Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sci-Fi on Trial: A Survey of Crime and Punishment in the Cult TV Legal System

Order in the Court! Intergalactic crime and punishment, on Justice League.

It's an odd thing to consider, but Perry Mason (1957-1966) -- a golden age TV series involving a 20th century defense attorney played by Raymond Burr -- has perhaps proven one of the biggest and long-lasting influences on science fiction TV series.

Specifically, just about every cult TV series in history has, at one time or another, put its heroic lead character on trial. 

Through almost universally wrongly accused (President Baltar excluded, of course...), some of these unfortunate souls have even negotiated alien and draconian brands of justice and punishment.

Seeing so many episodes featuring sci-fi heroes standing trial, decade-after-decade, franchise after franchise, I began to wonder about the "why."   Is it just the fact that court-room drama is intertwined with mystery...and who doesn't love a good mystery?

Or has the sci-fi court room drama become a staple of the genre because we all wonder about the shape of justice in our future, a future of new breakthroughs, no doubt.  Since sci-fi deals with technology and with shifting senses of morality, the sci-fi "crime and punishment" episodes from various programs really get to the heart of human nature and the human quest for justice. 


Humanity Fading in the Shadow of the Machine: Star Trek's "Court Martial"

A court room of the 23rd Century.
I'll start this survey with the original Star Trek (1966 - 1969), created by Gene Roddenberry. 

In the first season of the original series, in an episode entitled "Court Martial" Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is tried by Starfleet Command. 

The charge is criminal negligence in the death of a crewman named Ben Finney (Richard Webb). 

The ensuing trial is prosecuted by Kirk's old girlfriend, Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall), though certainly she should have recused herself, given the nature of the relationship with the defendant. 

During the course of the trial, Shaw presents incontrovertible computer evidence against the good captain.  Kirk choked at a crucial moment, according to the computer testimony, and ejected Finney's pod before a true emergency existed...thus killing Finney. The cost of this error: Kirk's command.

But the beleaguered Captain Kirk retains a delightful, book-loving defense attorney named Cogley (Elisha Cook) -- think of a "cog" in a wheel -- who dynamically makes the case about Kirk's primary accuser, an inhuman, unfeeling computer.  He puts a stop to the steam-roller of injustice by throwing himself into the proceedings.

"The Bible, The Code of Hammurabi, and of Justinian, Magna Carta, The Constitution of the United States, Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies, The Statutes of Alpha III. Gentlemen, these documents all speak of rights," Cogley asserts in a dramatic presentation.  "Rights of the accused to a trial by his peers, to be represented by counsel, the right of cross-examination. But most importantly, the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him; a right to which my client has been denied.

Furthermore, Cogley states: "I speak of rights! A machine has none. A man must. My client has the right to face his accuser, and if you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the level of the machine! Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us! I ask that my motion be granted. And more than that, gentlemen. In the name of Humanity, fading in the shadow of the machine, I demand it. I demand it!"

"Humanity fading in the shadow of the machine," that's what this futuristic tale of the legal system is really all about; the notion that our technology -- even in the happy Starfleet of the 23d century -- is on the verge of diminishing us; diminishing the human race. 

Though later Star Treks have by and large abandoned this conceit in favor of "Technology Unchained", the Original Series of the 1960s frequently involved planetary cultures "controlled" by computers, and the resulting enslavement of the human populations at those locales ("Return of the Archons," "The Apple," "For The World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky.") 

On occasions such as "Court Martial," and later "The Ultimate Computer," Kirk's position as starship captain is explicitly threatened by technology, by "the machine."  The specific question of "Court Martial" is one that it is not hard to imagine in our near-future.  Who programs the computers that might be used to give testimony against us?   What are their agendas, and do the computers reflect those agendas?  Computers can be manipulated -- if there's a will, there's a way -- so who is to say they can bear impartial witness?  Just because a machine lacks emotions and subjective, "human" attachments, that does not mean it can detect the truth; or prove objective.  Does it?

Star Trek returned to the milieu of the legal trial for the two-parter "The Menagerie," which saw Mr. Spock threatened with the last death penalty still on Starfleet books.  There was another trial too, in "Turnabout Intruder," during which Spock was tried for mutiny when a usurper, Janet Lester, appropriated Kirk's body.  Even Scotty (James Doohan) himself was accused of murder, and required defense, in the second season episode of the series, "Wolf in the Fold."

In these cases, the court-room milieu was largely utilized as a means to leading viewers through a dramatic mystery.  Why would an advanced society still have the death penalty on the books?  Encoded in the answer we learn what Starfleet and the Federation deeply fears, and where it expects to experience that fear, Talos IV. 

