Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

"Tribunal"

***

Air date: 6/6/1994
Written by Bill Dial
Directed by Avery Brooks

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Miles and Keiko O'Brien's vacation is interrupted when the Cardassians arrest O'Brien from his Runabout and throw him in a cell—following a brutal prisoner processing procedure. They offer him no explanation of the charges against him; they simply leave him confined to a cell for days, awaiting his trial.

This episode depicting the Cardassian legal system has shades of Orwell and 1984 everywhere. The themes running through "Tribunal" are less than subtle, but effective nonetheless. They show a man's futile plight in a society that has already sealed his fate. The Cardassians tell O'Brien that his guilt has already been determined; the trial is merely a display for the public's benefit. The notion that the trial system has been designed strictly to give the public the feeling that "justice is being served"—even in the face of blatantly false accusations—is a chilling prospect.

O'Brien's frustration is completely understandable, as is Odo's, who takes advantage of his membership to the Cardassian court by getting himself appointed as O'Brien's legal advisor. The dark lighting and decidedly Orwellian images (the high architecture of the trial room and large public viewscreens) supply the episode with large and intense visual splendor. Particularly intense is the aforementioned surreal "processing" scene, which highlights Avery Brooks' effectiveness in his freshman directing turn on DS9.

Colm Meaney delivers another strong performance, particularly in a standout scene between him and Constable Odo. Surprisingly, a few moments of unexpected humor finds its way into the darkness of the trial when Kovat, O'Brien's Cardassian defense attorney (Fritz Weaver), exhibits an ironic role of uselessness to the client but dedicated service to the state. Neat. The overall impact of the episode is blunted, unfortunately, by a rather convenient and ineffective deus ex machina ending, but the imagery and dramatic undercurrents of the Cardassian legal proceedings are far too strong to be undermined.

Previous episode: The Collaborator
Next episode: The Jem'Hadar

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23 comments on this review

David - Thu, Dec 31, 2009 - 10:58pm (USA Central)
Jammer's description of "Tribunal" as Orwellian is dead-on. This episode is also highly indebted to another piece of modernist literature: Franz Kafka's _The Trial_, which is the story of a man who is arrested and brought before the court without being told what his crime is. Great reviews, Jammer!
Paul York - Mon, May 21, 2012 - 4:16pm (USA Central)
There are human courtrooms like this, throughout the world, performing show trials for political reasons. ST themes are based on human behaviour, needless to say.
John - Tue, May 22, 2012 - 9:06am (USA Central)
Rewatching this episode for the first time in years, I found the use of Odo to be very effective. Even though his character is not the main protagonist Rene Auberjonois steals the show. As he did for most of the series really.
Nick P. - Thu, Jun 28, 2012 - 12:02am (USA Central)
I just saw this episode for the first time (not sure how I missed it before) and I LOVE this episode. Until sisko walks into the courtroom. First, how did he even GET IN, second, who would this judge-lady know on sight a surgically altered human from 8 years previous in a war she supposedly did not fight in (she was a judge remember).

But I loved the depiction of the Cardassion legal system and society. One thing I love about this, is it kind of makes sense. He says the poorest poeple can walk around at night and feel safe. And is that really worse than our society where we may be free to do mostly what we want, but we have entire cities you cannot enter at night with a risk of being mugged or worse. is one innocent person blood REALLY more important than a socities safety?

That is the direction I thought this was going in, I wished it had delved further. I think of the Roman empire, and modern people tend to give it a bad rap, but they forged an empire with bronze age technology. We read about all the horrible stuff the upper classes did to others in the upper class during the Pax Romana and some of it is really bad, but don't forget the in general, the people of the empire were safe for a long time. And the roman legal system was pretty good at protecting the rights of those less fortunate. Maybe the Romans were dictators, but many societies willingly joined, at the end of the day, security does trump all. That is what I loved about Rome, and the Cardassians.
LastDawnOfMan - Fri, Aug 10, 2012 - 3:33pm (USA Central)
Even in an ideal situation you would be trading being safe from fellow citizens but add being afraid of everyone connected with your government, who can hand you a death sentence at any moment without any accountability. And sometimes not even safety from the fellow citizens. In at least one case in the Soviet Union, a man murdered a large number of people and got away with it because the authorities felt it was too embarrassing to admit there was a murderer at all.

