First in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
Justice or vengeance? | “The Conscience of the King” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 1, Episode 13 | December 1966
Alone in his quarters, in “The Conscience of the King,” Kirk sits — literally – in judgment on the itinerant Shakespearean actor Karidian, who may or may not be Kodos “the Executioner,” a colony governor responsible for the massacre of thousands, including members of Kirk’s family, on the planet Tarsus IV two decades earlier. As a victim of Kodos’ crime, Kirk wants revenge. But as a Starfleet captain, Kirk cannot act unless he is certain that Karidian is indeed Kodos — and there is no way to know that for sure.
When Spock and McCoy arrive, the scene’s blocking and design speak volumes. Normally, Spock and McCoy serve as Kirk’s moral sounding board, on the bridge — but strongly tempted to make this judgment alone, he has retreated to his cabin. There is a certain physical separation in the scene which mirrors Kirk’s emotional separation. Kirk wears command yellow, and his desk and wall art share that palette; McCoy and Spock wear subordinate blue, and the lighting around them is blue as well. Hell, there is even a red line (formed by a screen) between him and them. Kirk has backed himself into a corner — again, literally. His role as captain demands that he rise above personal pettiness; but without the raised dais of his bridge command chair, he looks small — he is human, all too human.
With McCoy holding position on Kirk’s left, Spock rounds Kirk’s desk and takes up his usual position at Kirk’s right hand. His friends have surrounded him, in a manner both confrontational and supportive, and the petty Kirk lashes out. He pulls rank on Spock (“Aren’t you getting a little out of line?”), cuts off McCoy. But he’s out of his chair, now — no longer petty, no longer sitting in lonely judgment. Once on equal footing with Spock and McCoy, his anger subsides. McCoy asks him, “Are you sure it’s not vengeance?” and Kirk’s voice is no longer peremptory as he answers: “No, I’m not sure. I wish I was.”
Here is the crux of the scene, and of the episode. A leader is supposed to be a “man of decision” (as Karidian — who, as Kodos, ordered thousands of colonists executed in a wrong-headed effort to avert the starvation of the entire colony, will claim), yet Kirk is indecisive. The suspiciousness of the timing between Kodos’ disappearance and Karidian’s appearance, not to mention the fact that everyone surviving witness to Kodos’ crime has died in mysterious circumstances when Karidian’s troupe was in the area, may be enough for Spock and everyone else. But it’s not enough for Kirk — not if it means condemning a man to death. This is where the differences between Kodos and Kirk ultimately lie: in Kirk’s willingness to acknowledge that he might be wrong, and in his belief that one must be absolutely certain before ending the life of another human being.
Kodos, a leader who lacked these qualities, was a monster. Kirk, however, is a man.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker