Thursday, June 13, 2013

“The penal code! The penal code!”: Court Martial

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!"
If “Miri”, “The Conscience of the King” and “The Galileo Seven” were about pushing the boundaries of what Star Trek was and could do, than “Court Martial” is about taking a long, hard look at what the show was originally conceived of being and the implications of that central concept and running with it to its logical limit.

This isn't like “Balance of Terror”, which was about firmly putting its foot down and loudly, overtly protesting the show's militaristic roots (not that there was anything wrong with that): Instead, “Court Martial” feels like Gene Coon and his team doing a lot of introspection and putting a lot of thought into what a show about the Space Air Force (or indeed the Space Navy, which seems to be increasingly the more accurate description, especially in this episode) would actually be about and what the world of that show might look like. This likely wasn't the original intent, given as this story's genesis came about by Coon approaching writer Don M. Mankiewicz to come up with a money-saving script that could be filmed with one new set. The extent to which this was successful can be easily deduced by observing that this episode features four new sets, a slew of new uniforms, some new matte paintings and the fact the next episode is a two-part clip show.

While it fails rather spectacularly at being a bottle show, “Court Martial” is a significant episode in several other regards, in particular, it's a canon compiler's dream as it introduces numerous new world building elements that will quickly become beloved parts of the “Star Trek Universe”. Most important of these from a modern perspective has got to be the debut of Starfleet and Starfleet Command. This is, to understate things considerably, the single most important development in the series so far from the perspective of the future, and indeed it's so titanic a moment there's only one more that can top it (but we have to wait a bit longer for that). For the first time we have an actual name for the service the Enterprise is a part of and that of the body that governs it. It may seem surprising to those who haven't seen Star Trek in awhile, but this is the first time anything resembling the word “Starfleet” has been mentioned in the show, two years and 14 weeks in. Previously we'd occasionally heard references to Earth or an Earth Command, but with the introduction of the phrases “Starfleet Command” and “United Star Ship”, Star Trek has expanded its scope considerably.

Although primarily a nomenclature change, this does alter the way we look at the world of Star Trek a bit. In the past the Enterprise seemed to have been representing the interests of some kind of colonial power based on Earth: While that reading is still possible, this new terminology encourages a more nuanced and complex way of interpreting the version of the galaxy this show takes place in-This is also helped by having the entire episode basically be devoted to world building, showing exactly the way Starfleet's chain of command and and governmental organisation works. We have a Commodore, who is a retired starship captain, operating a planetary starbase designed for resupplying and refitting passing ships, we have a legal system in place that holds officers accountable for their actions and a bureaucracy supervising all of it. It's very clearly an extension of the United States naval tradition into outer space, and it's a perfectly logical extrapolation of the setting Gene Roddenberry put in place, except far more detailed and sophisticated than he could ever have made it.

That said it's worth keeping in mind we're operating from hindsight here: We know what Starfleet becomes so it's easy to latch onto this as “the way it was supposed to be from the beginning”, but remember Star Trek has a noticeable lack of consistency and continuity at this point. It would been just as easy for a viewer in 1967 to figure all of these fancy world trappings would be tossed out the next episode. After all, that's the way the show's operated before now, and there's no reason to suspect it won't continue to do so. That Coon doesn't throw this out, retains these parts of the setting and indeed continues to expand upon them is something we should return to when he does. What this all ultimately comes down to is that no matter how exciting the reveal of Starfleet Command might be for us, at the moment there's no reason to believe it's anything more than the new name for the Space Naval Service, and that's exactly how “Court Martial” treats it.

In that regard, making “Court Martial” a legal drama is an incredibly sensible idea: If you're going to do an episode about a lot of world building involving bureaucracy and military service, it only follows you'd want to tell a story about a court martial so you can show how that all works together. It's about as far away as you can get from Exploring Strange New Worlds or, for that matter, Gulliver's Travels in space, but it's a perfectly reasonable thing to expect a show about the Space Air Force or the Space Navy to do. The only problem is “Court Martial” isn't an especially *good* legal drama-It's utterly in love with its own jargon, protocol and procedures which, again, makes sense, but there's isn't much actual *drama* per se to be had here. We know right from the beginning Kirk is innocent: He has to be, he's an established character and straightforwardly the series' hero, kicking him off the show 13 episodes into the first season would be actually insane.

This would be alright if the episode was about how Kirk proves his innocence against almost insurmountable odds, and while the show does hint at this direction it never really gets there. Establishing Shaw as Kirk's ex-lover and also the prosecutor is an easy way to drum up tension in theory, but all it does in practice is to further cement Kirk's innocence because she very obviously doesn't believe in her case even if she's good at arguing it. The episode further tries to go this route by having the primary evidence about Kirk be the supposedly “infallible” automatic ship's record and giving him Cogley as his defense attorney, a man defined almost exclusively by being a boisterous old-fashioned bibliophile and humanist who has no time for this newfangled, highfalutin' computer stuff. There's a secondary thread here about how much mechanization should be acceptable and whether computers can be trusted, but after the episode halfheartedly builds it up in the first few acts it turns out to be irrelevant to the actual plot as Finney is discovered to be still alive and playing hide-and-seek on the engineering deck (and anyway there's another really famous episode that deals with these themes better and far more overtly so I'll save my critique of them until we get up to it).

The other big complaint I have with “Court Martial” is its general attitude. This is an episode all about honour, duty, command and service. The overall plot is already about protocol and procedure, and the key scene comes when Kirk first takes the witness stand: He gives a big, pompous monologue about how he “did what he had to do-by the book!” and how all the things he did “and the order in which I did them!” he did for his ship and his duty, as those are the most important things to him. It's right out of the military drama textbook and is pure C.S. Forester and Aubrey-Matarin material and really just not to my tastes at all. However, to William Shatner's credit, he sells the hell out of this, going into a big, overplayed piece-to-camera and doing the entire soliloquy in one take, immediately reminding me of the Shakespearean embellishments of “The Conscience of the King”. And even this isn't a fault I'm finding with the episode (it's quite well done space military drama) it's me drawing a philosophical line marking the boundary of what I like Star Trek to be about.

Additionally, even here it's worth comparing “Court Martial” with its nearest Roddenberry-era analogue, “The Corbomite Maneuver”. That episode was an action-packed thriller with a twist ending that was clearly banking on us being really excited by the back-and-forth bluffing and tense countdown to potential Armageddon. This episode, by contrast, is a more complex courtroom piece that takes its time to explain and establish its setting and actually examines themes like valour, honour and duty instead of tossing them out as buzzwords: We see quite clearly how this affects the characters of Kirk, Stone, Shaw and Finney and how they interpret those concepts, which also builds off of the character studies we saw in “The Galileo Seven”. This is still Gene Coon expanding what Star Trek can be about, only now instead of bringing in other genres to play with, he's beginning to turn his attention to the fundamental pitch of the series itself, and he'll only continue to do this more and more as his tenure progresses. Granted, the end result of this (for the moment at least) is a show that's still overtly militaristic, but at least it's militaristic in a bit more of a nuanced way now.

None of this to say that “Court Martial” is a bad bit of television: With the exception of the few inconsistencies I've mentioned already, it's certainly watchable and far more solid a production than many of the other episodes I've covered so far. My big issue with it is that it represents a version of Star Trek I've never been drawn to and am even less so now. I don't like military drama and I especially don't like it when that's what Star Trek becomes, which I guess should say something about how I feel about the franchise given I'm doing a Star Trek blog. However, there's another side to this: What Gene Coon and Don M. Mankiewicz realised is that a show about the Space Air Force or Space Navy is eventually going to end up here. If nothing else, that's what “Court Martial” is demonstrating-That this is the logical endpoint of a specific, formative thematic thread that's been a part of Star Trek since the beginning. That Star Trek becomes something more than this is evidence Coon knew this wasn't really all the show was capable of, and now that he's found the show's original idea and taken it as far as it can go, he can start to reshape it and push it into the beyond. But Coon has one more act to perform, and what he's about to do next is turn his lens back onto the show's most primal form itself.


