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Episode 13 – TOS 1×13: “The Conscience of the King”

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Somewhere, some former Star Trek writer is still riding the triumph of putting their English degree to such expansive use, because this episode may have the most Shakespeare references of any single episode of the Original Series. And that’s not just because this episode’s themes are based on not one, but two Shakespeare plays; it also contains two Shakespeare plays. Macbeth and Hamlet are both performed, at least in part, within this episode. It’s so meta it hurts my head, and I have an English degree. Predictably, it’s also one of my favourite episodes of TOS.

This episode is about Kirk’s manpain, and I say that without derision: this episode is legit about a traumatic childhood experience, specifically 13-year-old James Kirk (and crewman Kevin Riley, who you may remember as the warbling descendant of Irish Kings from The Naked Time) witnessing the Tarsus IV massacre, arguably one of the most discussed and debated events in Star Trek canon (by which we mean that the episode is rife with easily-fixable inconsistencies and there are no satisfactory answers within canon, leaving fans to speculate wildly).

Despite its problems, it does a good job of striking the emotional notes, particularly Kirk’s struggle with the obvious-to-everyone-else truth – is this travelling actor really the mass murderer Kodos, who ordered 4,000 innocent colonists executed in order to save the more “desirable” 4,000 from starvation?

This episode was disliked by the network for being too verbose, but everybody has some great lines in this episode, most delivered in some exceptionally pretty, appropriately Shakespearean prose. It also leaves us thinking: How reliable is memory? Is justice more desirable than revenge, and is revenge justifiable in the face of true evil? Is it even remotely possible to use the word “eugenics” without invoking Nazis? Does this episode have more holes in it than the secure perimeter of the Neutral Zone?

The answer to all of these questions (except for the last one, which is a definitive yes) is… we don’t know, really. They’re mostly unanswerables, which are mostly posed rhetorically within the body of an episode that casts James Kirk as Hamlet and his childhood nightmare, Kodos the Executioner, as Macbeth, which sounds like a piece of fusion fanfiction but I swear, mostly works as an episode… as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Trust your headcanon. Focus on the feels. Trust us: you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

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