Sunday, June 9, 2013

“And you claim these words as your own”: The Conscience of the King

"Let your indulgence set me free."

A flash of a dagger, and someone lies dead. The guilt-wracked murderer wonders if all the oceans could wash the blood from his hands. Not long afterward we learn the slain person was King Duncan and we're watching a performance of Macbeth. But then the camera cuts to a Shakespearean actor dressed in a bright yellow jumper commenting on the performance while the man next to him rambles on about somebody named Kodos the Executioner. Somehow this is supposed to be a science fiction show, somehow this is supposed to be Star Trek. But it is in truth another play.

This is an episode about performativity-It's about people playing roles and how the kinds of roles we play change throughout our lives and how each role only reveals a snapshot of one facet of a person at one point in time. That's the thing nobody in the story manages to understand, however: Kirk wants to extract justice; he wants to be able to prove Anton Karidian is *really* Kodos under an alias. By contrast, Lenore is hoping to erase all historical trace of Kodos by killing off those who had seen him, thus forcing people to see her father as Anton forever and always.

But the truth of the matter is the Actor is both Anton and Kodos. One is not more real than another, they're just two different roles the same man has played at two different points in time. As characters are by definition more flat that real people, each role can only reflect one specific aspect of his personality, and even then they can only reflect how they exist at the specific time the Actor is playing that particular role. As Kodos, he made the decisions he thought were justified when he was ruler of Tarsus IV. As Anton his worldview has changed and regrets the actions he took as Kodos and hopes to move beyond them. Despite what Kirk and Lenore want, he can't be only one for them. He has to be everything at once. Incidentally, this is as good as the show has ever been at depicting human nuance and complexity: There are no more White Hats and Black Hats here, only people trying to make the best choices they can in the present moment, and that alone makes it astonishingly progressive for its time.

The theatrical theme is everywhere in “The Conscience of the King”, and an argument could be made it's almost too heavy-handed: There's the title, a straight-up reference to Hamlet, which is the same play the Karidian Players wind up performing for the Enterprise crew. The teaser sequence with the Macbeth show is just about the most obvious bit of foreshadowing Barry Trivers could have come up with, and Lenore speaking almost entirely in Shakespeare quotes and allusions makes General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country look subtle and understated. Indeed, the entire episode itself bears some pretty overt similarities to Hamlet, featuring a guilt-ridden leader, his mad daughter and the exposure of his past during a stage show. But Trivers has a bit more going on here than might be immediately obvious, I feel: “The Conscience of the King” doesn't just reference Hamlet, by its very nature it's technically a performance of it. This is Barry Trivers' and Gene Coon's adaptation of Hamlet in a Star Trek context, and it's playing with the tropes of theatre in an attempt to explore the show's performativity through recursive metaphor. Nor matter how you look at it, that's a pretty damn clever, and bold, move for their first and second scripts, respectively.

This has quite a few really interesting ramifications, the first of which is that this is the absolutely perfect environment for William Shatner. As a Shakespearean actor himself, he's able to bridge the gap between the diegetic and extradiegetic plays, something which Shatner duly and exquisitely commits himself to. Kirk, like the Actor, is explicitly a Shakespeare character here, and in a world where we know Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek exists, it's difficult to understand how utterly weird this would have been in 1966. There is absolutely nothing in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, or indeed what we've seen of Coon's so far, that would give anyone the impression Shakespearean drama is something the show should be doing. But here it is, and this marks another real turning point for the franchise: This doesn't mean Star Trek is going to be popping off into other people's stories and mucking about on a regular basis, this isn't Doctor Who, but it does mean Coon has made a fairly decisive move toward shifting what Star Trek is about.