It was sad to see that this evil Orwellian Cardassian empire, shocking when the show came out, now seems almost kind. The Cardassians in this episode had tons of evidence to go on, though later it was found to be fake, and his wife was notified of what was happening to him and released back home.

Many so-called democratic countries today would have taken O'Brien and his wife without any notice to anyone whatsoever. They never would have been given even a mock trial, and would have been imprisoned for life or tortured to death without any chance to prove guilt or innocence, and all this without even the need for any evidence whatsoever, beyond some official somewhere declaring him a "terrorist." It could be based on rumor, bad intel, or because the official didn't like O'Brien's hairstyle. His wife would be guilty by association. Or, more efficiently, perhaps he and his entire family and many random innocent friends would have been killed by a drone bomb, everyone declared guilty of being "militants" because they were there when the drone exploded.

Even with normal, "non-terrorist" prisoners in democratic countries today, evidence comes to light that they are innocent, the government simply does not care that they are innocent, and fights to keep them prisoners. So even in everyday situations, modern societies are now often just as bad as these TV villains.
A. Helin - Wed, Sep 12, 2012 - 11:04am (USA Central)
I'm still confused about how the Cardassians were able to effectively kidnap O'Brien from outside Cardassian space, for a crime that ostensibly took place on a Bajoran space station. Why wasn't the Federation pushing through all the diplomatic channels? Where was the official response? This was a blatant violation of Federation/Bajorian sovereignity. Is the Federation supposed to be utterly terrified of reigniting the war, so that they will let the Cardassians do whatever they want to Federation citizens? The Cardassians come off as absurdly hypocritical (an unfair characterization of them, I feel) because they keep appealing to the rule of their legal system while completely ignoring the utter illegality of the kidnapping and prosecution of O'Brien.

This aspect of the premise just torpedoed the episode for me. It didn't feel plausible in the universe of DS9 at all.
Latex Zebra - Mon, Nov 12, 2012 - 3:08am (USA Central)
OK, the premise stretches things a bit but the trial scenes are excellent and Kovat is an absolute riot.
His last line is inspired.
Comp625 - Mon, Jan 14, 2013 - 11:41am (USA Central)
I agree with A. Helin; the blatant act of kidnapping a Federation citizen in Bajoran space is an act of war. I wanted to see the political aftermath play itself out (even if it were addressed in a later episode).

Also, O'Brien's character came across as almost comedic since no one (not even Odo) would tell him why he was in prison. TNG's take on "being captured by the Cardassians" worked so well in Chain of Command I & II because it was 110% serious - being captured is no laughing matter.

Also, the ending IS a bit contrived with Sisko randomly appearing in court with evidence that could embarrass the Cardassian courts. Between Sisko's surprise appearance and Bashier popping into Enabran Tain's house in "The Wire," is Cardassia Prime really that easy to infiltrate?

In my opinion, the episode would have been a little darker and a little stronger if the viewer learned that O'Brien DID secretly hide a commited crime, albeit a very small one, and have the Cardassian courts try to impose Execution for that undeserving crime. Sisko/Odo/Federation could have then come to the rescue by discovering a dirty secret about the highly-regarded Kovat -- which would have tarnished his record before retirement while embarrasing Cardassia -- and trading the confidentiality of the information for O'Brien's safe return.

Knowing that imperfection plagues the main cast is one of DS9's strongest elements, a la when it is discovered that Kira is the true murderer in "Necessary Evil." This COULD have been a 4-star episode if O'Brien did commit a crime and if the ending wasn't so convenient.

My rating: 2.5 out 4 stars.
Chris - Wed, May 1, 2013 - 11:25am (USA Central)
To those incredulous comments above about why the federation would allow one of their citizens to face an unfair trial or to be captured outside of Cardassian jurisdiction rather than go to war:

As I type this, a British (and by extension European) citizen, Lindsay Sandiford is awaiting execution by firing squad in Indonesia for drug smuggling. At the moment she is struggling to raise the 8000 pounds needed to progress to her appeal. Sounds like an unfair trial to me. The fact that the evidence suggests she was blackmailed and threatened by a criminal gang to accept the drugs package on her flight, makes no difference to the court. Sounds like an unfair trial to me.

