Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Original Series, Season 1: Court Martial

The Original Series, Season One
"Court Martial"
Airdate: February 20, 1967
15 of 80 produced
20 of 80 released
Click here to watch on


Captain Kirk is put on trial on the charge of negligently giving the order that cause the death of one of his crew. His version of events is at odds with the computer record. Complicating matters is the fact the crewman had a past with Captain Kirk. Captain Kirk reported him years ago for a serious lapse that derailed his career, causing deep resentment for his former friend. Is Kirk or the computer correct? Have the stresses of command caused a momentary lapse in judgment? Does Kirk reciprocate his former friend's resentment and did it play a role in his decisions?
Now, I'm no fancy big city space lawyer...


Kevin: The science fiction story in this episode is pretty good, especially for its time. Who do we trust? Man or machine? Who is the more reliable witness. The setting of the court martial was also the perfect place to explore this theme. Courtrooms today are where this debate plays out first and strongest. Fingerprints, then surveillance cameras, blood and later DNA testing have supplanted the eye witness as the centerpiece of an evidentiary proceeding. After all, cameras can't lie. DNA fragments can't be bribed. Shouldn't we trust them more? Of course, the technology is only as good as the men who make and maintain it, and that is where the Enterprise computer goes astray here. I think this episode must have had even more resonance in the 60s when ideas of being replaced by automated workers and Big Brother style surveillance were just becoming possible.

Matthew: I agree that the computer element is obviously played up. It isn't the most way-out sci-fi concept, but then, not every concept needs to be. It is a rumination on how technology affects humankind. I don't know that everything is developed or explored to the extent that it could be, but it's a fine theme.

Kevin: In concert with a great science fiction element is a great human element. Being a Starship captain is Kirk's definition of self as much his job description. Spock said a mouthful when he called it his "first, best destiny" in The Wrath of Khan. His greatest concern is for his crew. He feels each of their deaths as if part of him died as well. Nothing could be more horrifying to him that the thought that he negligently caused the death of someone under his command. It would be an abrogation of his most sacred duty and effectively destroy everything he is. The doubt on his face after seeing the bridge recorder was both compelling and heartbreaking.

Matthew: I love the way this episode expands continuity. We see the Starship chart in Commodore Stone's office, a Starbase, the bar with dozens of other officers, the dialogue that effectively develops the notion of Starfleet as a long-lasting organization with traditions and rules. We learn that Kirk served on the Republic before the Enterprise, that he graduated in the same academy class as McCoy, that it takes years to advance as far as he has. Aaah, how logical, how believable, how good. How in opposition to a certain recent movie...

Kevin: A final element of the story is what makes a good Starship captain. Finney's career was derailed for making essentially the same kind of mistake Kirk was accused of making. And you know what? It should have derailed his career. I'm going to let Matt expound on this topic a little, cause he has a whole theory of Starship captains and the technology they wield and how they shape society, and I'm going to let him tell you himself.

Matthew: WELL... since you asked, I'll expound on this. It is my thesis that the entirety of TOS is about, in the main, whether or not humans have achieved the wisdom to use the incredible technology at their disposal. Many, many episodes hinge on the Captain, and the decisions he makes or doesn't make. Many of the villains in TOS are Captains gone bad - those who did not have the wisdom to make the proper decision.

Star Trek is set at a particular time for a very specific reason - it is the cusp of humanity's reaching out into space and creating a galactic society. They had halting fits and starts before this, such as the Romulan War, but now they finally have the technology to make it really happen, the Constitution Class Starship. With duotronic computers and a warp 8 engine, this kind of Starship can go fast enough and project enough power to truly bind the worlds of the galaxy together. These ships were the pinnacle of engineering, and there were only 12 in the fleet, which indicates their special nature.

But what sort of society will be created? It falls to the captains of these technological wonders to decide this. Almost without fail, we see that bureaucrats and high-minded idealists cannot project their power onto the affairs of the galaxy. It is the captains who can, and the Federation will live or die by their decisions.

And so we see that much if not most of the drama of TOS is seeing whether Kirk, or any other captain, can marshal the forces of technology in the right direction, towards the good. Which is why this episode, Court Martial, is particularly enjoyable - it is a rumination on who is fit to command and who isn't. I love the line that Commodore Stone delivers: "Not one man in a million could do what you and I have done. Command a Starship. A hundred decisions a day, hundreds of lives staked on you making every one of them right."