In the case of "Wolf in the Fold," Mr. Scott is held in custody and Kirk must prove his innocence, but again, it's a mean to an end, a "whodunit."  In this case, the culprit is actually Jack the Ripper and -- surprise -- he gets inside the Enterprise's main computer...where he can really do damage. Once more, technology proves the focal point for conflict; whether threatening Kirk's command or housing the Eternal Spirit of Evil.


Past and Precedent: Battlestar Galactica and "Murder on the Rising Star."

Solon (Brock Peters) vs. Boomer (Herb Jefferson, Jr.)
Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) postulated alien "brothers of Man" from a distant galaxy. 

These humans hailed from a system of Twelve Colonies, and considered Earth to be the lost Thirteenth Colony.  In other words, as expressed by the series, the Colonials and the Terrans share a common, root culture. 

This conceit or leitmotif is played throughout the series with names of people, places and technology that suggest a shared mythology or history.  Characters are named Adama ("First Man"), Apollo (after the Greek God), etc.  Villains are named Lucifer, Iblis and Baltar (after Baal).

In "Murder on the Rising Star," which first aired on ABC on February 18, 1979, the Colonial legal system is displayed for the first and only time on the space opera series.  In particular, Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) is accused of murdering Wing Sergeant Ortega (Frank Ashmore) after a game of triad, and prosecuted by the most experienced "Opposer" in the fleet, Solon (Brock Peters).  Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr.) act as Starbuck's defense team ("Defenders") while Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) acts as the judge in the case.

What's most interesting in this "mystery" about who really killed Ortega is, again, how that conceit of connecting Earth mythology to our "Brothers" in space is applied.  For instance, Solon is a famous name from Greek history.  The archon Solon, who lived cira 600 BC was known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Ancient Greece, remembered for ending enslavement as a means of paying debt, and for splitting the Athenian population into four classes based on wealth.   Importantly, Solon was also a lawmaker presiding over Athens in a time of perceived moral bankruptcy or decline.

In "Murder on the Rising Star," this Solon has taken on the task of punishing the guilty, those who have transgressed against the moral code of the Colonies.  Unfortunately, he targets the wrong man, and Starbuck is guilty.  The idea here is of Solon as perhaps too zealous a crusader against moral bankruptcy.

Also, as I pointed out in my book, An Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica, the solution to the mystery in "Murder of the Rising Star" involves landing Starback between two criminals: Baltar and a man named Charybdis, another name from Greek myth.  In myth, Charybdis was a treacherous whirlpool which devoured any and all unsuspecting sea vessels that happened by.  In this case, Charybdis is just as destructive a personal force: a man who hatches a scheme for murder and nearly takes down the innocent Starbuck with him.

Finally, this episode of Battlestar Galactica today plays as very cliched.  For instance, Commander Adama. sitting as a judge, even gets to say that Starbuck's defense (as managed by Apollo) is "highly irregular" that wonderfully cliched line of all TV and movie judges, through the last hundred years of cinema and television.


Testifying Against Yourself: Buck Rogers and "Testimony of a Traitor."

Buck Rogers' memories are used against him in a court of the future.
 An episode of the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) reveals that due process, and specifically the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution don't survive beyond the Holocaust in the year 1987. 

The Fifth Amendment declares, in part, that  no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," and that's the portion I shall refer to here.

In "Testimony of a Traitor," a twentieth century videotape found in the ruins of Anarchia incriminates Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), suggesting that he was actually part of a cabal of nuclear hawks in the 1980s and therefore played a critical and specific role in starting World War III. 

Aboard the Searcher, no one believes that Buck could be responsible for genocide, but the videotape seems convincing.  To clear his name, Buck uses Dr. Goodfellow's (Wilfrid Hyde-White)  "memory probes" to determine what happened to him, and his own memories are used as evidence against him on trial -- actually played on the screen as if a live video feed  This is a clear violation of the principle of the Fifth Amendment, but I guess Buck didn't have many options left.

In the end, Buck's memories reveal that he was actually a double-agent, infiltrating the cabal at the behest of the U.S. president, and all charges against Buck were subsequently dropped.  But still, he bears witness against himself, appearing guilty, until the trial "reaches" the memories that prove exculpatory.


"If Men Don't Trust Each Other, This Earth Might As Well be Hell: Star Trek visits the Planet Rashomon.

Even in the 24th century, truth is a matter of perspective.









One of best the most influential Japanese films of the twentieth century is Rashomon (1950), directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

The film tells the tale of two terrible, criminal acts: the rape and murder of a woman, and the ensuing death of her samurai husband.  During the course of the film, the events of the rape and possible murder are recounted four times, from  four different perspectives.

