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Star Trek – Court Martial (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer versatility of Star Trek as a format. For a show about exploring the universe, the creators have really managed to incorporate just about any and all genres of television story. Over the franchise’s 700-episode history, there’s been a wealth of quirky episodes that explore types of stories that one might consider quite surreal for a show about a ship travelling to the stars. A court room episode might not be the most radical of these shifts, but Court Martial is still fascinating as an evolution of Star Trek as a concept, broadening the kind of stories that could be told within a Star Trek framework. After all, the fact that there’s a whole subgenre of Star Trek involving court room drama is probably rooted in this first-season adventure.

While its influence is absolutely massive, Court Martial is still a problematic episode. Despite demonstrating what writers could really do within the context of the show, Court Martial suffers because it’s really not that good.

Running rings around the prosecution...

Running rings around the prosecution…

I’ve already talked a bit about D.C. Fontana and why she is fantastic. Fontana would become script consultant for the show towards the end of the first year, and would remain in the position until the show was (eventually) renewed for a third season. I’d argue that Fontana was one of the defining writers on the Star Trek franchise, and that she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for her work on the show. In particular, I suspect that Fontana’s work in the writers’ room was a large part of the show’s success in the second-half of the first season and across the second season.

Fontana’s predecessor was Steven W. Carabatsos. It’s interesting to contrast their work on the show. I’d argue that it supports the assertion that Fontana was a stronger writer. At this point, Fontana had managed to write Charlie X – an episode that turned a fairly conventional concept into something truly special. In contrast, Carabatsos only has two writing credits on Star Trek. This episode and the first season finalé, Operation: Annihilate! I’m actually fond of that last one, which has a great name and a pulpy charm, but it hardly ranks among the finest of a strong year.

Kirk stands accused...

Kirk stands accused…

Carabatsos was responsible for rewriting Court Martial from the script originally submitted by Don M. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, a television veteran who had an Oscar nomination to his name, had written the episode, but was unable to polish it up. Carabatsos stepped in to tidy up the script. In many respects, this is just a very extreme version of the script consultant’s function.

Okay, that’s a slight over-simplification. Obviously the script consultant generally provides notes and makes edits to a submission. There are emergency situations where a complete re-write is necessary, and the writing staff might be drawn in. Yesterday’s Enterprise is a remarkable example of a Star Trek show where this worked out, as is The City on the Edge of Forever. There’s a sense with Court Martial that Carabatsos is really trying to refine and restructure Mankiewicz’s core idea. And it’s clear that Carabatsos isn’t as good at the task as Fontana would be.

He also sits accused...

He also sits accused…

And the script to Court Martial is a mess. I’m not quite sure where the blame lies for that, but it’s very clear that Carabatsos couldn’t smooth out all the perceived difficulties with the script in question. Characters appear and disappear with awkward attempts at explanation. Scenes hinge on revelations that are never developed. The script’s last act moves so quickly that we get a laboured William Shatner narration to explain what exactly is going on.

Let’s talk about this. Cogley really seems to serve as the focal point of the episode’s structural problems. After the half-way point, the murder victim’s daughter comes forward and begs Kirk to plea-bargain. This is a massive shift from her established position in the introductory scene, where she was baying for blood. Cogley questions her about this, but she doesn’t give a definitive answer. Apparently she was leading old letters. Still, Cogley seems to be on to something. “You ready?” Kirk asks. “No,” Cogley responds, “but I may be getting ready.” It’s a line that closes a scene, so we’re to expect that it hints at some massive twist.

The help of some handy evidence...

The help of some handy evidence…

Now, there are several possible explanations. The most obvious, and the one the finished episode hints towards, is that this is the point where Cogley realises that Finney might still be alive. Kirk explains Cogley’s absence from the final act by explaining he’s bringing Finney’s daughter on board. There’s a deleted scene in the script which supports this reading, but it requires on a massive logical leap from Cogley, but it doesn’t make much sense. I don’t hear “reading dad’s old letters” and jump to “the old man faked his death!”, but then I’m not a Starfleet lawyer. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

Cogley is also at the heart of some of the other problems with the episode. Including a really weird cut where Cogley makes a dramatic announcement to fade out on, only for the cast to move to another set and picking up the conversation exactly where we left off. “Gentlemen, I submit to you that Lieutenant Commander Ben Finney is not dead,” Cogley offers. The music swells. The camera does a weird flip transition. Suddenly everybody’s on the bridge and in their proper decision and Stone waits until we’ve joined the scene to follow up. “Mister Cogley, we are waiting for proof of the extraordinary statement you made in the briefing room.”

