Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Star Trek at 50: Court Martial

Season 1
Episode 14: Court Martial
Filmed: October 1966
First Air Date: February 2, 1967 (20th episode aired)

Karen: Re-watching 'Court Martial' was a pleasant surprise. To be honest, I hadn't looked forward to reviewing this episode. My memories of it were that it was rather boring, and there was some flawed science. But sitting down with it again, although there are definitely problems, I found it much more interesting than before. The main reason for this? William Shatner's performance. I know, I'm sounding like a broken record, but Shatner was just fantastic in this first season, and I suspect one of the main reasons for Star Trek's success. If you haven't seen this one, or don't recall it, here's a brief summary: Kirk faces a court martial when it appears that he jettisoned an ion pod containing Officer Ben Finney before giving him the warning to clear out, causing the man's death. This is verified by the ship's computer records. But Kirk maintains that his recollection is correct and the computer is wrong. Complicating the matter is the fact that Finney, once Kirk's friend, had grown to resent Kirk, both for an incident in their past and for Kirk's success. Kirk must prove his innocence, but how? 

Karen: This episode was a "bottle show" -so called because most of it takes place on the Enterprise, with a few scenes shot at Starbase 811, which is just redressed Enterprise sets. This was a cost saving measure; the series needed a few of these bottle shows every season to keep the budget down. The risk with such shows was always that they would feel confined, or could be too talky, or boring. And this episode certainly walks that edge. But as I said at the start, for me, this one was saved by William Shatner. He projects the kind of confidence one would expect of a starship captain -not swaggering braggadocio but a steady sureness that is utterly believable. Even after he sees the starship visual recording showing him pressing the ion pod eject button before red alert has been signaled, he still maintains that he pressed it after the red alert was initiated. But back in his quarters, he has a moment of doubt. Just a moment. "Spent my whole life training for decisions like that it, I know what I did." I have to add, Shatner was amazingly handsome. His Kirk was the consummate hero: brave, handsome, and morally strong, but with  more than a little loneliness.

Karen: This episode also gives us some more insight into Kirk's past. It would have been fun to have been a fan watching that first season as it aired, trying to put all the pieces together with the characters, and the universe in general. Back in 'Conscience of the King', we learned a 13 or 14 year old Kirk had seen the mass executions at the Tarsus IV colony. Here we learn that Kirk met Finney when he was a midshipman and Finney was an instructor at the academy. They became friends and Finney even named his daughter Jamie after Kirk. Finney had a slow start to his career, and the two wound up serving on the USS Republic together. It was here that Finney made a dangerous mistake that Kirk had to correct, which got Finney a reprimand. Thus began his grudge against Kirk.

Karen: This is the first episode where we hear the terms "Starfleet" and "Starfleet Command" used, thanks to Gene Coon. The Star Trek universe was firming up, as the producers and writers grew more comfortable and confident. This episode went through a number of revisions and writers. The story was initially written by Don Mankiewicz. The Mankiewicz family has a long and proud history in Hollywood. Don's father Herman won an Oscar for co-writing Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, and his nephew Joseph was the award-winning writer/director of Guys and Dolls and All About Eve. If you watch Turner Classic Movies, you've probably seen Ben Mankiewicz, who hosts many films on the station -he is also Don's nephew. So quite the prestigious group! Roddenberry was thrilled to have Mankiewicz write for Trek. Mankiewicz proposed a court room drama. The basic idea of the story was the same but many of the details were changed as the script was rewritten several times, by Mankiewicz at first, and then by Steven Carabatsos, Trek story editor, and Gene Coon, as well as Roddenberry. One of the major changes involved the computer. In the initial draft, the Enterprise's computer had a personality -and it didn't like Kirk! It conspired with Finney to get Kirk in trouble. This was removed rather early on, thankfully.

Karen: I said earlier that there were some good performances. I appreciated guest star Percy Rodriguez as Starbase Commander Commodore Stone. I think it's worth noting that he was a Black actor playing a man of high rank, who commanded a starbase and was said to have commanded a starship. They could have cast anyone but they chose to hire a Black actor for an important part and that's commendable. Rodriguez delivers -Stone is looking out for the service, and although he respects Kirk, he believes the computer records. The confrontation between Stone and Kirk buzzes with electricity. 

