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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.13 Theatre Of Blood

The Conscience Of The King

Lenore, packing heat.
"Get WHO to a nunnery?"

A play within a play, within a box.

"All The World's A Stage..."

It’s difficult to get anywhere with “The Conscience of the King” without thinking in terms of theatre and the nature of performance. This is clear enough in the episode’s entanglement with Shakespeare, and the fact Kodos is playing a role which requires him to play other roles. There’s a more general truth here as well, though. Among the many ways in which The Original Series is unique, there’s the fact it’s the only Trek show to star actors who were born before the first broadcast of televised fiction.

This is not a trivial point. Even the youngest member of this season’s main cast (George Takei, born in 1937) came into a world in which the concept of television drama essentially didn’t exist (unless you want to count The Television Ghost). You could catch the occasional stage or radio play adapted for the (extremely) small screen, if you were lucky enough to have a television and lucky enough to live near a station that happened to broadcast it, but that was about all you could hope for. And even were you to catch a broadcast, you had no way of seeing it again. The TV shows of the 1930s were as ephemeral as the waves upon which they were carried.

This meant the stars of Star Trek grew up in a world in which television fiction existed predominantly as some awkward additional vector for the presentation of theatre – an experience neither as engrossing as witnessing a performance directly in front of you, nor one which could match even a modest Broadway run in terms of total audience figures. A TV part might help a jobbing actor out in-between plays, but it would be a rare professional performer who would see it as an end in itself.

Simultaneously – and perhaps linked – it took quite some time for American television to realise the potential for broadcasting fiction of a kind that would provide steady work for a performer. While records are patchy, it might not have been until 1945 that the first mini-series was broadcast, and it took another three years for shows we might recognise as having seasons hit the airwaves. Even then, they were anthology shows, offering a regular gig for at most one person to act as narrator/presenter.

All of which is to say that in the mid ’60s, any US TV show featuring anything but the youngest of actors would have a cast packed with people who came up through the theatre scene, with any time they’d spent in front of a camera massively outweighed by their hours on stage. Shatner himself trained as a Shakespearean actor, and had a solid base of theatre work to his name by the time of his TV debut - itself an adaptation of a stage play.

And here’s the thing. Television acting and theatre acting are not interchangeable. This is pretty obvious, when you think about it – the level of voice projection and exaggerated body movements necessary to make oneself understandable on stage look ludicrously overblown on the small screen. Just as happened in the early days of film, it took effort for stage actors to tamp down their natural inclinations to “over-act” while on the television lot. I think much of what is dismissed as “scenery-chewing” in ’60s television can be put down to this, in fact. You can’t expect a great theatre actor to nail television any more than you can expect a great novelist to produce decent comics. This is probably even more true when it comes to Shakespeare, which often requires an additional level of over-expression to overcome the baroque nature of the text (how ironic then that Shakespeare himself slams such over-egging in Hamlet itself).

There’s a flipside to all this, however. It’s always possible to produce television that deliberately plays to theatrical impulses, rather than rubbing against them. “The Conscience Of The King” does just that, recognising that when you have an experienced Shakespearian actor leading your sci-fi drama, the obvious thing to do is hire another one, write a Shakespearian melodrama for them, and then set it in space.

And that’s exactly what we get here – a character study that slides inexorably toward tragedy (albeit for a rather complicated meaning of that word), with Arnold Moss as Kodos providing Shatner’s support. Moss indeed was also a Shakespearean actor – according to his Wikipedia entry, he played Prospero a record-breaking 124 times in a single run. It may be this similar but lengthier acting experience that allows Moss to upstage Shatner without out-hamming him. The results are utterly captivating, especially when Kirk’s need to be absolutely sure of Kodos’ identity runs up against Kodos’ weary refusal to accept that identity actually objectively exists in any case. But then, what else could you expect from a man pretending to be a man pretending to be another man whose job is to pretend to be other men?