Because of course Kirk's court martial ends like this...

Because of course Kirk’s court martial ends like this…

One of the interesting things about the start of Court Martial is that we join the Enterprise after a big adventure. Opening on the consequences of the ion storm, the episode creates an impression that the crew continue to do stuff even while we’re not watching them – that the characters take on a life of their own. In contrast, however, that cut undermines all of that. It’s a cheap and awkwardly staged transition, one that draws attention to the fact that Court Martial is just a legal melodrama. Absolutely nothing happens without us seeing it, despite the tease at the start of the episode. The entire hearing must have moved to the bridge in silence.

And then there’s the fact that Cogley simply disappears from the episode. He literally just vanishes. And the writing sort of tries to compensate a bit, but it just makes the whole thing sort of cringeworthy. As Kirk stalks Finney, he narrates, “Sam Cogley had gone a shore to bring Jamie Finney on board. We felt Jamie’s presence would make Finney easier to handle in the event Finney really were alive.” Again, this builds off a deleted scene from the script, but it’s no less convincing here.

It's a Finney line between love and hate...

It’s a Finney line between love and hate…

There’s a sense that Mankiewicz and Carabatsos had a great deal of trouble pacing and structuring the episode. The episode takes a similar short cut when Kirk defeats Finney. The fact that their fight scene (with obvious stunt doubles!) goes on so long suggests that it wasn’t just the episode’s runtime that forced these cuts. Anyway, with the wrestling match eating up time, Shatner’s narration again has to connect some vital dots. “The damage he’d caused was considerable, but not irreparable. With luck, I would be able to effect repairs before our orbit decayed completely.”

At the end, Cogley’s absence is awkwardly raised again. “Sam Cogley asked me to give you something special,” Shaw tells Kirk. “I didn’t have much of a chance to thank him,” Kirk muses. Shaw explains, “He’s busy on a case.” That is probably the lamest excuse for an absence ever. Your client is leaving on a space ship. You can take five minutes to make a call to congratulate him on the whole “not being court martialed” thing.

Well, at least if they need to throw the book at him, they'll know where to find him...

Well, at least if they need to throw the book at him, they’ll know where to find him…

Plus, the fact that Kirk apparently didn’t have a chance to thank him suggests that Cogley never came back to the ship at all, let alone with Jamie. Given that behind-the-scenes stills exist of Finney with his daughter, I suspect the production of Court Martial must have been an absolute nightmare for all involved. I feel sorry for director Marc Daniels, who would do some sterling work on the show. Piecing together this mess could not have been easy. It looks like the editing suite must have been a fun place to be.

And this says nothing of how absolutely insane the final act is. I actually quite like it when Star Trek swings for the fences, so the somewhat gratuitous and disconnected final ten minutes are a great deal of fun. Still, there’s something absurd about McCoy using a “white sound device” (or, as we call it on Earth, a microphone) to cancel out heartbeats to find Finney. There’s also something a bit weird in the fact that Finney is so ridiculously crazy that he would fake his death because Kirk set back his career, while still being smart enough to compose a decent frame job.

A very bright court martial...

A very bright court martial…

As an aside, what’s his end game here? I mean, after he ruins Kirk’s career. Finney can’t really ever live with his daughter again. He also probably can’t hang around with Starfleet. And his career is certainly going to stall after this. Nothing stunts your shot at a promotion like being legally dead. Finney isn’t a character so much as an irrational and illogical plot device who really exists to do what needs doing.

That doesn’t mean that the last act isn’t fun. After all, Star Trek does an exceptional job dabbling in the absurd and borderline surreal. So Kirk goes down to Engineering to single-handedly take care of Finney, the lunatic alone in the heart of the ship. I love the way that Finney uses his voice in the empty Engineering, doing his impression of the Great and Powerful Oz as he taunts Kirk. He also has the crazy villain thing down. “Your own death would mean too little to you,” he boasts. “But your ship…” Ah! You fiend! “… it’s dead…. I’ve killed it. I tapped out your primary energy circuits.”