Karen: I also found the way Finney is portrayed to be rather intriguing. The actor looks sort of like an older, skid-row Kirk -his hairstyle and color is much the same, and he's got the gold tunic, but he's haggard and more than a bit deranged. It's almost as if we are seeing what Kirk could be if he'd been an utter failure. I don't know that they put that much thought into it, but it struck me as I watched the episode.

Karen: There are a lot of problems with this episode though. I think any time you have narration suddenly pop up in a movie or TV show -as it does in the third act of this episode -you know there are problems with the plot that have to be explained to the audience. Here, there are missing scenes that are described to us by Kirk, but not in the form of a Captain's log, it's just narration, from out of the blue. It feels sloppy. We also had some very obvious stunt doubles in the fight between Kirk and Finney. It's even more noticeable now that I am watching these high definition versions. 

Karen: There's also some crappy science through out. What is an ion storm, exactly? I cringed when Spock gave an example on the witness stand about dropping a hammer on a "planet with a positive gravity." Perhaps worst of all, is when the court convenes on the Enterprise bridge and McCoy uses a 'white sound' device to eliminate the sound of all the heartbeats of all the people on the ship from a transmission they are relaying to the bridge. The device is obviously a microphone, and Kirk says the device boosts sounds by "one to the fourth power". Well, even when I saw this as a kid, I knew that 1 to the 4th power was still just 1! He wasn't amplifying anything. How that got past Star Trek's researchers I'll never know.

Karen: This wasn't a terrible episode, but certainly not one of Trek's best.


Unknown said...

I own all three seasons of the Original Series on DVD and I must say, having a legal background myself, that I loved this episode and consider it to be one of my favorites. With overwhelming and seemingly incontrovertible evidence stacked against Kirk, as with many defendants, a man or woman with less personal resolve and inner strength would have either sought a plea bargain (or resolution offer as it's called here in Canada) or pled guilty outright. I also liked Commodore Stone's commanding and dignified presence and I noted that he radiated the strong charisma that certain natural leaders possess. Spock's unwavering loyalty to Kirk struck a chord with me as well. Finney was clearly an unhinged lunatic to have orchestrated such an insidious plot. Surely psychotherapy is available several centuries from now for extrasolar explorers? Certainly it is true that this was one of the first season's lower budget episodes, but no complaints here. Just terrific.

Thomas F.

david_b said...

'Court Martial'.., a fine episode, but just a few quick points.

Once again we see Gene stretching the Trek Universe here.., supplementing the naval/military aspect of starship command. Splendidly done. Will agree with Karen on most counts here, Gene took a chance on a great writer, a solid concept and it worked. Trek didn't have to settle for being 'monster-of-the-week' type show.

Again Trek is growing beyond the sum of it's parts..

The Commodore Stone portrayal was solid and made for a great, refreshing antagonistic angle to the story.., what gave the entire process of electronically-destroying a man's career very real and relevant. The bar scene was somewhat uncomfortable, yet essential to truly grasp the weight of this situation.

Remember everyone, this was still 1966. Knowing that makes the villain's use of electronic manipulation even more prophetic and eerie in nature. 'Shape of things to come' indeed.

Samuel T. Cogley played by Elisha Cook Jr also provided much gravitas here, effectively grounding the court proceedings, just as the aforementioned bar scene did.

I had trouble with the Finney character.. I'd agree with Karen that the 3rd and 4th acts didn't seem to satisfactorily end the story. First the narration.., which I didn't mind much, but Karen made a good point with it's sudden appearance. Secondly.., somehow despite the script, I still didn't find Finney's side all that compelling or sympathetic. So he lost out on command or whatever.., it just didn't make sense that would drive him to ruin Kirk and in fact, endanger lives.

After a solid and compelling first half, it is a clumsy resolution. But the finer points of the overall series came out in spades in this episode.

1) Hope for Mankind our future, in books and rich history/heritage, not just computer convenience, susceptible to obvious manipulation..

2) The battle for right and wrong in our future courtrooms, in front of peers of the accused remains solid.

3) Science and innovation, with sound and proper logic, save the day.

All in all, another fine attempt at Trek, STILL early in it's conception, to truly rise above it's contemporary TV counterparts and carve out indeed a fine future.


