Written by Barry Trivers and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Gerd Oswald
In the early years of television, especially throughout the 1950’s, it was thought that all programs had to be happy and upbeat. There were no dramas of the likes we see today, that are serious with personal and family crises and tackle topical issues. If someone left a show, they pretty much disappeared with no explanation, rather than having an elaborate death and send-off.
Science fiction was one venue for stories that made inroads into this area. Under this setting, shows managed to tackle issues that other shows couldn’t due to the network censors and sponsors. One show that did this very well was Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. He tackled issues no one else could or would, and very successfully.
The original Star Trek series was groundbreaking in this area as well, tackling such 60’s taboos such as racism and the Vietnam War. In this episode, the topic of what should be done about those who staffed the Nazi concentration camps and presided over the atrocities is visited.
The Enterprise has altered its course to Earth colony Planet Q under the guise of learning about a new food concentrate that could end famine forever. When they arrive, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) meets with an old friend, Dr. Thomas Leighton (portrayed by William Sargent), who states he has found “Kodos the Executioner” posing as an Anton Karidia (portrayed by Arnold Moss), the leader of a traveling troupe of actors. Kodos was the governor of the planet Tarsus IV during a severe food shortage. He declared martial law, and had half of the colony’s population executed in order to save the other half. Only Dr. Leighton, Kirk, and a few others who know what Kodos looked like remain alive.
As Kirk watched the acting troupe perform, he isn’t convinced. Kirk befriends Lenore (portrayed by Barbara Anderson), who is the daughter of Anton Karidia. The two are out for a walk when they find Leighton’s body.
Lenore asks Kirk if they can transport the troupe who finds themselves stranded. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) does some research and ties deaths of any witnesses who could still identify Kodos to the theatrical troupe. They’re alarmed since the only two now left alive are on the Enterprise. Besides Kirk, Lt. Kevin Riley (portrayed by Bruce Hyde) was a child who witnessed his parents executed along with others on Tarsus IV.
Kirk agrees to transport the troupe; his real motive to discover the truth behind the troupe and if Anton Karidia is really Kodos. When Riley turns up poisoned – but still alive – it seems to affirm what Dr. Leighton alleged. Riley is restricted to sickbay, but overhears McCoy’s log entry about the possibility that Karidia is Kodos and sets out to kill the man he now believes murdered his father and mother.
Conscience of the King is great on so many levels. The story is one that was still in people’s minds back in 1966, only twenty years removed from the second World War. Though it may seem ancient now, stories of guards and staff at concentration camps masquerading as others to live out their lives were a hot topic. Writer Barry Trivers does a great job telling the story without being preachy and fitting it to the characters in the series. He builds nicely on the MacBeth theme that’s depicted in the beginning, and blends that with that social issue.
The acting is top-notch. Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) trade friendly jabs and are at ease with each other so much so that it’s easy to believe they are long-time friends. Spock is somewhat crabby and out of character from the detached character fans know so well, but Nimoy does a terrific job. Nichelle Nichols as Uhura gets to show off her singing ability and it’s a sheer joy to watch. The scenes between the crew really felt no different than any other scenes I’ve viewed that took place in a military unit.
The pacing misses a bit. Director Gerd Oswald doesn’t seem to pick up the pace enough and lets the story bog down a few times. It’s nothing horrible, and I have no problem paying attention to this story even after all of the repeated viewings in my youth.
There’s not much in the way of special effects here. It’s definitely a character-driven piece and does very well by tying in the guest cast to the crew fans have gotten to know over the course of the season so far. Those looking for spaceship battles and lots of action might want to skip this one. However, if you can appreciate great storytelling, this is a must-see.
4 1/2 stars.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Menagerie
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Balance of Terror