The first time the story is depicted, we see it as the bandit (Toshiro Mifune) -- the accused -- remembers the events. 

The next time,  the rape victim, the samurai's wife, recounts the story as she remembers it. 

Then, oddly, the story is recounted a third time by a supernatural medium who claims to be channeling the Samurai's spirit.  Finally, a kindly woodcutter -- a legtimate eyewitness -- tells the story, in the least biased presentation of the bunch.

One of the great and enduring qualities of Rashomon is that it artfully suggests that there is no such thing as objective truth.  Eyewitnesses may be more or less impartial, but in the final analysis, everyone is a prisoner to his or her own sense of perspective.  We all view the world through our own eyes, and we cannot escape that limited viewpoint, no matter how hard we try.  The stories depicted in the film are personal accounts that may be lies, but may also, simply, be how the percipients remembered them.  Those memories may be self-serving, but aren't all memories, at least to some degree, self serving?

In its third season, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994)  unexpectedly adapted Rashomon to its format as an epiosde titled "A Matter of Perspective."    Here, jovial Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is accused of murder after a visit to Botanica Four, a research space station over Tanuga Four.  The victim is Dr. Apgar, who dies in an explosion right after Riker departs the facility.

Captain Picard takes up Riker's defense, and the story of Riker's visit to the station -- and his alleged entanglemant with Apgar's wife, Manua -- is recreated several times using that wonder of Star Trek technology, the holodeck

In this case, we get the testimony of Cmdr. Riker, Dr. Apgar, and his female assistant.  But disappointingly, and rather determinedly unlike the cinematic source material, the mystery on TNG is resolved without real questions of viewpoint or world view. We learn that one man. the victim (Apgar), was duplicitous and corrupt,  and that he brought on his unfortunate death himself. 

Accordingly, the "lesson" of Rashomon is lost here and easy, spoon-fed answers substituted for human truth.  But at the very least, "A Matter of Perspective" suggests an interesting new technology to be used in court rooms: virtual reality re-creations, like those seen on the Enterprise holodeck.  In this manner -- with the right data input (though it could be suspect, as "Court Martial" suggests) -- a crime scene and indeed a crime itself could be re-created for juries and judges.

Other series over the years have also seen heroes entangled in difficult, alien-seeming court-room systems.  In the mid-1980s, Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor was tried by the Gallifreyans -- his own Time Lord people -- in the season-long Dr. Who serial "The Trial of a Time Lord."  There, he was prosecuted by a twisted future incarnation of himself, "The Valeyard" (Michael Jayston).  It turns out, the Doctor is actually being framed for a crime committed by his people, and his old enemy the Master proves to have some knowledge of that in a later episode.  Interestingly, and in keeping with his Time Lord nature, the Doctor presents as exculpatory evidence an adventure from the future; one that has not yet occurred ("Terror of the Vervoids.")

Green Lantern, John Stewart, was similarly famed for a crime he did not commit -- the destruction of a planet -- in the November 19, 2001 Justice League episode "In Blackest Night."  As is often the case in these court-room stories, one of the accused's most staunch allies plays the critical role of attorney/defender.  We have seen Captain Apollo, Captain Picard and other heroes take this particular assignment, and in this superhero episode, it is The Flash who serves as John's attorney and tries save his friend from a frame-up and conspiracy.

In 1994, Star Trek Deep Space Nine also featured an episode about a court-room trial, "Tribunal."  There, Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) ran afoul of the Cardassian legal system, a Kafka-esque labyrinth in which the edict "guilty until proven innocent" thrives. 

Again, a heroic Starfleet officer, Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) stepped in to prevent a miscarriage of justice and defend his friend.  And -- as in the case of Starbuck and Green Lantern -- it was learned that O'Brien had been framed. 

Just once, wouldn't it be cool to find out that a Starfleet Officer or other white knight really was guilty of the crime he had been accused of?

Perhaps one of the best uses of the trial, court-room format came in the year 2002 as Chris Carter triumphantly ended his long-running series, The X-Files.  There, in the final episode, "The Truth," Carter used the milieu of the court room (and Fox Mulder's trial) to link together almost ten years of clues, events and characters from the program's intricate conspiracy. 

 Rather than merely being a clip show or obvious rehash, "The Truth" proved an elegant summation of the players, plots and possibilities fans had speculated about across the program's long and decorous run.  And, delightfully, the episode didn't end with Mulder acquitted and all charges dropped...but  rather with him on the run from authorities (at least until I Want to Believe, in 2008).

