Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "Conscience Of The King" / "Balance Of Terror"

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Looks like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it.
Macbeth, Act I, Scene v

One of the best parts about revisiting the original Trek, at least for me, is rediscovering the episodes that I'd forgotten. Memory-wise, it's the alien-heavy stuff that tends to stick in the mind, like the Gorn and the Horta and the freaky midget Clint Howard thing. And of course I remember the iconic eps, they one everybody remembers—once you've seen, say, "City On The Edge Of Forever," you won't be forgetting it any time soon. But a good number of TOS episodes rely more on transplanting standard dramatic tropes into a science fiction environment than they do on innovation alone. The week's first episode, "Conscience Of The King," takes a familiar story—the stranger who may or may not be a criminal from our hero's past—and adapts it for the needs of the series. To the bad, this means some awkward juggling with technology to keep the plot going; to the good (and it's mostly good), we get Kirk at his most conflicted and some nifty Shakespearean allusions.

"King" opens with King Duncan's murder in Macbeth. Kirk and a someone whose name we'll get after the opening titles are watching the play, and that someone insists that Kirk pay very close attention to the lead actor. It's not just any old man up there, reciting the classics in a booming voice—that's a very bad guy. Kirk demures, but our someone insists. The man playing Macbeth is none other than Kodos the Executioner!

Okay, here's where pop culture turns around to bite us on the ass. While TOS was there first, the name "Kodos" has a very different meaning for anyone who didn't see this episode when it originally aired. It's not a total mood-killer, but if you've caught a "Treehouse Of Terror" episode of The Simpsons, you're going to have a definite idea of what "Kodos" should look like. As such, the stinger on the cold open, which should have you thinking, "Oh my god! Who's that?" instead has you wondering if there's a giant green one-eyed squid thing hiding behind the old guy on stage in the silly costume.

Moving along—the someone making the accusations is Dr. Tom Leighton, who lied about inventing a synthetic food in order to get Kirk and his ship in orbit. (Kirk's resignation here is sort of hilarious considering what went down last week; he's gotta be wondering if he should just never answer the space phone again.) Now that Kirk's beamed down and seen "Kodos" for himself, Leighton wants the captain to take action. The Executioner was, apparently, not given the title for his aptitude with computer programs; while governor of Tarsus IV, Kodos had half of the planet's population killed. He also mucked up one half of Leighton's face. Again, I question the efficacy of the medical technology of the time, since Leighton's wandering around with a black mask over his wound that looks like it was made of velvet from a Big Lots. But the visual makes its point, and given Leighton's vehemence, I could imagine him choosing to leave the injury on display as a constant reminder of what had been done to him.

Leighton's convinced the actor, who goes by the name Anton Karidian, is the real deal, but Kirk has his doubts. Kodos is supposed to be dead, and it's been twenty years since Tarsus IV. The enormity of the man's crime is such that it demands absolute proof before going forward, proof that Leighton, despite having been one of only a handful of people left alive who'd seen Kodos face to face (well, face to some face), can't give. Still, Kirk has his wind up, and he can't let go of things until he knows for sure one way or the other. He does some research on the Enterprise refreshing himself on Kodos's crimes, and here's where the tech stuff gets tricky; the eye-witnesses are very important to the storyline as things develop, but there's also a clear photo of Kodos in the data banks. We also find later that there are recordings of Kodos's voice on file. So why do the eye-witnesses matter?

For one, it gives the bad guy someone to murder, but on a structural level, I think we're dealing with a plotline originally suited for a Western or anything in the pre-computer era. Without the files on Kodos, the witnesses become the only people who can bring him to justice; with the files, they're not all that necessary. Evidence can be faked, but then, witnesses can lie, and it's been twenty years. To go along with "King," you have to accept the basic premise that without the witnesses around, Kodos (aka, Karidian)(um, spoilers, I guess) will be scot free. It takes some swallowing. Thankfully, the rest of the ep is strong enough that you don't mind the taste. (I should probably apologize for that metaphor.)

