|“Let your indulgence set me free.”|
A flash of a dagger, and someone lies dead. The guilt-wracked murderer wonders if all the oceans could wash the blood from his hands. Not long afterward we learn the slain person was King Duncan and we’re watching a performance of Macbeth. But then the camera cuts to a Shakespearean actor dressed in a bright yellow jumper commenting on the performance while the man next to him rambles on about somebody named Kodos the Executioner. Somehow this is supposed to be a science fiction show, somehow this is supposed to be Star Trek. But it is in truth another play.
This is an episode about performativity-It’s about people playing roles and how the kinds of roles we play change throughout our lives and how each role only reveals a snapshot of one facet of a person at one point in time. That’s the thing nobody in the story manages to understand, however: Kirk wants to extract justice; he wants to be able to prove Anton Karidian is *really* Kodos under an alias. By contrast, Lenore is hoping to erase all historical trace of Kodos by killing off those who had seen him, thus forcing people to see her father as Anton forever and always.
But the truth of the matter is the Actor is both Anton and Kodos. One is not more real than another, they’re just two different roles the same man has played at two different points in time. As characters are by definition more flat that real people, each role can only reflect one specific aspect of his personality, and even then they can only reflect how they exist at the specific time the Actor is playing that particular role. As Kodos, he made the decisions he thought were justified when he was ruler of Tarsus IV. As Anton his worldview has changed and regrets the actions he took as Kodos and hopes to move beyond them. Despite what Kirk and Lenore want, he can’t be only one for them. He has to be everything at once. Incidentally, this is as good as the show has ever been at depicting human nuance and complexity: There are no more White Hats and Black Hats here, only people trying to make the best choices they can in the present moment, and that alone makes it astonishingly progressive for its time.
The theatrical theme is everywhere in “The Conscience of the King”, and an argument could be made it’s almost too heavy-handed: There’s the title, a straight-up reference to Hamlet, which is the same play the Karidian Players wind up performing for the Enterprise crew. The teaser sequence with the Macbeth show is just about the most obvious bit of foreshadowing Barry Trivers could have come up with, and Lenore speaking almost entirely in Shakespeare quotes and allusions makes General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country look subtle and understated. Indeed, the entire episode itself bears some pretty overt similarities to Hamlet, featuring a guilt-ridden leader, his mad daughter and the exposure of his past during a stage show. But Trivers has a bit more going on here than might be immediately obvious, I feel: “The Conscience of the King” doesn’t just reference Hamlet, by its very nature it’s technically a performance of it. This is Barry Trivers’ and Gene Coon’s adaptation of Hamlet in a Star Trek context, and it’s playing with the tropes of theatre in an attempt to explore the show’s performativity through recursive metaphor. Nor matter how you look at it, that’s a pretty damn clever, and bold, move for their first and second scripts, respectively.
This has quite a few really interesting ramifications, the first of which is that this is the absolutely perfect environment for William Shatner. As a Shakespearean actor himself, he’s able to bridge the gap between the diegetic and extradiegetic plays, something which Shatner duly and exquisitely commits himself to. Kirk, like the Actor, is explicitly a Shakespeare character here, and in a world where we know Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek exists, it’s difficult to understand how utterly weird this would have been in 1966. There is absolutely nothing in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, or indeed what we’ve seen of Coon’s so far, that would give anyone the impression Shakespearean drama is something the show should be doing. But here it is, and this marks another real turning point for the franchise: This doesn’t mean Star Trek is going to be popping off into other people’s stories and mucking about on a regular basis, this isn’t Doctor Who, but it does mean Coon has made a fairly decisive move toward shifting what Star Trek is about.
We’re still zipping about on space patrol (and indeed Kirk even uses that word in this episode), but what’s different now is how that’s depicted. Roddenberry played the premise extremely straight, which is most clearly noticeable in “The Cage”: He really, genuinely wants us to take this show about the Space Air Force bopping about and teaching people about Right and Wrong seriously. But with “The Conscience of the King”, Coon is treating Star Trek as a staged theatrical drama. That’s not to say Coon is poking fun at the show, but he does seem to be depicting it as a kind of nested artifice that everyone involved is at least partially aware of: Put another way, where previously we had Shatner, a campy RSC actor, queering up a tight-laced Hollywood version of science fiction, we now have under Coon Shatner the RSC actor starring in a *play* about science fiction concepts that’s starting to become aware of its performativity, boundaries and limitations. And naturally we introduce this with the gravitas of Shakespeare, who was known in part for his grandiose historical epics about war, tragedy and the human condition. “The Conscience of the King” is far from the definitive statement on this of course; it’s at times tentative and clunky and everything it’s trying to do is going to be done better by Nicholas Meyer in the 1980s and 1990s, but the existence of episodes like this is what’s going to allow Star Trek to eventually become what Meyer crafts it into.
