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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.20 The Tell-Tale Heart

Court Martial

Lieutenant Shaw questions the Enterprise's Personnel Officer.
"Do you waive your right to help pass the Bechdel test?"

“Court Martial” is something of a mess.

Production Trials

That’s a statement of fact, rather than a value judgment. I’m a David Lynch fan; there’s no way I’m going to argue structural tightness and coherent plotting are necessary conditions for an enjoyable story.

There is a difference, though, between crafting hazy half-narratives in the hope of bypassing the conscious mind, and just not being able to put together what you’d originally intended. Of having to make so many compromises and changes to what you thought you were doing that your planned creation is never really born, but it doesn’t quite die either. If we want to extend the Lynch analogy, “Court Martial” isn’t so much Mulholland Drive as Dune, rendered incoherent not by dream-logic and nightmare imagery, but by external factors bringing about an editing crisis.

The fact Dune is generally considered to be worst film in the first two decades of Lynch’s career (incorrectly, but that’s another post) demonstrates that even the most distinctive of voices can find themselves muted by the realities of production. I don’t think there’s much shame in the idea that it eventually bowdlerised the work of the guy who wrote Tentacles. [1]

Based on Memory Alpha’s typically helpful episode article, there were three main changes made to the episode as originally put together by Steven W Carabatsos (itself reworked from a Don M Mankiewicz script), each of which ended up causing issues.

First is moving the scene of Kirk being snubbed by his former classmates at the Starbase 11 bar earlier in the episode. This was done to make the first act more eventful (a young woman reacting to her father’s death apparently not being the sort of thing TV people considered “an event” in those days). The result may indeed add to the pace, but it also means Kirk’s comrades are happy to condemn him before it’s even clear if there’ll be a trial at all, let alone one which seems to be going badly for the captain.

That’s small potatoes, though. Maybe those men had heard Finney’s version of his former friend’s “betrayal”, or maybe they’re secretly pleased that the first guy from their class to reach captain seems to have been given the chair too early. My head itches a little more at Jame’s sudden change of attitude after reading her father’s old letters.

According to older versions of the script, Jame had realised her father hated Kirk to such an extent it was possible he might have framed him. With that replaced with the letters being glowingly positive, it’s hard to reconcile the scene with what comes later. My best guess about the intent of the scene as presented is that Jame has figured out her father might have pulled a fast one, so goes to Kirk to apologise for blaming him. At the same time, though, she can’t bring herself to betray her father by sharing her suspicions. And so she lies, pretending the letters were so positive about Kirk she no longer believes he deliberately spaced him. Cogley then suspects Jame is lying – I guess as an attorney, he’s got an ear for this sort of thing – and starts thinking about whether the court martial is centred on entirely the wrong crime.

I guess that just about hangs together. It’s a long way to go to get to the plot implications of the scene, though. particularly given it requires reading up on the episode’s production issues. Absent that arcane knowledge, the conclusion I reached on first watch was that Jame has been contacted by her father, knows what’s happening, and is pretending to make amends as part of the deception. Which the ending of the episode then contradicts. I think.

So maybe we're supposed to believe her reaction is genuine? Perhaps she really was looking through correspondence so old Finney and Kirk really were terribly close at the time, and concluded from that Kirk could never wish her father harm – as though there is no-one hated in this world who was not once loved. If that were all that’s going on here, though, why does her arrival prompt Cogley to have some kind of at least partial realisation about the underlying truth of the case?

Jame and Cogley are also involved in the third and most baffling production swerve the episode is forced to pull. This comes towards the end of the story, when Kirk’s lawyer insists he has to return to Starbase 11 to collect a dead man’s daughter. Apparently this is vital to the unfolding plan to catch Finney, but ultimately her role is reduced to a failed attempt to persuade him to give up. We never even see that she’s arrived. A pair of hurried voiceovers are deployed to sort of stitch the narrative together, but we’re still left with the idea that Finney hated Kirk so much he’d let not just a half dozen strangers die alongside him, but his own daughter too.

