TOS: S1E20: “Court Martial”

In which we examine the continuous relevance of books in an increasingly computerized age, particularly in legal matters where intent is everything: A Time To Kirk, The Devil’s AdvoKirk, and To Kirk A Mockingbird.

She looks neither happy with Kirk nor capable of dressing herself.

She looks neither happy with Kirk nor capable of dressing herself.

Oh would you look at that. There are other Constitution-class ships. Also, the Enterprise has gotten more damaged in an ion storm than when fighting a cloaked Romulan ship. Them things are nasty. The crewman they lost, it appears they lost because Kirk had to jettison a pod with the crewman in it. One presumes it was going to blow, the crewman was trying to defuse it, and Kirk was forced to sacrifice one life for 433. Wait… we’ve lost a couple of redshirts, that count may not be precise. And the crewman’s daughter walks in and accuses Kirk of murder. Well, I guess we know where the episode title comes from now. Hopefully, we’ll get a good look at how justice works in the 23rd  century when it’s not subverted by crazy people accidentally killing their mass-murdering fathers. Turns out Kirk’s computer logs do not match up to his testimony. DUN DUN DUNNNN.

Kirk states he’s confident of the outcome, but nobody else seems willing to meet his eyes except to insult him. We as the viewers have seen that Kirk is not actually all that (I can’t believe I’m saying this) prone to making stupid or impulsive decisions, although it certainly seems that way when you compare him to Picard. However, he’s at home in a crisis, as seen in “Balance of Terror” and so we can be very confident that he’s not willfully misrepresenting the facts and fairly confident that he’s recalling accurately in his testimony. Maybe the modified computer from “Tomorrow is Yesterday” caught him, um, ‘signing Yeoman Rand’s duty roster’ and falsified the records to try to get him in trouble.

Kirk and Crewman Finney used to be friends before Kirk fixed a problem and logged it. Years later, Kirk commands a starship and sends Finney to repair a Thing because it’s his turn, and then Bad Stuff happens and the Thing has to be jettisoned. Kirk claims he called red alert and that’s what it’s for! Oh man. All these years and it never felt like it did anything except change the lighting, and it does. This is a wonderful episode just for that revelation alone. Anyway, I digress. The computer record states that Kirk did not trigger red alert until after jettisoning Finney. Therefore, we have a Problem. Commodore Stone is trying to convince Kirk to plead out to fatigue to avoid being the first starship captain to stand trial, and Kirk will have none of it. This is a beautiful scene. One of Kirk’s core character traits is that he feels he’s born to command a Starship, and when it’s suggested that he be given a desk job and sweep the incident under the rug he demands a court martial on the grounds that if he’s actually guilty of gross negligence and perjury, he ought to be taken down for it. Transparency in power is a wonderful theme to explore, although I have no idea if it was any more topical than usual at the

About to go on trial for his job and reputation, and Kirk knows exactly where his priorities are.

About to go on trial for his job and reputation, and Kirk knows exactly where his priorities are.


An old flame of Kirk, Maria, is on the station and happens to be a lawyer in the JAG offices. I THINK WE KNOW HOW THIS ONE’S GONNA PLAY OUT! Especially since she’s dropping hints that she’s going to be the prosecutor. And she’s going to slap him down hard. Giggity giggity. This is the first time that Kirk is actually looking worried. And her recommendation for his defense attorney is the kind of man who still uses books. Lawyers love books, plus the aesop here is that computers are not infallible, so the tirade here about how books let you touch, feel, and breathe the intent of the law instead of just being a cross-referenced database of jurisprudence and precedent makes sense. As someone marginally in the business I have to hope that data structures will have advanced far enough by the 23rd century that you can have  the full intent of the law without mass deforestation, but I also love the smell of old books. I read somewhere that lignin breaks down into vanillin, which is why old books smell so good.

