Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Conscience of the King

(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: December 8, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0 (but it’s a near-miss for Riley, and Kirk’s friend Leighton is killed, along with Karidian/Kodos)

Bellybuttons: 0

“The Conscience of the King” is a good idea clumsily executed. The title comes from Act II of Hamlet, when Hamlet, trying to identify his father’s murderer by acting out that death in a stage performance, says, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” This week the Enterprise is diverted to Planet Q by Kirk’s old friend Dr. Leighton (William Sargent), who claims to have identified Kodos the Executioner, masquerading as Karidian (Arnold Moss, who played Prospero in The Tempest on Broadway 124 times), the leader of a traveling Shakespearean acting troupe. Instead of watching the play, as Claudius does in Hamlet, this killer has been acting out his guilt on stage.

Image from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Karidian in theater garb and holding bloody dagger
“Do the needs of the 50% outweigh the needs of the other 50%?”

Kodos was governor of an earth colony on Tarsus IV twenty years prior. When the colony’s food supply was destroyed by a fungus, Kodos declared martial law and killed half of the colony’s population in order to feed the other half (supply ships arrived soon after, making the deaths unnecessary by anyone’s reasoning). Kirk, Deighton, and Lieutenant Riley (Bruce Hyde, who also played Riley in “The Naked Time”) were on Tarsus IV and are the only surviving witnesses to have actually seen Kodos. We get no specifics as to how the colonists were killed; words like “slaughtered” and “butchered” are used. Presumably Kodos gave the orders and others carried out the actual executions. We also don’t know how Kodos divided the population, though it doesn’t appear to have been random (the approach Thanos used in killing half the population over limited resources in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)). Spock says Kodos had “his own theories of eugenics,” and Kodos later talks of technology replacing the “the striving of man to achieve greatness through his own resources,” but we don’t get enough of Kodos or his beliefs to form solid conclusions. Kodos even goes so far as to say, “I was a soldier in a cause,” but never specifies whose cause or how a governor with the autonomy to kill half the population qualifies as a “soldier.”

My knowledge of Shakespeare is rusty, at best, but “The Conscience of the King” references the Bard heavily. The episode opens with Karidian’s group performing Macbeth (which also inspired “Dagger of the Mind”), with Karidian holding a dagger and pleading, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hands?” Unlike “Dagger of the Mind,” “The Conscience of the King” references Macbeth more directly; whereas Dr. Adams forced forgetfulness of his crimes, Karidian/Kodos clearly remembers his actions. To what extent he feels guilt over his long-ago decision is never entirely clear, however. In one breath he says he would have been remembered as a hero if supply ships had not reached Tarsus IV early, then in the next he says, “One is finally grateful for a failing memory.” This failure to achieve some kind of resolution is the most frustrating aspect of the episode.

Image from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Karidian and Kirk

It’s significant that “The Conscience of the King” takes place twenty years after Kodos’ actions. As The Mission Log podcast points out, this episode aired twenty-one years after the end of World War II. The question of how to treat Nazis and their collaborators after the war is hard to ignore here. The Nuremberg Trials in 1946 resulted in the conviction and, in some cases, execution, of several senior members of the Third Reich. (Shatner himself had starred in Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961, and Nimoy starred in and co-produced Never Forget in 1991, a movie-for-television about an attorney who confronted Holocuast-deniers in court.) The trials were hardly the end of the Nazi problem. Many had escaped Germany at the end of the war. Concentration camp survivor Simon Wiesenthal led a group of “Nazi hunters” who tried to locate Nazi officials, including Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the “Final Solution.” (The search and capture of Eichmann was portrayed in the surprisingly accurate 2018 film Operation Finale.) Eichmann was executed by hanging in 1962, only four years before “The Conscience of the King” aired. Fifty-plus years later, it’s hard for us to appreciate how fresh these events were in the public consciousness in 1966.

Karidian’s “soldier in a cause” comment brings to mind the claims of many Third Reich officers: they were only following orders. Present day Customs and Border Protection officers who imprison children and law enforcement officers who assault peaceful demonstrators insist that they, too, are only following orders. This raises questions about the assignment of guilt and punishment throughout the chain of command, but “The Conscience of the King” frustrates us by failing to pursue the matter. Was it really that easy for the governor of an 8,000-inhabitant earth colony to find help in carrying out his gruesome orders? Could he really have done this without Starfleet’s knowledge? A major criticism of the Nuremberg Trials is that the allies had committed some of the same acts for which the Nazis were labeled war criminals. Some of the German officers and scientists who escaped after the war did so with the United States’ help. The Federation believes Kodos is dead, and throughout the episode Kirk goes to great lengths to avoid accepting that “the executioner” is still alive. An ugly possibility is that Starfleet wants Kodos to stay dead, at least in the public’s mind, and Kirk is toeing the line by trying to whitewash the ugliness of the past. Again, the episode barely approaches these difficult questions.

