In brief: I liked this story the first time I saw it ... when it was called Star Trek VI. (I liked it this time around, too.)
Are you an optimist or a cynic? Perhaps you can answer that question by answering this one: Is "Judgment" a carefully detailed homage or a blatant rip-off?
Watching the episode, I definitely felt more like an optimist. Much of this episode played for me like a dejà vu experience of the Klingon courtroom material from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But that's not a bad thing. The courtroom material from Trek VI made for a good scene — dark and menacing and atmospheric. It's the sort of material that seems to deserve its own episode, and now we get it, even if the episode covers much of the same ground in terms of drama and performance ... which, of course, is probably the point.
Part of the fun with "Judgment" is in spotting the familiar lines of dialog and the similar — even identical — set design, camera angles, and costumes. Indeed, it looks to me like the production designer, writer, director, and cinematographer all studied the courtroom scenes from Trek VI with great care before the sets here were built and the cameras were rolling. The creators haven't simply borrowed the trial scene from Trek VI, they've re-created it completely. And well.
Besides, darn it, Klingons are just so much fun to watch, despite — no, because of — all their grandstanding and histrionics. I was watching "Blood Oath" the other day from the DS9 season two DVD set, and so much of the show and its lovely and portentous dialog made me smile with good will and affection. Granted, "Judgment" is no "Blood Oath," but it does capture some of the same entertaining spirit of Klingon pride and ever-seriousness (as well as some annoying aspects of those elements).
In what is no less than the second time in three episodes, Archer is accused of a crime by an alien system of questionable justice. The verdict is easily predicted: guilty as charged. The sentence is just as predictable: death. Can Archer's sentence and/or verdict be averted by proving his innocence? Enter Advocate Kolos (J.G. Hertzler, excellent as always), Archer's weary and cynical defense lawyer, who has all but accepted the inevitability of defeat before the tribunal arguments have started. The deck is clearly stacked against him. The tribunal is little more than a formality with an ending that is a foregone conclusion (although not as hopeless as in DS9's "Tribunal," also in the aforementioned DVD set).
Now, as a Law & Order addict, I sit through television courtroom scenes all the time and watch as plot points are related through efficient exposition. It should be noted that a show like "Judgment" is not in the same spirit of being about facts and exposition — at least, not any more than it must be. Yes, there are facts and there's dialog and also a flashback structure that shows us how the "crime" in question unfolded (from two different points of view, no less). But "Judgment" is more about the idea of a courtroom that assumes guilt and greets its defendant with hostility as a matter of course. The room is a veritable echo chamber, with an audience that chants "enemy" in Klingon in an angry unison. The gavel is a metal sphere that sparks when the magistrate (Granville Van Dusen) slams it down on the table as he calls for "SILENCE!" in the echo chamber. The defendant is not permitted to speak while the prosecutor (John Vickery) presents his case, or the defendant will be zapped with pain sticks while the music swells menacingly. (Side note: I'm taking a liking to Velton Ray Bunch's musical scores, perhaps because they seem more forceful and fresh after so many years of McCarthy, Chattaway, Bell, and Baillargeon, whose scores have become so familiar I can tell you which one of them scored a given episode after about 10 seconds.) Naturally, the courtroom/echo chamber is murky and dark.
Of course, you already know all of this from Star Trek VI. Your mileage for these aspects of "Judgment" depend on whether you want to see them again. I didn't mind seeing them again, because they're well presented.
The case centers on Archer having allegedly helped "rebels" (actually an abandoned Klingon-ruled colony running out of resources to sustain itself), and thus falling into a conflict with Duras (Daniel Riordan, whose character is named Duras merely as a footnote reference for those who have followed the franchise for a long time). Duras was the captain of a Klingon warship who was sent in to "stop" (read: destroy) the "rebel" colonists. The flashbacks show us what happened, and clearly reveal the Enterprise to have done nothing wrong ... unless of course you are the Klingons, who as a rule exhibit stubborn unreasonableness — hence Archer being tried for crimes against the Klingon Empire for his involvement in helping defenseless colonists escape certain death. The show's biggest plot omission leaves us wondering how and when Archer was arrested; there's absolutely no accounting for how he ended up away from the Enterprise and in the hands of the Klingon legal system.
Oh, well. The plot details don't hugely concern me. What "Judgment" offers as relevant material specific to this series' time frame is the fact that Klingon culture is in the middle of a rapid decline — one that in all likelihood will eventually bring about the conflict between Earth and the Klingon Empire that we know exists by the time TOS rolls around. We see the (apparently waning) reasonable and honorable side of Klingon society through Kolos' character, who is given enough convincing dialog to emerge as a three-dimensional persona. Kolos, once a winning defense litigator, has been worn down into accepting a defeatist attitude as his career has turned into a perfunctory process and a mockery of its former self. The Klingon court doesn't much listen to defense lawyers these days, and is quick to condemn the apparently guilty.
This is a symptom of a bigger problem, one that Kolos explains to Archer in the show's best dialog scene. Klingon society, once honorable, is in a decline where a bastardized concept of honor has turned into an artificially inflated virtue: "We were a great society not so long ago, when honor was earned through integrity and acts of true courage, not senseless bloodshed," Kolos says. "What honor is there in a victory over a weaker opponent?" This is the scene that gives "Judgment" its weight and perspective, and allows us and Archer to see Kolos as a man worthy of real respect. (The way these sentiments are delivered from this wise, old character also makes one wonder if there are real-world social points being made under the surface here.)
Thanks to Kolos, Archer's death sentence is commuted and he is instead sentenced to life at the penal colony of Rura Penthe, in a scene that uses some dialog lifted almost verbatim from Trek VI. Continuity buffs will likely enjoy moments like this, as well as Kolos' earlier defense arguments that connect Archer with having thwarted a Suliban plot against the Klingons ("Broken Bow") and rescuing a Klingon vessel trapped in the atmosphere of a gas giant ("Sleeping Dogs"). Kolos' subsequent diatribe against the Klingon justice system is satisfying, thanks in no small part to Hertzler's performance, which fully unleashes the furies. If there's ever a time for energetic histrionics, a Klingon courtroom is that time. Unfortunately for Kolos, it gets him sentenced to Rura Penthe, right alongside Archer, for a year.
We then head off to Rura Penthe, an ice-cave where Archer and Kolos work side by side as imprisoned allies. Archer's coat was either faithfully duplicated by the wardrobe department, or pulled out of storage from somewhere on the studio lot, because, yep, it's straight out of Trek VI. Some have complained that the ending's simplistic rescue of Archer from the penal colony is too quick and easy, but I think it works okay. If anything, it demonstrates the corruption in Klingon society that has been hinted at, and how a prisoner's freedom can be secured for the right price by bribing the right people. Kolos stays behind, eager to return to the law when he is eventually released. I must say, I wouldn't mind seeing his character again. Yes, he's essentially a lawyer version of DS9's Martok, but Hertzler is always such a strong presence, and he'd be welcome on a series that has yet to carve out any truly strong dramatic forces.
I liked this episode, but I'd better mention that it relies probably more on nostalgia and cross-references than in attempts to develop original Enterprise-specific material. (Of course, in all fairness, how original can your prequel material be?) The strengths here are more in theatrics and directing and performances than in revealing complex or probing ideas. But that's not a problem so much as an observation. "Judgment" ranks as one of this season's better outings.
Next week: A la Harry Kim, Mayweather gets his contractually promised spotlight hour for the season.