Home > SeasonOne > 1-P15CourtMartial

Court Martial

The authors have their hearts in the right place, and this episode builds a fine head of steam before devolving into a routine courtroom drama followed by a routine race against time. But something is not quite right, even in the set up. The ideas are all just a little bit fuzzy, and the character motivations are all just a little bit off. It's as if something happened in the translation from idea to screen and the soul of the episode was lost. This is probably simply the result of the great pressures everyone was under at this point in the first season. Unfortunately, it turns what could have been a classic into something rather routine.

First and foremost, this is a very good idea for an episode. It has potential as a stand-alone story, but even more potential as a series-builder. By putting Kirk on the defensive, we get to hear him talk about the pressures of command, as well as his own self-confidence. We get to witness his character's strength under the greatest of pressure -- personal peer pressure. It's one thing to fight a salt vampire. It's quite another to be confronted by your own comrades back at home. The wonderful scene at the bar gets at this point very nicely.

The backstory -- Finney's resentment and hatred of his former friend -- is also ripe with possibilities. Finney is expressing very familiar and universal emotions. He made a mistake, and it cost him. He regrets it, but can do nothing to fix it. He can't accept responsibility for it and blames Kirk. He sees his former friend surpass him and rise to a level where he believes he belongs. He is relegated to a menial job on the ship commanded by the man who had all the advantages he was denied. He has let his hatred grow and fester until it turned into a sort of desperation. These are powerfully universal -- even Shakespearian -- ideas.

Weaving the Kirk story with the Finney story is plenty of material for a complete episode. An abbreviated courtroom segment could have helped bridge the two, but a simple investigation could have done much the same without derailing things so much. The script as written chooses to dwell on the courtroom and a nifty (but superfluous) technical gimmick (the heartbeat eliminator). It also introduces a romantic interest who -- can you believe it? -- is also the prosecuting attorney. Add a curmudgeonly defense lawyer who hates technology and you have quite a mess -- really too many characters, and too much story.

It ends up teetering on the brink of failure as Cogley meekly rests his case -- one of the poorest character moments in the entire series. That he has nothing else to offer is not really a failure of Cogley's, but a failure of the writers, who allowed this to get to the point where one of their key characters -- who has been billed as something of a genius -- has to throw up his hands and hope that the cavalry arrives. They wrote poor Cogley into a corner, and then had Spock come to his rescue. Small changes in structure could have led Cogley to orchestrate Spock's discovery, then called him to the stand to reveal it.

To be sure, the episode accomplishes what appears to be its primary goal: digging into Kirk's relationship with command, and his officers' faith in him. But it does so in the middle of a sketchy plot which is this close to being worked out. An earlier draft of the script holds the key. In it, Jame mellows quickly and admits to Kirk very early that she has been reading her father's papers. Cogley, upon hearing this, becomes suspicious that she knows something. Later, when she begs Kirk to take a ground assignment, Cogley forms a theory which he later explains to Kirk in an aside:

COGLEY: I began to suspect that (Finney was alive) when you told me about the change of heart his daughter had about you. If she knew he wasn't dead, she had no reason to blame you for anything. (Final Draft, 9/26/66)

The creative team was generally loathe to have guest characters become the agents of solution, wisely preferring to have our heroes come up with the solutions themselves. But whoever cut this short exchange (producer? director? editor? Great Bird?) removed all traces of Cogley's genius and the whole reason he was there. It's a shame because it wastes a marvelous performance by Elisha Cook Jr., who is perfectly cast and a very feisty presence. At more than one point in the story, the audience may reasonably wonder why Kirk doesn't just fire the guy and have Spock or somebody else take over.

There is also the distinct possibility that this little tweak in the story had to be cut because Alice Rawlings as Jame was unable to convey the subtle changes and sense of forbidden knowledge which needed to be there. Hers is essentially a one note performance (hysteria, followed by a bit less hysteria). Without the ability to project the sense that she knows and is hiding something, Cogley isn't motivated to suspect anything about her. Jame comes off as a distraction from the plot, when she could have been the turning point. With a different actor in this part, it could have been a much better and more integrated episode.

Among the other guests, Percy Rodriguez as Commodore Stone is very well cast in the role of Kirk's superior officer, a difficult assignment handled with ease as he projects an air of experience and confidence. Joan Marshall as Shaw is competent, but there's not much to the character. And Richard Webb as Finney provides just the right amount of desperation, though he is seriously underutilized, and replaced by his stunt double for the majority of his shots. Shatner gives a truly fine performance, and reinforces some key areas of Kirk's character: his confidence level and dedication to his ship and crew. (The same earlier draft of the script had Kirk admitting to Jame that he was afraid. Mercifully, that exchange was also cut. You win some and you lose some.)

Technically, the matte painting which establishes the starbase is quite striking. Unfortunately, the models built beyond the set windows look, well, like models. Portraying them in the complete dark of night was a mistake given the magic hour aspect of the establishing shot. It's clearly a case of two separate parts of the production not communicating well. The courtroom set, on the other hand, is an unqualified success (forgiving the door on hinges, of course).

Courtroom dramas are, of course, pretty standard stuff. One of the fine things about this episode is how much things have changed in the courtroom (identification tapes, hand rest lie detector), and how much they stayed the same (opening statements, objections, "Counsels will direct their remarks to the bench."). This is one of the things Trek always did best: extrapolating for the future based on the present. Rather than use some newly-imagined procedure, they use one which is clearly a descendent of the familiar. It was a means of entry for the viewer, but also a comment on the potential for humankind, and a nice example of the optimism of the creative team.

Rating: Middle-Upper (3)