Seasons of Seasons: Star Trek Season 1, “The Conscience of the King” & “Balance of Terror”

One question inherent in any sci-fi property set in the distant future is how much of our current pop culture and traditions will survive. Will organized religion or secular holidays be remembered the same in 300 years, or will the creatives behind the scenes insert their own takes on how they may shift? It’s evident in both installments this week: with The Conscience of the King, it’s in the enduring appeal of Shakespeare and classical theater, and in Balance of Terror, it’s in the opening minutes as Kirk presides over a wedding ceremony.

I’ve heard through various Star Trek fans that the show would channel Shakespeare throughout the years, and it’s evident just in the first instance of it that Rodenberry was a fan of the Bard. The show has dealt with melodrama before, but The Conscience of the King feels like it was clearly influenced by one of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t expect so many episodes of the show to be centered on Kirk or one of the other crew members of the Enterprise succumbing to their horniness, but such is the case once again this week. Kirk quickly becomes infatuated with Lenore Karidian (Barbara Anderson), the daughter of Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss), a theater actor whose father may or may not be Kodos, a murderous dictator who slaughtered over four thousand people twenty years ago. The bulk of the episode centers around Kirk’s suspicion of Anton after some of the witnesses to Kodos’s crimes are mysteriously killed, and an attempt is made on Kirk’s life.

This is where the pacing issues that I brought up a few weeks ago come back again. The episode isn’t exactly plotless, with intriguing developments throughout its runtime, but I would argue it’s not enough to sustain the episode’s runtime. Part of the deal with episodic television is that the status quo must be maintained by the end of each installment, so I’m essentially conditioned to understand that any time a beautiful woman comes along to woo someone from the Enterprise, something will occur to keep her from returning again. Still, the third act reveal of the killer is well crafted and puts a nice button on the Shakespearean themes.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Balance of Terror, which establishes a new mythology within the world of the show in its opening minutes. Introducing the conflict between Earth and the Romulans is one of the first instances of the show in establishing the socio-political landscape of the 23rd century. I hate to continue to hammer on the show’s commentary on those same issues in the 1960s but the connection between the Enterprise’s dilemma and the risk of war with the Romulans presents a direct correlation to the US and its intervention in Vietnam. The show posits that the war was so long ago that nobody really remembers what caused it, which speaks almost directly to the growing sentiment that our involvement in the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unjust.

Balance of Terror also manages to be one of the more thrilling entries, as Kirk runs the risk of instigating a galactic war while in pursuit of the Romulans. But the real magic stroke is in how much time is dedicated aboard the Romulan ship, to show they’re not simply a bloodthirsty race of aliens to be destroyed, in line with some of the other foes we’ve already seen this season. 

Beyond that, there’s no outside infection destroying the ship from within; it’s simply Kirk and his crew’s convictions against a foreign entity. Plus, the crew members spotlighted this week feel like real people with lives outside of the episode, rather than the disposable beings that have been cast aside before. I’ve come to enjoy the episodic nature of Star Trek; it’s shown that Rodenberry and the team of writers could come up with a varied number of scenarios to throw the Enterprise into. But, if the show were to switch gears and introduce more serialized elements, Balance of Terror shows that it could succeed in that regard as well.

The Conscience of the King Grade: B-

Balance of Terror Grade: A-

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