Much of this essay has involved the trials and legal defensess of characters like Kirk, Buck Roger, Starbuck, Green Lantern and Fox Mulder, but the title of this survey involves "crime" and "punishment," and there have certainly been some interesting, imaginative "sentences" carried out in the history of sci-fi TV too.

Briefly:

The Twilight Zone (1959): "The Lonely." - A man named James Corry (Jack Warden) is sentenced to lifelong solitary confinement on the uninhabited world of Ceres.  Rod Serling describes the planet as a "dungeon made out of mountains, salt flats and sand that stretch to infinity."  Eventually, Corry's exile ends, and he is to be taken home to Earth, but in the meantime, he must say farewell to a beautiful android who helped him pass the time, portrayed by Jean Marsh.

Doctor Who: (1969):  "The War Games:" - The second incarnation of the doctor (Patrick Troughton) is stripped of his very life at the hands of the fearsome Time Lords, and forced to regenerate (into Jon Pertwee).  His companions are sent away to their various times, and the Doctor is exiled to Earth in the twentieth century for a time.

Space:1999 (1976): "The Rules of Luton" - On a distant world of intelligent (but blood-thirsty...) plants, Maya (Catherine Schell) and Commander Koenig are convicted of homicide after accidentally picking a berry ("Murderers!") and -- as sentence for their transgression -- they forced to compete in a battle with three other humanoid criminals from space. This is a variation of the Fredric Brown short-story, "Arena," also seen as "Fun and Games" on The Outer Limits and "Arena" on Star Trek (and recently used again as the basis for Predators [2010]).

V: The Series (1985): "The Champion:"  Following the murder of the V leader, Charles (Duncan Regher), suspects Diana (Jane Badler) and Lydia (June Chadwick) realize they could both be buried alive in his casket with him -- afloat in space forever with the rotting corpse -- unless a "patsy" is set-up and convicted.

The Outer Limits: (1994): "The Sentence."  This 1994 episode of the popular anthology remake sees the invention of a "virtual prison," an incarceration which lasts seconds but which, to the person imprisoned, seems togo on for a real lifetime.  The episode speculated about the idea that in this case, the legal punishment in fact becomes a crime against humanity.

Ex Post Facto: Does the punishment fit the crime?
Star Trek: Voyager: (1995): "Ex Post Facto."  Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil) is accused and convicted of murder on the Delta Quadrant planet called Banea.  His punishment is strange and draconian. 

Once every twenty-four hours,Paris is forced to relive in his mind's eye the last memories from his victim's life.  In other words, he must relive being murdered -- apparently by his own hand -- again and again, every day, for the rest of his life.  Excessive or just?

Deep Space Nine: (1996): "Hard Time."  Much like The Outer Limits story, "The Sentence," this episode finds Chief O'Brien (why is it always Chief O'Brien?") tried and convicted of a crime on the planet Argrathia.  As is custom there, O'Brien is sentenced and forced to endure a virtual twenty-year sentence in his mind.  He is nearly overcome with guilt during his mental sentence, and emerges from the experience depressed and even suicidal.

There are many, many more examples of sci-fi trials and criminal sentences/punishments in sci-fi history, and I invite you to add some of your favorite episodes of the form in the comments.  In the meantime, it's useful, perhaps to consider the questions all these episodes raise.

What is the best way to determine a person's guilt?  What role should new technology play?  And what is the best way to "punish" the guilty in the name of justice?

18 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic method for looking back at sci-fi series plus examining the various systems and processes of justice as their creators envisioned them. I can't recall the news article I read once that looked at Star Trek's jurisprudence (TOS & TNG), but its legal writer found it fundamentally fair, IIRC (except for letting old friends participate a little too freely).

    I'm glad to see you presented the ST:TNG's Rashomon-like episode, here, and that you didn't let it off the hook. Viewers who've seen the Kurosawa classic will have the same reaction, I suspect. That episode is trite and made to be much too bland. I often think of Christopher Nolan's Mememto when examining Rashomon and memory when it comes to locating the truth in an investigation or trial of justice.

    I'd like to think the ST:DS9 writers would have turned something in more nuanced, if they had had a shot at this episode. Speaking of DS9, great _crime_ inclusion with Tribunal. I'd suggest season four's Hard Time as a great _punishment_ segment where O'Brien (of course) has 20 years of prison life implanted into his mind for espionage crimes. It's a nice companion piece for that new OUTER LIMITS ep (The Sentence in '94).

    And kudos for mentioning that X-Files finale. For me, having drifted away from the series after Mulder/Duchovny left, coming to it for the end was made that much sweeter by how Carter employed "...the milieu of the court room". Great stuff.