  1. It does seem like Gene Coon’s direction away from militarism deserves a lot of credit – he spent more years as a Marine than Roddenberry did in the Air Force. Your post reminded me of another big influence on GR which maybe you’ve already mentioned(?)-- Heinlein’s Space Cadet (1948) about a boy from Iowa joining Space Patrol, whose purpose was keeping peace in the solar system. Apparently it inspired an early 50’s TV series, “Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.” Roddenberry said the novel was so important to him because it “deals with the need to act in a conscious responsible manner with all this technology. I remember thinking when I was creating Star Trek that our people would have a similar code…a band of brothers” (which he later revised to “and sisters too, of course”). TOS was becoming a family ensemble where the continuing characters felt great loyalty and affection for each other. I love how Spock defends the captain during the trial -- “Vulcaneans (!) do not speculate. I speak from pure logic…human beings have characteristics just as inanimate objects do. It is impossible for Captain Kirk to act out of panic or malice. It is not his nature.”

    1. I agree Heinlein's influence is definitely all over Roddenberry's Star Trek: This ties in quite well to the technoscientific futurism that the series seems to me to be most remembered for. In fact, that may be where some of what becomes the Prime Directive comes from, which gives me no shortage of headaches as a cultural anthropologist. But that's another post.

    2. I haven’t read Space Cadet, but somehow thought GR was less interested in its technoscientific futurism" than its ideals of character and essential optimism....sort of in line with Robert Justman saying Star Trek was always a morality play.

    3. Actually IMO he was fundamentally interested in neither. He wanted Star Trek to be believable, hence his interest in Golden Age concepts, and the show naturally ends up dealing with humanistic concerns by virtue of its original structure. But as I've argued a number of times, Roddenberry was at heart not a utopian, at least he wasn't when he created the show.

      IMO What Star Trek probably inherits from Space Cadet is the basic trappings of setting (a space patrol) and the idea one could use this setting as the backdrop for morality plays. I still think we need to take anything Roddenberry says with a significant amount of salt. However, Star Trek frequently gets the *reputation* for being about technoscientific futurism from a certain subset of the fandom due to a combination of these factors, so that's what my comment was about.

  2. Man, I cannot wait to see how you handle "The Menagerie", which has always struck me as one of the strangest TOS episodes, aside from being explicitly meta and the original series' only two-parter.

    1. "The Menagerie" was...interesting. And fun to write about.

  3. Hi Josh

    I said a few weeks ago that I’d comment on some of your articles here… But I’ve been trying to get out a few pieces of my own, very slowly, and your output rate is so impressive it’s difficult to catch up! But I have been reading you, and finding your arguments fascinating. You’ve done three episodes that I remember rather liking so far – liked two and panned the other – and, especially, though I’ve always noticed writer credits from being a voracious reader all my life, I didn’t know all the behind-the-scenes shuffling, so that’s been casting an interesting new slant on the developing series for me. I thought I’d dive in today as displacement activity for what I meant to write this morning…

    I feel the need to apologise in advance for future comments, as they’re unlikely to be terribly deep analysis. With Doctor Who, I love the series and know much of it inside-out, so I’ve tended to think a lot about it; my relationship with Star Trek is very different. I’m a casual viewer rather than a fan, and if I catch an episode I tend not to watch it as intensively. I suspect much of my reaction to the series is formed by the emotional reaction I had to it when I first saw it in late ’70s re-runs when I was at primary school. So, unlike you I think, this series was my jumping-on point in the Star Trek universe, and it still has a certain vivid appeal for me that the various later versions never have – less the plots than the three main characters (well, four: my Dad’s Scottish, even if Scotty isn’t, so as a family watching it I remember we tended to cheer him on), with both the performances and the costumes in bold primary colours.

    So, trying to think back to how I’d have felt about it when I was about eight, all the other boys at school watched it, and it was exciting but mockable, too. I’m quite certain that I wasn’t a paragon of political virtue at that age, though I always instinctively sided with the underdog, but it’s the first series in which I became aware of sexism, though again I’m sure I didn’t call it that. I just remember one of the main things that we laughed at being Kirk always ‘getting the girl’ and that the only women who ever appeared in the show were there to be Kirk’s-of-the-week – and I remember liking Uhura in part because she wasn’t. So whether that was the ‘Uurgh! Kissing!’ reaction of pre-pubescent boys, or that I was already sensing that that was never going to be for me, I can recognise both that it was one of the things that distanced me from the programme a bit and meant that I always understood that it was sexist and just wrote it off from an early age. So while if I catch an episode at random today I might go ‘Oh, dear god!’ at some egregious example (I think there’s one coming up next), I’ve not had the same reaction as your horror at some episodes you’ve already written about: I’d recognised decades ago that that was just something I’d ignore about the series if I were to watch it, which isn’t exactly heroic, but it’s interesting that it’s the one programme I remember watching as a boy that was so obvious about it that I noticed and mocked. That and that it was unfair that they were always laughing at Spock for being a Vulcan (or Vulcanian, here, I notice), though it just seemed mean at the time rather than racist.

