From Klingons spouting Hamlet quotes to Captain Picard fake-wooing Lwaxana Troi with a sonnet mashup, Star Trek has had a very long and very weird history with William Shakespeare. In fact, the Bard features so prominently in the franchise that he has his own motherfucking entry on Memory Alpha.
And this, my friends, this episode is where it all begins.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
Dr. Thomas Leighton, an old friend of Kirk’s, is convinced that a wandering Shakespearean actor named Karidian is also secretly Kodos the Executioner. Kodos once governed Tarsus IV until he decided to solve the colony’s starvation problem by murdering half the population. Unbeknownst to anyone else on the Enterprise, Kirk and Leighton are not only Tarsus IV survivors but 2 of the 9 eyewitnesses who actually saw Kodos’s face. Since Kodos is supposed to be dead, Kirk doesn’t believe Leighton, but quickly changes his tune when his old buddy ends up getting murdered.
Through some mischief, Kirk arranges to transport Karidian’s whole acting troupe to their next destination. He also begins seducing Lenore, Karidian’s daughter, as part of his secret investigation. Meanwhile, Spock begins doing a little detective work of his own, trying to figure out what his captain is up to; disappointingly, his investigation doesn’t involve a grand seduction of Kirk or anyone else. It’s revealed that most of the eyewitnesses from Tarsus IV are dead; the only ones left alive are Kirk himself and one member of his crew, Kevin Riley (last seen in “The Naked Time,” taking the Enterprise hostage). Quite naturally, Riley immediately gets poisoned. Shockingly, though, he lives.
Kirk confronts Karidian, who never directly admit he’s Kodos but super obviously is. Then Lenore confronts Kirk for totally using her. Then Riley tries to vengeance-murder Kodos, only to be stopped by Kirk. Then Kirk overhears Lenore confess to her father that she’s been murdering the eyewitnesses, who’s super unhappy because Lenore was the only pure thing in his life. Then Kodos sacrifices himself to save Kirk. Then Lenore, having killed her father, proves herself a proper Shakespearian heroine by theatrically losing her mind.
After the 2009 Star Trek reboot, I briefly fell into a Kelvin Verse Fanfiction Black Hole. By doing so, I learned a few things which surprised me: one, I was much more of a Jim/Bones shipper than a Jim/Spock shipper (I’m not yet sure if this holds true for the actual original series), and two, in TOS, Little Kirk apparently survived the mass slaughter of 4,000 people on Tarsus IV, which–in many fanfics–left him properly traumatized and in need of comfort. Naturally, I was delighted when I realized we had arrived at the Kodos episode, though I must say that absolutely none of the fanfics I read prepared for the whole Shakespearean tragedy angle.
“Conscience of the King” is . . . okay. Parts of it are cool. I quite like Arnold Moss, who has immediate presence as Kodos; the scene where Kirk confronts him is particularly great, even if I couldn’t help but wish he would just own to being Kodos, considering how literally every argument he says makes no sense from anyone other than the Executioner. I find the whole backstory of Tarsus IV pretty interesting. And I’m definitely into Spock’s investigation in this episode, particularly as he relates his findings to Bones; Spock’s reaction to the past massacre is pretty passionate and, dare I say, a bit emotional. In fact, I wish a little more time was spent on that because Spock being all conflicted about his suppressed emotions is obviously one of my very favorite things.
What I’m considerably less into, unfortunately, is James Kirk, Seduction Detective. His scenes with Lenore all feel totally gross. It’s not just that he’s using her to investigate someone else; like, obviously, that’s not ideal, but it’s a well-trod plot trope that can be done well or at least better. Here, though, Kirk comes off incredibly skeezy, like, presumably Shatner’s going for flirty and hot, but all I’m getting here?
Slime, admittedly, is not an unknown flavor of Captain Kirk but it’s easily my least favorite. It also makes it considerably harder to buy into the idea that Kirk actually falls for Lenore. Their supposedly tragic romance fails pretty hard for me in this episode, and that’s a problem because it’s a huge part of this story. Both the murder of Dr. Leighton and the psychological fallout of surviving Tarsus IV take a pretty big backseat to Kirk and Lenore’s could’ve-been love story, and I just do not give a shit.
Some of the thematic stuff doesn’t work super well for me, either. Like, I get why justice versus vengeance is a thing, of course, but it still feels like Bones brings it up out of nowhere, like, as scummy as Kirk’s detective techniques are, there’s been nothing in his behavior to indicate that he’s seriously contemplating murdering
Claudius Kodos. And then Lenore tries to argue Kirk’s immorality by complaining about technology or something, but seriously, what is “The Dangers of Technology” even doing in this episode?
Finally, I just can’t get into Lenore’s tragic descent into madness at the end of the episode. And don’t get me wrong: I get the whole Shakespearean quality of it all. I even really like how Kodos reacts when he realizes his daughter has been killing people for him all this time. Nevertheless, Murderous Ophelia (obviously a stellar band name) is just a bit too over-the-top for me, not because the performance is poor, necessarily, but because Lenore’s theatrical insanity seems to make her more of an archetype than an actual character. I’d like Lenore a whole lot better if she was just a woman of sound mind willing to do absolutely terrible things to protect her father.
