Star Trek: The Original Series

"Court Martial"

2.5 stars

Air date: 2/2/1967
Teleplay by Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos
Story by Don M. Mankiewicz

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

In an episode of Trek courtroom drama, Kirk is accused of negligence in the death of Lt. Cmdr. Ben Finney and subsequently burdened with becoming the first Starfleet captain to face a court-martial proceeding.

This episode is a bit of a mixed bag, benefiting from some very nicely staged and acted courtroom scenes, including the use of Elisha Cook Jr. as Kirk's interesting defense lawyer Samuel T. Cogley. Watching Kirk in 100 percent "Kirk mode" (as only Shatner could play him) is entertaining, as he demands the court martial when Commodore Stone (Percy Rodriguez) recommends Kirk resign his commission to avoid bringing humiliation upon himself and the uniform. Working against the episode is the concept of why this court martial is taking place in the first place. I find it a little hard to believe that the death of an officer in this particular instance would be so much different in presumed fault than the average "red-shirt" death—at least not to the degree of perjury accusations.

I also find it hard to believe that the excessively crazy Finney (an over-the-top Richard Webb), as it turns out, staged his own death and rigged the whole episode to gain some sort of elaborate revenge upon Kirk. Too bad—it's an enjoyable view; it just doesn't bear much motivational scrutiny.

Previous episode: Tomorrow Is Yesterday
Next episode: The Return of the Archons

◄ Season Index

35 comments on this review

Tue, Jul 24, 2012, 1:31am (UTC -5)
What I like about this episode is the utter certainty that Spock and McCoy demonstrate in Kirk's character and command ability. The prosecutor can't shake them into saying that Kirk might have made a mistake--she can only get them to say that it's hypothetically possible that SOMEONE could make that mistake.

Both Spock and McCoy are known to criticize Kirk's decisions frequently, but when someone else tries, they close ranks and step in front of him. That's because they have earned the right, both as proven senior officers and proven friends, to hold mirrors up to Kirk--precisely BECAUSE they respect him so much. They aren't about to let others, even an impersonal system, get away with it.

However, I didn't quite get why Spock beating the computer at chess was the golden piece of evidence. How did it indicate that the computer's program banks were tampered with? Did Finney stop to alter the chess program when he altered the tapes?
Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 9:53am (UTC -5)
Come on Jam Man, this is a four star episode. Absolutely gripping, a nice Man vs Machine subplot, Kirk is magnificent in the way he chews scenery, and the over the top flirting is totally funny. Not to mention that this is the bedrock of all other Trek Courtroom episodes.
Thu, Apr 3, 2014, 10:14pm (UTC -5)
Jammer brings up the same points I always thought as well, but.... I love this episode anyway. Mccoy using a vibrator to silence heartbeats until u hear only finneys, best part.

3+ STARS 4 me
Mon, Sep 8, 2014, 11:36pm (UTC -5)
What I liked about this episode is that except for "The Menagerie," it's the first one that gave you some sense of how this Federation works -- that it was more than one spaceship doing whatever it damn well wanted.

There was a structure behind it all, and we got a brief glimpse at that.
Mon, Dec 1, 2014, 11:01am (UTC -5)
I loved this episode, esp. the courtroom scenes, where Samuel T. Cogley is arguing the merits of man vs. machine. It reminded me of a very different courtroom scene on TNG, where Data's very status as a living being was on trial, in "The Measure of a Man". I wonder what Mr. Cogley would have thought of the JAG's ruling in that case (hell, with life spans the way they are in the 23rd and 24th centuries, he might have been alive to hear about it. Unless he's such a Luddite that he'd refuse medical assistance to stretch his lifespan).

I also enjoyed the fact that the "white noise maker/silencer" is just a microphone. :p Also, that the heartbeats are amplified, but no other bodily organ/process is. We should be hearing a deafening whirr of the computer's instruments, and loud burbles of gas moving through several colons. :D

80 years later on the Enterprise D, all they'd have had to do was ask the computer, "Where is Lt. Cmdr. Finney?" or that didn't work, scan the ship for life signs and pinpoint his location that way.