Image from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Kirk and Spock in Kirk's quarters

Part of the episode’s conflict comes from the attempt to confirm whether or not Karidian really is Kodos. This is, no pun intended, much ado about nothing. We can acknowledge that, even in the 1960s, identifying known war criminals was not as easy it one might think: Josef Mengele, who conducted experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, died in 1976, but some believed he was still alive as late as 1985. Kurt Waldheim was an intelligence officer in Nazi Germany, but was able to obscure his background enough to become Secretary General of the United Nations in 1972 and president of Austria in 1986. It’s true that the retina scan used in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) wasn’t even conceptually possible until 1975, DNA profiling didn’t become feasible until the 1980s, and the possibility of a company like Facebook tricking users into posting “10-year-challenge” photos to assist the development of facial recognition software certainly hadn’t occurred to anyone in the 1960s. So confirming an individual’s identity wasn’t always straightforward at the time “The Conscience of the King” aired. But basic fingerprint identification was in use as far back as the late nineteenth century. It was outlandish for writers in the 1960s not to predict that, in the 23rd century, simple identification techniques would be available. Kirk uses a computer test to compare Karidian’s voice with a file recording of Kodos, calling the test “virtually infallible,” but he refuses to accept the confirmatory result. More importantly, Karidian doesn’t try very hard to deny his history when confronted by Kirk.

Like Hamlet, Kirk hesitates to accept the killer’s identity. This is somewhat a reversal of the story of Martin Guerre, the French family man who disappeared in 1548. A man claiming to be Guerre showed up in 1556 and took up residence with Guerre’s family until the real Guerre returned in 1560! It sounds preposterous, but photography had not been invented, and even mirrors were not common by that time. As Kirk reminds us, “Men change, memories change.” It’s hard to believe they would change enough to outwit 23rd century identification technology, but we have to accept it for the story.

Image from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Kirk looking at photos of younger and older Karidian
Kirk reviews facial hair schemes for the mirror universe

Kirk’s wavering works better if we take it symbolically, rather than literally. He raises questions of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” criteria for criminal trials. The matter of positively identifying suspects is a conversation every civilized society has to confront and re-confront as technology and law enforcement techniques change. The planet where Kodos committed his terrible act, Tarsus IV, calls to mind Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul, who converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Just as Paul was the last apostle visited by the resurrected Jesus, so Kirk is the last to accept Karidian’s true nature. Just as Paul was “an apostle of the Gentiles,” sent to find disciples among non-Jews, so Kirk (unlike Spock, who only needs to convert one person, his captain) will be responsible for spreading the news of Kodos’ survival beyond the Enterprise to the larger Federation.

“The Conscience of the King” could have investigated the deeper issues if it hadn’t wasted so much time on the trite flirtations between Kirk and Karidian’s daughter Lenore (Barbara Anderson). “Lenore” is a poem by Edgar Allan Poe and those familiar with it could have anticipated the resolution of “The Conscience of the King.” In the poem, “the fair and debonair” Lenore has died young. Her true love, Guy de Vere, does not mourn her passing, because he believes she resides “beside the King of Heaven” and that he will see her again in that exalted place. As in the poem, our Lenore, the real killer of Leighton and the other witnesses, is not really among the living, having lost mental stability carrying the burden of her father’s crimes. She is, spiritually and emotionally, “beside the King.” The story takes too long to get there, however, what with Lenore talking about “power surging and throbbing” and Kirk’s God-awful comment: “Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman.” Lenore’s finest traits seem to be a wardrobe that would make Liberace envious and great stealth: she somehow hides a phaser in Kirk’s quarters, easily swipes another phaser from a befuddled guard, and poisons Riley (giving him the comeuppance he deserves after he tortured us in “The Naked Time”).

Images from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Lenore in various eccentric wardrobes
Is this a fashion crime which I see before me?

Spock is the real leader in “The Conscience of the King,” and he demonstrates why he’s the first officer. He sees significance in the arrival of the acting troupe on the Enterprise, while McCoy, like all Federation men, takes the low road and gushes about “that little Juliet” (Lenore, apparently). Spock quickly establishes that Karidian is Kodos and righteously (and rightfully) pressures Kirk to take action. Kirk, on the other hand, has no excuse for his procrastination. The possibility that Kodos survived should be a Federation matter, but Kirk instead keeps the subject to himself. He begins his investigation by returning alone to Planet Q, when he should have taken Spock or McCoy to assist with identification of Karidian. He certainly should have involved McCoy when Leighton was killed, but there’s no medical examiner in sight, just poor Leighton’s body stretched out on a sofa! Kirk refuses to explain his orders for changing course for Benecia and for reassigning Riley to Engineering. Kirk should be documenting all of this in his log and keeping his officers up to date. Instead, when confronted by Spock, he declares the matter “my personal business.” Kirk’s behavior is inexplicable and unfair to everyone involved. Lenore’s most honest statement might come when, after Kirk confronts her father, she says, “There’s a stain of cruelty on your shining armor, Captain.” Sadly, having seen evil Kirk in “The Enemy Within,” we know this is true.