After his research, Kirk returns to the planet to attend a dinnery party at the Leighton's with Karidian's acting troupe. It's during the party that Kirk first meets Lenore, Karidian's 19 year old daughter. He immediately puts the moves on her. Ostensibly it's because he wants to know more about Karidian, and he does ask her a few questions—questions which she artfully dodges—but it's clear his interest goes beyond professional; hell, she's blonde and willing, and our captain isn't made of steel or anything. For me, their relationship is the weakest part of the episode. "King" has two emotional through-lines: Kirk's need to know, and the way his feelings for Lenore confuses that need. The fact that Lenore doesn't seem all that deserving of his attention somewhat hampers the second part. She's not unlikeable, but personality wise, she's mostly just vacant glances and vapid poetry. When we get the third act reveal that she's crazy, it's not really shocking, but she doesn't have the sort of crazy-chick charisma that would've explained Kirk's fascination.

Back to the party—Kirk and Lenore go for a walk, and just happen to come across Leighton's corpse. (Given what we eventually learn about Lenore, did she intentionally bring Kirk here?) This is about as red as flags get, so Kirk decides to take action; he arranges for the Enterprise to transport the entire troupe to their next gig, presumably to give himself more time to make his decision. Spock senses something is up, and gets even more suspicious when Kirk has Kevin Riley busted down to Engineering for no obvious reason. He does his own research, and finds out that Riley is one of the last of the Kodos witnesses; and so is Captain Kirk.

Things proceed, with Kirk pumping (heh) Lenore for information and Spock talking his concerns over with McCoy. Riley gets poisoned (before which, we get another one of Uhura's numbers; terrible song, but she has a nice voice, and given the little Nichelle Nichols gets to do on the Enterprise when she isn't singing, I won't begrudge her the moment), but thankfully (?!) McCoy manages to save him. At this point, you'd assume there wouldn't be a doubt left in Kirk's head as to Karidian's identity, but he's still struggling. This makes for a clever nod to Hamlet (another hero who couldn't make up his damn mind), but if that were the only reason, it wouldn't be worth the time we spend on it. Fortunately, it also makes sense character-wise. Kodos is such a monster, and Kirk's need for revenge so intense, that he becomes overy cautious for the simple fact that he can no longer trust his own objectivity. It isn't that he wants Karidian to be innocent—it's because he wants him to be guilty that he has to be beyond positive before he can make his move.

I like that, and I appreciate that it's something you have to figure out for yourself. Also interesting is Karidian himself; he only gets one big scene with Kirk before the end, but it's a good one. There was a certain level of ambiguity to Kodos's massacre—Tarsus IV had a food shortage, and by killing half the population, the governor saved the half that was left from starvation. But he chose who lived and who died, which is always suspicious, and the food shipments arrived earlier than expected, making the deaths meaningless. I would've liked a little more time spent on Karidian and a little less time spent hearing Lenore talk about the stars (and women); he doesn't explicitly deny his identity, and there's a sense that the guilt of his actions weighs heavy on his shoulders. That sort of thing is always fun.

It all comes to a head, as these things so often do, with a production of Hamlet put on for the entire crew of the Enterprise. Recovering in Sick Bay, Riley gets wind that Kodos is on board and sneaks back stage, phaser in hand; Kirk is able to talk him out of it at the last minute, leaving the captain back stage when Lenore and Karidian have their final, relevatory chat. While Karidian is definitely Kodos, it's Lenore who's been doing the dirty work lately, all without her daddy's knowledge, and contrary to expectations, he's not happy at the news. (Another factor that should've tipped off the authorities long ago: witnesses have been dropping like flies, and whenever one of them kicked off, Kodos's troup was always nearby. Given that there were only eight or nine witnesses all told, surely someone would've noticed the connection?) See, Karidian's been trying to put some distance between himself and his guilt, and Lenore represented the one thing he'd accomplished that was comparatively innocent; but now that's all gone to hell, since not only is Lenore a murderer, she's a nutjob to boot. She threatens Kirk with a phaser, and launches into a semi-poetic speech about a "tomb in space"—but when she tries to kill Kirk, Kodos blocks the way, and down he goes.