    As to the questions you pose at the end, I go back and forth about the American confrontational system of the justice. For the most part, it seems to work... till you go to either end of the socioeconomic status scale. Then, wealth (or the lack of it) plays too big a part on the outcome. Exclusion of evidence (on either side) can have another impact. Remember, winning the case is the goal -- justice (if it comes), is the byproduct. Plus, as much as I want to see someone pay for their crimes (especially if it happens to me or my own--assuming it is the right person convicted), placing them into a penal system that for the most part produces someone worst (by the end of their sentence) and likely to repeat their acts doesn't appear to a solution.

    I wished I had better solutions for all of these. Sorry to be so long-winded. But, this is a great post that sparks reaction, thought, and hopefully discourse. Thanks for this, John.

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  2. Some excellent examples there, I must say.

    I'll toss out one for the table from Farscape, the second season episode "The Ugly Truth", which also played with the multiple viewpoints 'Rashoman' styled story and a pair of disturbing developments to ice the dramatic cake.

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  3. As an addendum : when considering punishment, my mind naturally drifted to Gan from Blake's 7 and his limiter device. In the course of doing a little idle reading I came across this interesting character analysis, which I submit for collective consideration.

    http://www.kaldorcity.com/features/articles/B7gan.html

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  4. As soon as I read this, my mind immediately went to the film Heavy Metal and to Captain Sternn
    Captain Sternn

    "Based on original art and story by Bernie Wrightson. On a space station, a square jawed space captain named Lincoln F. Sternn (voiced by Eugene Levy) is on trial on numerous serious charges (and one moving violation) presented by the prosecutor (voiced by John Vernon). Pleading "not guilty" against the advice of his rat-faced lawyer (voiced by Joe Flaherty), Sternn explains to his astonished lawyer that he expects to be acquitted because he bribed a witness, Hanover Fiste, to praise his character. Fiste takes the stand, but his perjury is subverted when the Loc-Nar, now the size of a marble, causes him to blurt out the truth about Sternn's evil deeds until he angrily denounces Sternn (Sternn is nothin' but a low-down, double-dealin', back-stabbin', larcenous perverted WORM!! Hanging's too good for him! Burning's too good for him! He should be torn into little-bitty pieces and buried alive!). Fiste rants with such fury that he changes into a muscled giant, and chases Sternn throughout the station, breaking through bulkheads and wreaking havoc. Eventually, he corners Sternn, receives his promised payoff for his part in the escape plan, and promptly shrinks back to his gangly original form. Sternn then pulls a lever opening a trapdoor under Fiste, and the Loc-Nar reenters an atmosphere with Fiste's bodiless flaming hand still clinging to it."
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

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  5. Hello, my friends,

    Le0pard13: You hit the nail on the head: "A Matter of Perspective" was bland and trite, a cowardly interpretation of a great film.

    This episode might be Exhibit A as to why I'm so frequently down on TNG: it's about as challenging and stimulating as oatmeal.

    Here the writers and producers had the model and the lesson of Rashomon and yet still hashed out a thoroughly safe, thoroughly predictable court-room drama. It would have been better if Riker hadn't been so much a white knight. He could have been guilty of bad judgment, at least, if not murder. Maybe he did flirt. Maybe he did want to bang Apgar's wife. That would have made Riker and the episode itself more interesting and more human.

    And I agree with you about the justice system here. I still believe it's the best there is, but as you say, if you get to either end of affluence or poverty,the system doesn't really work the way it should.

    Woodchuckgod: Thank you for remembering Farscape. My wife and I have just begin a retrospective of the show. Last night we watched the premiere episode, but I look forward to getting to the episode you named here.

    Trick or Treat Pete: I LOVE Heavy Metal. I really need to watch it again and write a review. Thanks for remembering it!

    best to all,
    JKM

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  6. Well, I was going to comment on the article but now I have to go into TNG defense mode (EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!):

    John: I can't exactly agree with your take that TNG is "as challenging and stimulating as oatmeal". Just because something doesn't age well (and TNG does NOT) does not mean that it doesn't have purpose or DID have an impact.

    You know what. . .nevermind. I'm going to do an article about this on SI. Too many ideas. Thank you for inspiring me! Haha. But let's just say I agree to disagree with you. More later.