Garett said...

Great episode! Seeing the trailer reminds me of all the great characters in this one. Elisha Cook Jr is a treat, also liked him in Maltese Falcon. I remember him being an old fashioned lawyer, in the scene where he talks about books over computers. Having Kirk's old flame prosecuting him was a nice twist, and yes the actor playing Commodore Stone is good. Karen I agree about the actor playing Finney being like an alternate, downtrodden version of Kirk-- good casting.

Spock's part with chess is a clever addition. This episode's one of my favorites from the series.

Garett said...

Is this the first episode where we see Kirk in his other shirt with the gold around the collar? You can see it halfway through the trailer. Always liked this alternate outfit. Was there a reason he wore this sometimes?

Edo Bosnar said...

Generally I tend to give this episode's positives more weight than its negatives. I agree with Karen about Shatner's performance here, and like Thomas, I really enjoyed the whole courtroom drama aspect of the story.
By the way, the character of Samuel Cogley, Kirk's defense attorney, is the main character in a Trek novel, "The Case of the Colonist's Corpse," co-written by none other than Tony Isabella. (I think Kirk's old flame also reprises her role as the prosecutor in that one.)

Karen said...

So I guess we are getting questions about Kirk's shirt both here and on Twitter! Who knew Starfleet fashions could be so exciting? My understanding is that the special Captain's wrap-around green tunic was first used in "The Enemy Within", although the first episode that aired with it was probably "Charlie X". Initially the rank braid was on the shoulders, but was later moved to the cuffs like the other uniforms. Apparently Shatner found it a bit constricting, especially when he had gained some weight, usually toward the end of a season! I think they just wanted to have another outfit for their star. But it was useful in "Enemy Within" to help distinguish the good and evil Kirks.

Pat Henry said...

Two things stand out for me:

Spock is confirmed at the rank of commander, even though the braid on his sleeve says different.

My favorite part of this episode over the years is that bar scene, where Kirk gets a lot of sass and chaff from other officers who are NOT under his command. Only lasts a few seconds, but you get the sense Kirk is seen by these other officers—peers—as a whiz kid not fully entitled to his rank or command. We’ll never get another scene again like this involving Kirk.

Humanbelly said...

Very much on board w/ the positive commentary here--- and myself wasn't much bothered by the negatives. I'm always a sucker for a court-room drama/mystery, even as a kid, so this episode was a good one for me. (Believe I may have seen it when it aired-- I would have been 5 years old, I think?)

The only casting choice I'd differ on is Elisha Cook, Jr-- it was a solid against-type effort on his part, but the whole folksy-intellectual (Will Rogers-esque?) slant came across as a touch forced in his hands. This is tainted, no doubt, from decades of having seen him play assorted weasel-types-- so the problem may be mine alone.

What I'd like to touch on, though, is Karen's mention of the "white-noise" device-- 'cause I DISTINCTLY remember that, and it reminded me that De Kelley (more than Nimoy, even) had a wonderful gift for using these- honestly- goofy little gadget-props he was handed, and making you absolutely BELIEVE that, not only was he using them, but that he was SKILLED AND ADEPT at doing so-! He could convey that casual familiarity that any professional has with his particular tools. Keep an eye on the assorted little "scanners" he uses over the years. One of them is, I swear, a cigarette lighter from a car with a couple of extra rings attached. He'll hover it over the victim, passing at a steady speed, then look at the end of the handle (or at the "face"), and impart some dire info. None of this really ever holds up under close, logical scrutiny (like the "white noise" device-- he just kind of twists the collar on it, IIRC? Or slides the switch back and forth?), but he absolutely puts it over in the moment. Geeze, I love that guy--! Wot an actah-!


Pat Henry said...

Here's a question-- What was Finney's original plan here? He was in a sensor pod in a moment of crisis and said, "Aha! This is my moment for revenge!" What did he imagine was going to happen? That the Captain would be smeared and court martialed, drummed out of the service? But if Finney ever disembarked the ship, ever tried to reunite with his daughter Jamie, the whole thing would be seen as a fraud. Mad—but not exactly a well-thought-out kind of madness.

One last observation, Lt. Shaw as the command rank officer representing the JAG office on a Star Base is probably the highest authority woman-in-charge we'll ever see on the Original Star Trek. Hate to say it, but she's not really a very good lawyer :-)

Anonymous said...