It’s an absolutely brilliant performance, to the point where it wasn’t until my third time through that I realised Moss is only in three scenes here. Add in a script that’s dense without being ponderous, and filled with meaty lines, and every weakness of letting theatre actors loose on the small screen becomes a strength.

The theatrical nature of the story is further underlined by its essential simplicity. Efforts are made to hide this through the number of sets used (why does Kirk bust Riley down to engineering, anyway?), but at heart this is a story about obsession, revenge, and the nature of identity, all taking place against a backdrop of murder and deception.

You know. Just like Hamlet.

“And One Man In His Time…”

It is not the Dane we open upon, though. The curtain raises instead on Macbeth. Their plays share more than a little DNA, of course. Both feature already powerful men seizing even more power through violence, and spending the rest of their life stricken by guilt. It’s not hard to see the relevance there; the teaser even ends with Kodos delivering the famous line: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”.

It’s not Kodos’ role in this play-within-a-play that’s most interesting, however. It isn’t even Lenore’s, though the fact she’s playing Lady Macbeth is surely a clue to how this story will eventually end. Instead, it’s the role taken by Dr Thomas Leighton, cast here as the accusing ghost, a spirit of vengeance that sits as witness to the ruler’s crimes, half his face covered as though with a funeral shroud. We don’t know this at the time, admittedly. But what we see and what Kodos sees are not the same thing. To Kodos, Leighton’s wounds, whilst covered, are staring straight at him from the audience, like Banquo at the banquet table (a scene in which Macbeth is performing a role as surely as Kodos is performing Macbeth here).

Did Kodos see Leighton, and recognise him? The early implication is that he does, in keeping with Macbeth, hence why Leighton is murdered. The episode’s resolution calls this into question, though. Perhaps, like Claudius, Kodos never sees the spectre of his victim.

Certainly, while “The Conscience Of The King” begins with Macbeth, it’s not long before it becomes Hamlet. Not as some dreary isomorphism, of course. There’s no this-is-now-this, that-now-becomes-that here. One can very roughly assign Kirk, Kodos, Lenore and Riley the roles of Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia and Laertes, respectively (with Bones and Spock as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, OBVIOUSLY), yes. But these costumes fit only loosely – and not just because all of those characters are dead by play’s end.

These parallels and reversals are worth considering in detail, the better to understand how Barry Trivers has constructed his neo-Shakespeare play. Of the four, Riley is probably closest to his theatrical equivalent. Both seek revenge for the deaths of their family, and both do so with a violent intensity which is then contrasted with the hyper-cautiousness of someone of higher rank. Indeed, in as much as Claudius is clearly indirectly responsible for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, Riley’s attempt to kill Kodos is almost indistinguishable from Laertes’ assault in Act IV.

The difference is, here it’s the man in Hamlet’s role who stops him.

“Conscience Does Make Cowards Of Us All”

So. Kirk as Hamlet. There’s no shortage of parallels to consider here. Having already cast Leighton as an accusing ghost [1]. it’s notable that he’s the one to inform Kirk of Karidian’s crimes, just as King Hamlet’s spirit identifies Claudius as a murderer. Then, after their respective visitations, both Hamlet and Kirk attempt to ascertain the truth of the matter through theatrical means – Hamlet via a play, Kirk through a dramatic reading. And both, upon receiving the proof they sought through such an approach, find themselves too riven with self-doubt to actually act on it, ultimately leading to Laertes/Riley being the one to force the issue amid more death than was necessary.

This leads us to one of the major differences between the two stories. In Hamlet the death of the ruler is explicitly the hero’s aim – the tragedy springs from the fact that Hamlet’s particular mixture of indecision and rashness gets himself and at least three other people needlessly killed. In this episode, in contrast, Kirk’s prevarication can only really be said to result in one death (I don’t think it’d be fair to blame him for Leighton’s murder), that of the cruel ruler himself.

And yet this is still sold as a tragedy, despite the facts that a) Kodos was a mass-murderer who’d escaped justice for two decades and b) had no-one in Hamlet died but Claudius it would surely have been considered a happy ending. In part this simply represents a shift in attitudes – it’s no longer generally considered justice to gun a (white) man down in public without trial, however heinous their crimes (consider that this episode was filmed fewer than three years after Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald).