Alas, it’s Murderous Ophelia we get instead, and by the time we learn that Lenore’s forgotten all the crimes she’s committed and thinks her father is alive on tour, well, I was pretty much done.
At first, Dr. Thomas Leighton is only shown in profile, and the longer it goes on for, the more ridiculously obvious it is that TOS plans to shock us with a Scarred/Bandaged Face Reveal. Setting aside the fact that maybe Scarred/Bandaged Face Reveals should be retired entirely, the horrified response to this particular one is somewhat diminished by the fact that Leighton looks like he’s covered half his face with a wonky and oversized sleep mask.
It’s important to note that while Kodos is playing Macbeth, Lenore–his daughter–is playing Lady Macbeth. SO CREEPY. SO WRONG.
FASHION REPORT: Sweet Jesus, Lenore. Everything she wears is the worst thing anyone has ever worn. Her outfit at the party, for instance: it’s a royal blue tunic-poncho-mumu thing with, for whatever reason, only one sleeve and ugly, gigantic blue flowers running down the center. She’s paired this awful thing with sparkly silver tights which, while acceptable, really don’t match anything else she’s wearing. It only goes downhill from here, though, because–as she and Kirk leave the party for their romantic stroll outside–she’s apparently added some kind of black or dark blue veil that’s just . . . no. It’s just no. And later, when she arrives on the Enterprise, Lenore has decided to pair her silver tights with . . . IDK, some kind of boxy off-the-shoulder mini dress made out of purple-gray carpet? Like, I’m seriously wondering if the costuming department didn’t make this dress out of a bath mat. And once again, her tan gloves match nothing else she’s wearing at all.
Taken Straight From the Notes (about that romantic stroll): There’s a dead body, ruining the mood. Oh, it’s Tom. Sorry, Tom.
Kirk is an Epic Fail at basically everything. He purposefully keeps his detective shenanigans a secret from everyone on the Enterprise, yet acts like a shifty, creepy little asshole with Lenore in front of his entire bridge crew, like, gee, Kirk, I wonder why Spock started investigating shit behind your back. This is not helped by Kirk transferring Riley back to Engineering without any explanation. Admittedly, Kirk’s trying to protect the kid, but it’s kind of a dick move, since he full well knows Riley will consider it a demotion, and again, just adds more fuel to Spock’s “my captain is up to some bullshit” fire. And while I’d like to at least applaud Kirk for wanting to be 100% sure before condemning Karidian as Kodos, he also says, “Logic is not enough. I’ve got to feel my way.” Which, like, no? Didn’t even Hamlet know that feelings aren’t actually proof?
That all being said, I still think I might have to award Chief Asshat to Bones. I know, I’m surprised too. But we must consider the facts: first, when Spock is trying to convince him that Kirk’s up to something, Bones decides that Kirk probably just arranged for the troupe to get stranded so he’d have time to, ah, “get close” to Lenore, like that’s not a totally creepy abuse of power or anything. Then Bones just spills the news about Kodos where Riley–orphaned because of this fucker–can easily overhear. Of course, Bones is all, “If he overheard . . .” and I’m like, “bitch, the dude was ten feet behind you. OF COURSE HE OVERHEARD.” Add all this to the fact that Bones doesn’t even notice when Riley takes off on his Vengeance Quest, and I have to conclude that if Bones doesn’t win Chief Asshat–and I’m still conflicted on that–he, at the very least, is winning Chief Incompetency.
It’s a small thing, I know, but the fact that the only people left alive who can put Kodos at the scene of the genocide both happen to live on the Enterprise? It’s just too big of a coincidence for me. Although, in fairness, I suspect it really wouldn’t bother me so much if Lenore herself had figured out a way to strand the troupe, considering she is the one hunting these eyewitnesses and all.
Hey, Uhura is playing music and singing again! Hi, Musical Uhura!
First Time We’ve Encountered: an overloaded phaser! This one was considerably more powerful than I expected; apparently, it could’ve taken out several whole decks. “Conscience of the King” also marks the first and, I suspect, last time a squirt bottle is used on the Enterprise. Lenore literally uses a squirt bottle to poison Riley’s milk. It is without a doubt one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. (Equally if not even more ludicrous is that Riley is working alone in Engineering when he gets poisoned. I’m like, wait, what? What kind of ship are you running here, Kirk?)
Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure this is the last time we see Riley. He and Kirk were two survivors of the same genocidal massacre; their relationship could be extremely interesting, if it were actually allowed to play out. But since Riley’s just a guest player, he disappears, which only makes me wish that Sulu, my current favorite, had this backstory instead. Sadly, Sulu isn’t even in this episode. Again.
A line Lenore actually speaks: “Has the machine changed them? Made them just people instead of women?”
Finally, Bones has kind of a funny about how it’s no wonder the Vulcans were conquered if they never drink booze, but . . . pretty sure the Vulcans were never actually conquered? There are, admittedly, any number of gaps in my Trek knowledge, but I don’t actually think this is one of them.
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“You should be told the difference between empiricism and stubbornness, Doctor.”