And you've got a point, Jammer, about why in the heck this particular officer death would be suspect at all. I guess it's because it happened on-ship, not on an alien world or due to any alien/viral influence, and because the computer logs quickly put Kirk's remembrance of the situation into question.
Chris Arturo
Tue, Aug 16, 2016, 9:47am (UTC -5)
Nice episode with some fine scripting. Percy Rodrigues (Commodore Stone) was from Montreal, Canada, as was William Shatner. I wonder if their paths had crossed onstage previously. Some of the romantic music cues (written by Mullendore) between Kirk and his old flame Lt. Areel Shaw had been previously used in "Conscience of the King," and would be of their greatest effect in "City on the Edge of Forever," alongside some of Fred Steiner's music cues based on "Good Night, Sweetheart." It is amusing to know that Finney was played by an actor best known for portraying Captain Video---it is as if Kirk were displacing Video, showing that TV sci-fi has stepped up its game since the '50s.
Tue, Aug 30, 2016, 11:41pm (UTC -5)
Totally agree with Corey - 4 stars. I was born in '71 and caught a lot of TOS in early reruns. This one was totally riveting. The silencing of heartbeat scene is on the three or four most indelible TV moments of my childhood. Loved it. I've picked up the new blue-ray release and have been watching them with my son - he gives this one 4 stars as well. Can't argue with that.
Mon, Feb 6, 2017, 3:44pm (UTC -5)
The premise of a courtroom drama is excellent and it brings out some good acting from the Big 3 and supporting actors. Kirk's old school attorney brings a nice touch of the tradition to the legal profession. He makes a valid point about man vs. machine. Plenty of passionate shouting about beliefs and principles...
It's an interesting episode but where it mostly falters for me is the lack of rigor around the trial -- I can see lawyers shaking their heads at it. The heartbeats thing is a bit ridiculous, surely nobody can hide aboard the Enterprise. The decaying orbit part where the Commodore says he won't beam off the ship because the trial is ongoing makes no sense -- Finney's already been found, so Kirk's innocent.
Finney's gone bananas -- he's suicidal hiding aboard the Enterprise after he means for it to be destroyed and thus truly exact revenge against Kirk. But in the end he tells Kirk how to undo his sabotage because Kirk tells him his daughter is on board (without proof - we didn't actually see her on board).
Anyhow, too many inconsistencies that ruin an excellent premise (won't be the first time for a Trek TOS episode).
Overall for me 2.5/4 stars -- good, creative idea but a few holes in the plot.
Jason R.
Mon, Feb 6, 2017, 5:28pm (UTC -5)
I am shocked no lawyer has commented on the ludicrousness of an old romantic flame being selected as the prosecutor and not stepping down. Sliiiiiight conflict of interest!!
Klovis Mann
Wed, Feb 15, 2017, 8:18pm (UTC -5)
The cut to McCoy when Cogley first suggests that the computer may be the villain is sweet.......

.......the actor that played Finney turns up in the noir classic "Out of the Past"......

.......Joan Marshall was a brief (and great) hollywood season, she with Hal Ashby were noted L.A. demimondains.......her fictionalized personal life formed the basis of the script for "Shampoo".......which reputedly pissed her off.......

Don't get me started on Elisha that guy.......

Top rating
Doug D
Tue, Mar 7, 2017, 2:23pm (UTC -5)
Thanks to everyone for such great comments. I was 12 when the show first aired and taped (open reel) the show for playback later. Portmaster Stone must make a pressing decision to evaluate CAPT Kirk's fitness for command before sending the Enterprise off on pressing business. He accepts Shaw because she is the best available JAG counsel available (at least before Cogley and the board arrive). In any case, the decision will be appealed if it goes badly for Kirk and Stone will have a new captain on board by then. Kirk accepts because any delay would mean loss of his command.
Kirk's old "buddies" clearly resent the meteoric rise of their 35 year-old classmate.
Favorite lines: Dr. McCoy to Areel Shaw: "All of my old friends look like doctors. All of his look like you"
The death of a crewman not at the hands of the enemy would probably automatically require a review.
The Enterprise log extract was worth many listens on my open reel tape deck.
Certainly Ben Finney had to have everything prepared well ahead of his Ion Pod duty and would have very little ability to finesse the computer logs afterward. A well-thought out plot has a way of holding a tightly-wound obsessive together. Finney's substitute files might have dated from month's before and include Spock's old programming. Spock's chess test was improbable but entertaining. So was the "White Sound Device" and — The idea that a starship that was being repaired at the Starbase would be in a decaying orbit and out of reach of the space station was both outrageous and nearly unnoticed by a 12 year old me.
Mon, Aug 21, 2017, 8:19pm (UTC -5)
I love that during the final fight in Engineering that Finney grabs a conveniently located GIANT WRENCH to attack Kirk with. First of all, Scotty did not stow tools when done? Secondly, what the heck on a WARP DRIVE do you use such a tool for?
Tue, Aug 22, 2017, 10:53am (UTC -5)
OK, it's "Courts" Martial.