This one's OK, but not one of my favourites. I always thought Finney's craziness was overdone (how do these crazy guys--Finney, Ron Tracy--pass the Starfleet psych evals? Seriously, they need some stricter guidelines).

I have to (respectfully, of course) disagree with HB about Elisha Cook...I like him as Cogley; I think the "down home Luddite" thing was played well. And as HB pointed out, Cook usually played a weaselly-type, so this is a nice change.

Mike Wilson

Pat Henry said...

Anonymous, from what I've been able to tell, monomaniacal misjudgment and borderline personality disorder seem to be a qualifying requirement for Starfleet flag officers. I think the only one we ever see nearly get everyone killed and then step back afterward was Commodore Stocker. It's a wonder Kirk didn't wash out of the Star Service for being under qualified.

Karen said...

There were some real losers in Star fleet, huh? At least the captain who threw in with the Romans in "Bread and Circuses" washed out of Star Fleet! If he had been a starship captain too...well, that would have really sunk their track record.

I didn't say much about Areel Shaw or Samuel Cogley -I actually had a couple more paragraphs to this post but cut them because I felt it was running too long. Besides, I knew you guys would fill in the gaps! I thought Cogley was a bit overblown. Not quite but close to being a caricature. And he disappears at the end -apparently there was a scene with him returning with Finney's daughter Jamie, but it was cut for time. That's part of why we got that awkward narration.

Yeah, Shaw is not a real memorable 'Kirk woman'. This case sure seems cut and dried! She does have a nice little bit of angst in the bar. And that bar scene! You really do get the impression that a lot of guys were happy to see Jim Kirk fall. Wow. So much for the peaceful, enlightened 23rd century.

Who was the most powerful woman we ever saw on classic Trek? She wasn't in star fleet, that's for sure. I think it had to be T'Pau. Like Kirk said, "That's all of Vulcan, right there."

The Prowler said...

I know in my personal experience, when I went back to pick up some "old shows", there were some that didn't hold up. And when they didn't, it was almost crushing in the disappointment. On the plus side, I didn't have deeply entrenched memories of the show. I think I've watched episodes of Star Trek 10 or more times. Though, I would imagine that by the time they went through syndication, they were so butchered that they resembled only a passing resemblance to the original.

Man, did I have a point? If I didn't, this would be almost epic in the streak length........

One of the strengths of Star Trek was being able to build an identity while also show casing different types of shows. The court room drama. The procedural. The good V evil..... and the comedy!!! Who doesn't love a comedy?

From my readings of the Aubrey-Maturin series, I've learned a thing or two about the King's Navy of the 19th century. Court martials were not uncommon when a captain lost a ship or something went wrong. Like losing a ship. Most of them dealt with losing a ship. Anyway.....there it is.

Due South, Wonder Woman are okay. MacGyver and Remington Steele, not so much.

(So hoist up the John B's sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I wanna go home, yeah yeah
Well I feel so broke up
I wanna go home).

Martinex1 said...

I don't have much to add but I did like this episode. I like the idea presented above that it was almost like an alternate path Kirk. Now that I've made it in my own viewing to the second season, I find some of the themes here similar to the vampire fog episode. Kirk holds others to an incredibly high standard. Maybe that's why his peers don't like him. They perceive him as unbending. Again I like the office politics of it all.

Pat Henry said...

I think we see that same bar scene unfold in a different way in "Trouble With Tribbles"-- someone throws shade on Kirk, only it isn't Kirk who has to swallow it and walk off. Fists are thrown.

We don't see the rank on those gents at the bar, but if they were shy of a few braids they were positively insubordinate even if they weren't under Kirk's command.

Ramo said...

I have never seen the Original series before. I'm doing it right now as you review each episode, so I watch one a week. So far this is the one I enjoyed the most.

Karen said...

Hi Ramo, I'm glad you have discovered the original Star Trek, and I'm excited that you are watching them along with the reviews here. Please feel free to comment and let us know what you think of the episodes. I'm always curious about what people think of the show if they did not watch it when it was first broadcast, or -like most of us here -when it was first shown in reruns in the 70s. Welcome to the blog!

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