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The Conscience of the King

This multi-layered and complex story is, quite simply, the best script written for the original series. It is also perhaps the very best acting, direction, and storytelling they ever did. While not without mishaps, this episode represents the peak of their creativity and craft. They were filled with new creative energy (Coon, Carabatsos, and Fontana), and the entire machine was running at its absolute peak. There are a couple of episodes which may be more memorable, but none are better than this.

Much of the power comes from the Hitler parallels, which are frequently overlooked in discussions about the plot. Taking on all of the WWII atrocities would have been too big, so the story is scaled back to concentrate on one simple idea: What if Hitler were found alive 20 years later? What then?

The answer is also powerful because it is not what we expect. Kirk, playing the role of survivor and overwhelmed by the notion that the executioner lives, cannot bring himself to believe it. It's simply too horrible, and conjures memories too painful. Having spent 20 years trying to deal with the horror he witnessed, Kirk simply wants it to go away. So he seeks repeated and redundant confirmation. But that is a smoke screen for the churning emotions he obviously feels (obvious thanks to a brilliant performance by Shatner). In fact, Kirk knows that any retribution would accomplish nothing, and he has already asked himself just what McCoy asks him:

KIRK: I'm interested in justice.
McCOY: Are you? Are you sure it's not vengeance?
KIRK: No, I'm not sure.

Kirk becomes a stand-in for humanity, as do Riley and Leighton (with very different reactions). Someone is trying to snuff out the very memory of what happened, and this episode clearly rebuffs that approach. The writer has taken a contemporary situation, molded it to fit Trek, engaged our characters, and then told the story with Shakespearean overtones to emphasize the timelessness of the concepts. There are genuine decisions to be made by the characters, decisions with consequences for everyone, and with which they will have to live. There are no easy answers, and the thing which must be done is the hardest thing to do.

This is seriously juicy stuff.

The actors all rise to the occasion. Shatner allows his temper to flare, but keeps Kirk restrained and ambivalent throughout. Barbara Anderson as Lenore is plausibly deranged, creating a complex character who can be believed as a diplomat, as a dalliance, and as a murderer. Arnold Moss as Karidian/Kodos is deeply believable in his multiple roles. He creates a character filled with regret, but also with defiance.

Credit for the characters must also go to writer Barry Trivers, and director Gerd Oswald. The dialogue is so piercingly sharp, and the structure so sparse, that the characters leap out from the background. Oswald has clearly spent time with the actors and allows them every moment they need to turn silence into meaning, to reveal emotion with facial gesture, to play off of one another. The scene of Kirk confronting Karidian is quite long, carefully paced, and remarkably efficient. Having wisely kept Karidian out of sight for most of the episode, his appearance is startling. Having Kirk guard his motives so carefully, the betrayal of Lenore is palpable.

One of the most beautiful sequences ever filmed for Trek involves Uhura's song accompanying the attempted murder of Riley. The music and lyrics (by Wilbur Hatch and Gene Coon, respectively) are so beautiful and gentle, and Hyde as Riley so agitated but calmed by the singing, and Nichols' voice so lovely, that the sequence is Trek at its ultimate best. It stands alone as a little story within the story, but also moves the larger plot forward (with virtually no dialogue), and demonstrates some of the aspects of daily life on a starship -- a trifecta of grand proportions.

Much has always been made of the Shakespeare references in the script. Suffice it to say that the scenes and character roles for the play within the play are wisely chosen, and resonate quite successfully for those familiar with the source material. Thankfully, no knowledge by the audience is required to achieve a payoff from this, but such knowledge does amplify the payoff substantially. In a larger sense, the plot has distinct Shakespearean overtones, with ghosts and insanity swirling in the air, long-held secrets being revealed, shifting alliances, and murder driven by love and fear. Big ideas, but very human ideas which are easy to identify with. The audience cannot help but be drawn in.

There are virtually no optical effects, and science fiction concepts are not present. This same story could easily be told within a different (non-sci-fi) context. This, too, is a hallmark of great Trek. It does not rely on sci-fi gimmicks, but turns on character motivations, actions, and decisions. By simply setting them in the future somewhere out in space the audience is distanced from emotions they have developed about the source material, and can see the issue fresh -- perhaps reconsidering their own motivations.

The missteps are forgivable. Most regrettable is the clumsy blocking in the final scenes where Lenore grabs a security guard's phaser. Much more satisfying would be for her to simply produce the phaser from beneath her costume, stun the guard, and hold everyone else at bay. This is also followed by more clumsy blocking when Karidian jumps in front of Kirk. A bit more time for rehearsal, plus a slight change in camera setup, and this would have been more plausible. Also regrettable is the series of uncharacteristically unattractive costumes for Lenore. Her fur mini is just plain boxy on her body, giving her the unpleasant appearance of a wood tick with nice legs. And at least two of her gowns are too shapeless for her character (although we have no way of knowing what Theiss may have trying to cover). Contrast this with Karidian, who looks quite regal in each of his appearances, and Leighton's decidedly creepy face mask.

The problems are trifles, however. This is a masterful hour of television, representing everything Roddenberry always hoped Star Trek could be.

Rating: Very Top (1)


I agree that this episode was terrific. Truly Emmy material - had they been noticed at the time. The scene where McCoy and Spock confront Kirk in his quarters - after Reilly's poisoning - is one of the best "Big 3" scenes in TOS. As usual, superlative analysis. Many thanks.

Posted January 15, 2014 4:38 PM by Tom