Victor, that's the warp core lock nut hexagonal calibtration device :-)
Trek fan
Sun, Oct 1, 2017, 8:53pm (UTC -5)
Good universe-building TOS episode that expands our view of Starfleet and strengthens the friendship of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Nice to see a serious and professional face of Starfleet here, including the no-nonsense Commodore Stone and hyper-competent JAG officer Areel Shaw as well as civilian lawyer Cogley. These characters, as well as Finney and his daughter, are well-cast and sharply drawn guest stars for Trek. I give it 3 1/2 stars.

Elisha Cook is always great and his eccentric Luddite lawyer is fun to watch. The dramatic conflict of Kirk doubling down against the computer record is fun to watch as the case builds against him. The sudden appearance after the tense heartbeat scene of Finney, crazed with jealousy, is riveting to watch with Richard Webb's full-bore scenery chewing. The ex-flame prosecuting Kirk is a strong character whose sense of fairness toward a former boyfriend surpasses personal considerations, making her little kiss with Kirk at the very end especially delightful when the camera cuts back from their soft-focus closeup to reveal the amused reaction of Uhura and the others. And I love the way McCoy and Spock circle the wagons around Kirk in the trial scenes.

I do think TNG, as it often did with TOS episodes in its first two seasons, cribbed from this one when it staged the brilliant "Measure of a Man" in Season 2 -- the JAG lawyer ex-girlfriend of Picard (rather strange for his character as opposed to Kirk) and man versus machine theme in "Measure" found their inspiration in this one. While "Measure" is probably a better episode because it is deeper, meriting four stars for its philosophical exploration of what makes a person a person, "Court Martial" is still a richly satisfying character study. I love the chess scene with Spock, the sharply drawn characters, and the very 1960s effort (albeit done better on "Ultimate Computer," I think) to defend human rights against mechanization adds a shade of thoughtfulness to this one.

As for the accidental death of Lt. Commander Finney raising eyebrows, it didn't shock me. First of all, he's a high-ranking officer on the ship, unlike a security guard killed in action by hostiles. Second of all, and more importantly, let's remember that his death appears to be a routine matter (Kirk and Stone begin the episode mourning his death while filling out paperwork, but without any hint of a court martial) until the computer contradicts Kirk. The court martial occurs not because a man died, but because of the suspicion that his CO is lying to cover up a big mistake, and that's always a big deal in the military. In a lot of ways, this plot is similar to the movie "A Few Good Men," where the questionable circumstances surrounding a soldier's death (and the issue is that Finney should not have died in such a situation had Kirk been acting correctly) cause trial proceedings: "Did you order the Code Red?!"

