The Good: Tense, Generally good acting, Decent story, Decent character work
The Bad: Some very hammy acting, Forced romantic subplot, Effects
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Enterprise takes aboard an actor whose background may reveal he was guilty of genocide, Kirk’s objectivity is compromised!
Star Trek is rather well known for being a science fiction show that cleverly hid social messages in the program. It did this with varying degrees of success and often it provided a character with a sudden backstory element to help introduce the social issue de jour and one of the first episodes to truly nail that was “The Conscience Of The King.” This episode fills in a bit of Captain Kirk’s childhood and it’s no surprise that when William Shatner was writing Avenger, his co-authors were able to put this episode in a larger context that made sense!
The U.S.S. Enterprise takes aboard a troup of actors who are performing Shakespeare plays throughout the Federation. While ferrying them to their next stop, Kirk and his crew delight in having live theater, though Kirk is immediately set off by an old acquaintance who believes that the lead actor in the play is a genocidal governor who was responsible for wiping out a planet’s population when a food supply fell short many years before. Kirk is skeptical until his friend ends up dead and Kirk realizes that only he and Lt. Riley are eyewitnesses to the massacre who could identify Kodos The Executioner!
Of course, being a Star Trek story and one where Kirk is the protagonist, there is a romantic subplot and in this case, Kirk falls for the blonde on the scene, Lenore Karidian, the daughter of the famed actor Anton Karidian (who may or may not be Kodos The Executioner). In this case, the relationship seems contrived for dramatic effect. While Barbara Anderson – who plays Lenore - is quite attractive, she and William Shatner have no real on-screen chemistry. The result is a relationship that the viewer does not get at all attached to. Instead, we see no real consequences to Lenore’s comings or goings and the resolution to the episode is not terribly exciting as far as the romantic subplot.
But that’s about the weakest “The Conscience Of The King” truly gets. This is a wonderful exploration that asks the big questions of “What is the practical statue of limitations on genocide” and “What is the value of redemption?” Simply suspecting Anton Karidian of being a genocidal figure like Kodos is potentially inflammatory and as the body count rises, Kirk is faced with the question of what to do and what will be the most effective way to neutralize the problem.
The exceptional aspect of “The Conscience Of The King” that seems to be lacking from today’s discourse on issues like this is that Captain Kirk is obsessed with being certain that Anton is the right man. He wants to be sure he does not accuse the wrong person or allow the court of public opinion to sway him on hearsay. Instead, he is methodical and calm, using reason and judgment bring him to the proper conclusions as opposed to simply going with his gut and his beliefs. This, especially in today’s climate, makes him seem all the more heroic.
Kirk is contrasted well by the only other survivor of the massacre on the Enterprise, Lt. Kevin Riley. Riley was seen previously in “The Naked Time,” where he serenaded the ship with his rendition of “Kathleen” far too many times. Riley makes for a decent foil to Kirk in this regard as he reacts emotively and instinctually, while Kirk is tempered with more mature judgment – usually it is Spock intervening to the captain’s brash actions, so it’s refreshing to see some growth here!
So, much of the episode is a search for the truth and the idea of Kirk as survivor of a calamity or genocide works well, though if one were to look at his whole story I suspect it would seem he is around all sorts of bad things. Regardless, the idea of Kirk having a childhood trauma like watching the majority of a population be killed so the food supplies on a planet could hold out until more arrived is both gruesome and intriguing.
This gives actor William Shatner some fertile ground to play in and it works well. Sure, we’ve seen Captain Kirk disturbed before; in the first episode he appeared in, he had to debate about killing his best friend! But in “The Conscience Of The King,” we see a man torn by his past some and a strong desire to know the truth. And his feelings for Lenore do make him reluctant to rush to any judgment, which at least helps fill the full fifty minute episode up.
This is where Star Trek works well. In an instance where Kirk cannot trust himself to be truly objective, he does what any good leader would do; he defers. Seeing Kirk trust the judgment of Spock works wonderfully and reinforces the idea that Kirk is neither all-powerful or all on his own. By spreading the workload out, it makes the starship Enterprise seem that much more real. It also makes the episode much more watchable.
So, too, does the performance by Bruce Hyde as Kevin Riley. Hyde is agitated and edgy as the babyfaced officer who has an attempt on his life made. Hyde plays Riley well with a sense of the youthful exuberance leaving him for vengeance when the possibility arises that Anton is Kodos. The result is some very intense acting from the guest star that works far better than his earlier performance in “The Naked Time,” where he was essentially a singing punchline.
But it is Arnold Moss who steals the show. Moss, an aged actor who seems classically trained in Shakespeare, is perfectly cast as Anton Karidian. He bears himself like an actor of some reputation and as he develops through the episode, he is eminently watchable and thoroughly convincing as Karidian. Moss has a wonderful sense of when to play Karidian as strong and when to have him appear frail and essentially human. His performance foreshadows that of real-life dictator Augusto Pinochet and it’s unfortunate Moss did not live long enough to portray Pinochet in any work now!
This episode is accessible to all audiences and it quite likely to be enjoyed by fans of drama in general, as opposed to just science fiction fans. This is an episode that raises reasonable questions about the nature of genocide and how to prosecute it. It is intense, clever and worth your time and attention, tacked-on romantic subplot or not!
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into "Star Trek - The Complete First Season" on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!
For other Star Trek reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.