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The Trek Nation - Court Martial

Court Martial

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 7, 2005 - 6:54 PM GMT

See Also: 'Court Martial' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When the Enterprise goes to Starbase 11 for repairs after an ion storm which has cost the life of crewmember Ben Finney, Kirk is shocked to discover that his memory of the incident and the record of events he gave to Commodore Stone have been contradicted by the ship's computer, which logged that the captain jettisoned Finney's research pod before the ship had gone to red alert, rather than after warning the records officer to get out of the pod. Kirk's old girlfriend Areel Shaw, the prosecuting attorney for his court-martial, expects to win on the strength of the ship's records. While Kirk retains a lawyer who insists that books are better than machines, Spock discovers that he can beat the Enterprise's computer at chess. This suggests that the computer must have been reprogrammed. He concludes that Finney is still alive; something Kirk is able to prove by having the court-martial jury reconvene on the Enterprise. Finney has sabotaged the Enterprise's engines to punish Kirk for having reported a mistake that hampered his career, but Kirk is able to correct the damage and save his ship.


Analysis: Star Trek has always done courtroom drama surprisingly well for a genre series. Two of the best Next Generation episodes, "The Measure of a Man" and "The Offspring," borrow both the legal structure and the themes of "Court Martial," which is at the core a debate about where human values fit into a machine-age society. The ostensible plot is somewhat weak, for it is never explained how the apparently mad Ben Finney functioned as records officer for so long, how Jamie Finney discovered that her father was alive, or why Areel Shaw failed to recuse herself from a case in which she was biased enough to recommend a defense lawyer - after talking with her onetime lover over drinks. I'm no expert on military versus civil law, but it seems to me that in a full court-martial (rather than the incestuous emergency shipboard variety from "The Menagerie"), such behavior would be ethically problematic.

That said, the ostensible reason for the court-martial is ultimately irrelevant, providing the setup for the only action sequence in an episode that sells itself with dialogue and philosophy. Kirk is absolutely certain that he behaved correctly and seems mystified why this particular incident is singled out for such attention; as he tells Cogley, he has trained for years to make such life-and-death decisions, and while he has regrets about the outcome, he does not doubt that he followed the right course of action. At the same time, Shaw seems to have a point when she suggests that Kirk must have been aware of Finney's resentment, for we see no grief from Kirk for his friend, no deep concern for the hysterical daughter named for him; he is as sorry about Finney as about any red-shirted ensign killed on his watch, no more or less.

Even so, Kirk's senior crew find accusations of willful or accidental negligence preposterous. Stone wants Kirk to admit that he was exhausted, making it an issue of a single captain unfit for command which could not draw larger questions of Starfleet responsibility - he says that no starship captain has ever stood trial before, a claim that seems rather incredible. Kirk insists that if what Stone suspects is true, he should be punished, but Stone is more worried about having the service smeared by a perjurer and coward than he is about keeping such a perjurer and coward on in a ground assignment. Forgetting that we're rooting for Kirk, we're also rooting against Starfleet bureaucratic sleaze at this point, so Cogley earns immediate bonus points for so obviously not being part of that establishment. On this series where bureaucracy and technology are glorified, the guy who distrusts computers is the hero of the day.

Cogley takes his notes in longhand as first Spock, then McCoy testify that it would be impossible for Kirk to have acted out of carelessness or malice. Spock, who calls himself "Vulcanian" in this episode and says Vulcanians do not speculate, insists that it is logical to discount the potential effects of human emotion! Meanwhile McCoy concedes that it is possible for some human beings to act out of resentment, but "not Captain Kirk, he's not that kind of a man." Cogley doesn't bother to cross-examine these witnesses for the prosecution; he wants Kirk on the stand, even though all Kirk can do is repeat what he said in his log, deny that there was malice toward Finney, cite his experience in crises and avow that nothing is more important than his ship. We don't learn anything new about Kirk, only the depth of the loyalty he commands in his officers.

Most of them, anyway. Finney apparently harbored a grudge against Kirk for more than a decade, working out a painstaking plan to frame Kirk for his own death. In fact he is committing career suicide, for he will never be able to reappear in Starfleet, and it seems possible that he is planning to commit literal suicide as well: does he plan to go down with the sabotaged Enterprise? This is never clear. Nor is it clear why a casual mention of chess should make Spock suddenly guess that the ship's computer has been tampered with, though that sets up one of the most entertaining Spock-McCoy moments ever, with McCoy storming in to find Spock playing chess while the captain is about to be sentenced and calling him the most cold-blooded man he's ever known (to which Spock, naturally, says, "Why thank you, Doctor").

Once it has been revealed that the computer is in fact flawed, the episode picks up its pace - everyone heads up to the Enterprise, McCoy uses his nifty device to turn off the sounds of their heartbeats, and the ominous ba-bum ba-bum of the remaining pulse (which even Stone assumes at this point must be Finney's) replaces the ominous music that might have played in another episode. We all know where it's going from there: quick fight all over the engineering set by not-very-well-disguised stunt doubles, Kirk crawling into a Jeffries tube singlehandedly to save the ship rather than summoning Spock et al to help him, Finney sent off with his new lawyer...Samuel T. Cogley. The man would seem to be not guilty by reason of insanity, since he believes all of Starfleet has been engaged in a giant conspiracy against him. Cogley, who worries that men without rights have been brought down to the level of machines, would seem the perfect choice to represent him.

"Court Martial" won't win any Emmys for legal drama, but watching it now, a day after the latest Boston Legal murder trial in which William Shatner's Denny Crane babbles nonsense to distract an unfair judge, it holds up quite well. Even this late in the first season we see some details being ironed out - how Vulcans refer to themselves, how the structure of Starfleet works, and the silliness at the end about whether a captain can kiss an ex-girlfriend who's a prosecutor on the bridge of his ship, which fortunately doesn't happen again except when aliens take over his body. The courtroom scenes are well-staged and the mad Finney is entertaining if implausible. But what stands out most watching in retrospect is the tradition into which this episode fits, recalling similar trials for other Starfleet officers.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.