Monday, January 21, 2013

Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Trial/Court Room

A court room of the 23rd Century.
It's strange to consider, but Perry Mason (1957-1966) -- a golden age TV series involving a 20th century defense attorney played by Raymond Burr -- has 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 some of these unfortunate souls have even negotiated -- perhaps in honor of Kafka -- alien and draconian brands of justice and punishment.

Seeing so many episodes featuring sci-fi heroes standing trial, decade-after-decade, franchise after franchise, you might 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  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. 

In the first season of the original Star Trek (1966 - 1969), in an episode titled "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 proceedingsL

"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 itself 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.

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. 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 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.

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 open to him.

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.

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 legitimate 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 entanglement 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. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:32 PM

    John interesting thoughts on courtroom trials. I have owned your An Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica book since it was published in the late '90s and recommend it. Like your Exploring Space:1999 book, you leave no stone unturned.



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