That the plot of "King" could be translated with a minimum of fuss to, say, an episode of Gunsmoke isn't meant as a knock against it. After all, we are trafficking in Shakespeare here, and a certain universality is to be expected. It works to the ep's benefit, really—there's something here that you can connect to that lends all the futuristic trappings weight. Re-watching it, I found myself wondering most about the stuff around the edges; about what drove Lenore so thoroughly out of her mind, and just how Kirk managed to be one of those few witnesses back on Tarsus IV. That's always a good sign. Given the great Spock/McCoy dynamic we see in their scenes together, and some very credible acting from Shatner (given the weird vibe he gave off during "Miri," he was actually quite charming with Lenore), I'd saw this one ranks fairly high.

Not quite as high as "Balance of Terror," of course, but that's no mark against "King"; "Terror" is one of TOS's strongest, introducing us to a new alien race, as well as providing us with a very important piece of Trek mythology. We've also got the first appearance of Mark Lenard on the show, who would ultimately wind up as Spock's father, Sarek, in the second season. "Terror" is basically fifty minute battle between Kirk and Leonard's never named Romulan Commander, and for the majority of those minutes, the tension never flags. It's the series playing to its strengths—likeable characters in tough situations, and with no easy answer in sight.

A tip for couples: if you plan on getting married while you're a character on a television program, always make sure the marriage happens at the end of the episode. Sure, that doesn't leave you completely protected—there's always the dreaded two-parter to mess with your matrimonial bliss next week. But getting hitched in the cold open is asking for bad news. Dramatic law dictates things change, and if you start with the happiest moment of your life, it's only bound to go downhill from there. Even worse is when the episode you're in has some good old fashioned ultra-violence—writers are always looking for pathos-inducing victims, and there's nothing quite so tragic as bumping off a newlywed. (Or, in this case, a nearlywed.) You're better off just getting hitched in secret. At least that way no one will use you as a reminder to the audience of the cost of war.

Too bad Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson don't know this. Or maybe they do, but they're just too much in lurve to care. "Balance" starts with their wedding, Kirk officiating, and here we see what the ceremony would look like on the Enterprise; apparently, it would look a lot like any other gathering of crew-members, only Angela puts some feathers in her hair beforehand. (Aww, Scotty's giving her away!) Starfleet must have an incredibly strict dress code—everyone's in uniform, even the groom. Just as Kirk starts in with his speech, though, the ship goes to Red Alert. The Enterprise is in the middle of checking up on a series of Outpost Bases, and they've just got the word that Outpost 4 is under attack!

Here's the set-up: over a century ago before the time of "Balance," the human race bumped into the Romulans, war-like aliens that are sort of like Klingons, except the Klingons haven't been invented yet. There was an exceptionally nasty war, with no quarter given on either side, and at the end of it, the only way to establish a lasting peace was to create a Neutral Zone between our space and the Romulans'. (Given the way space works—it being both mind-bogglingly big and confusingly three-dimensional—you have to wonder how big the Zone is. We just see it as a thick line on a map, but wouldn't it have to be some kind of a circle? Or is this like that tape-through-the-apartment gag sitcoms use. Either way, somebody got screwed, because the bathroom can't be on two sides at once.) Neither race can enter Zone without it being considered an act of war, and Starfleet isn't taking any chances; hence the Outposts. Too bad they seem to have gotten in the habit of being blown up lately.

Oh, and there's one other thing; since there were no prisoners taken during the war, and no visual contact made between humans and Romulans, neither side has ever seen what the other side looks like.

As is generally the case with this kind of plot-metaphor (fear of the unknown again rears its probably-ugly-but-we-wouldn't-know-it head), you can go two ways with this. It's an absolute, and in real life, absolutes are decidedly rare commodoties. While the nature of space battles does cut down on the odds of stumbling across an enemy's corpse, practically speaking, it's hard to believe that a hundred years could go by without either race ever getting a glimpse of the other. The negotiations were made entirely over the radio? And in all the time since, nobody's tried to make contact? Given that the Outposts—and there are a lot of them—have been operating for decades now, that means there's been a substantial investment of time and money without any real attempts to resolve the situation.