Kevin: If I had to come up with one complaint, it would be the court martial scenes that engage in fairly common (and deeply annoying) television conventions of court procedure. First, Shaw would NEVER be assigned to prosecute Kirk. What is it with captains of the Enterprise sleeping with the prosecuting attorney in their courts martial? We lawyers have a special phrase for it: "conflict of interest," You can't represent someone if you can't represent them to the best of your abilities. You are not allowed to pull punches. The previous relationship would cause exactly that. I understand that the future may operate differently than today, but that's a pretty basic concept in any impartial adversarial process, just as a matter of logic. Beyond that, I was also annoyed by lawyers breaking into speeches in the middle of questioning a witness. This is more a beef with Law & Order, but doesn't happen that way. Ever. And if I seem a little strident in my criticism here, it's just that at least once a week, I have to explain to a client I am actually doing a good job despite not doing it like the lawyers on television.

Matthew: Well, jurisprudence has evolved since our present day. As you know, by 2079, after the destruction of the New United Nations, a new system of justice had sprung up, following the twin credos "guilty until proven innocent" and "kill all the lawyers."And since we needed to see the Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies and the Statutes of Alpha III, clearly some re-constitution of the law occurred. This is all an incredibly nerdy a way of saying "lighten up." You can assault Law and Order all you like, but we're talking about a future legal system, not localized to Earth, with many alien precepts and precedents. So maybe it's more flashy.

Kevin: One question I have about the plot that I am not sure if they left intentionally open. Jame Finney had a 180-degree turnaround overnight as to Kirk's culpability. Did she know that her father was alive and was seeking a way to absolve Kirk without revealing the secret?

Matthew: My problem with the plot is the murky nature of ion storms and ion pods. Just what the heck is to be served by having some guy out in a pod during a violent astrophysical event, and what else is served by the ability to jettison him? It doesn't wreck the plot, because the aforementioned human drama is certainly more important. But it was a nagging thing that just stayed in the back of my mind during the entire show.

Kevin: And a final question: Does anyone else think Kirk is a bit of a dick for bringing Jame into what is essentially a hostage crisis? It's a touch of the Jack Bauer if you ask me.


Kevin: Despite my above criticisms of the concept of being prosecuted by a former lover, Joan Marshall was really good in the part of JAG officer Areel Shaw. She had good chemistry with both Kirk and McCoy and portrayed her own conflicted feelings well. She had a great professional demeanor in the courtroom, at times almost too eager to attack the captain, perhaps to prevent the appearance that she wasn't. The scene at the end when she kissed him could have come off as fawning, but it carried the undercurrent of their relationship, and came off sweet and a little playful. One thing Star Trek has done well, when it tried (an important caveat), is portray competent, professional women that do not cater to the misogynystic tropes of the shrewish, shoulder-padded career woman or the coed seeking an MRS degree. When Uhura and Number One actually had lines, they were engaging, credible officers and human beings, and I think Areel Shaw adds nicely to that list.

Matthew: This is one of Shatner's best episodes. He runs the gamut of emotions, and all are convincing. The threat to his livelihood, his justifiable pride in his abilities, his anger at the scorn of his peers, the wistful lost love with Areel Shaw.

Kevin: Elisha Cook was a little one note as Samuel T. Cogley, but his abrasive Luddite qualities were needed to balance everyone else's reliance on the computer as infallible. Jame Finney wasn't the best actress, particularly in the first crying scene, but she is not the worst child actress on the series by far.

Matthew: Besides Shatner, to me the performance that made this episode was Percy Rodriguez as Commodore Stone. The performance is cool, self-assired, and dignified - exactly the qualities that a successful former Starship Captain ought to have.

Kevin: Richard Webb's Finney was on the good side of OK for me. Maybe if we had seen him as a collected, competent officer on the bridge being personally ordered to the pod, it would have provided a counterpoint to Crazy Finney that would have made him more resonant. He never crosses the line to scenery chewing, but it doesn't floor me either. I will say, in both writing and portrayal by the actor, he knew exactly where to hit Kirk to hurt him the most, and that definitely came though loud and clear.