    What I loved about the X-Files finale was that the court and trial itself was used simply as a front, continuing the theme that sometimes the government will use it's own devices to cover it's crimes. It would have been easy to kill Mulder. . .but everyone always felt he'd be a martyr. . .so they decided to use the court system to a)provide 'justice' for a murder that, scientifically, could not occur, and b)use the expectations of a court room, i.e. making a case, and using AGAINST Mulder. Mulder and Skinner would explain the entire conspiracy and look like fools for doing so. In a sense, the trial was legal and acceptable but used in the wrong way completely. Loved that. Thanks for mentioning that. It's not often you see the trial itself as the villain. Usually the court system is the beacon of hope for the wrongly accussed. In X-Files case. . .it was just another hurdle.

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  7. Hi Will!

    Glad I inspired you, if not in the way that I might have wished or actually intended.

    I should note, there are episodes of TNG I like very much ("Q Who," "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Inner Light," etc.).

    So while I'm down on the show overall, I do appreciate it when it works on all thrusters...or even half-thrusters sometimes (I have an unusual and all-together inexplicable affection for "The Royale"...).

    But you're right to say that Next Gen was influential. It succeeded in syndication and opened up the floodgates for more syndicated sci-fi (War of the Worlds), fantasy (Hercules), horror (Friday the 13th) and even crime dramas (The Untouchables).

    So I don't quibble with the idea that the show had an impact. I just tend to find many episodes boring and kind of canned (and safe...) when I go back and re-visit them.

    Now, this is opposed to TOS episodes, which still hold up as exciting and thought-provoking after forty years.

    But okay, I'm likely just inspiring you to hate me even more! :)

    And I love your description of how The X-Files used the court room milieu. Very insightful and interesting, my friend!

    All my best,
    John

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  8. I could never hate you! Though I will use you as Exhibit A in my article!!!!!!!! (Kidding). . .

    We need to do a joint article sometime and talk about this. You and I have had this discussion before many times about other Trek shows too.

    No worries! I don't hate!
    Will

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  9. Will,

    Okay. I was just kidding -- I know we're "good" despite our Trekker differences!

    We should do a joint article on this, maybe the pros and cons of TNG. I could do the cons and you could do the pros, or to be really tricky, we could switch it around...

    Let me know!

    best,
    JKM

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  10. John,

    Let me begin by saying that I was really looking forward to reading this and this is the first chance I've had. I was away for a period in Chicago and just returned.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your selection of courtroom images from all of my favorite science fiction series. Terrific!

    Your concept of courtroom drama and justice had me considering the concept as a universal concept by all kinds of aliens and races, human of course among them. We certainly would like to believe there is a sense of justice innate to all creatures.

    Boy, speaking of ST:TOS, how many Star Trek series or science fiction series in general do you see mention the Code Of Hammurabi or the Magna Carta. TOS was simply way ahead of its time. Brilliant writing.

    Great observations and analysis by you concerning the minimazation of humanity by technology.

    You and I both love that theme whether tackled in ST:TOS or Space:1999. The theme of humanity's relationship to technology is always an intriguing one. Further, I would add, the idea of DNA has allowed the computer to utilize ourselves against us. It's brilliant really.

    Anyway, enslavement by computers or technology certainly is something in play throughout TOS and your examples are great. You even see elements of this in something like What Are Little Girls Made Of? or even The Enemy Within as a result of technology's failure and ultimately the damage caused by it right?

    Something else in your post had me thinking about why ST:TOS was so successful and so brilliant. It managed, apart from terrific colors and sets and designs and all of these productions qualities, to contain real messages and thought provoking scripts. This was largely the result of strong science fiction writers being involved, whereby sf writers were not at the heart of the ongoing ST franchise.

    But, apart from these complex moral, ethical dilemmas ST:TOS managed to build all of this great science fiction and commentary into thoroughly engaging, entertaining story structures. It was largely successful for three seasons. The other SF franchises seemed less successful in compounding these two areas as one. We love whodunits and mystery and the creators of ST;TOS gave it all to us. We had our cake and we could eat it too.

    Your examnple of BG made me realize another element to both ST:TOS and the original classic BG that I loved and that was the wonderful performances. The actors made these characters their own and each was distinct and created with a real sincerity and belief in their respective roles.

    Your Analytical Guide To BG will eventually be my next purchase. I have Exploring Space:1999 and The Films of John Carpenter and I suspect it will be a must read for me next following these two exceptional books [which I have enjoyed immensely but not completed].

    One of the terrific aspects of your writing in all of these books is your incredible grasp of film and television history and how it has influenced and been applied to the subject for which you write. This is something I am building upon, but for which I have some ways to go.

    So part of ST:TNG's problem is the writing. It doesn't have the same level of quality as the writing supplied by science fiction writers from the Original Series.