But I guess that's not that unusual. And it does work with what we were talking about way back in the first episode; the way the inherent fragility of space travel dictates a different, more decesive approach to problem solving. For all its pretense towards civilized discourse, Starfleet is basically a very small light in a very large darkness. The main focus has to be keeping that light lit as long as possible, whatever the cost. Even putting that aside, the "unseen enemy" is still a nifty conceit, and the pay-off—that the Romulans are actually an off-shoot of Vulcan-blood, which makes our Helmsman of the Week, Mr. Stiles, not all that fond of Mr. Spock—is worth a little suspension of disbelief.

Kirk and crew quickly learn that the destroyed Outposts were blown to bits by a Romulan Bird of Prey, a ship with weapons that outclass anything Starfleet has going, and a cloaking device that makes it a lot harder to track in open space. The Enterprise finds a way, of course, but the Bird is headed home, across the Zone, and that puts Kirk in a tricky position. If he follows, he risks putting his ship in danger and, if he fails to destroy the BoP, inciting a war. But the Romulans themselves have already opened the door on the the latter, and giving up now would look like weakness. McCoy preaches peace, but Kirk, being Kirk, takes the gamble: hunt the BoP down and destroy it before report back to Romolus that humankind is ripe for conquering.

Again we see old-fashioned plotting repurposed for a futurist environment, as the back and forth that ensues here is more a submarine hunt than a battle between the stars; there's a great line in Wrath of Kahn where Spock comments on Kahn's "two-dimensional" strategizing, but in "Balance" both commanders seem incapable of taking full advantage of the scope of the field they're playing in. You can chalk that up to the effects available at the time of filming, though, and it's a small allowance to make. Besides, the submarine is a decent metaphor for a starship; the environment it moves through is a largely hostile one, and you can't rely on visually acquiring the target before you start firing. (There's a terrific moment here when the Enterprise cuts down all non-essential functions in order to go "silent." It may be pushing the metaphor too far—I can understand shutting down equipment, but surely the whispering is unnecessary—but it works nonetheless.) The stakes are very high here, and watching Kirk out-manuever his enemy, even to the point of earning that enemy's respect, is very cool. 

In addition to the battle, there's also the little morality play that develops between HotW Stiles and Mr. Spock. Apparently being a helmsman on the Enterprise is one of the highest pressure jobs around, or else Kirk likes to promote people who have story-specific vulnerable points; Stiles lost family in the original Romulan-Human war, and he's looking for blood. After the reveal that the Romulans look just! like! Spock!, he's aiming his sights close to home. (Side note: Amazing that the Enterprise can get a visual of the Romulans' bridge without the Romulans knowing it, eh?) But when circumstances put Stiles life in danger, Spock saves him and gets the job done without breaking a sweat, showing Stiles the error of his ways. If only every minority could do the same. (I can respect economy of storytelling, but it's funny how Tomlinson gets himself killed during those same circumstances; Spock tells Stiles that he was just saving a "valuable" crew-member, so I wonder if Tomlinson, wedding plans aside, just wasn't as cost effective?) The plea for tolerance here is a little silly, but it doesn't detract from the main story, and it's nice that nobody but Stiles ever suspects Spock. I could imagine other shows trying to play up the drama, especially after Spock inadvertently breaks radio silence, but c'mon, this is Spock, the sanest man on the Enterprise. As he's already proven, if he was really working for the other side, who the hell could stop him?

By the end of "Balance," Kirk has his victory, the Romulan Commander has destroyed his own ship (after passing on the standard, "In another universe, we coulda been buddies, y'know?"), and poor Robert Tomlinson is dead. Life on the Enterprise goes on—like that small light in the big darkness, it's a fragile thing, and there's no promises everyone is going to make it through the full five year mission. But with Kirk at the helm, and Spock and McCoy at his side, at least the crew knows they'll go down fighting.

"Conscience Of The King": A-
"Balance Of Terror": A

Stray Observations:

  • I've been catching up on my Battlestar Galactica lately (only halfway through the second season, no spoilers plz), and it's nice to see that, dark as that show gets, the sense of family you get on the Enterprise is still going strong.
  • Kirk: "What were you twenty years ago?" Kodos: "Younger, Captain. Much younger."
  • Wow, the Romulan Commander's Centurion buddy has some—unfortunate make-up.
  • Next week, "Shore Leave" and "The Galileo Seven."