Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" / "Court Martial"

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I spent most of this week on jury duty, so a thousand pardons if my brain is somewhat fried at this point; having to sit and have things slowly explained to you for six hours a day (give or take) tends to make your focus want to get drunk and jump off a bridge. For example of how bad it's gotten, I spent twenty minutes trying to find some clever way of connecting my experience in court with the second episode of this week's double header, but I couldn't make a go of it. Something about how our prosecuting attorney wasn't nearly as blond as Areel Shaw? Or how I really wish we could've spent the final day of the trial sitting on the bridge of a starship. Nothing stuck. And I'm the kind of guy who can finds connections all over the place.

But while I'm sure part of my fogginess right now is due to endless arguments and sidebars, I don't think either "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" or "Court Martial" really did me much in the way of favors, concentration-wise. We've had a good run for the past few weeks; it was inevitable we'd eventually get stuck with a pair of so-so eps. It could've been worse, (And given that there's still "The Alternative Factor" left to cover this season, it will be worse soon enough.) but there's a certain excitement lacking here. Without depth or thematic cleverness, "Yesterday" and "Court" are decent plodders without much in the way of romance. I don't mean "So, did Kirk screw this one or will Kirk screw this one?" romance; I mean the genuine thrill that comes when all the pieces come together and the sum is greater than the parts. Both eps are missing that, and given the state of my current cogitations, it's no wonder I'm finding it difficult to get a grip on things.

"Yesterday" is about time travel, one of the boilerplate sci-fi (syfy?) concepts that manages to crop up in just about any show it legitimately can. We get a nice fake out in the opening, with '60's looking military men catching sight of a massive blip on the radar and sending a plane out to investigate; the plane finds the Enterprise flying through the sky, which is somewhat of a shock. The impact is lessened by the hilariously awful visual—I'm willing to cut the series a huge amount of slack when it comes to the effects work, given the limited budget and means of the period, but this is just embarrassingly goofy. Plus the dimensions are all wrong, and I can't help but wonder how in hell the Enterprise would even handle being subject to Earth's gravity? It's a giant freaking space-ship. Surely it wasn't designed for that sort of strain.

We cut to the bridge, where everyone is struggling to find their bearings. Kirk has Sulu move the ship into orbit around Earth, but not before they're forced to beam aboard the airman who came to check out the UFO. We get a passable explanation for the time-jump—the Enterprise passed by a black star, the gravitational pull sucked them towards it, and in breaking free, they were snapped forward like a rubber band and hurled into the past. (No mention is made of the earlier time travel in "Naked Time," but it's not like we were expecting any.) Now they're stuck in the "late 1960's," which means there's no Starfleet to report to, and no future resources to help Scotty get the engine back to full power. Not that he really needs any help, of course. This is Scotty. If you gutted the lower decks and handed him a tuning fork, he'd have you at warp 9 inside an hour.

Still, we need some kind of conflict, which is where John Christopher comes in. When the Enterprise sensors caught him observing the ship in his Interceptor, Spock realized that his plane could have nuclear tipped warheads on-board, missiles that would severely damage the ship in her weakened state. Without taking time to consider, Kirk immediately locks a tractor beam onto the Interceptor, holding it in place; but the plane can't withstand the pressure of the beam, and it breaks up into the atmosphere. This leaves Kirk no choice but to beam Christopher on board, at which point things get tricky because of causality and paradox issues. As Spock explains, Christopher's rapidly increasing knowledge of the future (Kirk all but leads him on a tour of the Enterprise) could have serious repercussions on future events, which is where we'll all be living our lives, in the future.

I'm not a huge fan of "Yesterday," as the "modern day" sequences, though decently written, are pretty dull; you never really feel like any of our heroes are in danger, and the fact that "present" Earth seems to exist in an endless series of gray rooms and hallways means that there's not much visual panache on display. But Spock's arguments about the dangers Christopher—and anyone else who stumbles across the Enterprise—represent are well-considered. I'm not sure I buy that Christopher, on seeing that space travel is possible and (gasp!) women are involved, could somehow parlay that knowledge into investments and monetary gain; it's not like someone hands him a Gray's Sports Almanac. But when you're dealing with that large a potential for damage, playing it safe makes sense.