So yeah, I like this one too, and I think Jammer is a bit too hard on it. I especially like how it gives us a darker look at Starfleet: People still get jealous and seek revenge in the 23rd century, still hold grudges, and still lose their marbles in the encounter of human nature with incredible (especially in the future) stressors. The tragedy of Finney, who never moves past his mistake and is tellingly wearing captain's braids in his final showdown with Kirk, rings true to me -- there are many people like him.
Trek fan
Sun, Oct 1, 2017, 9:16pm (UTC -5)
PS -- I think it's a dead-end to try apply logic to the science on Star Trek; what the ship's sensors can and can't pick up constantly shifts throughout all of the various series. On TNG, it seems the sensors can pick up anyone, or can at least tell you many life signs and what kind are in a place. But on DS9, it's very clear that the sensors cannot detect anyone not wearing a comm badge -- whenever someone takes off their comm badge to "go rogue" in DS9, Sisko can't find that person, and it's the same situation on Voyager. Sometimes they even beam up the comm badge by itself or attached to someone else thinking it's the person they want; so the magic sensors that can tell you exactly where a given person is seem to disappear after TNG. But here's the bottom line: Whatever the TOS Enterprise sensors may or may not be able to do, Kirk points out that an officer like Finney (however the particulars of the science work in this universe) would know how to evade them, and I for one think it's a *good* thing that TOS doesn't feel the need to make up Treknobabble pseudo-scientific explanations which distract us from the human motivations in play. In many ways, it's a more human and relatable show than the later Trek series, and that makes it easier to follow than Voyager episodes where people talk for several minutes at a stretch without saying anything coherent to us viewers. As for McCoy's "white noise machine" magic mic, it's simply a dramatic story device that we must accept, believing it's the one certain way to find Finney even if he's been able to defy all of the other methods a starship has for detecting someone. But again, how is it any different when TOS asks us to accept futuristic science without explanation than when TNG/DS9/VOY explains it to death with long dialogues of nonsense words? Actually, the one difference is this: We can actually *follow* what's happening on TOS without getting derailed into analyzing the fake science involved. Arguing about science on Star Trek is like arguing about apples and oranges -- it misses the point that Trek is primarily a show about ideas and people, not about constructing a believalable scientific worldview. Yes, we expect Trek to follow the basic rules of it's own made-up universe, but we have to remember that the science serves the story/characters and not vice versa. To my mind, "Court Martial" is an example of Trek done right in that way, with the Sci-Fi gimmicks serving the human elements.
Wed, Nov 1, 2017, 6:08am (UTC -5)
Wow, this episode was a masterpiece IMO. The remastered version with the new CGI also adds tremendously to it; with its floating starships, urban colonies and neat future sets (lots of courtrooms and bedrooms and bars in this one), you really get a quite expansive look at TOS' future world.

Ironically, TNG's great courtroom episode (Measure of a Man), put forth a message opposite to TOS' "Court Martial". While TOS finds man triumphing against machine, TNG essentially gives them civil rights.
Mon, Dec 11, 2017, 4:35am (UTC -5)
So why did Kirk have to alone go after Flynn, and make the repairs to the ship? How could Spock not notice that the Enterprise's orbit was decaying and a power loss until Kirk told him? Scotty could not make the changes to computer for the sabotage?
Mike H
Tue, Mar 13, 2018, 5:31pm (UTC -5)
Not sure if mentioned earlier, but I remember this episode as one where Kirk is describing the action at the end as it occurs, not like his usual captain's log. I thought they overwrote this one, and had to cram in the climax at the end with Kirk's descriptions.
Old Trekker
Sat, Mar 24, 2018, 2:52pm (UTC -5)
I first saw this episode when originally broadcast back in the 66-67 season. Upon a recent re-viewing, a few things nagged at me: a) of the witnesses at the trial, only Spock and Kirk's names are spoken/idenfied by the computer. The Personnel Officer is not named, and neither is McCoy. b) Likewise, only Spock and Kirk seem to have Starfleet serial numbers. c) considering that the computer's audio pickup was amplified 10,000 x, how come only heartbeats are heard? d) We all know that Vulcan hearts are not in the chest, but McCoy positions the "white noise device" in front of everyone's chest (including Spock) to mask out known people on board. But then Spock is able to mask out the technician in the transporter room by pressing a few buttons on his console.
Joe M.
Mon, May 7, 2018, 9:11pm (UTC -5)
Good episode, but I wish there was a more detailed explanation about how the visual computer record was altered to show Kirk pushing the jettison button early. How do you alter something like that? Finney certainly didn’t seem to have the know how to do that.
Fri, Aug 3, 2018, 1:58pm (UTC -5)
This episode is one of the first that really made me love Kirk as a captain. I love when Spock says he's bitter, and Kirk says "that may be. But not bitter enough not to thank you for your efforts." That line, along with McCoy and Spock's testimony to Kirk's character, really made me feel for him. I thought Shatner's performance here was pretty good too! And it was fun to see Elisha Cook, Jr., who I know from the excellent Humphrey Bogart film The Big Sleep.
Mon, Feb 25, 2019, 7:58pm (UTC -5)
This episode contains one of the greatest "howlers" in Trek: The heartbeats are picked up by sensors whose efficiency has been increased by a factor of "one to the fourth power." That is, ONE!