As a result of all this, we’re left with an episode which keeps second-guessing its own narrative, offering tantalising glimpses of what it planned to do, but sadly never quite got around to. The obvious, and indeed correct, conclusion to draw here is that the swirling storm of chaos and compromise that engulfs any attempt to make weekly television episodes in a season which has already started airing hit “Court Martial” particularly hard. For any other story, there might not be a great deal to say beyond that.

Happily, that isn’t the case here. That’s because “Court Martial” has a point it wants to make on the notion of reliable narratives.

The Butlerian Jihad

Clearly, it’s rather fun that an episode struggling to make sense within itself is concerned with the idea of whether we can trust what we’re being told. Indeed, “Court Martial” manages to accidentally commit to this idea so completely that it doesn’t even manage to make the point about unreliability it thinks it’s making.

This is all to the good, given that what it thinks it’s saying isn’t very interesting. What “Court Martial” wants to tell us is that it’s dangerous to consider technology to be infallible. If we treat machines as infallible, we’ll give them power over us, blah, blah, blah. It’s a rather dull, and even reactionary take on the early days of the computer age. The script goes so far as to call the guy opposing this hypothetical rise of the machines “Cogley”. Get it? [2].

There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t work. You can make stories about how technology intersects with society in unsettling ways, naturally. Black Mirror played in this sandpit repeatedly, sometimes even successfully. But the problem is almost never the technology itself – atomic weapons are about the only exception I can think of, and that’s only because I’m struggling to come up with a hypothetical situation in which a thermonuclear explosion is clearly what we need to reach for.

(No, I’ve never bothered to watch Armageddon, why do you ask?)

In the case of “Court Martial”, the imagined problem with this particular social/technological intersection is that the state might rely on a computer’s output to so great an extent it bangs up an innocent person. And I just can’t bring myself to care about that. Not when the state already has so many other ways to crush someone for no good reason.

I mean, this was written not four years after Martin Luther King wrote his letter from Birmingham Jail. Society was (and is) already perfectly capable of refusing to consider a system might be imperfect no matter what its effects on those living under it. Freaking out about the implications of holding computers to be infallible (which was never the same thing as logical, no matter what the Vulcans claim [3]) conveniently forgets all the other ways people with authority can wield that authority as a weapon. I don’t want to take this argument so far as suggesting Mankiewicz is fretting about the horror of a system so divorced from humanity that even a white guy couldn’t talk himself out of trouble anymore, but that wouldn’t be an unsupportable position to take.

So no. Replacing the levers of power with a keyboard might add efficiency, but it’s not any kind of sea change in stitch-ups.

This is compounded by how totally Mankiewicz fails to understand what he’s criticising. I don’t mean in the sense that it’s ridiculous to suggest editing a video file would somehow leave a computer unable to play chess. That’s only worth mentioning to point out how little it’s worth mentioning.

No, I’m talking about how aggravating it is being lectured on the dangers of a particular piece of technology by someone who clearly doesn’t have the first idea of what they involve. “A computer could be programmed to lie” isn’t a chilling indictment of a new technological age. It’s just a demonstration of how little Mankiewicz understands what computers are and can do. As a kid I programmed my Spectrum to endlessly print out “My sister smells of poo”, mate. It’s not news that computers are only as reliable as they’ve been told to be.

Were this the actual message of “Court Martial”, we would be entirely justified in hoying it into the bin marked “Petulant Slaps at Modernity”. Fortunately, though, the very incoherence of the episode ends up minimising the damage done. Yes, Cogley gets to have his rant about subordinating man to the machine. Yes, he gets to make a big deal of carting his library around with him everywhere he goes, like that wasn’t just eating into the time he should have been spending working on Kirk’s case [4]. Beyond that, though, and Spock’s eventual breakthrough in the case, you could remove all references to computers from the script without it making any real difference.

Because the evidence being marshalled against Kirk isn’t actually being supplied by a computer at all. It’s recorded CCTV footage.

Again, the plot implications of this are fairly uninteresting. Presumably Finney’s programming skills were employed to hide the fact the footage had been doctored – a more advanced form of my students changing the time-stamp on a document to make it seem like they haven’t been working on it past the deadline, but basically the same principle. What’s far more important is how this switches the central question from the fallibility of computers, to the fallibility of footage. An episode which has reversed the order of scenes to make the proceedings more exciting proves to be the same one in which Kirk argues the video presented as evidence in a court case has had its order switched up, too.