Initially Kirk and company plan on bringing Christopher with them back to the future, as Spock's initial research shows that Christopher failed to make any significant contribution to history before his death. Christopher isn't much happy at the idea, for obvious reasons, but lucky for him Spock likes to double check his work; and while the pilot himself may be a nobody, his son—the son his wife has yet to be impregnated with, if you get me—is captain of the first manned Earth-Saturn probe, which is very important indeed. Instead of just finding a way to get rid of the pictures that Christopher's plane took before it went ker-splat, Kirk and his crew also have to figure out how to return the captain back home, in order that he may keep up the good fight of rogering the wife and instilling the fear of God and country in the babies that result from said rogering.

In a way, "Yesterday" is a bit like a dry-run for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, mostly in the over-the-top comedic reactions we get from military men caught up in the Enterprise's woes. Christopher plays it straight, but there's an MP inadvertently beamed up to the ship who spends his time there in a frozen double take, as well as the MPs down on the planet who question Kirk and don't like the answers he gives. It's funny enough ("I'm going to lock you away for two hundred years." "That ought to be about right.") but it's middling stuff, and none of the issues raised in the ep ever get beyond mildly concerning. Plus the resolution doesn't hold up at all; once Spock figures out how to shoot the Enterprise into the future (a sun slingshot which, unless I'm mistaken, is what they use in Voyage), it becomes possible to set Christopher back into his plane right before it broke apart, with no memory of how he got there or what happened to him. There's no way that makes sense.

But hey, you know what does make sense? A court martial! And wouldn't you know it, that just happens to be—ah, screw it, I hate myself, let's just pretend I've made the segue clean and move on with our lives. "Court Martial" stays in the era of Starfleet, but don't expect much in the way of exciting environments; the action here is restricted to the Enterprise and—surprise, surprise—the gray as hell rooms of Starbase 11. The sci-fi concepts we see here are just decorations on a straightforward, disappointingly predictable script, and while there's a definite drama in the idea of seeing our hero's integrity and ability put into question by his peers, that drama is negated by the black-and-white nature of the results. Of course Kirk didn't eject anyone too early. Hell, as it turns out, he didn't eject anyone at all.

I guess that could use some context. Much like "Yesterday," "Court" starts with a good five minutes of the plot already in the past. (Whatever problems I have with both episodes, I do like that kind of set-up; it helps create the illusion that the action of the series doesn't begin and end with the credits.) After passing through a deadly ion storm, the Enterprise has lost a crew-member by the name of Ben Finney. Kirk's filing the relevant reports at the Starbase, and it appears to be a routine, though tragic, matter; Finney was inside an observation pod per regulations during the storm, and when the storm became too dangerous, Kirk was forced to eject the pod after putting the ship on red alert. Everything went down by-the-book, at least until Spock beams down with the computer logs. That's when Commodore Stone discovers that, Kirk's own report to the contrary, the computer recorded that the pod (with Finney inside) was ejected before the red alert was called, giving Finney insufficient time to escape. At best, that makes Kirk out to be incompetent—at worst, he's a murderer.

Word travels fast; hilariously, when Kirk and McCoy take a trip to the local watering hole, half the people there know Kirk and have set their minds on a guilty verdict. (This seems to have been done mostly to increase the tension; I'm not sure I buy that James T.'s colleagues would despise him so readily, unless there was some kind of jealousy involved.) But Kirk isn't backing down, not even in the somewhat terrifying face of Finney's grieving daughter, Jamie. (It's not the actress I object to so much as her embarrassingly misguided outfit. I guess the ribbon was supposed to make her look more childish?) Stone gives him an out, offering to put in the record that it was simply a mistake brought on from over-work and physical exhaustion, but Kirk won't have it. A mistake would most likely end his career, and he doesn't believe he made one. So off to trial things go; and wouldn't you know it, but one of Kirk's old flames, Areel, just happens to be around to present the case for the prosecution.

Oh man, here's as good a place as any to mention it—the dialogue is incredibly ripe in this episode, from the meandering, inane burblings between Kirk and Areel, to the so-called inspiration speeches from that mountain of mediocrity, Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law. See, Samuel was recommended to Kirk by Areel (because even though she's going to do her level best to break him, she still wants Kirk to win), and he's got all those quirky edges that old lawyers always have in movies. Get ready to be amazed: he carries his whole law library around with him wherever he goes, and once he takes Kirk on as a client, he moves all his books into Kirk's apartment! Never mind the fact that nothing in those books ever really matters to the case; because Kirk is at the mercy of a computer log, we're supposed to be charmed by Cogley's contempt for modern technology. (The only person who pull of this kind of shit was Giles on Buffy, and he did it one speech.)