Arithmetic was apparently not the writer's strong suit.
Wed, Apr 3, 2019, 8:33pm (UTC -5)
First, thanks to @Random Thoughts and William B and anyone else who commented, for your encouragement in getting through TOS.

So far, it's been more fun than I thought it would be, though I have gone from being retired to recently re-entering the workforce, so I have lot less time I'm afraid my comments are likely to be a lot more perfunctory - for that reason, and also because . . . it's TOS.

I liked this one. The mandatory "sexy lady who's into Kirk" did make an appearance, but she was interesting and intelligent and a lawyer! Yay!

The plot moved along at a good pace and held my interest. Of course I knew that Jim wasn't guilty, but I thought the mystery was handled well.

I wonder what Ben's plan was for after Jim was convicted? Sneak off the Enterprise and begin a new career?

Anyhow, a good ep.
mag phil
Sun, Apr 7, 2019, 8:16am (UTC -5)
Again late to the party, thanks for the review and the comments!

Well, we'll never learn what exactly an 'ion pod' is and does, and why the third button from the top on the captain's chair just casually ejects a - hilariously specific - part of the ship, potentially killing the person in there. However, I agree with Trekfan that this is actually a good thing, having us accept the futuristic technology as a plot device and getting on with the story.

What about Jamie though? Not only is she conveniently present on the ship in the end as someone wrote above, but why is she on that starbase in the first place? Also, Cogley seems to get his initial suspicion from her reaction, so is she in on the thing? I don't get it.
Mon, Sep 30, 2019, 5:35pm (UTC -5)
3.5/4 stars from me. I liked this episode, but the last 3-4 minutes were not all that great. The kiss, among other things. To me it looked like that one happened on the bridge, in front of the whole crew, but it would have made a lot more sense is that scene had happened in the captain's quarters or somewhere else private.
Wed, Oct 30, 2019, 8:01am (UTC -5)
Increases the computer's hearing by 1^4. Anyone else have a problem with that line?
Sleeper Agent
Wed, Nov 13, 2019, 5:59am (UTC -5)
Beautifully written and played out from the beginning to the end. If not 4, than definitively 3,5 Stars.

PS. That giant wrench in the end was hilarious.
Jay Marks
Tue, Apr 28, 2020, 11:42am (UTC -5)
Super late comment, but I'm posting anyway because I just discovered this site and I want to contribute.

I love how Kirk commands a room no matter where it is. When he walked into the bar on the star base and didn't shrink away even when things got uncomfortable, that set Kirk apart from other starship captains. I think that's a testament to the character but also the actor. Not everyone can pull that off.

And when Kirk initially recounted to Portmaster Stone what happened on the bridge, did anyone else notice that he showed a command presence even when he's just answering questions? That's pure Shatner!
Wed, Apr 29, 2020, 10:00am (UTC -5)
Interesting how the folks at the time could get this episode title wrong.

It's "Courts-Martial"
Peter G.
Wed, Apr 29, 2020, 7:52pm (UTC -5)
Hear hear, Jay Marks! Kirk is THE MAN. No other Captain can just sit there and be totally commanding a scene. Shatner's focus is just outrageous. Terry Farrel mentioned when first coming to work on DS9 that she didn't think she could act next to Brooks, who had a serious gravitas and she was more of a beginner; so he had to tone it down and soften for her. I can't imagine what it would have been like to act next to Kirk; I imagine the feeling would have been like actually being in the presence of a starfleet Captain, and falling into line instinctively.
Thu, Apr 30, 2020, 10:18am (UTC -5)
A mixed bag. Most of the acting with the exception of Richard Webb was tip-top. There were some interesting investigative scenes and the heartbeat scene was both a clever and creative reveal if nothing else. The absurdity of the legal portions makes this difficult to watch at times. It doesn't help that the music dramatizes the wrong moments in the courtroom. For example, Kirk pleads "not guilty" at the beginning of his hearing and a dramatic trumpet blares, but the teaser already made it abundantly clear Kirk was requesting the trial to prove his innocence.