There is though a second, more powerful flavour to the tragedy – the bitter tang of Lenore.

“Frailty, Thy Name Is Woman”

Lenore is an interesting choice of name. It’s probably most familiar as the name of the narrator’s dead wife in “The Raven” (or a British detergent, I guess). That’s not the only time Poe used it, though. There’s also an eponymous poem, which ranks among Poe’s most positive and least macabre pieces (relatively speaking). Certainly, it’s less spoop-orientated than “The Raven”. There’s also an 18th century poem by German writer Gottfried August Burger, also named “Lenore”, which is about a woman who finds her love returned from war, only to discover he is Death in disguise. That’s a lot of cultural signifiers – a surfeit of death and duality – even before we get to the fact that “Elsinore” is an anagram of “is Lenore”, placing Lenore as a central part of this Hamlet-flavoured narrative that Ophelia was most certainly denied in the original.

Rewriting Hamlet to make Ophelia the daughter of Claudius offers up a lot of possibilities. Most trivially, it combines the roles of Claudius and Polonius, which gives a human dimension to the episode’s ending, making it more than simply a mass-murdering eugenicist getting his comeuppance. Perhaps more importantly, it gives her both a role and a stake in Kirk’s investigation, rather than simply passively being used, like Ophelia. This is fairly important, insofar as Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia is utterly disgusting. It’s been said that Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his inability to take action. That may well be true, in the sense the term is meant. Surely though a bigger actual flaw in Hamlet is his willingness to use his (as he believes it) feigned madness as cover for being a sexual harasser and all-around arsehole.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Act III, Scene 1, when Hamlet treats Ophelia with such unfiltered, buzzing cruelty I lost sympathy for him completely. Hamlet’s abuse is not completely without purpose, true – he’s hoping his objectionable behaviour will draw out the hidden listeners who are in fact there – but that excuses neither the cruelty of his approach, nor the degree to which the play is happy for Ophelia to be denied agency.

Kirk’s treatment of Lenore is superficially similar, though his cruelty is limited to leading Lenore on (as Hamlet once led Ophelia on, if we can believe Laertes). This too is done tactically, in the hope of gaining information on Lenore’s father, and this too is presented as nevertheless problematic (other than by McCoy, who’s unusually poorly written this week). Indeed, despite Kirk’s crimes in this regard being far lesser than Hamlet’s, Lenore is granted the more effective criticism of her treatment – “Who are you to say what harm was done?” – and the swipe is allowed to hit home far harder than any objection of Ophelia’s.

What’s more important, though, is the increase in agency. While Ophelia was simply deployed as a pawn by Claudius and Polonius, Lenore gets to play her own game. While Kirk uses her, she uses him, and all the more effectively because she knows what he’s after. And Lenore isn’t just winning their game in the early stages, she’s revelling in it, to the point where she deliberately leads him to the body of the man she just murdered. Not that this is simply gloating alone. By seemingly stumbling over Leighton’s body Lenore raises Kirk’s suspicions just enough to have him manipulate events to get the players onto his ship (and thereby put Lenore in striking distance of Kirk and Riley), but not so much that she’s implicated. How could so naive a woman, barely out of her teens, be involved in murder, after all? Ophelia is a target for Hamlet’s outrageous misogyny. Ophelia takes Kirk’s comparatively subtle sexism and turns it against him.

Not everything changes. Just as with Ophelia, Lenore’s story also ends in madness (a similarity heightened by Lenore being in her Ophelia costume at the time). This remains a problem. As my partner pointed out when we watched this episode together, the cleverness of making Lenore the murderer doesn’t actually wash away the bad taste of seeing yet another female character turn out to be a) treacherous, and b) “crazy”. Improving a problematic character in some respects does not give one a free pass for those problems you allow to remain. Or even aggravate, in that Ophelia’s madness at least finds itself a mirror in Hamlet’s own (which clearly wasn’t as feigned as the prince himself believed), something that can’t be said of Kirk.