We're still zipping about on space patrol (and indeed Kirk even uses that word in this episode), but what's different now is how that's depicted. Roddenberry played the premise extremely straight, which is most clearly noticeable in “The Cage”: He really, genuinely wants us to take this show about the Space Air Force bopping about and teaching people about Right and Wrong seriously. But with “The Conscience of the King”, Coon is treating Star Trek as a staged theatrical drama. That's not to say Coon is poking fun at the show, but he does seem to be depicting it as a kind of nested artifice that everyone involved is at least partially aware of: Put another way, where previously we had Shatner, a campy RSC actor, queering up a tight-laced Hollywood version of science fiction, we now have under Coon Shatner the RSC actor starring in a *play* about science fiction concepts that's starting to become aware of its performativity, boundaries and limitations. And naturally we introduce this with the gravitas of Shakespeare, who was known in part for his grandiose historical epics about war, tragedy and the human condition. “The Conscience of the King” is far from the definitive statement on this of course; it's at times tentative and clunky and everything it's trying to do is going to be done better by Nicholas Meyer in the 1980s and 1990s, but the existence of episodes like this is what's going to allow Star Trek to eventually become what Meyer crafts it into.

This episode also happens to be Ron Moore's favourite episode of the Original Series. Moore is going to become an extremely important creative figure once we reach the 1980s, serving as a kind of combination of head writer and script editor during Michael Piller's tenure on Star Trek: The Next Generation before going on to become supervising producer under Ira Steven Behr on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and becoming the creator of and showrunner for Battlestar Galactica. We'll return to Moore when it's his time, but given this is his favourite episode I figured it'd be a good idea to see what he has to say about it:

“I liked the backstory of Kirk as a young man caught up in a revolution and the nightmarish slaughter by Governor Kodos. I liked the Shakespearean overtones to the episode as well as the use of the plays themselves. And I absolutely loved Kirk in this episode – a troubled man haunted by the shadows of the past, a man willing to lure Karidian to his ship under false pretenses, willing to do one of his more cold-blooded seductions on Lenore, willing to fight with his two closest friends, and risk his entire command in the name of justice. Or was it vengeance? Kirk's aware of his own lack of objectivity, his own flaws to be in this hunt for a killer, but he cannot push the burden away and refuses pull back from his quest to track down Kodos no matter what the cost. It also has some of my favorite lines in TOS. The scene with Spock and McCoy in Kirk's quarters is one of the series' highlights. The brooding tone and the morally ambiguous nature of the drama fascinated me and definitely influenced my thinking as to what Trek could and should be all about.”

I like Moore a lot as a writer but I also frequently disagree with him, and his analysis of this episode is a good summary of how our perspectives differ. Moore focuses a lot on Kirk's inner turmoil and the darkness he keeps buried. He loves the idea that a basically good man would go to such lengths in this kind of situation. What Moore likes, especially later on in his career, is to see how far he can push characters, and in particular characters who represent ordinary, mundane people, before they break. When I look at the theatrical symbolism of “The Conscience of the King”, by contrast, I'm immediately drawn to its more subtle oversignification and the fact this pushes Star Trek closer to metafiction. I tend to gravitate more towards ideas, symbols, and ideals. This will be a theme we will keep having to return to.

In terms of “The Conscience of the King”, taken on its own it isn't always as successful as one perhaps wishes it could be. I personally would have enjoyed a more overt connection between the recursive plays: Approaching it from the sort of perspective I do it's hard not to wish for some really creative video editing flourish that explodes the show outward and the theatrical trappings are typically used more as blunt symbols and similes then a recursive meta-narrative. This isn't quite language magick yet, and while that's a little disappointing, it's also silly to expect Star Trek of all shows to do Alan Moore before Alan Moore did Alan Moore. For 1966 this is more than sufficient, it's utterly daring and praiseworthy. To top it off we finally get the chance to revisit to the scathing critique the show delivered itself in “Balance of Terror”: Lenore explicitly calls Kirk Caesar here. Granted, this is partially because she was hoping to play Brutus, but the indictment of Kirk, and thus Star Trek, as an empire builder is definitely there as well and it still stands.