We get insight into other Enterprise officers, for better and worse. Better, because Uhuru performs a lovely ballad while playing the Vulcan lyre in the rec room. Worse, because Riley, whose family was among Kodos’ victims on Tarsus IV, sneaks out of sickbay and steals a phaser. Planning to kill Kodos, Riley points the phaser directly at Kirk! WTF?!? This is a serious offense that demands disciplinary action; instead, it’s quickly forgotten, as is the death of Kirk’s friend Leighton. No mention, also, of how the Federation will acknowledge the faked death of Karidian/Kodos.

Image from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Uhuru singing and playing a lyre

In the end, we understand that Lenore lost her senses long ago, and she has to be institutionalized. Again, there’s no real resolution to the larger issue: how do we decide who is truly guilty in the commission of war crimes, and what penalties should we inflict? Part of Kirk’s dilemma is having to decide what he wants if Kodos is alive: justice or vengeance? While Kirk and Spock debate the obviousness of Karidian’s background, only McCoy asks the essential “So what?” question: “What if you decide he is Kodos? What then?” Kirk’s response is a half-hearted hope that the dead “might rest easier,” but he clearly has his doubts. When Kirk confronts Karidian/Kodos, he says “If I had gotten everything I wanted, you might not walk out of this room alive,” but this seems spoken in the heat of anger and not an expression of Kirk’s true feelings.

The Third Reich comparison is the easiest (particularly with the hints at eugenics), but “The Conscience of the King” also invites us to consider President Truman’s decision to end World War II in the Asian theater with nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Truman decided, and believed, that the immediate death toll from the bombs (well over 100,000 casualties, with thousands dying later from injuries and radiation), and the visceral spectacle of the explosions, would end the conflict immediately, and save more lives in the long run. Whether or not Truman was justified remains a debate for the ages – it’s worth noting that U.S. forces killed an estimated 100,000 Japanese citizens in the firebombing of Tokyo the night of March 9, 1945, with many thousands of others killed in other cities during the months prior to the Hiroshima bombing. Was use of the atomic bomb really necessary? Did Kodos really have to trade those lives on Tarsus IV? When do actions under the mantle of domestic security cross the line to become war crimes? These questions are only easily answered by those who will never need to answer for their decisions.

Black and white photo from Nuremberg Trials of 1945, black and white photo of Hiroshima after atomic bomb of August 1945, image from Star Trek episode The Conscience of the King showing Lenore and Karidian
The Nuremberg Trials; Hiroshima in August, 1945; Karidian/Kodos and his murderous progeny

In later years, President Truman always said he didn’t regret his decision, but he also called it the “most terrible decision that any man in the history of the world had to make…” We may be uncertain if Kodos regrets his choice, but we see the lingering after effects in Lenore. Like her father twenty years earlier, she shows no regard for human life, saying, “It’s nothing,” when she admits having killed the witnesses. She doesn’t need to seek the king’s conscience in the play, because she inherited it, it was in her all along. Earlier in the episode, Lenore describes Kirk as “Caesar of the stars.” Let’s hope not – Caesar was assassinated – but this additional Shakespeare reference is clear. In Act III of Julius Caesar, Antony says, “The evil that men do lives after them.” The prosecution of war crimes doesn’t end with the complex matters of identifying the crimes and those who committed them. Our most important objective is to prevent the rise of future war criminals who might commit similar atrocities. However, the impacts of those crimes echo throughout history, and whatever punishment we inflict on the criminals, it’s the rest of us who will live with the consequences. The Third Reich was defeated but the scourge of Nazism remains. People in Japan suffered bomb-related cancers for decades after the war. As for the rest of us, carbon-14 residue from atomic bomb testing infects our air, our food, and our bodies; it is inescapable. Maybe this is why Kirk is so hesitant. We trust that Federation protocols have improved enough that another Kodos can’t repeat that terrible act, but vengeance won’t undo war crimes of the past. And what justice would be possible in the magnitude of such events? We must wrestle with these demons, and carry forward the lessons we learn, but we can’t hope to find concrete answers when faced with the barbarity of human behavior. At some point, duty calls, and, like Kirk directing the Enterprise on to its next mission, eventually we can do little more than move forward, and live life the best we can.

Next: Balance of Terror

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