Sunday, August 4, 2013

Court Martial: TOS Season 1 Episode 20

Plot Synopsis

The Enterprise took some damage from an ion storm and the only fatality was Ben Finney. We quickly learn that Kirk and Finney had a history, early on in his career Kirk filed a report that showed Finney in a bad light and it played a part in his slow career advancement. The allegation was that Kirk had something against Finney and the bad report was maliciously, and that perhaps Finney's recent death was intentional. If charges come against Kirk it will be a court martial, the first time it has happened to a captain of a starship. The admiral Kirk talks to tells him to just slink away and they would sweep it under the rug, but Kirk insists he's innocent and demands the court martial!

So a trial ensues, it turns out that in the ion storm they were in yellow alert. At some point when the danger was particularly high Kirk went to red alert, which told Finney that he had to act quickly, he failed to do that and Kirk had to take action which killed Finney but saved the rest of the ship. The prosecution claims that Kirk took that action before going to red alert, never giving Finney the chance to save himself. Kirk insists that this is not the way it happened, but they had damning evidence, video of Kirk pushing the "jettison pod" button with only the yellow alert light blinking

It seems that all is lost, whether intentional or accidental, this seems to be Kirk's fault. He makes some vague statement to Spock about chess as the court is adjourning. Spock goes and plays chess against the computer and wins several games in a row. This should be impossible as he programmed the computer with his own chess skill, he should be coming to a stalemate. It appears that someone has been messing with the computer. Perhaps Finney isn't even really dead, but just trying to frame Kirk.

They evacuate the ship of almost everyone and then have the computer listen to any noise through the whole ship. It can detect everyone's heartbeat, they filter out everyone that is known to be on the ship and there is one heartbeat remaining. They isolate where he is and Kirk goes to confront him. They fight, but ultimately Finney has sabotaged the ship and is ready to die along with anyone else remaining in the ship, Kirk the reveals that he beamed up Finney's daughter. With this information, Finney tells Kirk how the ship was sabotaged and the damage is able to be undone.


In the scene where the admiral was trying to get Kirk to simply slink away quietly, to just go away and avoid his court martial, the admiral was primarily interested in appearance. He didn't really seem to care about what had happened, in fact, it's quite possible he believed Kirk guilty. But he didn't want a stain on starfleet put there by a captain being put through a court martial, he wanted to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Kirk was interested in justice, he didn't care how it looked, he wanted the truth to come out. Great stuff.


There were two things in this episode that from a scientific standpoint caught my attention. The first was a silly little throw-away line from Spock while he was testifying in court. He was arguing that even though he didn't watch Kirk push those buttons, he knew that Kirk had done things in the right order because he knows the man. He said it is no different from dropping a hammer on a planet with positive gravity, he knows it will fall without looking. I love the idea that there could be a planet without positive gravity. Perhaps there is a planet with some exotic substance where gravity doesn't work in our normal sense. Seems a bit silly, but sometimes science fiction is about exploring silly ideas. I liked it, and again, it was just a throwaway line.

The other thing did really bug me though. Near the end they cut power to the enterprise and in a very short period of time they were going to fall out of orbit. This seems to misunderstand what orbit is. It takes power to put yourself in orbit, but once your there you should stay in orbit without the need for power. Sure, over a long period of time a "stable" orbit can decay, but this was a very short period of time, on the order of hours. A similar thing happened in the recent movie, and that bugged the crap out of me too.

Spock and McCoy

Some more banter between Spock and McCoy that caught my attention. When Spock was playing chess, bones found him and was upset that he was doing that, not realizing he was helping the captain with this action.

Bones: Mr. Spock, you're the most cold blooded man I've ever known
Spock: why, thank you doctor.

Love it!

Ripped Shirt

During the fight near the end between Kirk and Finney, at some point Kirk's shirt gets ripped open. I think Kirk needs to stop getting uniforms made out of tissue paper.

Side note here, my wife say me write down the time stamp here and asked what I was doing. She thought it was hilarious that I am keeping track of this. I don't know why it amuses me so much, but I just can't stop laughing when their shirts get ripped.



Overall an enjoyable episode.


  1. A great deal of the meat of this episode goes to Samuel T. Cogley, who shows himself off as an orator of no small stature. Consider the following:

    I speak of rights! A machine has none. A man must! My client has the right to face his accuser. And if you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the level of the machine. Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us.

    This concept of rights was updated further in the TNG episode, "The Measure of a Man," where the issue of a sentient machine (Lt. Cmdr. Data) and his rights came under scrutiny.

    It also occurs to me that there was a missed script opportunity here as it comes to the business of machine rights: the android clones of "What Are Little Girls Made Of." The rights of Brown and Korby as mechanized duplicates might not be too hard to quantify in the 23rd century, years before Data and Lore, but what of Andrea and Ruk?

    Food for thought.

    1. I totally missed that line. I had thought of this episode more as a legal drama kind of thing. Measure of a man seems like a different type of thing as the entire focus was on Data's rights, while here it was mostly about finding out what had happened. But there definitely was an aspect of him having to fight just to get his opportunity to get justice.

    2. Court Martial brings up an important point: the fallibility or vulnerability of machine-kept records. Starfleet was all ready to hand Kirk his ass because they thought the ship's record-keeping system was infallible. WRONG! As demonstrated by Finney, they are quite open to alteration, though in doing so, Finney stepped on something more than just the record of the ion storm and in so doing, left bread crumbs for Spock to find.

      In the modern day, we'd be talking about version control, locked files, and transaction records which would document changes in the file structure, but that is way past the sophistication they knew of back in the 60s. Still, this episode conveys much the same idea and rather effectively.

      Cogley rightly warns against putting computers over humans. Just one look at the current situation with NSA monitoring speaks volumes to that wisdom.

    3. It is pretty amazing how well these stories translate into today's headlines.