Probably the biggest weakness of this episode though is the handling of the supporting cast: Bruce Hyde is back as Kevin Thomas Riley, but in name only. Hyde auditioned for the part of Lieutenant Robert Daikan, the only other surviving person to have seen Kodos' face and thus fueled by vengeance over the death of his family. When the producers realised he had already been in Star Trek, they renamed the character at the last second. Hyde is delivers a predictably rousing performance, but it's not at all in keeping with the person we saw in “The Naked Time”. Spock and McCoy are put in the curious position of being shafted by the story despite having major roles in it: Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are very strong as always, but their primary role here is to watch out for and be supportive of Kirk and keep him grounded. It's exactly what we expect them to do, but that's actually the problem: Nimoy and Kelley don't seem to have gotten the memo and feel like they're still stuck on the old show. Compared to Hyde, Shatner, Arnold Moss (the Actor) and Barbara Anderson (Lenore), who are very obviously relishing the chance to do a Shakespearean Space Epic and just running wild with it, Nimoy and Kelley feel a bit too, well, Star Trek. That said, I do agree with Moore that the scene in Kirk's quarters is exceptionally well done and a sign of things to come.

Then there's the issue of Grace Lee Whitney, or, to be more precise, the conspicuous absence of Grace Lee Whitney, who appears in one scene as an extra on the bridge and then never again. By the way, that's also her last scene in Star Trek, making her the first proper character to be written out. Or actually no, she's not written out: She's unceremoniously dropped from the show and then promptly forgotten about, which can't really be seen as anything other than an insult to someone who was supposed to be playing a main character. What makes this all the more infuriating is there was apparently a time Whitney was pegged as the third star after Shatner and Nimoy, and Roddenberry conceived of Janice Rand as someone who Kirk would come to see as a trusted advisor. But one of Desilu's first decisions was to drop Rand because they wanted Kirk to have a new love interest every week, a decision made easier by Whitney's unfortunate drug and alcohol addiction issues (which were of course made significantly worse by her being sexually abused by two members of the production team two days before she was fired).

Although the franchise finally attempts to make reparations to Whitney by making Rand a reoccurring character in the Original Series movies (long, long after the point at which that would have been needed) this situation without doubt has to go down as one of the blackest marks in the history of Star Trek. While Whitney is far from the only person who's going to be royally screwed by the show (she's not even, depressingly, the only woman who was told she was going to be one of the show's stars to be put in this position) I have a hard time coming up with someone who actually got screwed *worse*. And it's even more of a shame because it sullies what is otherwise one of the very best episodes the show has done yet. Star Trek has come a long way, but it's still not safe or stable, and it's still a very long way from being something we can enjoy with a clear conscience.

And with that the curtain closes. The play is over and we've taken our bows. Time for me to become someone else again.


  1. I've never wanted to take sides in the Shaw/Rattigan dispute over "plays of ideas" versus "plays of character." We'd be terribly deprived if we lost either.

    1. Well, I like both too, and I think that's partially what this episode is about: It looks at performativity at all levels. And indeed next episode Star Trek gives us a straight-up character study.

      As for Moore, it's not his focus on characterization that I'm taking issue with here, but rather his focus on a particular *kind* of characterization that's more interested in seeing how far he can push people before they crack then exploring how they respond to a variety or spectrum of situations. This smacks a bit of 1990s grimdark fetishization to me: It's possible IMO to conceive of a character study that looks at something besides someone's deepest, darkest impulses. This is a thread I'll return to once he becomes a major creative figure of course.

  2. I haven't seen this one for a while. if I remember correctly, Kodos executes some (half?) of the population of his planet because there isn't enough food to go round. But since no-one knows what he looks like, that implies that almost all the people he didn't execute died anyway, rendering his crime pointless. It would have been nice if the writers had picked up on that (did they explain why only about 6 people knew his face?)

    1. I don't recall the script giving any reason why only six people saw Kodos' face aside from implying he was an evasive, secretive person.

      As for his reasoning, Kodos was the leader of the colony so in his mind he was doing justifiable eugenics: He executed the people with the least likely chance of survival so those with the greater chance had enough food to sustain them. Of course, he later came to realise his error.

  3. After posting altogether too much on Court Martial, I’ll stop after this one, but I wanted to drift back at least as far as an episode I both remembered very strongly and liked! And thank you for drawing out a lot of the reasons it must have stuck in my head so I didn’t have to. I particularly loved your arguments about the character being more than just the character people want to pigeonhole him as. It’s a fascinating piece about a fascinating story.