This looks like the face of a well-adjusted individual...

This looks like the face of a well-adjusted individual…

I kinda like that Finney is just engaging in that old cliché of targeting the hero’s wife or girlfriend. It would be a sexist trope, except for the fact that Kirk seems to love his ship. Okay, the sight of Finney pointing a phaser at the warp core probably would have been too much, but there’s something weirdly fun about the way that Finney is so deeply committed to this style of large-scale villainy. It’s as if he knows he’ll only be on-screen for about five minutes, so he might as well go for broke. Plus, you know, Star Trek‘s first legal episode ends with Kirk punching a dead man in the face before wrestling him to submission. What more do you need?

Okay, I’m not being too convincing. Court Martial isn’t great. In fact, it only really works if you can get on-board with the ridiculously (even for this show) camp climax. Even then, it’s sort of at odds with what is generally an unstructured mess of an episode that looks like it was rushed into production before anybody was really ready for it. By any objective standard, Court Martial stands among the weakest of an otherwise fairly strong season. And that is if Kirk stalking the Wizard of Oz through engineering can appeal to you.

Talk about judging his performance in a crisis...

Talk about judging his performance in a crisis…

And, yet, Court Martial is still fascinating. It’s the first Star Trek legal episode. The franchise would turn these into an institution. There would be a number of genuine classics produced (The Measure of a Man, Rules of Engagement, The Drumhead) along with some very mediocre television (A Matter of Perspective, Dax, Judgement). However, Court Martial is really the first of those episodes. It’s also the first episode to really push Star Trek beyond the genre of pulpy adventure, even if “fisticuffs in the engine room” makes sure the story doesn’t venture too far from the show’s preferences.

The episode’s flavour was more a result of desperation than of inspiration, as James Doohan recounted in his VHS introduction to this episode:

Don M. Mankiewicz was contacted by our producer, Gene L. Coon, and asked to write the next episode. Gene explained to him that they needed a compelling story which could be filmed in a simple and easily-constructed set. Mankiewicz immediately came up with the idea of a court room drama, because a lot of the action could happen in one place. The writer had scripted several court room dramas for other television series in the past, so he was well aware of the dynamics of such a story.

Still, the idea is relatively sound.

Playing mind games...

Playing mind games…

I’ve talked a bit in recent episodes about how – at this point in the show’s run – the series had begun to develop its fictional world. Court Martial is the first time we hear the name “Starfleet.” Up until this point, Kirk’s employer had varied quite a bit. In The Conscience of a King, it was “the Star Service.” There is also lots of talk about “Vulcanians”, suggesting that Spock and his people have a long history of interaction with humans, the first real context we’ve had for the character’s place on the Enterprise. Again, in The Conscience of a King, McCoy had suggested Vulcan had been conquered.

More than that, though, the episode gives us a sense that a wider and broader universe exists. Much like Balance of Terror suggested that some grand galactic history separated our time from the show’s setting, and like The Conscience of a King suggested Kirk and his generation might have their own history, Court Martial suggests that Kirk operates within a much broader framework. There have been references to “Command” before, and to directives from authority, but Court Martial really puts Kirk within a more carefully constructed structure.

Looking for a gap in the prosecution's case...

Looking for a gap in the prosecution’s case…

This suggests that Kirk isn’t just an explorer charting an unknown frontier, but also a cog in a much larger machine. As noted by the insightful Star Trek Visions of Law and Order, the depiction of Starfleet’s legal system in Court Martial is actually a lot more structured and formalised than similar sequences in Star Trek: The Next Generation:

The original Star Trek series, while sharing these broad outlines, portrays a somewhat more formalistic legal structure than that seen on ST:TNG. For example, in Court Martial, Captain Kirk is represented by a lawyer, Samuel T. Cogley, played by Elisha Cook Jr., who in some ways acts very much like a lawyer would in the 20th century. The trial scenes in that episode, as well as in The Menagerie, have a more formal feel than similar scenes in ST:TNG. This would be consistent with the idea that the legal system is evolving from more to less reliance on formalism and procedural devices.

It helps that Court Martial actually has an interesting idea behind the somewhat rope execution. Put quite simply, Court Martial plays into one of the grander themes of the original Star Trek – the conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence.

It's a (Star)baseless accusation...