We could, if we wanted, use this to shift the focus of the episode’s concerns from computer surveillance to the rather more era-appropriate use of CCTV. Camera surveillance didn’t really take off until a few years after this episode aired, when it became practical to store the footage on VCR rather than huge reels of magnetic tape, but setups involving people monitoring live feeds had been commercially available in the US since 1949. Focusing on CCTV would at least shift the episode into a genuine contemporary concern, rather than it just being “old man yells at water vapour that might one day form a cloud”

I think though that there’s a better direction the footage of those two switches can take us in. Why are we, as an audience, primed to dismiss the film of Kirk’s actions as being “fake”, when it takes the same form as every other piece of film we see in the show? Put another way, despite McCoy telling Spock he had to observe him playing chess during Kirk’s trial to credit it as possible, why is it that we’re suddenly brought to the conclusion that seeing isn’t believing?

True Lies

This is a fun question to roll around your head. It’s also one that’s been dissected and discussed by people far smarter and more experienced than me since before Gene Roddenberry sat down to write “The Cage”. Which is to say, we’re veering into the territory of a specialism that is very much not my own. There’s not much it’s sensible for me to do but nod at the largest landmarks, and remind you that guidebooks are available for purchase.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to lace up your shoes. We’re not going far. Because what’s this, directly outside the front door, but a gigantic marble statue, helpfully bearing the inscription “People tend to root for the protagonist in fiction”.

One response to this colossal, stone-carved truth is to conclude “Court Martial” is empty of tension. We know Kirk is innocent without having to be told. But then we also knew he wasn’t going to die in “Arena, and that someone would eventually work out there were two of him in “The Enemy Within”. The idea that a story can only generate drama if you’re genuinely unsure about the outcome is… well, let’s just say there’s a reason people by DVDs of shows they’ve already watched. I’m also not sure it’s particularly sensible to argue that what puts the drama into courtroom drama is not knowing whether the person on trial actually did it.

There is a germ of a point here, though. I slated “Oasis” two posts ago because it built itself around a fundamentally uninteresting mystery. If “Court Martial” was doing the same – hoping the audience would question whether Kirk used a ship-wide emergency as an excuse to kill someone who didn’t like him – then yes, that’s a terrible idea. As I say, though, that isn’t what’s going on here. This is about the idea of two competing narratives clashing together, and examining why one of them wins out. Which is why putting Kirk on trial, far from being a waste of everyone’s time because no-one watching believes he’ll be found guilty and drummed out of Starfleet, is a terribly canny move. Because what is a court case, fundamentally, but two sides providing competing narratives, from which someone then has to pick the version that seems closest to the truth?

Consider Cogley’s insistence the court hears at least part of Kirk’s long list of commendations, which Lt Shaw wanted skipped. The court martial is just seconds old, and already the narratives come out to play. Shaw wants to tell a tale of a man whose past exploits are commendable but irrelevant to the current situation. The story Cogley wants to tell, though, is of an experienced, competent commander, someone terribly unlikely to panic and start pressing buttons at random.

And it’s this latter story which fits most snugly beside all the other stories of Kirk we’ve experienced. Beyond the meta-explanation of people being smart enough to recognise a heroic archetype in fiction, this strikes me as the fundamental reason why we can so easily sort the pack of lies that constitutes a fictional TV show’s episode into “true” and “false”.

Cogley’s strategy is probably the right one under the circumstances. You point out the man on trial couldn’t have got to where he is in life if he were prone to the kind of mistake he’s accused of. You argue that his personal history – his story – is more compelling and believable than three seconds of video footage, no matter its alleged reliability. All perfectly sensible.

But it’s the prosecution’s case that’s the really interesting one. As I say, Cogley’s case seems based on the argument that Kirk is too experienced and decorated a commander to make so elementary a mistake. Shaw’s obvious response here would be to argue that no-one is infallible. Everyone is playing a perfect game until the moment they’re not.

