Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Conscience Of The King

This week Star Trek does Shakespeare as Kirk begins to suspect the actor Anton Karidian may in fact be the mass-murderer Kodos the Executioner, ruthless ex-governor of Tarsus IV. Twenty years ago during a famine Kodos ordered the execution of 4000 people according to his own theories of eugenics so another 4000 might live. Kirk is one of the few remaining eye-witnesses. However, it's not enough for Karidian to be a Shakespearean actor. The script writer has to show off his fancy book-larnin by cramming in references to as many Shakespeare plays as possible. So Kirk dithers like Hamlet. Kodos' daughter goes mad like Ophelia. A troop of actors perform a play which leads to a character's crimes being revealed. Extracts are performed from Macbeth and Hamlet. And, endless lines of Shakespeare are quoted. The Conscience Of The King's closest relative is an episode of Doctor Who called Timelash where H.G. Wells meets a woman called Vena, and is taken in the TARDIS, a time machine, to a planet where he sees a war of the worlds, and a character turns invisible, and there are monsters called the Morlox, and the head baddie is a hybrid of man and animal. In short, the impression is more thought has been given to the references than the script.

It's the characterisation of Kirk which really grates. Twelve episodes have established the qualities required to be a starship captain. Indecisiveness has not been one of them. The Conscience Of The King replaces the decision making machine of The Corbomite Maneuver with a Kirk who has to be absolutely certain of Kodos' identity before he will take any action. To the extent that Kirk remains unwilling to accuse Karidian of being Kodos even after an overt attempt on his life with an overloading phaser.

In isolation the addition of self-doubt and uncertainty to Kirk's character is an interesting idea. A writer should always be able to bring new elements to a character to alter or redefine their behaviour. Look at Londo Mollari going from stock jolly drunk to embittered Emperor in Babylon 5, or Dana Scully's Catholic faith in The X-Files. Unfortunately writer Barry Trivers gives us nothing to explain this sudden and fundamental change in Kirk. Nothing, at least beyond, this week Star Trek does Shakespeare and Kirk is Hamlet. We know Kirk was on Tarsus IV during the massacre but simply being there is not reason enough. What did he see? What did he do? How did he react? Whose side was he on? Even Kirk's relationship with Thomas Leighton, the man who tricks him into coming three light years out of his way and brings Karidian to his attention, is unclear. They're probably friends, at least acquaintances, because Kirk appears willing to doctor his logs to conceal Leighton's use of false information to divert a starship but whether they were childhood friends, met on Tarsus IV, or on an evacuation ship, or at the five year survivors reunion is never stated. Half of Leighton's head is covered in a black mask which makes him look like Travis, the mad Space Commander from Blake's 7. We're not even told if Leighton's experience on Tarsus IV is responsible for this. The direction leads us to assume it is, the mask is revealed when Leighton, talking about Kodos, turns full face to the camera on the line, “the bloody thing he did” but this could just be the director looking to add visual interest to a wordy scene. Meanwhile we know precisely why Lieutenant Riley (in a nice touch of continuity they reuse the actor from The Naked Time) wants to kill Karidian. It's to avenge the deaths of his parents. Something has gone badly wrong when a returning bit part character has more clearly developed motives than the lead. 

There should be one very obvious explanation for Kirk's hesitation. His growing love for Karidian's daughter Lenore. Kirk's interest starts out as a cynical attempt to get closer to Karidian but grows into something more real. The lumpen pacing of the script undercuts the believability of this relationship when Lenore disappears offscreen for 16 minutes; effectively one complete act. How well do you think Romeo and Juliet would have worked if Juliet disappeared off-stage for a quarter of the play? Twenty minutes in Lenore and Kirk go on an excruciating date (sample dialogue, “all this...and power too. Caesar of the stars. And Cleopatra to worship him.”) and then she vanishes until just after Kirk confronts Karidian, and tells him,” there's a stain of cruelty on your shining armour, captain.”

Another stain, so to speak, is the surprisingly bloody moment right at the top of the episode when we see Karidian as Macbeth murdering King Duncan. It nicely demonstrates the insane contradictions of network standards and practices at the time. The knife can be covered in blood, and Macbeth's hands covered in gore, apparently because within the context of Star Trek this is a fake death on stage. However the death of Karidian at the end of the episode must be clean and blood free because, within the context of Star Trek, this is a real death; and real deaths must not distress the audience.

The episode briefly comes to life when Lenore places an overloading phaser in Kirk's quarters. Good use of music, the rising tone of the phaser, the red alert siren, and some taut editing make this scene tense. And provides some evidence that the relationship between Kirk and Lenore went beyond the closed-mouth kiss we see at the end of their date. To hide the phaser Lenore must have been in Kirk's cabin and whatever went on may account for the slightly queasy expression on his face when Lenore goes mad after accidentally killing her father.

Unfortunately while trying to show just how mad Lenore has become there's an unbelievably cheesy extreme close-up of Lenore's face. Her eyes are wide and staring, her eyelashes immaculately brushed and curled, and two pin-points of light reflect on her pupils. It just looks silly and is not helped by the floaty, halting, high-pitched voice the actress playing Lenore uses to deliver her lines. That said, the moment immediately afterwards as Kirk moves to disarm her, and her voice drops, and she gestures with the phaser and says, “I know how to use this, captain” is surprisingly effective and makes me wonder what she could have done with a better script. 

If I'm going to complain about the generally poor and boring script then I need to praise it when it gets things right. There is a single scene where McCoy and Spock -who haven't been trusted by Kirk with his suspicions, again for some unexplained reason- confront Kirk with what they have worked out. Gene Roddenberry often talked about setting the three characters up as aspects of the same personality; Spock as logic, McCoy as emotion, and Kirk as the pragmatist balancing the two. Here that concept is demonstrated amazingly well. Spock is the logical voice telling Kirk he knows Karidian is guilty. McCoy is the nagging doubt, asking the captain if he is sure, and anyway what will he do if Karisian is Kodos; what sort of justice do 4000 victims deserve? It takes the conflict Kirk feels and verbalises it so we know how Kirk feels even if we don't know why. Three characters talking on-screen represent one person arguing with himself. The best scene in the story is one with no references to Shakespeare.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Lieutenant Riley another witness to Kodos' massacre is poisoned but he recovers.
Running total: 19

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