    And like the previous comments I do agree ST:TNG was significant and influential, as you said especially in syndication, but ST:TNG is still not nearly as good as the original series and I've heard people argue that it is. Sorry, but ST:TOS rules mightily for some of the reasons argued previously.

    As far as why it was Chief O'Brien may have had something to do with the fact Colm Meaney was probably the finest actor in that cast. Many of the actors were great but I believe Colm was one of the best.

    Wonderful article John. I really enjoyed it. All the best SFF

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  11. Grayson5:40 PM

    This is one of your most intriguing articles, John. It is especially timely after seeing David Fincher's film The Social Network which is all about people having different perspectives of what happened.

    I realize you were limiting the focus to cult/sf TV episodes, but one of my favorite SF trials takes when Kirk and McCoy are accused of assassinating Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Here we do have Starfleet officers who conspired to commit murder! Of course, we don't get to see their trial.

    As far as punishment goes, my vote is for Lt. Beckwith in Harlan Ellison's original script for "The City on the Edge of Forever". Ultimately, the Guardians of Forever would have given the murderous Beckwith the punishment of living his death over and over for an eternity inside a supernova.

    I wonder if the phenomena of the SF trial is a unique concept to film (and especially) television SF, or has it widely been used in literary SF? Unfortunately I am not as well read in the genre as I would like to be.

    --Grayson

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  12. Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for that wonderful, eloquent comment on my post regarding sci-fi on trial. I agree with every word you wrote. Seriously.

    I think your point that Star Trek: TOS used science fiction writers is one of vital importance. This really made the difference in terms of thought-provoking concepts.

    Even though those writers may have been re-written by Coon or Roddenberry, the central, innovative concepts survived (even if the specifics were made to fit the TV format better...).

    These concepts yet shine...and stimulate.

    By my taste, The Next Generation lacks these interesting concepts -- by and large -- and plays more like traditional soap opera.

    We met Worf's Mom and Dad, his Klingon and human brothers, his son, his wife, etc. We met Troi's Mom. We met Picard's brother, etc. We met Riker's dad.

    They all came aboard to visit the Enterprise and we got, simply, what I call "The Love Boat in Space" stories.

    And when we weren't getting the Love Boat in space, we got holodeck stories that were mostly off-point, off-message.

    These are simply soap opera tales set in space, not innovative science fiction concepts about exploring space.

    Personally, I watch a space adventure for space adventuring, not to see characters "relaxing" or recreating in other time periods. Some of the holodeck stories had value; most did not.

    This is, honestly, why I rank TNG so low in the historical sci-fi TV pantheon.

    Even when it did strike on something interesting -- like the Rashomon template of "Matter in Perspective," it played the concept safe; never stretching the characters or universe (or audience).

    I don't feel this criticism is true of Deep Space Nine (by my memory), Space:1999, Farscape, even SGU or other programs, but I or do feel it of TNG.

    The ratio of good to bad episodes on TNG is, by my reckoning, something like 1 out of every 5 or 6, especially as we got to the Season 5 and beyond.

    I guess we all like the Star Trek we grew up with, to some extent, but TNG, by my perception, fails to entertain unless you are already a Star Trek fan. The original series entertains in the way of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or other great programs. You can sit down in front of a segment, even if you aren't a fan, and you'll be transfixed for an hour. This is as true today as it was 20 years ago, and 40 years ago.

    I don't know anyone, frankly, without encyclopedic knowledge of the Trek universe, who can sit down in front of most TNG episodes, and be entertained. The show is often lecturing and smug, and hectoring, I feel. Why does it not hold up, twenty years after it was made?

    My answer: it wasn't that good in the first place. It wasn't ahead of its time, like TOS. It was of its time...and now that time is passed.

    That said, when the magic strikes -- in episodes like "Best of Both Worlds Part I" or "The Offspring" or "Yesterday's Enterprise" -- the show can be very good. I wish there were more episodes like those. But I feel no need to own season sets of TNG because for every "Yesterday's Enterprise" there are three or four "Hero Worships" or "Samaritan Snares" or "Homecoming," or....you get the idea.

    I went on way to long about one portion of your comment, but I wanted to say thank you for writing and posting such an interesting response to my article.

    All my best,
    JKM


    Thank you for a wonderful comment!

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  13. Hi Grayson,

    Thank you for a great comment. Did you like The Social Network? I haven't seen it, but I'm intrigued by your description of it as being somewhat Rashomon-esque. I will definitely catch it on Netflix, which is how I see most movies now that I have a little kid and don't get out much! :)

    You also raise an interesting question about literary sci-fi using the trial concept. That's probably worth a survey, and I don't have a good answer at this point, either!