This episode also happens to be Ron Moore’s favourite episode of the Original Series. Moore is going to become an extremely important creative figure once we reach the 1980s, serving as a kind of combination of head writer and script editor during Michael Piller’s tenure on Star Trek: The Next Generation before going on to become supervising producer under Ira Steven Behr on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and becoming the creator of and showrunner for Battlestar Galactica. We’ll return to Moore when it’s his time, but given this is his favourite episode I figured it’d be a good idea to see what he has to say about it:
“I liked the backstory of Kirk as a young man caught up in a revolution and the nightmarish slaughter by Governor Kodos. I liked the Shakespearean overtones to the episode as well as the use of the plays themselves. And I absolutely loved Kirk in this episode – a troubled man haunted by the shadows of the past, a man willing to lure Karidian to his ship under false pretenses, willing to do one of his more cold-blooded seductions on Lenore, willing to fight with his two closest friends, and risk his entire command in the name of justice. Or was it vengeance? Kirk’s aware of his own lack of objectivity, his own flaws to be in this hunt for a killer, but he cannot push the burden away and refuses pull back from his quest to track down Kodos no matter what the cost. It also has some of my favorite lines in TOS. The scene with Spock and McCoy in Kirk’s quarters is one of the series’ highlights. The brooding tone and the morally ambiguous nature of the drama fascinated me and definitely influenced my thinking as to what Trek could and should be all about.”
I like Moore a lot as a writer but I also frequently disagree with him, and his analysis of this episode is a good summary of how our perspectives differ. Moore focuses a lot on Kirk’s inner turmoil and the darkness he keeps buried. He loves the idea that a basically good man would go to such lengths in this kind of situation. What Moore likes, especially later on in his career, is to see how far he can push characters, and in particular characters who represent ordinary, mundane people, before they break. When I look at the theatrical symbolism of “The Conscience of the King”, by contrast, I’m immediately drawn to its more subtle oversignification and the fact this pushes Star Trek closer to metafiction. I tend to gravitate more towards ideas, symbols, and ideals. This will be a theme we will keep having to return to.
In terms of “The Conscience of the King”, taken on its own it isn’t always as successful as one perhaps wishes it could be. I personally would have enjoyed a more overt connection between the recursive plays: Approaching it from the sort of perspective I do it’s hard not to wish for some really creative video editing flourish that explodes the show outward and the theatrical trappings are typically used more as blunt symbols and similes then a recursive meta-narrative. This isn’t quite language magick yet, and while that’s a little disappointing, it’s also silly to expect Star Trek of all shows to do Alan Moore before Alan Moore did Alan Moore. For 1966 this is more than sufficient, it’s utterly daring and praiseworthy. To top it off we finally get the chance to revisit to the scathing critique the show delivered itself in “Balance of Terror”: Lenore explicitly calls Kirk Caesar here. Granted, this is partially because she was hoping to play Brutus, but the indictment of Kirk, and thus Star Trek, as an empire builder is definitely there as well and it still stands.
Probably the biggest weakness of this episode though is the handling of the supporting cast: Bruce Hyde is back as Kevin Thomas Riley, but in name only. Hyde auditioned for the part of Lieutenant Robert Daikan, the only other surviving person to have seen Kodos’ face and thus fueled by vengeance over the death of his family. When the producers realised he had already been in Star Trek, they renamed the character at the last second. Hyde is delivers a predictably rousing performance, but it’s not at all in keeping with the person we saw in “The Naked Time”. Spock and McCoy are put in the curious position of being shafted by the story despite having major roles in it: Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are very strong as always, but their primary role here is to watch out for and be supportive of Kirk and keep him grounded. It’s exactly what we expect them to do, but that’s actually the problem: Nimoy and Kelley don’t seem to have gotten the memo and feel like they’re still stuck on the old show. Compared to Hyde, Shatner, Arnold Moss (the Actor) and Barbara Anderson (Lenore), who are very obviously relishing the chance to do a Shakespearean Space Epic and just running wild with it, Nimoy and Kelley feel a bit too, well, Star Trek. That said, I do agree with Moore that the scene in Kirk’s quarters is exceptionally well done and a sign of things to come.
Then there’s the issue of Grace Lee Whitney, or, to be more precise, the conspicuous absence of Grace Lee Whitney, who appears in one scene as an extra on the bridge and then never again. By the way, that’s also her last scene in Star Trek, making her the first proper character to be written out. Or actually no, she’s not written out: She’s unceremoniously dropped from the show and then promptly forgotten about, which can’t really be seen as anything other than an insult to someone who was supposed to be playing a main character. What makes this all the more infuriating is there was apparently a time Whitney was pegged as the third star after Shatner and Nimoy, and Roddenberry conceived of Janice Rand as someone who Kirk would come to see as a trusted advisor. But one of Desilu’s first decisions was to drop Rand because they wanted Kirk to have a new love interest every week, a decision made easier by Whitney’s unfortunate drug and alcohol addiction issues (which were of course made significantly worse by her being sexually abused by two members of the production team two days before she was fired).
Although the franchise finally attempts to make reparations to Whitney by making Rand a reoccurring character in the Original Series movies (long, long after the point at which that would have been needed) this situation without doubt has to go down as one of the blackest marks in the history of Star Trek. While Whitney is far from the only person who’s going to be royally screwed by the show (she’s not even, depressingly, the only woman who was told she was going to be one of the show’s stars to be put in this position) I have a hard time coming up with someone who actually got screwed *worse*. And it’s even more of a shame because it sullies what is otherwise one of the very best episodes the show has done yet. Star Trek has come a long way, but it’s still not safe or stable, and it’s still a very long way from being something we can enjoy with a clear conscience.
And with that the curtain closes. The play is over and we’ve taken our bows. Time for me to become someone else again.