No-one is going to listen to a lawyer saying their client couldn’t have knocked someone down with their car because they’re well-known for never having knocked anyone down with their car before. Sure, it might feel harsh to rule that a single mistake, made in a fraction of a second under tremendous pressure, can result in the end of someone’s career. But when you choose a career where so momentary a lapse of concentration can get someone killed, well, them’s the breaks, right? No spacing out in space, lads.

Combine this with the fact video footage exists of Kirk’s mistake, and the narrative of a simple mistake coming at the worst possible time seems difficult to counter. That, though, isn’t at all the story Shaw decides to tell. Instead, she takes the position that Kirk killed Finney deliberately, as the cumulation of a decades long rising spiral of resentment.

This works for our purposes, because it provides the stronger counter-narrative for our story of Kirk to be compared to. “How do you know Kirk is a hero?” is a much more interesting question for the audience to ponder than “what makes you think Kirk is competent?”. In terms of Shaw doing her job, though, it’s a surprising choice. Arguing the a highly-decorated captain can still make mistakes is much more persuasive than arguing a highly-decorated captain was just waiting for the moment to murder a crewmember who hated him. Shaw clearly isn’t an idiot. So why is she deliberately hobbling her case?

I think it’s because she wants to lose. Or at least, she wants Kirk exonerated, which amounts to the same thing. Because she knows the story of Kirk as well as anyone – indeed the implication is very heavy that she knows it in a way very few others do. She’s fully aware no story she might tell as his prosecutor could actually be reconciled with the story she’s already lived.

And if the story she’s going to spin clearly isn’t true, why not make sure the fiction does some real good? What better reason for telling a story is there, anyway?

In other words, what we learn about Kirk isn’t that he’s not a murderer. It’s that he’s so good a man that an ex-lover will risk damaging her own career to help him get off charges she won’t believe are true, even given the apparently airtight evidence presented. We can argue as to whether this is taking the idea of the infallibly noble character archetype too far, but that’s the story behind the story.

The Captain's Tale

Seeing this episode as being about which stories hold up better when they clash also helps us out with the apparent strangeness of Jame going to Kirk’s quarters to apologise. Under this reading, whether she’s being honest or not becomes less significant than the fact her arrival prompts Cogley to realise that this case isn’t about a clash of recollection, but of narratives.

We’ve seen already that it’s the captain’s own tale that wins out in the end. We need to consider though that the stories at war were both about who Kirk was up until the moment he reached for his control panel. The actual story of Kirk continues past that instant. We should note the decision to have the incident take place off-screen, before the episode has even begun. This is an interesting play, which highlights that the actual specifics of what happened during the emergency matter less than the effect the whole situation is having on Kirk. Whether Kirk is legally guilty of Finney's death is, in some sense, a sideshow, given that Kirk's actual guilt over his death will remain either way.

One of the cruellest aspects of Finney’s plan is that, by tricking Starfleet into bringing its considerable weight down on Kirk over the career consequences of what has happened, Kirk is denied the space he needs to process the emotional consequences. Kirk is in the awful position of having to repeatedly insist that when he killed someone he was not only professionally responsible for, but once considered one of his closest friends, it was the right thing to do. “A man I once loved, who then spent years hating me for denying him the life he so wanted, is now dead, and I was the one who killed him” is a hell of a thing to make someone keep reminding themselves. Sure, logically Kirk had no other choice, but as comfort goes, that’s as cold as deep space.

I can’t comprehend the weight of the guilt Kirk must be feeling. Especially given how it must rub against constantly being forced to proclaim his legal innocence. The thrust of this court martial is that the price one pays for becoming a captain is that the slightest lapse in judgment or attention can wreck your career. The deeper issue, though, is that becoming a captain both maximises your responsibilities, and minimises your ability to express the effect the weight of that responsibility is having on you.

No wonder they started putting counsellors on starships.

The fact Kirk is denied the opportunity to work through these feelings is tragic, of course, but that very denial also prevents it from becoming textual. A negative space one only catches from the very corner of the eye. It can be seen, though. Finney haunts the Enterprise like an accusing ghost – apparently altering footage from beyond the grave, causing computers to malfunction, perhaps even visiting his grieving daughter. This reaches a peak in the final act, in the brief moments before the penny drops that Finney must be alive somewhere on the ship, when his ghostly heartbeat breaks what is supposed to be a total silence.