Cogley's played by Elisha Cook, Jr., who does as well as can be expected with the material provided. There's something off, though; I can't help wondering if he dropped out of filming before the episode was complete, or if the show couldn't afford him, because after his big speech at the end of the second act, he disappears entirely. Various characters mention him to explain his absence, but given the prominence of his introduction, a two line send off at the end seems inadequate. Anybody know the story on this? The only thing I can find is that Cook had trouble remembering his lines—which suggests but doesn't really explain.

We get a trial, and as is always the way with movie trials, it goes down like a fight in a Rocky sequel, with Kirk up against the ropes until the very last minute when Spock, per the usual, saves his ass. Areel presents her case through Spock, McCoy, and an unnamed crew-woman, and while all are clearly supportive of the captain, each one is forced to bury him a little deeper. And Cogley refuses to cross-examine any of them, which made me think of that bit on the Simpsons when Marge's pretzel business attracts the fury of the local mob and the yakuza; there's that one guy who just stands there the whole fight, and like Homer says, you just know he's going to do something cool, but we never get to see it. In "Court," we do get to see Cogley go all oratorical, but only after Spock makes his last minute discovery; otherwise, he just calls Kirk to the stand and before having his case destroyed by a video of the bridge. (A video with multiple camera angles, that no one bothered to mention till the big courtroom reveal. Wouldn't that've been the first thing they looked at when the computer and Kirk disagreed?)

Getting bogged down here—to sum up, Ben Finney, with whom Kirk has A Past, is alive after all. He faked his death and while everybody was searching for him, re-programmed the computer to ruin Kirk; Spock figures this out when he tests the computer by playing some chess against it. This episode was mostly a wash for me, but I dearly loved Spock's reasoning—since he programmed the computer to play chess, with all he knows of the game, the best he should've been able to achieve against it was a draw. That he failed to achieve this, that he actually won, means that somebody's been doing some re-adjusting. The only people with the authorization to do that are Kirk, Spock, and wouldn't you know it, Finney himself. (This seems convenient, to say the least. Given what we're told about Finney's career trajectory after Kirk caught him in error years before, he's not doing so great; but you'd think that being one of the three people on the ship qualified to do something would be pretty high cotton, especially considering that the other two are the ship's captain and first officer.)

To track Ben down, Kirk does a test with the ship's speakers to catch the heart-beats on the Enterprise. It's a nice "Tell-Tale Heart" moment that falls apart the as soon as you think about it—this is the best way to pinpoint the location of a crewman? God forbid you have to do it in space. Kirk goes after Finney, the ship is in danger, they struggle, Finney breaks, Kirk saves the day, the charges are dropped, ice cream for everyone, and so on. The final fist-fight between Kirk and Finney killed whatever dramatic tension the episode had managed to create, even if you overlooked the obvious stunt doubles. The fact that Kirk, as a starship captain, is held to a higher standard is a strong concept with a lot of potential; it's come up more than once on the series, and it's used to try and heighten the danger for our hero here. But it's just a false trail in the end, because unlike the other episodes, Kirk's fallibility is never really the issue. He was framed, he made no mistakes, so the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. Not many places you can go from there.

Both "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" and "Court Martial" are passable, but there's something missing. It's always tricky to find what separates the average from the awesome, but I think what we're looking at here is a distinct and painful lack of giant talking rabbits, freakish bald children, and SPACE LIZARDS. Trek doesn't need the extra touches to work beautifully (as we'll see in a couple weeks, it can do just find with human drama, thankyouverymuch), but when the writing is merely competent and the stories don't shine, you need something to hold your attention. Apart from that horrible shot of the tiny Enterprise in the sky, and Ben Finney's uncanny resemblance to Willem Dafoe, there wasn't much to go on here.

"Tomorrow Is Yesterday": B-
"Court Martial": B-

Stray Observations:

  • Gotta love Christopher's shocked "A woman?!?" when he and Kirk walk by a skirt on their way to the bridge. Surely he's seen one before.
  • Well, it looks like we've got food synthesizers on the Enterprise capable of creating chicken soup. Even better, there's a bunch of them in the transporter room. Is it really necessary to have food in there?
  • The Enterprise sure does have a lot of Finneys.
  • Up next week, "The Return Of The Archons" and "A Taste Of Armageddon."