Star Trek has some great courtroom drama episodes, and I’d argue “Court Martial” is the first.
It starts out when Kirk is accused of an error resulting in the death of an old friend and officer, Benjamin Finney. Commodore Stone, played by African-Canadian actor Percy Rodrigues, orders Kirk to submit to a court martial to determine whether he lied in his logs, which contradict those of the ship’s computer.
We meet the episode’s two female guest stars very early on.The first is Alice Rawlings, who plays space-schoolgirl Jame Finney, Benjamin’s daughter, who was actually named after Kirk.
She tearfully rages at Kirk.
Portraying women as hysterical can be problematic, if it lends itself to a stereotype of women being irrational and prone to flying off the handle, but in this case her dad’s just died, so her reaction is totally reasonable.
Areel Shaw, the prosecutor, played by Joan Marshall, provides a great contrast to Jame.
Shaw is still holding a candle for her one-time lover, James Kirk, but whereas he is more than eager to forget his current troubles and get up close and personal, she’s thinking more seriously about their professional situations:
Shaw: I’m a lawyer in the Judge Advocate’s office, remember?
Kirk: I remember. Let’s forget it. We have a lot of lost time to make up for.
Shaw: You’re taking it very lightly.
Kirk: The confidence of an innocent man.
Shaw: Are you? That’s not what the rumours indicate.
Kirk: Look, Let’s not talk shop.
Shaw: Jim, this could ruin you. Will you take some advice?
Shaw doesn’t want to have to prosecute Kirk, but dang it, it’s her job and she’s going to do it, and do it well. In some ways she’s a proto-Philippa Louvois from “The Measure of a Man”: both are Captains’ love interests and brilliant legal professionals who put their duty to the justice system first. It’s awesome to see this in TOS, where it’s not uncommon for ladies to let their love draw them away from their duty (*cough* Space Seed *cough*).
Although I’m sure lawyers would have issues with details of the courtroom proceedings, it’s clear Shaw is an able lawyer. She’s the only woman in the room other than Jame and another observer, and she’s clearly winning her case.
Side note: we also briefly meet an unnamed Personnel Officer, who testifies against Kirk. She’s played by Nancy Wong and, while it would’ve been great for her to have an actual name, it’s cool to see a new woman of colour character also in a totally professional context.
Uhura also shows up a few times in this episode, first in the computer recreation of the bridge events at trial, then serving on the bridge later. She even gets to take over the navigation console in the last scene, and it rocks to see her handle this position, which is almost always filled by a man.
But back to the trial. Like I said, the prosecution is winning. But of course, Kirk has to get off the hook so the series can continue, and thus comes in his lawyer – recommended by Shaw – Samuel T. Cogley. Cogley isn’t a fan of computers and is eager to prove the Enterprise computer wrong.
However, he is unable to do so until Spock brings him some new evidence: Spock has been able to beat the computer at chess four times, a feat which should be impossible. Cogley convinces Stone to move the trial to the Enterprise so Kirk can exercise his right to confront his real “accuser”: the computer.
Cogley and Spock have theorized that Finney is alive and hiding on the Enterprise, having faked his own death to frame Kirk and ruin his reputation.
From this part of the episode on, everything is a little bit harder to swallow: the “white sound device” used to isolate Finney’s heartbeat on the ship; Stone letting Kirk go after Finney on his own before a conclusive verdict is reached in the court martial; the KirkFu with Finney; the fact that everyone on the bridge listens to the fight and knows Finney has a phaser, but no one intervenes; the random wrench just lying conveniently in a corner of engineering; etc.
But it’s undeniably entertaining. Finally, Kirk gets the upper hand when he lets Finney know that if Finney destroys the Enterprise, his daughter Jame will die too. Finney didn’t know she was on board.
With the case solved, Areel Shaw takes a minute on the bridge to act on her feelings for Kirk, just a little, before returning to her duties.
Shaw: Do you think it would cause a complete breakdown of discipline if a lowly lieutenant kissed a starship captain on the bridge of his ship?
Kirk: Let’s try (they kiss). See? No change. Discipline goes on.
Shaw: And so must the Enterprise. Goodbye, Jim.
Kirk: Goodbye, Areel. Better luck next time.
Shaw: I had pretty good luck this time. I lost, didn’t l?
It’s great to see Shaw being assertive about what she wants, in a way that doesn’t compromise her credibility or imply she’s willing to throw her career away to be with her man. She’s not actually saying she wanted to lose, but that she’s glad justice was served and Kirk wasn’t unfairly punished.
Unfortunately, after they kiss and Shaw leaves, Kirk shares a bro moment with Spock and McCoy that slightly undermines how awesome Shaw really was. As Kirk takes his seat between the men, who both noticed the kiss, he clears his throat and says:
Kirk: She’s a very good lawyer.
McCoy: Indeed she is.
Given how often these last lines between Kirk, Spock and McCoy on the bridge constitute the episode punchline, it’s hard to know how to interpret this. What they are saying is literally true – Shaw is a very good lawyer – yet the context makes it seem like they’re saying the fact that she’s a beautiful woman is actually more important, that Kirk is way more interested in her kissing skills than her lawyering skills.
But regardless, “Court Martial” deserves a lot of credit for showing a range of women characters, including three competent professional women (Shaw, Uhura and the protocol officer), and for bringing in several new characters of colour to better reflect Starfleet’s diversity.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail. Shaw interviews the protocol officer on the stand, but the latter is unnamed.