TREK-A-DAY: Court Martial
EPISODE TWENTY: Court Martial
What a neat and oddly prophetic episode: the second of the “character gets court martialled by Starfleet” episodes (of many over the many series), “Court Martial” has some major points of interest (in addition to being an entertaining episode).
The first and most interesting to my eye is the aforementioned prophetic tone: the central conceit of the episode is that Kirk has erred in judgement during an ion storm causing the death of a crewman. This is proved by a computer recording of the incident in the visual log, which shows Kirk jettisoning the pod containing the crewman before issuing a Red Alert to warn the crewman. Kirk remembers it otherwise (and begins to question his ability to make command decisions) and Spock deduces (logically, of course) that Kirk is not the kind of person who would err in this way, however the court has this video footage, which is pretty damning. Kirk’s lawyer (the epically named Cogwell and precursor to the excellent lawyer of Battlestar Galactica) is an old fashioned guy, who trusts the texts and languages that laws and people wrote in over massively accumulated databanks and thus gets everyone thinking about technology versus the human experience. This in turn leads Spock to realize how easy computer systems are to tamper with, which in turn leads to the discovery that the crewman is alive (and plotting) thus solving the case and giving us our daily dose of fisticuffs. The prophetic element is two-fold: one, the appreciation (despite the still limited understanding in the 60’s of how computers were going to revolutionize the human experience) that despite human limitations, computers have their own set of fallibilities and when left to stand exclusively as evidence for or against human behaviour, we rob the human of their rights and elevate the technology. It’s hard not to think of computers in courtrooms now and how many programming steps go into everything that processes everything from evidence to transcripts, to the articles about the trial. There is so much room for error and for a pre-Apple I/DOS world, this demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the future to come. True science fiction.
The other prophetic element regards books: given Google Translate, we now have access to more information from around the world than perhaps ever before; but as anyone who has ever tried to get a solid translation out of the program knows, it’s hugely inaccurate. A very useful, but still very blunt, tool. The concept of understanding the root of information from its primary sources can be found everywhere from Ian Malcolm’s impassioned speeches in Jurrassic Park to the anti-Wikipedia movement in schools. With increasing automation, there’s also an increased need and desire to comprehend the source rather than just absorb the info. This is mentioned several times in this episode, ending nicely with the gift from Cogwell to Kirk of a book, “Which isn’t a first edition or anything, but it’s a book and that’s enough.” We’re seeing our future that we seek to reach reach back to us for our knowledge. It’s a nice closing of the circle of science fiction, really.
And then we have my favourite running success in the show: it’s use of characters. Courtroom scenes can still be engaging based on story alone (we’ve seen this countless times in countless shows), but where The Original Series continues to triumph is in its slight twists on the players involved. The prosecting lawyer is a good friend (and former lover) of Kirk’s who desires justice served but believes in Kirk. The dead crewman was an old friend of Kirk’s who he’d fallen out with after reporting a negligent act and thus killing the crewman’s career. The crewman’s daughter was even named “Jamie” for Kirk; the ship’s computer is treated as a character for all intents and purposes; Cogwell is a quirky “dramatic hero lawyer” type of character. The results, though not entirely unexpected, are made more enjoyable by the inclusion of this variety of characters, who are allowed to intermingle and bounce off each other. The crewman turns into a melodrama villain by the end (whom Kirk beats, despite the tragic loss of yet another yellow shirt, torn asunder) but nevertheless, the add depth and flavour to the whole preceeding by filling it with characters who have relationships with each other. This episode would be improv gold!
So all-in-all a highly entertaining courtroom episode, which (as mentioned before) re-affirms the precedent set by “The Menagerie” that you can get some good character work done by just putting someone on trial and seeing who defends them and how.