By the logic of the comments above the British should be at war with Indonesia by now. But they're not because they want to protect international relations. I see no reason why the Federation would be any different.
Jason - Sun, Jul 14, 2013 - 9:48pm (USA Central)
Kovat was played by Fritz Weaver, who some may remember from the Twilight Zone's The Obsolete Man, where he presided over another Orwellian trial of sorts. One of the best TZ episodes.
ProgHead777 - Mon, Jul 15, 2013 - 12:32am (USA Central)
Obviously corrupt legal systems exist. But that corruption, in the real world, takes place completely, or at least mostly behind the scenes. The Cardassian system as depicted here, on the other hand, is a blatant farce. In my opinion, this episode makes the Cardassian people appear either unrealistically brain-dead stupid for believing that justice is actually being carried out (how could entire species of such blithering idiots ever form a functioning society of any kind to begin with?), or collectively evil in a very cartoonish way.
Kotas - Tue, Oct 22, 2013 - 5:03pm (USA Central)

Nothing is particularly interesting or memorable about this episode.

4/10
K'Elvis - Wed, Jan 22, 2014 - 5:12pm (USA Central)
It's obvious to us that their legal system is a farce, but it may not be so obvious to Cardassians, who are used to it. In the Cardassian legal system, the crime is investigated behind the scenes. This makes corruption very easy, but in principle you could have a fair legal system based upon such procedures.

Most likely, most of the time, the system is fair: the government has a vested interest in finding out who committed crimes. It doesn't do them any good to convict the wrong person, that just lets the guilty go free and causes a lot more problems. If there is a bank robbery, the Cardassian government really does want to know who did the crime. Convict the wrong Bajoran terrorist and the guilty one goes free to make more attacks.

But when the Government just wants to get someone for political reasons, it makes it quite easy to trump up some fake charges. It also leads to sloppy investigation. One of the biggest things Odo did was to simply insist that the Cardassians actually investigate crimes.
Trekker - Sun, Apr 6, 2014 - 12:34pm (USA Central)
Good episode and it highlights a difference between legal systems that make Star Trek so interesting.

I would like to point out to the argument of Socialism in Star Trek Universe and actual Communism that people seem to be unable to differentiate.

Socialism is actually democratic in its fundamental concepts, Communism is not, because it seeks to put a group of people at the top of a State rather than egalitarianism that Socialism promotes.

The United Federation of Planets can be considered the apex of what socialism can do under its best outcomes without any obvious drawbacks we see today due to advanced technology.

The Cardassian Union is what Communism ala the old Soviet Union could accomplish, a state of safety, higher resources from conquered peoples, and higher industrial production.

As for the legal systems, the Federation is closer to Western Civilization's own trial of peers and equal rather than a trial by the State as Cardassia held in Tribunal.
Yanks - Mon, Jul 7, 2014 - 9:54am (USA Central)
"deus ex machina" aye Jammer.

Good episode, not great.

Obrien is a member of Star Fleet, a human that is a member of the Federation, serving on a Bajoran space station and the Cardassians basically get away scott free with obducting him outside Cardassian space.

eeesh...

But I do like the court scenes and the constant references to a legal system that makes my skin crawl.

Wonderful performances bt Fritz Weaver as "Kovat the Conservator" and Rene Auberjonois as Odo make this episode watchable and slightly above average.

2.5 star for me.
Greg - Thu, Aug 7, 2014 - 9:56pm (USA Central)
This episode started well with O'Brien's abduction but ended up becoming far too absurd. A disappointment for the series, which is nearly hitting its stride overall.

Some odd things that hurt an episode that ALMOST worked:

If the trial is broadcast on live Cardassian television, then why is the judge able to casually remark that the charade is just there for the benefit of the population? I get that we're supposed to see the show trial for the authoritarian farce that it is, but it still ultimately comes off as cartoonish and, well, too afraid that the audience (us, not Cardassia) won't pick up on the injustice of it all without being beaten over the head. It also makes the Cardassian population seem more foolish than it needs to me, IMO.