    And thanks for the mention of The Undiscovered Country. It would have been fascinating to see the trial of Admiral Cartwright! (And here's an example of the original franchise incarnation taking chances, making Spock's assistant Valeris and a pre-established, likable Starfleet admiral a conspirator!)

    All the best,
    JKM

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  14. Ah, precisely my friend. Sci-fi opera was the order of the day in ST:TNG and your reasons why it doesn't hold a candle are exact. I, likewise agree with master Muir.

    Those science fiction concepts survived the rewrites as you mentioned. This is exactly the case with Space:1999. The writing survived thanks to folks like Johnny Byrne. While the material was darker and more brooding, less colorful than Star Trek, which made it less accessible in retrospect, it's still a huge success for fans of science fiction stories like ourselves.

    Ironic that Fred Freiberger would go for the colorfully entertaining route by passing the science fiction concepts in favor of entertainment value for Season Three of ST:TOS and Season Two of Space:1999. We like those seasons, but they begin veering off into science fiction opera with notable exceptions that survived.

    Exactly, we can sit down and enjoy those programs from the era because story was the strength of it.

    I agree that we are partial to the classics and perhaps there is a nostalgic link to our childhoods, but I think we're sharp enough to differentiate quality science fiction from guiding light in space. I'm kidding a bit there. I know it's not that bad.

    But really, you're right, it wasn't all that profound upon its arrival and it doesn't hold up all that well for a reason, it's just not that good.

    I'm finding that out very quickly and the condescending scriptwriting isn't nearly as thoughtful as the Original Series. It just is not.

    ST:TNG makes you realize how amazing the TOS was and though I look forward to the stronger entries you mentioned it won't be enough to change my mind.

    I finished Season One and was almost bored. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary John. It inspired additional remarks because this is a very interesting historical topic when it comes to science ficton programming.

    Thanks so much my friend
    SFF

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  15. What an awesome treat to read this comprehensive overview of sci fi crime and punishment! I felt like I was reliving the individual episodes--complete with the shivers I felt when they were reading Kirk's commendations.

    It really is unfortunate that all of Star Trek's officers are white knights, immune from the taint of the world. But it's also this message of hope and human goodness which was responsible for the franchise's success. In the same way that Star Trek has this unreality about its characters, I was always disturbed by the fact that there was no economy--no scarcity. Contrast this to Babylon 5's constant economic shortfalls and numerous instances of corruption and unusual legal customs.

    This review was a true pleasure to read. Thank you!

    pete

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  16. Thank you, Peter, for the kind words.

    I agree with you that Star Trek had to walk a balance between portraying that positive, paradisical future, and maintaining the "humanity" of the characters. I suspect our barometers all point to different places in terms of the franchise's success or failure in that regard.

    I look fondly at TOS and DS9, situations where the characters live in an improved future, but still grapple with human concerns and human inconsistencies. Even Kirk (with his prejudice against Klingons) isn't a white knight.

    In TNG, you get the feeling the characters are rarely, truly tested. "Q Who" is a powerful exception, where they get a "kick" in their complacency. I love that episode, because for once it isn't Picard doing the lecturing. It's easy to lecture other species, I always say, when you live in paradise.

    But deprive Riker or Picard of paradise, and are they still heroes? That's the question TNG never really got to, in my opinion.

    Thank you for a great comment, my friend!

    best,
    JKM

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  17. Grayson6:16 PM

    John,

    It is really weird, but in the late 1990s / very early 2000s (pre-Star Trek: Nemesis) I had the feeling that NextGen was slightly more popular with ST fans than TOS. I have no way to quantify this but I seemed to gather that was the consensus on the Internet boards while Voyager was on the air. Post-Nemesis I feel that positive opinions of NextGen (minus the cast) have gone down considerably.

    -----

    I highly recommend The Social Network. It is my favorite film of the 2000s.

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  18. Grayson,

    I think your perception is accurate. I remember being at a convention in the early 2000s and everyone loving TNG while not TOS so much. I think that time-period represents the height of TNG's popularity, and it has been downhill since.

    The series simply hasn't aged well, whereas Star Trek -- now in High Def -- just doesn't seem to get old.

    Regarding The Social Network, now I am very interested in seeing it, given your recommendation.

    I am a huge and longtime admirer of David Fincher as well. I once almost got a book dealto write Movies that Scar: The Films of David Fincher, but things fell apart at the last minute.

    I adore all his films, from Alien 3 and Se7en to Fight Club and Zodiac. Maybe I'll make Fincher the next target of my director summer retrospective...

    Thanks again for the comment,
    John

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