It’s a (Star)baseless accusation…

It’s something the show would return to time and again. The show has already had Kirk destroy two androids in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, and Kirk would find himself coming up against a few more artificial intelligences before the show ended. Most notably, in The Ultimate Computer, Kirk would find himself struggling to assert his ability (and his right) to command the Enterprise against a carefully-programmed computer.

Court Martial could almost be read as foreshadowing that episode, as Kirk finds his greatest enemy – his “accuser”, to quote Cogley – is the computer on board the Enterprise. The computer records make damning evidence, accusing Kirk of something that he knows he didn’t do. It’s a pretty raw conflict, as Kirk’s very human memory (operating under the weight and pressure of so many lives) finds itself weighed against the objective and passionless testimony of the computer.

The judging panel...

The judging panel…

As Star Trek Visions of Law and Order argues, Court Martial sets this up as an interesting conflict.:

The Star Trek writers of Court Martial (Don M. Mankiewicz and Stephen W. Carabatsos) also presented their vision of future legal information technology. Both Areel Shaw, the prosecutor, and Samuel T. Cogley, Kirk’s defense lawyer, were placed in scenes demonstrating extraordinary legal databases and accessing a wide range of legal codes, case and materials from several galaxies and over three millennia. And beyond the obvious falsification of the Enterprise’s computer records by Finney, these scenes dramatize uncertainty and criticisms of the legal method and interpretation in the use of computer-assisted legal research. Defense lawyer Cogley, for example, is portrayed as a charming eccentric who still insists on using antiquated books in his legal method. He insists that the internal, historical narrative of law is found only in books, even dull old law books, and is lost in the sterile world of the computer. The computer legal database has none of the dog-eared pages, hand-scribbled notes and bookmarks, and well-thumbed versus untouched pages to cue the reader. And so he insists on stacks and stacks of books, even in the courtroom.

Shaw, Kirk’s old flame, advises Kirk, “The prosecution will build its case on the basis of Kirk versus the computer. Now if your attorney tries to defend on that basis, you won’t have a chance.” Even Shaw, a technophobe, is swayed by the evidence. “Computers don’t lie,” he assures Kirk. All it takes is the data on the computer log to convince Stone that Kirk should be confined to base.

"Finney, is that your phaser or are you just happy to see me?"

“Finney, is that your phaser or are you just happy to see me?”

The conflict is obvious. Life is so much more than facts and figures, and there’s an obvious truth that cannot be perceived or recorded by a machine – no matter how sophisticated. Cogley argues that the law exists outside the data banks and the documentation kept on record, that it is something invisible and intangible, something almost organic. Even printing it in book form puts it somewhere closer to its nature form, some place where people can touch it and feel it and interact with it beyond a well-polished screen.

“This is where the law is,” Cogley tells Kirk. “Not in that homogenised, pasteurised, synthesiser. Do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books.” To be fair, Court Martial falters a bit here. Cogley seems a bit too invested in books to make the point properly. After all, books are just objects, much like computers. Finney could, if he wanted, tamper with Cogley’s books. However, that wouldn’t make his lies any more convincing, just as his malicious falsehood is no more true for being recorded on a computer.

A Shaw thing...

A Shaw thing…

Even logical Spock knows better than to trust the computer, observing that there are some inevitabilities in human behaviour that go beyond records and documentation. “If I let go of a hammer on a planet that has a positive gravity, I need not see it fall to know that it has in fact fallen,” he states. “Gentlemen, human beings have characteristics just as inanimate objects do. It is impossible for Captain Kirk to act out of panic or malice. It is not his nature.”

Of course, human nature can be just as corrupt as a computer memory bank, and the fault can be harder to diagnose. There’s the implication that Kirk might even have been influenced subconsciously by Finney’s hatred of him, that he could have pushed the button without realising. When he recounts sending Finney to the pod, Stone asks, “Why Finney?” Kirk responds, “His name was at the top of the duty roster.” Stone suggests, “If he blamed you–“ Kirk disputes this, but it’s hard to truly get past.

Crossed wires...

Crossed wires…

There is a bit of a problem here, and it’s one that really stops Court Martial from truly succeeding even on a purely conceptual level – never mind the dodgy execution. Everything is too neatly wrapped up at the end. There’s not even the hint that Kirk’s actions could have been coloured by his history with Finney. Everything plays out in such a way that Kirk, our hero, emerges from the situation completely uncompromised and without even the hint of doubt.

