There’s been quite a bit of experimentation on Star Trek since the start. “Mudd’s Women” is obstensibly a comedy. “Miri” is a little bit of a social commentary. “What Are Little Girls Made of?” is something like a horror story. Strangely enough, it takes “The Conscience of the King” to really embrace the series first real root, the space opera, or more importantly, melodrama.
It comes across immediately, both in the title (a reference to the play scene in “Hamlet”) and the cold open, where viewers are introduced to Anton Karidian, an actor in an adaptation of “Macbeth,” appearing to us during one of the climactic murders of the work. Even though the references are stunningly overt, there is nothing pandering about the usage of Shakespeare, and the story of the episode rises to the challenge of the referenced material.
After viewing the play, a friend of Kirk’s claims that Anton Karidian is actually Kodos the Executioner, a former dictator who violently massacred his starving people on Tarsus IV. Although Kirk plans to investigate the claims, he is smitten by Anton’s beautiful glitter stocking wearing daughter Lenore. The two discover the body of Kirk’s friend while walking in the desert, launching an investigation as to who may be killing the last witnesses to Kodos’ bloody actions.
I’ll say this now; I’m no fan of Shakespeare’s dramas. I think they are overwrought, archaic and valued mostly for their antiquity. However, the influence of his works drives the story of episode in a way that few other writers would have been able to inspire, and it results in the best episode that the series has done yet.
There is a lot going on that just works, but most of it falls on the shoulders of Kirk and, to some degree, Lenore. Their relationship creates the conflict and the crux of the story. We have seen Kirk as a swaggering ladies man before, but this is the first time we have seen him really fall in love. He is initially blown away from Lenore, but his infatuation believably becomes something more, and Shatner really makes this work. It’s easy to hate on him for his hammy scenery chewing ways, but he really delivers in a subtle way in this episode. Lenore also works as more than just a pretty space-face, and manages to be a suitable love, rather than lust, interest.
There’s another strange relationship that really works in this episode, and it just happens to be the conflicting interests of Spock and McCoy. They’ve been at odds for most of the series, with their ribbing being somewhat of a comedic highlight of the series, but for once, they have to work together, without the help of Captain Kirk. Spock is clearly in command between the two, but the scene in the hallway where he attempts to explain his theory to the doctor manages to speak a lot to his character and the way that both characters have the fate of the ship and their friendship with the captain at the front of their minds. It’s a little disappointing that the two don’t end up showing up that much by episode’s end, but the moments they are together really click.
Relationships really set up the plot and the conflicts, but as soon as there is a base to work on, writer Barry Trivers really hands the episode over to Shakespeare. There are a pair of star-crossed lovers, a pair of worried advisors, a guilty brooding king, a misguided-would-be-assassin and a host of lies and false identities. It becomes less of a piece of fiction inspired by Shakespeare, to a full-fledged homage and against all odds, it really pays off.
One of the factors that really help the episode is the use of language. Characters spout out soliloquies about the stars, the place of women, murder and memory at a regular clip throughout the episode, but it all clicks. The whole episode nearly slips when Kirk confronts Anton about his past and the whole thing reverts to mostly silly incoherent and off topic babblings and some of Lenore’s direct “Hamlet” quotes at the end, don’t quite work but it all really sets the drama well. The only piece that comes to mind that has managed this sort of balancing act even close to as well is Rian Johnson’s superb “Brick,” a hardboiled high school noir that creates it’s own language that neatly mashes “The Maltese Falcon” with “A Clockwork Orange.”
By the end, everything is really working together well. Riley’s kinda-sorta misunderstanding of the situation works well as a Shakespearean homage, and Lenore’s reveal mostly works. Like in any Shakespearean play, there’s really no illusion that Lenore was the killer the whole time, particularly in all those scenes with Anton when the only other character that we have met all episode is shot in shadow, but her insanity is believable and her motives put the episode in an even darker place. Anton has some not quite as hammy lines, as he expresses his grief that people continue to die in his name, and his death is handled well.
Like I said, this is without a doubt the best episode that the series has managed. There are some great character moments, the action is really great, and the cast and writers manage homage to Shakespeare that never devolves into parody or self-awareness.
“Even in this corner of the galaxy, captain, two plus two equals four.
I’m not too sure if the writers caught it, but there are a bunch of really dumb penis jokes when Lenore talks to Kirk in the green soft light room.
Sulu isn’t in this episode. Surprise, surprise.
Uhura sings in this one, and it didn’t inspire enough rage for me to lose any appreciation here. Well done?
Next Up: “Balance of Terror” which I’ve heard is fucking awesome.