When the Cardassian judge is speaking with the ops crew, she lays out the judicial process for what it is, apparently oblivious to the fact that literally everyone in the room will disagree. The characters object, naturally, to the pre-emptive decision. Then she drops the bomb that execution is already scheduled and Keiko, for whatever reason, asks how it's possible before the trial is even begun. An odd reaction to the prospect of her husband's execution. Yes, technically she's right I guess, but the lack of a visceral reaction tempers an episode that really needed more weight.

The judge herself comes off as more smugly oblivious than an experienced Cardassian beaurucrat. Really, with Dukat, Garak, Maritza, Tain, and so many other cunning and compelling Cardassian characters that have been featured up to this point, the Cardassians featured here seem off-kilter. There's so much clever deception that our characters have to regularly wade through to get to the truth of a Cardassian plot, but here the Cardies just behave like a caricature of themselves - all the manipulative, totalitarian notes are there but with seemingly no nuance. They play more like a one-note alien of the week that the writers decided to make Cardassian late in the draft. It would also explain why neither Dukat or Garak are at all consulted in this situation (you'd think the conscientious Julian would try to pry any advice possible from his lunch buddy).

After all of it, the judge just lets Miles leave and the crew all but laugh it off in the runabout.
DLPB - Wed, Aug 13, 2014 - 5:56pm (USA Central)
I doubt the writer of this episode did ANY research into real show-trials, and real court politics. It comes across like a high school's idea of how one would work.
DLPB - Wed, Aug 13, 2014 - 6:06pm (USA Central)
As I type this, a British (and by extension European) citizen, Lindsay Sandiford is awaiting execution by firing squad in Indonesia for drug smuggling
=======

Are you intentionally ignoring facts? She was caught SMUGGLING DRUGS INTO another country. She was not abducted. It would be like Miles O'Brien being captured as he entered Cardassia with a bomb, or at the least he would have to be entering Cardassia.

Also, that woman is as guilty as they come, and I haven't checked, but I hope she's been shot. Don't smuggle drugs.
Katie - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 7:42am (USA Central)
@DPLB: um...wow.

You don't think execution by firing squad is a bit excessive for a drug offense? The international community certainly thought so. Lindsey Sandiford is a middle-aged mother of two who claimed--and the evidence supports her claim--that she was coerced into helping a drug smuggling ring by threats to her family. She gave evidence that helped convict members of that ring, all of whom received lesser sentences (time in prison). The prosecution team themselves recommended 15 years in prison as her sentence. But she received the death penalty from a judge who believed her trial had threatened Bali's tourism industry (!). She has received no help from the UK government, whose representatives say things like "how very unfortunate!" about her situation. She is now on death row in Indonesia.
DLPB - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 5:19pm (USA Central)
Drug smuggling is a serious offence that blights hundreds and thousands of lives. You clearly have no idea.

Drug smuggling kills a lot of people and it creates serious organized crime. It also ruins families and lives.

So no. It isn't excessive. You obviously haven't been the victim of it, and don't know anyone who has. Wake up.
Dave in NC - Sat, Aug 30, 2014 - 11:40am (USA Central)
@ DLPB

Once could argue that the people DOING the drugs are more responsible for the damage caused than the lady sneaking them across the border. Saying someone needs to be "put to death" for drug smuggling is an extreme overreaction, especially regarding the case you are discussing.

By the way, this isn't really the place to grind your political axes, especially when you are arguing the pros of "death by firing squad".
Katie - Sun, Aug 31, 2014 - 8:59pm (USA Central)
@DPLB: Chris' analogy between the Sandiford case and this episode, which you dismissed so aggressively above, is actually pretty apt. If you watch the ep again, you'll see that Miles is caught with the warheads in his runabout's cargo hold. Of course, as we discover, they were planted there by a Cardassian agent--but you might well say he was caught red-handed smuggling weapons that could endanger thousands of lives.

In other words, context matters.
DLPB - Tue, Sep 2, 2014 - 12:56pm (USA Central)
The woman in question was given a proper trial and found guilty. She was also caught red handed and is guilty. It's that simple. She knew the rules, and ignorance of the law is not a defence.

She should die.

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