‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “The Conscience of the King”

“Conscience of the King” rushes from romance to murder mystery to Shakespeare’s pastiche—anything that will allow it not to talk about genocide.

“The Corbomite Maneuver” foreshadowed the low-conflict Star Trek of The Next Generation. “The Conscience of the King” points towards the political intrigue and tough moral choices of Deep Space Nine.

That sounds appealing. But unfortunately, writer Barry Trivers and director Gred Oswald lack both the serialized format and the nerve to engage their themes with any specificity. The result is an episode that seems determined to run away from its own central conflict.

The Enterprise is called to Planet Q by Dr. Thomas Leighton (William Sargent), who claims to have developed a new synthetic food. However, when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) arrives, he discovers that Leighton has a different motive altogether. The scientist believes that a Shakespearean actor visiting the planet, Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss) is actually the mass murderer Kodos. Leighton and Kirk were both on the planet Tarsus IV when Kodos ordered half the 8000 colonists killed in an effort to preserve a dwindling food supply.

Kirk is skeptical that it really is Kodos at first. He’s more interested in flirting with Karidian’s daughter Lenore (Barbara Anderson) than in investigating Leighton’s claims. But after Leighton is found dead, Kirk becomes more suspicious. He arranges for Karidian’s troupe to travel on the Enterprise to their next destination. An attempt on the life of Lt. Kevin Riley (Bruce Hyde) who was also on Tarsus IV, arouses the suspicions of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) as well, and it becomes more and more clear that Karidian is Kodos. However, the final reveal is that Anton is not the one killing off witnesses. His daughter Lenore is the culprit; she idolizes her father to the point of insanity.

Repeating Themes

The episode’s plot was no doubt inspired by the pursuit and trial of Nazi war criminals after World War II. Adolf Eichmann was captured by Mossad in 1960 and he was executed in 1962, four years before the first season of Star Trek aired. Herberts Cukurs, one of the officers in charge of the mass murder of Latvian Jews, was assassinated by Mossad agents in 1965 in Uruguay.

The parallel between Karidian and the Nazis is made explicit when Spock explains that Karidian selected victims for death based on “his own theories of eugenics.” Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) responds “He wasn’t the first.” To that Spock says, “he was certainly among the most ruthless.”

Which is an odd thing to assert, because in fact, as crimes against humanity go, Kodos’ seem weirdly tame. Spock is careful to emphasize that Kodos made sure his victims didn’t suffer; most historical war criminals weren’t famous for their scruples in that regard. And while four thousand dead is a lot of people, it’s nowhere near 6 million. Kodos’ victims also number far fewer than Stalin’s which are also obliquely referenced.

In his speech before he executes his victims, Kodos says that “The revolution is successful, but survival depends on drastic measures. That suggests Communist social engineering as a motive for the executions, not Nazi racism.

Kodos is sort of a Nazi and sort of a Communist. But he’s also possibly a responsible ruler faced with an impossible situation. The Talus IV genocide is framed as a massive trolley problem. With food supplies dwindling, Kodos had to sacrifice some for a larger good. “Some had to die that others might live,” as Karidian puts it.

Karidian/Kodos explicitly compares his difficult decision for mass murder to the decisions Kirk makes as a starship captain—decisions such as whether to act on the suspicion, with limited evidence, that Karidian is Kodos. “All this power, surging and throbbing, yet under control,” Lenore teases Kirk with a deliberate double entendre. But beneath the sexy flirtation is a serious critique of the starship captain who makes life and death decisions backed by mechanistic computers, while condemning a man who made life and death decisions on a planet with authentic Shakespearean drama.

So What’s the Point?

You may be asking, “Why has a discussion of genocide turned into a debate about which is the better, computers or Shakespeare?” That’s a good question and the answer is that we are talking about computers vs. Shakespeare because the episode is desperately trying to avoid talking about anything more meaningful.

The confusion about Kodos’ ideology—the refusal to specify who his eugenics policies target, or to make clear the aims of his revolution—is deliberate. It erases the ideology from genocide, leaving behind a purely individual drama. Shakespearean themes of hidden identity, madness, the play within the play, and tragic flaws serve as a kind of serious mask.

It looks like the script is addressing big, weighty issues filled with classical meaningfulness. But the references to profound narratives past mean the writers never need to actually explain what’s at stake in confronting Karidian. Kodos is an Eichmann whose evil has been stripped of its banality. He’s so un-banal, and so much larger than life, that you end up barely able to see the evil lurking behind him.

It’s telling that the best scene of the episode isn’t the Shakespearean monologuing or the confused discussion of crimes against humanity. It’s a sequence in which the crew relaxes during downtime.

Kirk has moved Lt. Riley to Engineering; he’s trying to protect him from being targeted by Kodos, though Riley doesn’t know that and just thinks he’s been demoted. Sad and bored and alone, he gets on the com and asks Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the recreation room to sing him a love song to keep him company. She launches into a sad, jazz-tinged number, and he closes his eyes and tries to lose himself in her remarkable voice.

The setup is meant to give the hidden murderer a chance to poison Riley’s drink. But it’s also inadvertently the episode’s most honest and most affecting engagement with political violence.

Riley’s family was killed by Kodos. Uhura’s song is stylistically inspired by the music of Black resistance in the tradition of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, performers whose songs of the pain of heartbreak were also songs about the pain of oppression. Kodos and Kirk blustering at each other about the weight of power and decision smells of greasepaint and insincerity. But a Black woman singing the blues to a survivor of genocide faces political assassination—there’s more truth there about injustice than you’re likely to find in a ruler’s conscience.

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Star Trek: The Original Series (“The Conscience of the King”)

It’s telling that the best scene of the episode isn’t the Shakespearean monologuing or the confused discussion of crimes against humanity. It’s a sequence in which the crew relaxes during downtime.


Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.