Sunday, July 15, 2012

Court Martial

Isaac Asimov had a book published in 1968 called Asimov's Mysteries. A collection of science fiction stories which worked according to the rules of the mystery genre. Asimov wrote in his introduction to the book,

“I was told that 'by its very nature' science fiction would not play fair with the reader. In a science fiction story, the detective could say, 'But as you know, Watson, ever since 2175, when all Spaniards learned to speak French, Spanish has been a dead language. How came Juan Lopez, then, to speak those significant words in Spanish'. Or else, he could have his detective whip out an odd device and say, 'as you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of detecting the hidden jewel in a trice.'
You don't spring new devices on the reader and solve the mystery with them. You don't take
advantage of future history to introduce ad hoc phenomena. In fact, you carefully explain all facets of the future background well in advance so the reader may have a decent chance to see the solution. The fictional detective can make use only of facts known to the reader in the present or of 'facts' of the fictional future, which will be carefully explained beforehand.”

Asimov became firm friends with Roddenberry, and a supporter of Star Trek. Would he have approved of Court Martial? The story certainly fits the criteria Asimov gives in the above quote.

Inside the trial format is a straightforward mystery. Is Kirk lying, or is the infallible computer wrong? Kirk says he followed procedure during an ion storm and went to red alert before jettisoning a research pod which was endangering the ship. Kirk admits he killed the pod's occupant Ben Finney, but he says Finney was too slow in leaving the pod after Kirk went to red alert. The computer says Kirk jettisoned the pod before going to red alert, and is therefore either lying or incompetent. The script doesn't cheat by relying on made-up devices like Asimov's fantastically named pocket-frannistan. Instead Spock makes a logical deduction from the available evidence. He programmed the computer, and now he can beat it at chess whereas previously the best he could hope for was a draw. Therefore someone has tampered with the computer to change the records it holds.

The closest the episode gets to gimmickry is the ending where the trial moves to the Enterprise bridge after the ship has been evacuated. The Enterprise's internal microphones are massively amplified allowing the people involved in the trial to hear the heartbeats of everyone on board. One by one, McCoy uses a noise cancelling microphone on the trial personnel to remove their heartbeats until only one can still be heard; Finney's. The man Kirk supposedly killed is still alive. He faked his own death, and the evidence against Kirk, and is still hiding on the Enterprise. Even here the story plays fair. Finney's presence on the Enterprise could have been presented by showing an inch by inch bow to stern search of the Enterprise, or by using the ship's sensors. The whole sequence with the microphone is simply a more visually, and audibly, interesting solution.

The major cast all put in good performances. In one short scene William Shatner is brilliant when Kirk is asked to explain in his own words what happened. Shatner plays the scene quietly with very little movement, or expression, and his voice stays clipped and level. Kirk starts out subdued and you can visibly see his confidence grow as he begins to hope he might turn this situation round. It's a performance helped by the directors decision to shoot the scene as a slow zoom into a close-up of Shatner's face, and the editor's decision to play the scene with a minimum of cutting to reaction shots. For a second it's possible to believe Kirk has won the court round by sheer force of personality before the inevitable crushing blow as Areel Shaw shows Finney's faked visual extract from the Enterprise logs.

Unfortunately the story comes with a massive side order of melodrama. Heightened emotions and situations are the order of the day. The tone is set when Finney's daughter bursts into Commodore Stone's office and hysterically accuses Kirk of killing her father. Then we get Cogley the computer hating lawyer. Kirk's old flame Areel Shaw being forced to prosecute him (“Because, Jim Kirk, my dear old love, I am the prosecution, and I have to do my very best to have you slapped down hard. Broken out of the service, in disgrace.”). Lots of courtroom action with people shouting “objection” and “sustained”. And finally poor old Ben Finney.