Matthew: I was distracted by how much he looks like Willem Dafoe.

Production Values

Kevin: I loved the design of Starbase 11 and it was great to see other starships, even if it was another Constitution class ship. The set up of the "white noise" machine is a little silly if you think about it, but the sound mixer earned his paycheck. The heartbeats were effective and a novel way to suss out someone in hiding. Sure, the thousand other small sounds like walking and breathing and the hum of electric lights should have created a cacophony, but as far as "I've assembled you all to reveal the murderer" scenes go, this one was fun and had the virtue of not having been tried before.

Matthew: There were a lot of interesting sets here. We see the Commodore's office (a re-use from Menagerie), the courtroom (a re-dressed conference room, which itself is a re-use of the Cage bridge), Samuel Cogley's law office, the bar, the sets just keep on coming, and really expand the scope of this episode from a "bottle" show.

Kevin: Also, after seeing how nifty the recording in the Menagerie was, did the Enterprise get cameras that could record multiple angles accounting for dramatic tension on the bridge?

Matthew: As far as the remastering goes, this is a particularly good episode for it. The Starbase matte painting is updated - with the same design, but more detail and animation, as we can see people in the tall skinny office tower. We get a lovely shot of multiple Starships in orbit as well, and a terrific close-up of the Enterprise and its ion pod (whatever that is).


Kevin: I loved this episode. I am, even as I type this, waffling a bit between a four and a five. On the one hand, it's a strong sci-fi backbone, fleshed out with a great emotional story. The only real reason I am hesitating is the hackneyed feel to the court room dialogue and procedure, and less than perfect performances from two guest stars. I'm going with a 4. There. I said it. I want to hold fives for the episodes without problems. Still love it though, and it's a strong 4.

Matthew: I agree that some of the supporting actors were not great, but others (the Commodore and Areel Shaw) were quite good. The sci-fi concept was fine, but was overshadowed by the human drama. I think by our criteria, this is a 4. If this had gone a little further, and explained the science behind the accident a little better, it would be a 5. But it's still a whale of a show, and it gets a combined 8 from us both.


  1. There's no way I'm not going to sound like a whiny little bitch about this, so I'm just going to come out and say it: ragging on the 2009 Star Trek movie ("Aaah, how logical, how believable, how good. How in opposition to a certain recent movie...") hurts my feelings, since I'm watching the original series for the first time because I loved the movie. It also seems unfair, since where I am in watching TOS I just saw the Nazi planet episode, which was *awesome* but not about to win any logical/believable contests-- I get that you're talking about canon logic not plot logic, but it's still a kind of unnecessary backhand.

  2. Matt's ire with the movie burns hotter than most; that's a given. It's not personal.

    I hear this a lot though, that whatever sins the movie may have committed, it seems to have a shot at reinvigorating the franchise. I'm not sure how I feel about that answer. I think the one think the movie lacked is Star Trek's science fiction and humanist themes, and I am afraid sparking interest in the franchise may steer Star Trek away from the things that make TOS so good. But I reserve judgment for the second movie.

    All that being said, yes, the Nazi episode was crazy.

  3. The Onion AV club has said that, more or less, in their review of the movie and the TOS episode recaps they've been doing: 'the hallmark of Star Trek is thinking, and the movie doesn't do much thinking'. I think part of the problem is that the movie is so busy working that there isn't enough time for thinking, but there's more than one TOS episode I can think of that comes down on the short side of the working:thinking ratio.

    I don't think anybody feels better being told that the movie was bad but it's good for the franchise: if you liked the movie it makes you feel stupid, if you liked the original you feel like a sell-out. It's the way people end the conversation on an uneasy truce, because I haven't really had to defend the movie to anybody yet but I can already tell it's not a pretty sight.

    Also: Nobody ever TOLD me how many 'Earth's Culture' planets they do! It's like Stargate, but a million times better. I think the guy who's setting the schedule on MeTV lumped them all together to amuse himself, because the Roman Empire planet, the Gangster planet, and the Nazi planet were all in a week. A GLORIOUS week.

  4. My favorite example of that was in "Miri" when not only the people, but the continents themselves looked exactly like Earth. HI-LARIOUS.

