Thursday, September 23, 2010

Star Trek Rages Against The Machine With "Court-Martial!"

The Good: Decent concept, Moments of character, Moments of performance
The Bad: Real lame villain, Character traits don't contribute
The Basics: When Captain Kirk is accused of negligent homicide, Spock tries to prove the computer is a liar before the prosecutor can prove Kirk is one!

Star Trek, the classic science fiction series, continually went outside its box to try new things. With varying degrees of success, Star Trek presented comedies (like "A Piece Of The Action"), Westerns (like "Spectre Of The Gun") and political thrillers (like "The Enterprise Incident"). With "Court-Martial," Star Trek tries the courtroom drama. And while those getting into Star Trek only now might think that this is a precursor to William Shatner's Denny Crane on Boston Legal, they have another thing coming. This is far too straightlaced for that.

The problem is, in retrospect, there's a lot to "Court-Martial" that simply does not add up and it's disturbing to watch it now because it seems more like a truly bad episode of Perry Mason than Star Trek. Among other things, it contrives enough plot-convenient ideas or sudden character traits to stall the episode from ever reaching its potential. And the less said about the resolution to the episode, the better! I mean, the episode is just good enough to recommend, but it's not all it could be and now it feels very "'60s."

During an ion storm, Captain Kirk orders a crewman - Lt. Commander Ben Finney - to stop taking readings on the storm (which is a dangerous procedure under the conditions) and evacuate the pod before it is jettisoned. Kirk jettisons the pod and that results in Finney's death. An investigation into the incident, requested by the officer's daughter, reveals that Captain Kirk took steps out of order and that might have led directly to Finney's death. When it appears Kirk might have had a motive to kill poor Finney, he is prosecuted by StarFleet, specifically by his old lover Areel Shaw. Defended by the technophobic Samuel T. Cogley, Kirk tries to defend his career and his actions only to discover the computer contradicts his testimony!

Let's start with Samuel T. Cogley, because he is easily one of the most intriguing characters put forth in Star Trek. Sure, he's just crazy enough that he might have done well on Boston Legal, but his whole characterization is that he hates computers, carries around a virtual library of books and sermonizes more on the evils of technology than actually representing his client. The problem is, Cogley is set up as a vital and interesting character early in the episode and then the show goes nowhere with him. He does not illustrate any audacious legal thinking, he does not win the case using anything particularly clever or even appear to be much of a presence in the courtroom. Instead, the episode is brought to a conclusion somewhat in spite of Cogley as opposed to because of him.

That is not to say Cogley isn't an interesting character, but rather he is a pointless one. He seems to have been included so writers Don Mankiewicz and Stephen Carabatsos could make a point about the value of books. It's fine but it does not, ultimately, go anywhere. As the old adage of writing states "If a gun is introduced in the first act, by the final curtain is must go off." Sure, that can be defied, but it needs to have a purpose. Cogley lacks that in the larger narrative.

But the Perry Mason analogy holds. There's Kirk, the wrongfully accused, Cogley the eccentric lawyer, Shaw the reluctant old flame prosecutor, Stone the stereotype judge, and Jamie Finney the heartbroken daughter. And then there's Spock. Spock uses logic and reason to investigate the alleged crime, which makes Cogley seem like more of a crackpot. That is to say that because Spock takes a reasoned, methodical approach and arrives at a correct conclusion while Cogley is defending Kirk by ranting emotively, all of Cogley's arguments are undermined, including those about the value of books.

The reason my review keeps coming back to that is simple and twofold; it is very hard to talk about this episode without revealing the end and just lambasting what it becomes in the last act and what most of the episode ends up being about is the dependence upon and trust in technology. This is pretty classic man vs. technology (society) with Kirk being accused by a grieving girl and her accusations substantiated by the computer. The bulk of the episode has Captain Kirk arguing that the documented records provided by the Enterprise computer have been doctored to make him appear guilty.

The basic premise is that we trust computers and technology more than people and that's wrong. It's not a bad idea and it is executed fairly well in "Court-Martial" even if Cogley is somewhat ineffectual in the resolution of the story. Cogley is, admittedly, well presented by actor Elisha Cook, who has a wonderful ability to act both crazy and articulate. He is a pleasure to watch, even if not enough happens with his character to make him vital to the story.

The worst acting comes in the last act, during the resolution to the case and it is so bad that I wish I could detail my problems with it without giving away the ending. Sufficed to say the interpretation of dementia is terrible and offensive to the mentally ill community. That said, the principle actors in "Court-Martial" give fine performances and Joan Marshall, who plays Areel Shaw is easy on the eyes and good with her game face as the prosecutor.

Strangely for an episode where Captain Kirk is the focus, it is Leonard Nimoy who rocks on the acting front for "Court-Martial." Nimoy presents Spock with the unflappable calm we always hear Spock supposedly has. I'm one who pretty consistently makes the argument that poor Spock is all hype, less reality, but "Court-Martial" is one of the pieces where he is genuinely methodical. Nimoy plays him with complete emotional control and an inscrutable quality that makes it clear why all the "Trek" fans wanted him!

But the episode lacks any real emotional resonance. Kirk's life is not in jeopardy, just his command. Moreover, the case against him is pretty flimsy. Even without knowing the politics of the 23rd Century, it seems like the type of case that could be overturned on appeal. The Star Trek franchise does courtroom dramas occasionally (ironically, the next episode of the series is another one!), but many of them are better than "Court-Martial." This simply has the virtue of being first. So, for example, Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Measure Of A Man" puts Data's life in jeopardy and had Picard risking his career to defend him. Sure, there's a rip-off of this episode with Picard's former love interest thrown into the mix in that episode, but for the most part, "Measure Of A Man" does courtroom drama better because the stakes are truly big and dire.

"Court-Martial" may appeal to those who like Perry Mason style courtroom dramas, but for those growing up on L.A. Law, The Practice, and the Law And Order franchise, this will seem simplistic and somewhat understated. Fortunately, Star Trek does not make a habit of that. There's just enough to the episode for me to weakly recommend it and in this case, my recommendation is for Perry Mason fans and die-hard Star Trek fans (who would probably watch it whether I recommended it or not!).

Sadly, this episode is more average than I remembered it initially seeming.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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