Review: Star Trek S1E13: “The Conscience of the King”: #TOS Too
A common pet peeve amongst people who study English literature must be the assumption that we’re all experts on Shakespeare. My field of study is early-eighteenth century fiction, and I frequently explain that my period is as far away in time from Shakespeare as is from today. Ignore for now that, since I study representations of Jews, The Merchant of Venice is, in fact, central to my expertise. A secondary pet peeve of mine is that Shakespeare is held up as really the only example of greatness in English literature and theatre, and is the go-to reference in all realms of fiction. Shakespeare is central to every English language high school curriculum, and a rite of passage for any actor. The Star Trek franchise is well-stocked with Shakespearean actors, most notably William Shatner and Patrick Stewart. Is an episode about Shakespearean actors cheating? Well, at least it isn’t Kirk doing the acting.
I had hoped that Shakespeare and the stage would be more central to the plot of this episode so that I could further air my usual grievances about the subject, but that is not exactly the case. The criminal venerator of Shakespearean genius, who spews out tired line after tired line from the immortal bard, is appropriately enough also the criminal of the story, and the character least in touch with reality. Is the show drawing a link between obsession with art and criminality? Perhaps.
That Shakespeare-slinging villain is Lenore, the daughter of a man named Kodos who, as governor, slaughtered half the population of a human colony in order to solve a hunger crisis. Although he was presumed dead after the ensuing raid by whatever law enforcement exists in the TOS universe at this point, Kodos in fact went into hiding with a new identity as an actor, Karidian. Bones describes the slaughter as being motivated by some Eugenics ideology, though how that works is never explained. Most likely, the Eugenics reference is meant to further the analogy to Nazi hunting; Kodos both defends his actions and believes that he can live on without facing any further consequences. He is wrong. His daughter, aware of her father’s past, has murdered everyone who could identify Kodos, save for an Enterprise crewman and Kirk himself – both of whom she targets for assassination during the episode.
At a time when we are facing up to the idea that many of the artists responsible for entertaining us on a daily basis may have dark secrets, this is a curious episode to be reviewing. Unfortunately, the episode fails to explore this issues in ways that would have been pertinent today. Although, Kirk does cut a performance of Hamlet short after Kodos and Lenore’s confessions during the act break, despite Lenore’s insistence that the show must go on. Kirk’s decision, however, is more a matter expediency than of a broader moral judgment about the ethics of enjoying the artistry of bad people.
No, instead of digging its teeth into such complicated and difficult questions, the episode frequently digresses with cliched conversations between Lenore and Kirk about the conflict between humanity and technology. It is perhaps interesting to think about how Karidian’s troupe’s stated goal, according to Lenore, is to present “a series of living plays presented in space, dedicated to the tradition of classic theatre.” In the Star Trek future, Lenore implies, humanity’s primal instincts and deep emotions have been replaced by technology that turns men’s hearts cold. She tells Kirk as much in one of their many flirty conversations before her crimes are revealed:
LENORE: And this ship. All this power, surging and throbbing, yet under control. Are you like that, Captain? All this power at your command, yet the decisions that you have to make
KIRK: Come from a very human source.
LENORE: Are you, Captain? Human?
TOS plays into this conflict between head and heart frequently. It forms the basis of Spock and McCoy’s relationship, which, incidentally, is the most enjoyable part of this episode. While Kirk pursues the mystery of whether Karidian is really Kodos, he keeps all the information to himself and makes leadership decisions that seem strange to the rest of the crew. Uncertain what to think, Spock performs his own investigation, with McCoy serving as a reluctant Watson. McCoy chalks up Kirk’s odd behaviour to his attraction to Lenore, while Spock dismisses this idea and searches for other answers (eventually solving the Kodos/Karidian mystery, which was already pretty obvious to the viewer and more-or-less solved by Kirk beforehand. This B story is all padding). The two different motives that the detectives assign to Kirk – business vs. pleasure – speak to how Spock and McCoy serve as the angel and devil on Kirk’s shoulders; or, rather, how Kirk creates a balance between the pure reason and pure emotion that Spock and McCoy each stand for, respectively.
This episode sees Kirk veering too much toward his emotions as he both falls for Lenore and seeks out a sort of vengeance against Kodos. So it is satisfying to see McCoy come to Spock’s defense when Kirk chews out the first-officer. If Kirk’s priorities are out of whack, Spock and Bones have to put aside their animosity and restore the balance together. The end of the episode sees McCoy probing Kirk’s feelings at losing Lenore as a lover, and it is only when Kirk orders the ship move on that McCoy is satisfied. After all, Kirk loves his ship, an arrangement forming the ultimate fusion of the technological and human impulses. When Kirk can again commit to his ship, then he has found his balance.
Lenore’s foray into the conflict of reason and emotion is far less interesting. It is also revealing in light of our anxiety about the art of evil people, and the consequent disruption of the belief that art makes us good. Lenore defends her father’s actions as governor, agreeing with his claim that killing 4000 people was the only way to save the lives of the other 4000. But she builds on the argument, suggesting that Kodos’s illustrious acting career ought to exempt him from prosecution. Kodos agrees, believing that he can pretend his past doesn’t exists, and that he should be regarded as the actor he is now, and not the butcher he was. These arguments are hollow and delusional, but they should give us pause and make us wonder why it is that these artists think so highly of their art as to make it a partial excuse for murder?
Lenore murders the witnesses not simply so her father can go unpunished, but so that his illustrious acting career might continue. Artistry of course cannot justify crime, but some people thinking otherwise alerts us to the problem that arises when we code talent or education or success as morally good intrinsically. Lenore’s dialogue is increasingly laden with Shakespearean references as her sanity declines in the climax, suggesting that her moral and mental breakdown arises from a too-extreme commitment to the world of emotion, of art. Abandoning all reason and moral sense, Lenore conflates Kodos’s entire identity into that of a great actor, and thereby excuses, even justifies, all the bad he has ever done. That is her madness.
Verdict: 6 space milkshakes out 10
Honourable Mention: Is Uhura’s job ship’s minstrel?