Fan Collective Unimatrix 47 Examines Star Trek: TOS “The Conscience of the King” Episode

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

“The Conscience of the King” is a really peculiar episode in season one of Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s both a story that gives us some interesting background for Captain Kirk and a murder mystery with some really uncomfortable concepts floating around in the background with Shakespearean allusions thrown in for fun. The story gives us the background of Tarsus IV, introduces us to Kevin Riley, and generally demonstrates that even in the far-flung future people can and will fake their deaths to escape prosecution, but what I wish the story did in more depth is explore the effects of watching eugenics nonsense play out in real life on Kirk as a decision-maker. The story flirts with Kodos trying to excuse his decisions and chooses to tap dance around it, offering up his daughter as a sacrifice to his lunacy. Making that decision means the episode avoids answering what is possibly the most interesting question it poses, or does it?

Plot Ahoy!

The episode opens with Captain James Kirk watching Macbeth with his friend and fellow Tarsus IV survivor, Thomas Leighton. Leighton has invited Kirk to Planet Q under the pretense that he has come up with a way to eliminate famine, but really, he wants Kirk to look at Anton Karidian and tell him if Anton, current star of the Karidian Players, is, in fact, Kodos the Executioner. The back story is that Kodos was the colonial governor of the Tarsus IV colony, and a foreign fungus destroyed the food crops on the colony, resulting in famine. Faced with widespread death, Kodos opted to choose who lived and who died based on his own conceptions of worth, which were grounded in eugenics. Kodos condemned half of the colony to death, leaving the other half to survive, only for a supply ship to arrive just early enough to spare the remaining colonists from hardship but not early enough to stop the mass extermination of the victims. The ship found only a badly burned body and concluded that Kodos was dead.

Leighton, a solid empirical scientist by Spock’s standards, believes Karidian to be Kodos based on the man’s voice and has invited Kirk to watch the play because he needs Kirk to verify that Karidian is Kodos. Kirk isn’t sure, but during a romantic walk with Lenore Karidian, Anton’s daughter, Kirk discovers Leighton’s body, concludes that he was murdered, and determines that something is up with the players. He calls in favors to get the actors aboard his ship, and it just so happens that Kevin Riley, who also survived Tarsus IV, is serving aboard the Enterprise.

Someone attempts to murder Riley, and though Riley survives, ostensibly the same person tries to kill Kirk by hiding an overloading phaser in Kirk’s quarters. Narrowly escaping, Kirk has had enough and confronts Karidian who gives him doublespeak rather than a straight answer. Lenore comes to the defense of her elderly father, and Kirk allows the play to go on. The Players, of course, choose Hamlet. Riley, having recovered in Sickbay, overhears Bones drafting a log about Karidian being Kodos, and he decides to take matters into his own hands. Kirk follows him and persuades him to spare Karidian, but Lenore secures Riley’s phaser and threatens Kirk. Anton steps in just as Lenore fires at Kirk, and she kills her father accidentally. Lenore is then transferred to some sort of hospital facility in the wake of her psychotic break, and the Enterprise warps away to its next adventure.


There’s legitimately a lot to unpack here. On the one hand, we have the relationship between Lenore and Anton. Lenore’s love for her father is so intense that she’s willing to kill for him, which in turn taints the only part of Karidian’s life that hasn’t been soaked in blood from his previous sins. The episode literally opens with Karidian as Macbeth stabbing Duncan, and we get our first glimpse of the guilt that underlies every part of Karidian’s life. He calls for all of Neptune’s oceans to cleanse him in that great speech from Macbeth, Act II, scene ii. Why no, “The Conscience of the King” is not subtle.

Later, aboard the Enterprise, Karidian will play the ghost of Hamlet’s father. If you don’t remember from high school English, the Ghost is doomed to suffer until his own foul crimes are purged, but he exhorts his son to avenge him against his evil brother, Claudius. Like the Ghost, Karidian has been doomed to wander in a self-made purgatory since the mass murder on Tarsus IV, but unlike his character, Karidian has never asked his daughter to avenge him because he ultimately recognizes his own fault, but Lenore takes on Hamlet’s role. She’s been killing all nine of the people who might be able to recognize her father as Kodos the Executioner as the players have traveled from world to space station to world.

I have to confess, I dislike Hamlet pretty intensely. Yes, the poetry is beautiful, and I recognize the craftsmanship behind the script. However, Hamlet as a character is incredibly difficult to watch because the man is categorically unable to make a decision. Lenore Karidian, however, has no such issue as she orchestrates and carries out at least seven murders, not including that of her father. Unfortunately, she becomes an unhinged Ophelia when confronted with her actions, and just in case you didn’t make the connection, the show’s costume designers put her in a flowered gown for her final scenes. That choice feels very steeped in sixties chauvinism to me, a feeling that is only buoyed by some of Kirk’s dialogue in the episode.

So much of “The Conscience of the King” can be best characterized as a whodunnit, but the episode’s most effective storytelling lies in how the script uses both the Scottish Play and Hamlet to tell us everything we need to know about Anton and Lenore. Macbeth murders Duncan because he wants to become a king and leave an impressive legacy, so he betrays the covenant of hospitality. Anton/Kodos betrays the duty he owes the colonists by imposing his own ideals of perfection upon them. Hamlet decides to exact vengeance on his uncle and mother and sort of manages to accomplish that but dies at his uncle’s hand, leaving Fortinbras to pick up the pieces. Lenore wants to protect her father but ultimately kills him.

The episode uses these allusions to tell us the Karidians’ stories, but though we get a brief speech from Anton as to why he might have made the choices he did as Kodos, there’s no real development of his motivations, which is unfortunate. There’s a decent case to be made that one of the episode’s subthemes is abuse of power. Leighton abuses his power as a scientist to divert the Enterprise to Planet Q. Kirk arguably abuses his authority by calling in a favor in order to investigate the players more fully, and he does consign Riley to Engineering without explanation. Kodos’s abuse of power arguably jump-starts the entire episode.

Every one of those characters, save Kirk, perishes for that abuse. Kirk survives mostly through plot armor, though we as the viewers are meant to believe that Kirk is on the side of the angels. The thing is, whether that happens to be true is ambiguous at best. Yes, Kodos murdered four thousand people and therefore deserved to be brought to justice. The question is whether Kirk as a representative of Starfleet had the authority to divert his ship to do that bringing to justice. Per Spock, the answer to that question is a pretty solid no but given Lenore’s habit of murdering those who’d seen Kodos’s face, Kirk was legitimately under threat. It’s a tough call, and setting aside the cringeworthy romance between Kirk and Lenore, that question makes “The Conscience of the King” one of the more interesting episodes in season one of Star Trek: TOS, even if it’s interesting because it just doesn’t go far enough to explore the themes underpinning the story.


Three Vulcan lyres of five.

Stray Thoughts From the Couch

  1. Oh, Bones, drinking while on duty? How could you? And from an old George Dickel bottle, too.
  2. The costumes and hairstyles of the episode are so incredibly sixties.
  3. Someone please tell me why Kirk tried to look under his bed for the phaser. That bed is solidly bolted to the floor, and there’s no under the bed space.
  4. Kevin Riley gives up his vengeance pretty quickly.
  5. Uhura sings for us!
  6. There’s a coffin-shaped door in the episode for no apparent reason, and I feel that way about some of the lighting choices. There’s a scene in which the space outside the immediate foreground is lit in red and green. Maybe that’s for the black and white TVs? I have no idea.
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