    Watching it quite recently, I can see a lot of flaws in it (the script’s all over the place, randomly firing off eugenics, and computers again, and fascism, and sex, and using, and murder mystery, and Tom with the eyepatch – what was that all about? To show he’s blinkered?), but it’s still awfully compelling. I’d never seen or read Shakespeare when I was a boy and would first have seen this, but I remember being excited by the references without knowing them and, again, I’m sure I must have responded to it for its theatricality (and the touch of horror in its gothic revenge, madness, despair and history!).

    On the one hand, it’s the one that really establishes ‘Kirk the Shagger’ – I can see your point about the theatricality queering that up but, really, it doesn’t convince me (when STNG did ‘the gay issue’ through the medium of shagger heterosexuality it didn’t convince me either). As I posted earlier on Court Martial, Kirk’s rampancy was a source of ribald-as-eight-year-olds got humour and was definitely a factor in stopping me identifying with the show. But on the other hand, lost Lenore – she’s definitely a Poe character as well as several Shakespeare ones I’ll come to – isn’t just the usual Woman of the Week, so she’s far more fun and far less sexist (or at least sexist in several far more interesting ways). And, OK, I’ll give you that both of them chatting each other up for ulterior motives while chewing the scenery more than each other is a scream, particularly when the OTT swelling romantic music starts to sound like Shatner’s ‘Shall I Tell You How To Handle A Woman’ and they talk about surging and throbbing [something else I noticed in terms of the series’ evolution: after several stories sort of approved of it, eugenics is a bad thing now].

    Lenore’s foreshadowed as Lady Macbeth, but for me the most interesting thing about her in a show based on Hamlet is that most of Hamlet role isn’t given to Kirk the lead, but to her. It’s the only production of Hamlet in which Hamlet and Ophelia are played by the same character. It makes up for her being so obviously nutty as a fruitbat from the start, long before her hilarious / disturbing SS maiden pigtails. But it is trying to do a Nazi war criminal drama in a very different way. “She’ll receive the best of care.” Unfortunately, we’ve already seen what that’s like from a story with another Lady Macbeth reference. She’ll probably end up taking over the asylum and running the galaxy.

    It’s very entertaining when Spock finally snaps at Bones to stop being a dick, too, as the doctor has been taking uselessness pills this week. Is Spock’s Shakespearean role Iago, stirring it? And McCoy as Falstaff? My very clever other half came up with several of the Shakespeare connections, so here are a few more of his to finish: Claudius and the ghost would traditionally be played by the same actor, but they’ve reversed it, with Kodos the evil tyrant being replaced by Karidian, the ghost, while Hamlet’s split into Kirk getting the doubts but Lenore getting most of the role right up to taking bloody vengeance ‘for her father’, and being destroyed by it.

    1. I love how you took the Shakespeare imagery even further and deeper: You're absolutely right of course, this is a delightfully oversignified bit of theatrical embellishment.

      In regards to Kirk, I'd like to stress my argument about his character queering up the show is explicitly applicable to William Shtaner and William Shatner alone: It's his overt performativity in deliberately playing Kirk overstated that allows for this reading IMO: It makes him larger than the role he's asked to play and turns Kirk into a drag action hero (well, that and blunt homoerotic subtext he and Leonard Nimoy increasingly build together: Come back when I look at "Shore Leave").

      As originally conceived Kirk is no different from Christopher Pike (as I believe I mentioned in my "Dagger of the Mind" post IIRC): It's Shatner who makes him a queer pop culture icon. In terms of Kirk's libido, that was something that was a studio mandate. For whatever reason, Desilu insisted Kirk have a girl-of-the-week, so he did. Apparently Roddenberry wanted him to have a long-term and complex relationship with Janice Rand, perhaps as an echo of his own relationship with Majel Barrett (although, as with anything Roddenberry says, take that with a moderately-sized salt mine).

      All of this is to say I don't like this aspect of Kirk any more than you do. In fact, it was also a primary reason I could never get into this show growing up. But starting this blog I made a conscious decision to be as redemptive to one of my least-favourite eras of the franchise I could and Shatner, much to my pleasant surprise, has been making it significantly easier for me to do so.