when he sees the opportunity to use a woman as a “tool”, as Lenore later points out. There is a pattern developing of Kirk using young women’s attraction to him to get what he wants. In Miri he charmed a teenager to get her to co-operate, and here he’s at it again, wooing the 19-year-old Lenore to get to her father. Is that all the opposite sex means to him, a resource to be utilised?

“Words may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman.”

If Kirk needs to learn more respect for women then maybe he should attend Uhura’s performances more often. What a talent she has! Her singing is mesmerising, and the director wisely allows the episode the luxury of the full song, which is lovely. There is so much emphasis nowadays on moving narrative along, that watching television from the 60s can be quite refreshing. I also thought the pacing was clever this week in terms of the game of cat and mouse (or so it seems) between Kirk and Kodos. Karidian is hardly seen at all for most of the episode. He’s there at the start, and then finally pops up for his first encounter with Kirk on the Enterprise after about half an hour. That encounter is held off for as long as possible, making him a largely unseen foe working from the shadows, taking one life after another, or so we think.

“Double red alert.”

What’s “double red”? Shouldn’t that be “bright red alert”? “Crimson red alert”? Or if it’s that bad, “brown alert”? I loved the twist in the tale with Lenore (our provider of Screaming Woman #9 in our Trek Tally) responsible for the deaths of the witnesses, and it actually made a lot more sense of the whole plot. We saw examples of computers being used to identify Kodos/Karidian, so killing those who could supposedly identify him never made much sense, certainly once people like Kirk were openly talking about it. The cat was well and truly out of the bag at that point and wasn’t going back in whether Kirk was dead or alive. When it turned out that it was all the misguided plan of an unhinged 19-year-old that tied things nicely together.

I like how Trek is giving us shades of grey in terms of the villains, and having recently taken a look at The Cage that appears to have been the intention right from the start, which is brave for the 1960s, much more the era of the moustache-twirler. Karidian is no moustache-twirler. I can’t remember what interview I was watching – it might have been the late, great Terrance Dicks – but somebody once mentioned that a convincing enemy never sees himself as evil. He thinks he is doing the right thing. That’s where the shades of grey morality comes in, to make the story a much more interesting one. Kodos did what he did thinking that he was the saviour of his people, making the hard decision that nobody else would. As he points out, had help not arrived history would have viewed him very differently. The troubling echo from the past is the selection method: his own version of eugenics. But the execution of half the population to save the lives of the other half is something he argues compellingly for, and it is in fact just the sort of horrendous choice that might face a starship captain. The fact that he had spent the next twenty years quietly keeping a low profile (well, sort of) as a touring actor shows that he was not trying to be a serial killer, or even trying to get some kind of a kick out of murder, and the identity of the true villain of the story as Lenore instead of Kodos worked brilliantly in that respect.

The original series of Star Trek is a new viewing experience for me, but it’s impossible to avoid seeing the odd clip here are there in celebratory shows, etc, over the years. I came to this show with the expectation of a parade of silly monsters for Kirk to fight and kill. I didn’t expect morality tales like this. So far, I’m pleasantly surprised.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Balance of Terror

About Roger Pocock

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6 Responses to Star Trek: The Conscience of the King

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Star Trek and Dr. Who can often find realistic ways to make bad guys seem sympathetic to some extent. Star Trek had Kodos/Karidian and Lenore. Dr. Who had Omega and Sharaz Jek. So it’s easy enough to enjoy this episode for the final confrontation between Kirk and Kodos because it makes great drama. But I may also be speaking from my regard for The Chamber, a movie that made enough headway for how real-life villains may be more than their evil deeds. Because we have a divine morality to see the intrinsic human value in everybody, as challenging as it can be, and it always makes great drama in our TV and movies. The fact that it beats the run-of-the-mill revenge-killings for most blockbuster villains is what makes me appreciate this Trek classic even more.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

    • scifimike70 says:

      Kodos indeed makes a morally gray point about how Kirk of all people can understand the life-and-death decisions that quite often need to be made. Even in an optimistic future like in Star Trek or a whimsically adventurous universe like in Dr. Who. So the lines that must be drawn are continually dramatized in our shows for the sake of reflecting such decisions in our real world.

      So even if there was enough good reason for Kodos to be judged as being a war criminal, he reminds us of how one’s own perspective, especially in the overwhelming situations, is easily the strongest driving force. That sets many villains in Star Trek, Dr. Who and other morally gray SF shows apart from what the networks for their times often preferred to put on television. So The Conscience Of The King was among the most pivotal classic Treks to science-fictionally go right over the network’s heads.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. SpockBrain says:

    Spock should have just mild melded with kodos and he’d learn the truth in 5 mins flat

    Liked by 2 people

    • scifimike70 says:

      Good point. But sometimes I think that using the mind-meld too often is the same problem as Dr. Who using the sonic screwdriver too often. It can seem too easy and of course, Spock had issues with forcing a mind-meld on others which was most obvious in one case, which I won’t name for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

      Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      But ScifiMike, the problem is that when a new thing is added to the series like the Mind Meld, the writer needs a way to plausibly explain why that won’t work even if it’s like B5’s rules of the Psi Corp. SpockBrain (welcome, by the way) is right in that it was a blatantly easy solution.
      The problem is that the series suffered from too many writers, I think. The irony is that the first ever mind meld was during Dagger of the Mind (with my own personal dagger, Dr. Helen Noel) – the 11th episode produced. Conscience was the 13th – just two stories later. And yet even after so short a time, no one thought to ask Spock to help with that because… a different writer wrote the story! Which is a shame really, but it did give us a fun mystery anyway! ML

      Liked by 1 person

  3. scifimike70 says:

    Points noted. Of course Kirk and Spock may have been planning to use the mind meld on Karidian before the final tragedy saved them the trouble. It certainly wasn’t a fun mystery in the sense that it showed, as with many of Trek’s first season episodes, how easily Kirk could give into revenge. It may have served to make him an identifiably flawed and humbled hero. Dramatically at best, this was the kind of Trek episode that could at least be dramatically better with voice-to-voice dialogue which down-to-Earth human audiences would understand best. Particularly regarding how we in real life deal with identifying fugitive war criminals. Chalk it up to circumstance, but we don’t use mind-melds on contemporary Earth. So any writer to be fair would have to be sensitive enough to that for the sake of a contemporarily reflective message.

    Liked by 1 person

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