Season One - TOS

Star Trek: The Original Series – Court Martial – Star Trek or a Bad Sixties Legal Show?

Written by Don Mankiewicz, Steven W. Carabatsos, ad Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Marc Daniels

Every now and then it seems that Star Trek has to remind us that as much as us fans enjoyed the original incarnation of the show for being a huge contrast to other shows of the 1960’s, it still was a product of its time. A few episodes reek of the studio coming in and saying “why can’t you do a show like insert other television show here)?” At that point, they could either try to accommodate those who are paying the bills, or blow them off.

Unfortunately, in the case of Court Martial, it would seem that writer Don M. Mankiewicz caved to network and studio demands for a courtroom drama ill-suited to the universe of the future. That’s not to say there are no places for courtroom dramas in the future – Star Trek: The Next Generation did it right on several occasions. However, it just seemed ill-suited to the series and characters at this time.

The Enterprise is at Starbase 11 for repairs after damage due to an ion storm. A crew member was lost in the storm, Lieutenant Commander Ben Finney (portrayed by Richard Webb). An inquiry is conducted to decide if Captain Kirk (William Shatner) bears any responsibility for the death.

At the inquiry, Kirk is told the computer logs show that he pressed the button to jettison the ion pod Finny was in during yellow alert, not red. In addition, Finney’s daughter, Jamie (portrayed by Alice Rawlings), blames Kirk for his death. It seems that there has been animosity between Finney and Kirk ever since Kirk truthfully gave an account of events years before that prevented Finney from ever advancing further in Starfleet.

As if things weren’t bad enough, Kirk then visits an old flame, Lt. Areel Shaw (portrayed by Joan Marshall) for legal advice and learns she’s leading the prosecution against him.

At the court-martial, although Kirk’s crew backs him up, the evidence suggests otherwise. However, back on the Enterprise, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes that he is now able to beat the computer in chess, something he should not be able to do if it’s functioning correctly.

Kirk’s lawyer, Sam Cogley (portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr.) postulates that Finney is still alive and hiding somewhere on the ship. The race is on to prove that the computer is lying, or had its records altered, and that events did not happen the way they seem certain to have occurred.

There are problems with the entire premise here for a variety of reasons. Translating the events shown here into today’s military, and I can’t for any stretch of the imagination believe that someone would be assigned under the command of an officer who at one time cited them for a major, career-ending infraction. I know a chain of command exists and must be dealt with, but for the most part people with conflicts such as this are kept at a distance. In addition, we are to believe that after the events occurred that Finney allegedly holds such a terrible grudge about, the two men stayed such close friends that he named his daughter “Jamie” after Captain Kirk.

Is there any ever any real serious peril? I mean, this is the Captain on trial – even back then there would be no doubt in my mind that he would get out of it somehow. The story pretty much feels forced, and the fact that so many participants in the story are people fans have never seen or heard of before really weakens the story all the more.

Then there’s the problem of Kirk’s lawyer. He’s a quirky sort, and that’s fine, except that we are introduced to the character and his eccentricities, and then it goes nowhere. For the most part, Cogley seems ineffective as a defense attorney until Spock steps in with his own evidence. Were the outcome of the court martial left entirely in Cogley’s hands, it would seem that Kirk’s career would have been over. So why is such a big deal made out of his reputation? Really, the entire episode screams like an argument for a spin-off series titled Sam Cogley: Starfleet JAG.

Other than Spock’s detective work, most of the plot seems out of place in Star Trek. It seems like the plots of dozens of other televisions shows aired during the 1960’s rather than something unique which made this series distinctive. Nimoy does stand out as the one huge bright spot in the episode. He finally seems to have the emotion-denying Vulcan down pat and Spock here resonates more as the Spock ans will know for years to come. Shatner does fine as well, largely due to the fact that he can accept Kirk needing help rather than having to single-handedly save himself. He does get the chance at a bit of action near the end, but it doesn’t feel ego-fed.

For the first time, I noticed some interference in the picture on the DVD. At one point a line appears down the middle of the picture vertically. It disappears after short while, but it hasn’t been cleaned up. For the most part, the restoration job is good otherwise, and it’s always nice to see episodes uncut that were shown as re-runs chopped to hell for years.

However, there’s more wrong with Court Martial than right. There are plot devices planted in regard to characters which are never delved into again. With a show that was so unique in its time, Court Martial makes it seem like many of the other shows that were a dime a dozen in the sixties, and that’s a shame.

Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Tomorrow is Yesterday

Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Return of the Archons

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