The Conscience of a King visited the same themes quite recently, and much better. That was also a story about the challenges of human judgement, as measured against the cool mechanical logic of computers. There Kirk doubted himself. He wondered whether he had been compromised by his history, as his romantic entanglement threatened to compromise him further. Here, Kirk seems to consider the possibility he made a mistake for a fraction of a second before dismissing it completely. There’s no nuance, no sophistication.

Just let them get it out of their system...

Just let them get it out of their system…

What little ambiguity exists here seems to concern Starfleet itself. I’ve noted quite a bit in this first season that the protagonists are quite far from the idealised humans that Roddenberry would feature in his first season of The Next Generation. Here, Starfleet doesn’t want justice for a lost officer. When it seems like Kirk’s mistake killed a long-serving crew member, Starfleet doesn’t want an open and transparent investigation. They’d rather “sweep it under the rug.”

It’s hardly heroic, and it’s the kind of thing Roddenberry would never have allowed on The Next Generation. However, it also feels realistic, and it fits a certain characterisation of humanity on Star Trek – a race so proud of their accomplishments that they are reluctant to acknowledge mistakes. Stone even offers Kirk a cosy posting to serve out his career. “Admit nothing,” Stone offers. “Say nothing. Let me bury the matter here and now. No starship captain has ever stood trial before, and I don’t want you to be the first.” Kirk, of course, is outraged. “But if what you suspect is true, then I’m guilty. I should be punished.”

The Kirks of the job...

The Kirks of the job…

What’s interesting is that Stone is not a bad guy here. His faith in the computer isn’t meant to be irrational, and he shuts down the hearing as soon as new evidence comes to light. In fact, he’s pretty tolerant of Cogley’s tactics, even prompting the lawyer to maybe cross-examine some witness or something. He’s not one of the insane admirals and commodores who haunt the Star Trek franchise. However, it’s clear that he also just wants all this to go away. He isn’t even doing Kirk a personal favour. “I’m thinking of the service,” he explains. “I won’t have it smeared.”

It’s a noble sentiment, even if his actions are very morally questionable. One of the better things about Court Martial is that it allows Stone to hint at this sort of institutional corruption – bury your dirty secrets on cushy planetary assignments – without making him a shallow villain-of-the-week. Along with Dagger of the Mind, Court Martial suggests that maybe this future version of Earth isn’t quite the paradise we’d like to think that it is. You can see a lot of the roots of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s nuance here.

He's got defensive strategy down to a "T"...

He’s got defensive strategy down to a “T”…

As an aside, I do like the remastered effects for the Starbase. It’s really a solid example of what these remastered editions can do. Those establishing shots don’t really affect the plot or the scripting, by they give a sense of texture. In particular, the rendering of the ringed planet evokes the very sixties aesthetics of Star Trek in a way that simply wouldn’t work on any of the spin-offs. The best of these remastered effects are the kind of things that would look strange or out of place on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. They are distinct and specific to the original Star Trek.

Still, Court Martial is more notable for its big ideas than for its execution. It’s one of the weaker entries in a strong season, even if the hook is quite fascinating and its influence would be felt for decades.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

 

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3 Responses

  1. While I agree with everything you said about the weaknesses in the script, I’m sorry you haven’t put greater emphasis on the solid story underneath. The major plot twist and the way it is exposed by discussing the search are really very well done. It is a pity the dialog and the execution of the episode were not up to the premise.

    • Thanks Norman. That’s a fair point. I was a bit harsh on it. However, I’d argue that the first season only has one completely irredeemable stinker in The Alternative Factor. Court Martial might be flawed, but it’s interesting and it’s trying something new. I can forgive it a lot for that.

  2. I quite like this episode. It’s an interesting one as we see (for the first time perhaps in a show like this?)the consequences for the commanding officer if something goes wrong. You never believe that Kirk intentionally did anything wrong, but as we are kept in the dark about what went on there is always the possibility that perhaps he is to blame.

    For the first time in the series, Kirk is not in control of the situation and that is a frightening place to be in. I always feel for him in the scene where Finney’s daughter screams at him. Also the scene where some officers give him the cold shoulder in a bar, and only McCoy stands with him.

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