In the review of The Corbomite Maneuver I talked about television's need to compress maximum information into the minimum time. There we had Navigator Bailey the world's worst bridge officer. Here we have rambling Ben Finney. Cacking, paranoid, bug-eyed, unshaven Ben Finney who, talks about himself in the third person; the ultimate sign of TV madness. “Except for Finney, and his one mistake a long time ago, but they don't forget.” Finney's one mistake was to leave a circuit open to the atomic pile on the USS Republic. Ensign Kirk found and logged the mistake which could have destroyed the ship, and Finney went to the bottom of the promotion pile where he nursed a grudge against Kirk which turned into hate.

It's not that Finney's revenge plan against Kirk lacks sense, it's that Finney as he appears on screen doesn't seem to be the person to carry it out. If this was a spur of the moment idea he comes across as someone who no longer possesses the skills for the fast but detailed work we must assume is required to reprogramme a computer before records are accessed, and leave no obvious traces. Alternatively, if this is a plan which has been maturing for some time it seems unlikely no one has noticed just how mad Finney has become while he waits for the exact combination of circumstances necessary for his plan. It's ironic that in the episode where we first see the Enterprise personnel officer we also see Finney, her greatest failure. 

Bubbling away in the background of Court Martial are a couple of odd moments regarding the planet Vulcan. During the courtroom scenes Spock is referred to, and describes himself, as Vulcanian. Nothing odd about that, although it sounds a little clumsy. Except, in the opening moments of act one Kirk goes to the M11 Starbase club where he greets one of his ex-Academy classmates with the line, “I haven't seen you since the Vulcanian expedition.” Expedition in this case sounds like it is being used in the military sense of the word, which is strange, but also reminded me of this exchange from The Conscience Of The King.

SPOCK: My father's race was spared the dubious benefits of alcohol.
MCCOY: Now I know why they were conquered.

The Conscience Of The King was filmed 12th, Court Martial 14th, and in the middle was The Galileo Seven where the stranded crew display hostility to Spock which is out of keeping with their status as Starfleet Officers, if not completely inappropriate. Could these be remnants of unused backstory for Spock or the planet Vulcan? Was someone on the production team toying with the idea, or under the impression, that Vulcan had been at war with, and conquered by, Earth? These are still early days for the series.
New ideas are always being tried out, and sometimes rejected. Having set up a model for time travel in The Naked Time a different one was used in Tomorrow Is Yesterday. Or look at the way Sulu is shuffled from  astrosciences to helmsman. Even concepts like the Federation, or photon torpedoes, which today are core parts of Star Trek, didn't appear until Arena. 

Kirk also gets a couple of moments which shine an odd light on his backstory. None of the old classmates Kirk meets in the M11 Starbase club seem happy to see him again. One, Timothy, all but accuses Kirk of murdering Finney, and appears to speak for the others when he says, “Ben was a friend of ours.” This scene has a very real story purpose to get the episode off to a good dramatic start, and to contrast Kirk's casual attitude with the very real danger to his career. However it seems odd in the light of Kirk's service record. Think of all the things we've seen him do. It's easy to understand why Commodore Stone starts the investigation into Kirk's actions. He has no choice. It's harder to understand the response of the other Captains but it ties in with information from earlier episodes. In Where No Man Has Gone Before, Mitchell talks about Kirk at the Academy, “A stack of books with legs. The first thing I ever heard from upperclassmen was, Watch out for Lieutenant Kirk. In his class, you either think or sink.” Then in Shore Leave Kirk describes himself as, “absolutely grim.” Their dislike here makes it easy to imagine Kirk as a bookish little prig who was hated by his fellow students. The incident on the USS Republic probably confirmed their bad opinion of Kirk as a nasty little cheeser who wouldn't even give his friend a break.

Crew deaths: None, although if Kirk really is that disliked in Starfleet, it's funny to imagine all the other dead crewmen have faked their own deaths and are also hiding on the Enterprise hoping to get Kirk charged with murder.
Running total: 25

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