The witness chair has some sort of glowy panel instead of a bible to swear on. Spock is making the same argument I made earlier, which I take as a compliment – that Kirk is not a person who panics in an emergency, and would not have triggered the jettison early. Nonetheless, you can see the attack the prosecution will go for – no fault in the computer was found, and Kirk would not have pressed the button by accident. Therefore, he must have murdered Finney.

Huh. McCoy has commendations of valor and decorations for being a surgeon. I have no confidence in the accuracy of Starfleet computers. Also, the prosecution is going down wild paths of speculation and the defense is not lifting a finger in cross-examination. He clearly has something up his sleeve. Something like calling Kirk to the stand. In part so that the computer can continue reading his commendations for conspicuous gallantry for like fifteen minutes.

Kirk asserts that he did exactly what he should have done and would do it again. This reminds me of what will later be the bridge officer’s test in TNG. I’ll try to remember this episode at that time, where we’ll get to see Dianna Troi facing a variant of the no-win scenario – it’s a hard lesson for a future humanists to face – that to be in command means sometimes having to take responsibility for the good of the many at the expense of the few. If you’re very, very lucky, the truth will be closer to “Court Martial” than “The Conscience of the King.”

Of course, now the prosecution gets to cross-examine Kirk. There’s video. I hope we’re going to have some actual meat on this and not some bullshit about the ion storm messing with the ship’s logs in such a way as to perfectly

This interface is worse than Windows 8.

This interface is worse than Windows 8.

simulate video records falsely. Also, more about the just terrible console design in the Constitution-class loadout. We need to take a moment for just how terrible the User Experience design on this is. It’s like in “The Galileo Seven” with the emergency brakes being behind the copilot’s chair. Red and Yellow alert buttons being next to each other I can understand, but why in the name of the Great Bird of the Galaxy would you put the button to jettison a pod that people can be in next to any other button? Let’s be generous and say that these buttons are contextual – that the ‘JETTISON *POD*’ button is there because someone put it on his chair console knowing that they might have to use it. Put it at the bottom so it can’t be pressed by accident. There’s a person in there.

Kirk looks shocked. His attourney looks shocked. Isn’t there some rule of discovery in the 23rd century? Also, Kirk says that’s now the way it happened.

Spock was inspired by Kirk saying ‘chess’ and Finney’s daughter had a change of heart where before she looked about ready to stab him. Some things are not adding up, and one of those things is that the computer now sucks at chess. Well, that’s relative – Spock is beating it. Apparently he shouldn’t be able to, which means something’s wrong with the computers programs. Apparently that’s not something they bother to check, which only seems like a glaring oversight because we’re used to computers where the hardware has been more or less perfected over hundreds of iterations, and the barriers to entry for writing software are so low that any half-competent idiot with an afternoon to kill can cause a buffer overflow while trying some basic file I/O.

Ooh, the defense attourney is going to talk about Kirk’s right to face his accuser. We’re going to make the computer take the stand! We’re laying the foundation here for “Measure of a Man” which is hands-down the most important Star Trek episode of all time. In TOS we’re still stuck in an era where the zeitgeist fears that automation will take away humanity’s humanity. It’s going to turn out that Finney never died in that pod and falsified the computer records, which is nice and narratively satisfying. To find him they’re going to increase the ship’s audio sensors by 1^4th so they can hear the heartbeat of anyone hiding on the ship.

Yes. One to the fourth power. 1 times 1 times 1 times 1. We can presume that either James Kirk or William Shatner merely misspoke and not that they’re blowing smoke up the asses of the court. Anyway, they filter out the heartbeat of everyone who’s supposed to be on the ship, and there’s one left. Hooray! Kirk was framed! And he’s going to beat the shit out of Finney, with the permission of the court. Because if Mad Men taught us anything, it’s that this is how problems were solved in the 60s.

Totally the face of a sane man.

Totally the face of a sane man.

One thought on “TOS: S1E20: “Court Martial”

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