  4. [Continuing: my overlong comment has just been challenged to enter the nearly-word “shwOff”. I think it may be trying to tell me something.]

    The other thing that was obvious to all of us at school was that it was a military ship. Loads of people in uniform, all armed, with big exciting space-phasers on the spaceship? What else could it be? So when many years later I started reading debates about this in magazines I was getting in the ’90s, I remember just being incredulous. Surely it was always the US Navy in space? As I’ve written in my infamous How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal, that was just one of the reasons that I felt Doctor Who was for me and that Star Trek was just something I watched.

    Oh, and we did notice that the exciting ray-beams and, especially, the teleport effect was much more exciting and expensive and wished the BBC could do it, but otherwise it didn’t seem like the same sort of thing as Doctor Who at all. Though analysing which stories I liked on seeing them again these days, I did tend to respond to ones with a touch of horror, which I’d probably got a taste for from Doctor Who (theatricality, too).

    Anyway, I’ve gone on too long without mentioning the episode above yet, so I’ll just say I can recognise how I feel about Star Trek still goes back to when I was about eight: entertained by the vivid bits but slightly distanced. Then it came to DVD and my other half and I decided to get it and watch the lot, finding in both of our cases that there were episodes that we’d seemed to have seen about a dozen times and felt like they were what Star Trek always was, and others we couldn’t have seen because we didn’t remember them at all (or perhaps they weren’t sufficiently – entertaining). But I did make a few notes when we watched them, if usually of the less deep and more sarcastic variety, so I feel at least partly armed to make comments in future, if I get round to it.

    End of introspective waffle (but take it as excuses if I ever go back and make shallow comments on your previous posts).

  5. So, finally… Court Martial! I can’t say I chose this on purpose – it’s not an episode I remember until seeing them all on DVD, and I don’t rate it much, but I happened to be catching up with you this morning. It does, though, fit in with the big things I remember being slightly alienated by and just deciding to put to one side / send up: as you say, “the Space Navy” (and gosh, I’d never spotted that this established Starfleet), and the quite ludicrous Lt. Shaw. And you’re right, of course – it’s a great idea for world-building. My problem is that it seems to be such a terrible legal drama. Obviously Lt. Shaw ought to recuse herself, of course, but the only women that recuse themselves from being in Star Trek are the ones that wouldn’t suit clingy space dresses, sexy space music and a past, present or future entanglement with a space captain. But the procedures are just so inconsistent: speculating is good / bad; testimony about computers ruled in, then ruled out when it’s helpful to Kirk; and in general just outrageously biased to the prosecution.

    Watching on DVD, possibly for the first time, our biggest mirth was for Kirk’s buttons on his big command chair (I really wanted one of those when I was a kid and we didn’t have remote controls): ‘Let me ring for a coffee – whoops! The “eject” button was right next to it, squeezed in with the auto-destruct!’ It makes me appreciate modern computers (Samuel T Cobbley snarls) and their ‘Did you really mean to do that?’ option. I suppose the ‘Undo’ function for an ejection would be a sort of bungee-jump. And I’d forgotten – the other thing everyone knew about Star Trek when I was little was that everyone hated computers and made them blow up, obviously. I have some sympathy with that, but I think I’d prefer the computers to all the flag-knitting this week.

    Much as I like to see an actor from one of my favourite movies, I can’t help wishing today that the new CGI version doesn’t replace Elisha Cook Jnr with Denny Crane.

    1. Oops! Sorry for posting yet more, but I clearly changed my mind about the structure of the last sentence half-way through typing it and so published gibberish. What I meant to say was something like:

      Much as I like to see an actor from one of my favourite movies, I can’t help being disappointed today that the new CGI version doesn’t replace Elisha Cook Jnr with Denny Crane.