‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Court Martial”

Star Trek’s first courtroom drama serves up one giant slice of ham after the other. It cheerfully tosses aside legal procedure and logic itself in the pursuit of melodrama and scenery chewing. It’s also, almost by accident, a prescient exploration of the dangers of computers. “Court Martial” is an incoherent mess of an episode that somehow, amidst the lurching improbability, manages to be both entertaining and intelligent. It’s not the best Trek, but it’s a good summation of why fans love even Trek that is not the best.

Kirk vs. Computer

The Enterprise lands on Starbase 11 for emergency repairs after it was caught in an ion storm. During the storm, Commander Benjamin Finney (Richard Webb) entered a research pod to make readings. As the storm increased in intensity, Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) was forced to go to red alert, and shortly after to jettison the pod. Finney was not able to exit the pod in time and died.

Or that’s the story Kirk tells. Upon investigation, Starbase 11’s Commodore Stone (Percy Rodriguez) discovers that the ship’s computer records show that Kirk jettisoned the pod before going to red alert. That means that Finney had no warning before the pod was jettisoned and no chance to escape.

The plot thickens as we learn that Kirk and Finney had been long-time friends before Kirk reported a dangerous breach of protocol on Finney’s part while they were serving on the same ship. Stone suspects Kirk of perjuring himself and of deliberately killing Finney. So does Finney’s daughter Jame (Alice Rawlings) who, bafflingly, insists on wearing what looks like a space-age sailor suit.

A court-martial is convened. The prosecutor is Kirk’s old flame Lt. Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall), which seems like a massive conflict of interest. Shaw discloses to Kirk the prosecution’s strategy and recommends defense attorney Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook Jr.) This is a catastrophic violation of legal ethics and procedure. But apparently, they don’t have those in the future so no one cares?

In any case, Cogley is an eccentric crank who hates computers and fills Kirk’s quarters with books. And this guy who hates computers is going to be up against the testimony of computers! The irony! The drama!

The Man in the Machine

As you’ve probably expected, the script calls for Cogley to bluster and bloviate. But (as usual) it’s Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who does the real work. He plays chess with the ship’s computer and defeats it repeatedly. Since he programmed the computer for chess, that should be impossible. The only conclusion is that the computer has been tampered with. The chief suspect is Finney—who must be alive after all.

Rather than searching the ship to find him, Kirk decides to evacuate the entire crew except for the court in order to isolate Finney’s heartbeat. This turns out to be a really bad idea; Finney damages the ship’s engines, and the orbit of the understaffed ship starts to decay.

As we’ve come to expect, there’s a final hand-to-hand knock-about with charmingly mediocre fight choreography before Kirk wins the day. Cogley gives him a book; Shaw gives him a kiss, and presumably, someone fixes that darn computer.

So yes, it’s all quite silly, from director Marc Daniels’ addiction to big dramatic music cues to the “white sound device” that is supposed to mask heartbeats but which is obviously just a microphone.

No Robot Revolution, Just Fraud

But beneath the clunky space tech and the clunkier plot, there are some oddly pointed insights about the dangers of computer fraud and disinformation.

Star Trek often worried about the dangers of computers and robots. But usually, those concerns take the form of wildly fanciful paranoid fantasies about rogue sentient AIs, as in episodes like “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”

In fact, Cogley often sounds like he thinks he’s in one of those plots where the robots take over. He tells the court that if they do not let Kirk challenge the computer’s evidence, “you have brought us down to the level of the machine. Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us!” Cogley’s worried that humans will be subjugated by computers. Skynet is coming!

This isn’t actually the robot apocalypse, though. Finney isn’t a rogue computer. He’s just a guy spreading disinformation. The problem isn’t that computers are too powerful. It’s that humans think computers are more powerful than they are. Computers aren’t infallible rulers. They’re just tools, which can be used for good or ill.

Finney doctors the computer record so it reads that Kirk jettisoned the pod before the red alert. He also falsifies a video record, so the court sees Kirk push the jettison button before the alert goes red.

The court naively assumes the video evidence is proof positive that Kirk is a liar. Kirk himself doubts his own memory.

Don’t Trust That Image

Back in the 60s, when the episode was created, video editing was a complicated and specialized process. Falsifying video was relatively difficult. Now, though, some fifty years later, we are closer to the future Star Trek envisaged. And sure enough, we are awash in manipulated videos intended to deceive viewers.

The Washington Post has a good primer on methods of doctoring videos. At the low-end, these involve simply lying about a video’s context. Most elaborately, deep fake technology can create images of entire scenes and events which never occurred. (Finney could probably have made his deceptive recording via splicing and editing.)

You’d think an expert like Spock who says he “knows all about [computers]” wouldn’t be so thrown by a faked video.

But the truth is, even today, when everyone knows video editing software is widely available and we hear almost daily about images being altered for political purposes, faked video continues to be very effective. So is computer disinformation.

Think how quickly we tend to accept the accuracy of whatever happens to float to the top of a Google search result, or how swiftly lies and rumors can become accepted gospel on social media, with devastating effects on reputations and lives. As just one hideous example, Facebook’s algorithm amplified lies and conspiracy theories about Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017. That abetted a genocide.

Kirk isn’t really fighting a computer in “Court Martial.” He’s fighting another human being who is using computer disinformation to destroy his reputation. The episode is stagey and improbable. But the central concern—that in the future, computers would allow humans to lie to each other more effectively—turned out to be disturbingly accurate.

Rule by computers still seems far-fetched.  But rule by disinformation is much less so.  Cogley denounces machines, but in “Court Martial” the real threat to justice is a carefully constructed lie.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Courtesy of Desilu Productions.

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.