The reverse is also true, however. Lenore is an obvious and material improvement upon Ophelia, even if not every issue is dealt with, and even if the additional agency she is given is ultimately villainous. If, indeed, it is. In the context of Hamlet, how much distinction exists between killing to avenge your father, and killing to protect him? I suggested above that there is some significance to Lenore playing Lady Macbeth in the opening scene, but in truth that does Lenore a disservice. She’s not killing for power. She’s killing to protect her family.

There is another important difference between Lenore and Lady Macbeth: in Macbeth the murderous ruler knows full well what his wife is up to. Here, Kodos is completely ignorant of the actions of his daughter. This not only cranks up the pathos one more notch, it underlines another theme which the episode has borrowed from Hamlet: how the crimes of one generation can unknowingly beget those of the next.

“Nothing Bad Or Good, But Thinking Make It So”

Since we’ve moved into discussing him in any case, let’s end this piece with a look at Kodos. The king whose conscience we are invited to consider. Well, not the only one. Kirk too can be considered a form of king – a man whose word is absolute on his own territory, and who is almost impossible for those below to remove from power (we’ll return to this idea later in the season). His conscience likewise is under the magnifying glass – the attempted murder of Riley and the death of Kodos can both be partially attributed to him, and he might even feel the same way about Leighton. Plus there’s that whole thing about using Lenore as a “tool”.

None of that can fairly compare to the execution of more than 4000 innocent people, though. It’s clear that it’s Kodos’ conscience we should be most concerned with here – a concern we are permitted to have for so obvious a monster by the fact those who survived his reign of terror are also allowed to have their say, and because Kodos himself is given so little screen time (for all that Moss absolutely dominates every second he spends in front of the camera). Plus the fact he’s fictional, natch.

Kodos’ approach to living with what he has done is two-pronged. By taking a new identity which itself requires taking on new identities, he has distanced himself from the person he once was – to the point where he sounds entirely genuine when talking about Kodos in the past tense. At the same time, however, he’s built up a fierce defence of Kodos, resulting in him angrily arguing on behalf of a man he refuses to any longer see as himself. In doing so, he’s conveniently re-written the actual charge against him – it’s not that he decided there was only enough food to keep half the colony alive until rescue came, it’s that his choice of who survived was based on his own preference, based on horrifying eugenicist nonsense. In any case, his third-person justifications seem less interesting than the fact the combination of refusing to accept Kodos’ identity with needing to defend Kodos’ actions does the exact opposite of making him seem innocent.

Not that he seems to care. Kodos is frank about the fact he has grown tired of his life, and that – aside from his daughter – the only thing he has left to be grateful for is the fact his memory is fading. To the extent Kodos parallels Claudius, it’s as some hypothetical Claudius who has had decades to be hollowed out by the guilt of his crime.

Perhaps this is why, come Kodos’ final performance, he plays the role not of Claudius, but King Hamlet’s ghost. He yearns for an end that will put him beyond responsibility for the crimes he committed in life, even at the same time as the last twenty years have rendered Kodos as something of a ghost to himself. It’s this that provides the episode with its final irony, as Lenore’s insistence that “All the ghosts are dead!” foreshadows her own father’s death just minutes later.

And so the ghosts of Tantus IV really do pass. Kirk has his answer, and Riley – after a fashion – his vengeance. Kodos the Executioner, like fratricidal Claudius before him, is finally dead. The rest is silence.

Except actually, it’s anything but. At this point, the word was out. Star Trek is a show with so great a potential that not only can it comfortably encompass Shakespeare, it can find ways to improve on it. That’s so great an achievement, it must have been almost impossible at the time to believe there was any way to go but down.

And then “Balance Of Terror” happened.

[1] Which makes sense, given the link between ghosts and masks offered both at the end of the episode – indeed, given his half-mask, one might call him the Phantom of the Planet Q Playhouse.

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