One shining point that deserves praise comes from Samuel T. Cogley's main argument. His speech about a person's rights to face their accuser was spot on. The position has become more relevant in modern times since today we have similar computerized accusers like red light cameras which are hotly contested on the same grounds presented for the Computer in this episode. Still, I could do without the rambling name dropping of Moses and Aristotle at the trial (without even quoting them).

Jason R. wrote:

"I am shocked no lawyer has commented on the ludicrousness of an old romantic flame being selected as the prosecutor and not stepping down. Sliiiiiight conflict of interest!!"

Yes, that part's nutty and I'll add that it's dubious Kirk would take the stand at a trial for his own criminal negligence. I know it doesn't make for good tv, but shouldn't the defense attorney be saying what Kirk said? DS9 at least gave a nod to a Fifth Amendment-like law in its courtroom episode (Worf was just a Gomer and waived his rights).

All-in-all, the basic structure of this show is sound and as someone mentioned above "The Measure of a Man" riffs on some of the same character beats. I'll give this 2 stars for that and the intriguing legal argument.
Thu, Apr 30, 2020, 10:30am (UTC -5)
I hasten to add that, conflicts aside, Joan Marshall's portrayal of the a prosecuting attorney was quite enjoyable. It's nice to see that this show was fairly ahead of its time portraying women as very competent and formidable professionals. That might be enough to add an extra .5 stars.
William B
Thu, Apr 30, 2020, 11:49am (UTC -5)
Yeah, I am with Chrome on much of this one, though my final rating would be much higher. I've always been distracted by the strangeness of the court proceedings (and some of the other plot elements) every time I've watched it. As I've grown older I've come to appreciate it much more, actually, because the themes resonate more maybe, but also because I've grown used to the things in the episode that don't work for me. I like how intently this episode zeroes in on what incredible responsibility it is to be a starship captain, more than almost any other episode, and the consequences of failure, and it does the man vs. machine story in a way that does not simplistically pit Kirk against an evil computer (not that that's necessarily bad, but it happens often) but instead asks us how we define value, trustfulness, etc., in a world in which apparently infallible devices can be manipulated in ways which had been unexpected. Elisha Cook Jr.'s performance as Cogley is magnetic.

But I never really stop being distracted by elements of the trial that seem strange, as Chrome mentions, nor the way in which the camera angle of the internal recording changes dramatically from moment to moment in the playback for the court, nor the way in which Kirk suggests that they will enhance the audio recorder "on the order of one to the fourth power," nor the whole premise that the audio recorder can hear everything on the ship but only is playing back heartbeats and not the loud dialogue the characters are engaging in, and so on. This stuff I just mentioned is all material that genuinely does not matter for the episode's big ideas; to enjoy this episode I should become the ship's audio sensor and automatically, without explanation, filter out all the noise but the beating, passionate heart of the show. I'm better at that now and the episode does have an impressive heart, but I still find the other noises very distracting.
Sun, Jul 19, 2020, 3:20am (UTC -5)
Love how the heart beat is also used as tense music. That scene was very well done. Probably the best part of this episode7
Louis-Joseph Tremblay
Wed, Oct 7, 2020, 2:40pm (UTC -5)
@Chris Arturo, I had no idea that he was from Montréal, to me everything about him just shouts “Toronto” and that’s only because I knew that he’s Canadian.

Anyhow, on it’s own this is an alright episode but I really enjoy it in context, particularly in light of Data and the Doctor. For me, as a biology graduate and someone interested in philosophy, the idea that a robot of any sort is life, let alone a sentient person is profoundly unsatisfactory, they are well designed copies — my sister in law is allergic is shellfish and so when I had them over for dinner the other day used surimi, imitation crab. I think that if I hadn’t prepared it and didn’t t know the truth I would think that it was real, does that mean that surimi *is* crab?

Submit a comment

◄ Season Index

▲Top of Page | Menu | Copyright © 1994-2020 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication or distribution of any content is prohibited. This site is an independent publication and is not affiliated with or authorized by any entity or company referenced herein. See site policies.