This might partially be a reference to the haunting of the Great Eastern, one of my favourite “real” ghost stories when I was a kid. Either way, thought, the much more obvious and useful inspiration for us to point to is Edgar Allen Poe.

For the uninitiated (and if that’s you, then stop that at once!), Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a short story which takes the form of a murder confession. The narrator attempts to explain why he was compelled to murder an old man of his acquaintance (their actual relationship is never made clear), despite the victim never having given offence beyond having a strange-looking eye. With the deed done, the narrator hides the body beneath the floorboards of his house, and concludes he’s got away with his crime. Ultimately, though, his guilt over his crime builds to intolerable levels, expressed by his conviction he can hear the dead man’s heart hammering from its hiding place. The noise becomes so intolerable he’s forced to point at the body’s hiding place and confess his crime to a trio of bemused police officers.

It’s not hard to draw the line from Poe’s tale to “Court Martial”, with the latter involving the bizarre decision to flush Finney out by amplifying the heart beats of everyone on board and removing them from the mix one by one. This honestly feels too left field to even count as an early instance of technobabble. I can’t recall how much we know about 23rd century scanners at this point, so maybe it’s not all that ridiculous that no-one just suggests scanning each area of the ship for life signs. Surely though checking on, say, oxygen consumption by room is a rather less odd way to get to the same result.

Except that then we wouldn’t get this delightful link to guilt. Here, rather than the murder victim’s heartbeat bringing justice to his murderer, its thumping reveals there was no murder at all.

Poe references are pretty much always going to get my vote a priori, but nodding at “The Tell-Tale Heart” works on a few levels here. The story of a man who one day just snaps and kills someone because they won’t stop staring at him is at least slightly similar to the tale Shaw tries to spin about Kirk’s possible motives for murder. In Shaw’s telling, Kirk just got more and more annoyed about Finney starting at him in resentment that one day he just snapped. Shaw tries to retell Poe’s short story, only for the episode to save its hero by retelling it better.

But also, as I say, this finally allows the episode to at least allude to what Kirk does feel guilty for. Not for a mistake he didn’t know he made, but for the decisions he knew were correct, but still came at a terrible cost. Some of this relates to his belief he was forced to sacrifice Finney’s life. Even when Finney proves to have been alive all along, we’re now twenty episodes into a show with a pretty high body count – this is something that’s been haunting Kirk for a while.

Beyond that, there’s the guilt about how he had managed to so completely miss how ill Finney clearly was. It’s the guilt so many of us carry around about the razing of a relationship that once meant a great deal to us. Of looking back at a past long dead, and not being able to resist wondering whether things could maybe have turned out some other way. Perhaps you regret what you did. Perhaps you know things could never have ended any other way. That doesn’t make you feel any better than it does Kirk, though. It doesn’t still that voice in the back of your mind saying “Yes, but what if?”.

In this way, “Court Martial” reminds us of Kirk’s humanity just as much as it considers how far captaining a starship puts expressing that humanity out of reach. The heart that tells a tale here isn’t ultimately Finney’s after all, it’s Kirk’s. I asked above why the viewer finds it so easy to determine which clips of actors pretending to be other people in front of cameras are “real” and which are not. In this case, the answer is simpler than ever. We know Kirk’s heart. We’ve heard the tales told about it.

While this episode may be messy, and even on occasion ugly, then, we can at least say this much for it: its heart is clearly in the right place.

[1] Current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 0%. I cannot express how much I want to watch this movie.

[2] One of my absolute favourite factlets about this episode is that Elisha Cook, who played Cogley, struggled to reliably deliver the impassioned courtroom speeches in which his character insisted we shouldn’t consider people less reliable than computers.

[3] It’s fun that an episode which can’t tell the difference between operating logically and operating infallibly is also one in which everyone starts incorrectly calling Vulcans “Vulcanians”, including Spock.

[4] 'Mr Cogley? Jim Kirk here. I've received your invoice. Fifteen hundred credits for "mandatory library relocation"? You're aware I have access to photon torpedoes, aren't you?'

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