    And it's not that I didn't like the movie per se. It's certainly loads of fun while watching it. Also, the actors did what I thought impossible: play those characters and come off as anything other than impersonation. Given that, it makes the plot holes I find more annoying, given that they apparently know how to do harder stuff well.

    Like I said, I reserve judgment pending the second film.

  5. Oh, it's not "backhanded." :)

    I am happy that the movie has inspired you to examine Real Star Trek.

    Is this unfair? Maybe, maybe not. I think my reasons for evaluating it thusly are fair, and I will set them out below.

    My thesis on the illogic of the movie and the logic of the show is that the show is logically consistent when it NEEDS to be, and the movie is illogical when it needs NOT to be.

    There is a lot of stupid stuff in Real Star Trek. No doubt about it. A comment recounting this litany might break the Internet.

    But in Real Star Trek:

    1. no one ever beams across interplanetary distances, at least not in a way that could be easily replicated and standardized by the Federation in such a way as to completely obviate the entire concept of the show...

    2. No one ever throws out the rules of Starfleet and the Federation because they don't want to spend the time and effort to tell a compelling and involving story about someone's realistic career trajectory and friendships.

    Real Star Trek, for all its flaws, had editors and producers who gave some semblance of a shit for the franchise's logical consistency. The absolute worst examples of violating this in the show and movie franchise are "Threshold," "These Are the Voyages," and "Nemesis." But as bad as all of these were, they never threatened to render the whole franchise unbelievable.

    This is something that J.J. Abrams and his team of dumb fucking "Transformers" writers allowed to happen. They obviously just don't give a shit. "Is it cool?" and "Will it sell tickets" seem to be the rule of the day as far as they're concerned.

    They captured some of the essence and the feel of Real Star Trek. They made a slick, entertaining movie that holds up as long as you don't ask a single question of its logic. But as far as creating a compelling, consistent universe that inspires wonder and love, they Transwarp Beamed themselves right into the heart of a goddamn singularity.

  6. By the way, Betsy (I assume no one else has co-opted your nickname), just because I have a strident opinion, that doesn't mean that I find yours inherently invalid. I recognize that there are different ways to approach Star Trek than mine.

    There are many reasons to love Star Trek (charming characters, heady sci-fi, neato effects, etcetera). Personally, I love it because I want to live there. So when someone sins against the franchise in such a way that it makes it all a bit less believable to imagine myself living in it, that pains me in a way it might not pain someone else.

  7. (Yep, it's Betsy, though more people seem to be using the SN on more websites, so eventually I'm going to have to come up with something else.) It definitely sounds like an entry-point thing, something I've seen in fandom-fights among Anime fans back when I was hardcore into that. When I concentrate on it I realize the characters were what pulled me into the movie, not the immersion (complete enough that you could imagine yourself living there). In fact, if I think back, the immersion would be what I originally *hated* about Star Trek, because my brother was the signature nerd who bought the books full of fictional information and would insist on reading them to me until any joy inspired by watching TNG together was killed stone dead. The movie brought back the joy for me.

    (I don't want to totally hijack the space for a really good episode by arguing about the movie, so if you want me to stop just say the word and I'll save it for later.)

    1. Memory Alpha's entry on Transwarp beaming is conflicted, but it offers a lot of good suggestions. If Spock really does just use Scotty's equation to calculate where the Enterprise is, and beams Kirk and Scotty to that point, it would make it one of the most dangerous ways you could possibly get somewhere, akin to traveling via catapult. So even with all the information, the technology isn't necessarily adaptable.

    2. The easy game is to go trolling for times Kirk broke or stretched the rules, but I don't really want to do that. I don't think the movie broke the rules and regulations as badly as people accuse it of doing-- it makes a lazy case that the federation is caught in an emergency situation and makes more exceptions than it should, but I think there's also the fact that Kirk has a lot of people pulling for him because they strongly believe in him.

    3. The most infamous line cut from the movie is when Spock prime addresses the movie's laundry list of fortunate coincidences by theorizing that the timeline is somehow trying to correct itself, as in, destiny. And since I count a lot of godlike beings in Trek, I don't think it's fair that Q gets unlimited powers but destiny ruins believability.