Tag Archives: Star Trek

Law’s Federation: the trials of Captain Kirk

Trials in Star Trek

It is interesting to see the ways in which a mid-20th C American sci-fi series portrayed legal process, with all sorts of references to what was and what ought to be (in a fundamentally just entity like the United Federation of Planets, and its military wing, Starfleet). I recently watched Series 2 episode 12, ‘The Deadly Years’, which includes a ‘fascinating’ [thank you Mr Spock] legal proceeding to determine whether Captain Kirk should be relieved of his duties, due to physical and/or mental incompetence.

The story revolves around mysterious and rapid degeneration which affects members of the crew, including Kirk, who have visited a planet, Gamma Hydra IV, making them age about thirty years per day. Spock, also affected by this process, but, due to his Vulcanicity, not to quite the same extent, is obliged by a guest character – the bossy but ultimately rather incompetent Commodore Stocker – to set up and chair a competency hearing.

Spock acts as Presiding Officer, chairing and also examining witnesses (so not the classic common law judge role). he process is directed to answering the question ‘is Kirk unfit to command’, a decision to be made by vote by a board, after hearing evidence from witnesses (directed to examples of Kirk’s repetition of orders, forgetting that he had signed things, showing a failing memory, as well as his previous good memory – showing decline) and evidence from a computer assessment of Kirk’s physical health, confirmed by expert witness (but also board member) Dr McCoy. The board deliberates in secret. Kirk would seem to have the right to call witnesses, though chooses not to call them. Unlike the splendid dress uniforms seen in Star Trek court martial scenes, we are in normal uniforms here, with four board members arrayed around a modernist asymmetrical table, other crew members (witnesses, unclear if they had a vote) behind them, and Kirk on the other side on a ‘naughty chair’. The outcome is that he is found unfit, and is relieved of command. It does appear to be correct, according to the story, but perhaps one might wonder at the potential for injustice in the role allowed to several other officers affected – albeit perhaps to a lesser extent – with the same condition as Kirk. There is no obvious appeal from the decision, though once the cure is found an Kirk’s condition reversed, he seems to just resume his command, without formal process – a little slack, surely, unless the decision included a provision for this eventuality.

Looking forward to more Final Frontier Laws …

to be continued.

16/7/2020

Gender running Amok? Thoughts on classic Star Trek episode ‘Amok Time’ (1967)

This episode (the first episode of the second series) has several iconic aspects – first appearance of Chekov, first time out for the Vulcan salute and only trip to Vulcan in original Star Trek – but on rewatching it during my lockdown completist marathon, I was struck by two things. The first was the Legal-Historian-pleasing ‘trial by battle’ between Spock and Kirk with lirpa – weapons looking not a million miles away from medieval judicial duel weapons. Another time. It’s the second I went away thinking about, and will muse upon here – the portrayal of women. Not strictly Legal History, I suppose, but then again, both LH and Sci-Fi are about messing about with time, imagining other eras; and there are certainly some resonances with ideas about women in history, so I think I’m allowed.

The fabulous Lt Uhura on the bridge is not given much attention here – she is just doing her job. The three who are prominent are Nurse Christine Chapel, on the Enterprise, and, on Vulcan, T’Pau and T’Pring. These three all interact with Spock, who is in the grip of the pon farr mating urge, and, to cut a long story short, has to go to Vulcan to consummate his union with T’Pring, or, it is feared, he will die.

Chapel is the least inspiring of the trio. She is revealed to be hopelessly keen on Spock, fussing about after him and bringing him Vulcan soup. Very nurturing. Doesn’t go down well, though, Spock is quite nasty to her.

The best action is on Vulcan, where we have the powerful T’Pau – a diplomat, judge, and more, who presides over what was supposed to be a marriage and turned into a ritual battle – and the fascinating T’Pring. As Lt Uhura exclaims, she is beautiful.

The portrayals of T’Pau and T’Pring are very interesting. They are in some ways positive and forward-looking (in earthly terms – remember when this was written) but the writers could not quite let go of the assumptions of their own times. T’Pau, for example, is respected by all, but is portrayed as rigid and perhaps cruel. Powerful woman as ‘cold-hearted-bitch’ model? T’Pring is clever – even Spock praises her logic – but we are supposed to see her as a bit of a scheming minx and Vulcan ‘gold-digger’, arranging things so that she can get Spock’s property but be with the beefier Stonn instead. I wondered to myself, also, whether it was easier to give power to women who were ‘other’, rather than to the human women, who, on the Enterprise, were always subordinate to men. The Vulcans were portrayed as decidedly ‘Oriental’ (in an indefinite, pan-Asian manner). T’Pau on her litter, with her formality, was particularly reminiscent of an empress of China. Then again, she did remind me slightly of the statues of the BVM which are carried through Spanish streets on holy days. (That of course would make a nice contrast with T’Pring as an Eve-like temptress).

Vulcan law and customs as portrayed here include elements popularly regarded as ‘medieval’ – as well as trial by battle, we had marriages arranged by families at an early age, and the idea of a wife as the property of a man. I was particularly disappointed to hear T’Pau buying into the ‘wife as property’ thing: not much female solidarity with T’Pring there. I assume that there was no Mr T’Pau, otherwise, on this evidence, she would have been at home being a chattel. Even Spock entered into woman as property trope territory when he left Stonn with a little speech about ‘having’ not being as good as wanting (T’Pring, or women in general…) I must say, I came away from watching this as a grownup feeling admiration for T’Pring, for playing the system and getting out of what was clearly a most illogical arrangement. Live long and prosper, T’Pring! (And give Nurse Chapel some tips on not being an inter-galactic  doormat).

GS 27/6/2020