A Shadow of Doubt, TOS: S1E20 “Court Martial”

The Enterprise breaks from its five year mission to indulge some tedious court proceedings.  Well, a murder trial is still more reminiscent a courthouse show, even if it is in space.  The space murderer in this case is Captain Kirk, who stands accused of jettisoning a research pod too early, thereby killing a lieutenant commander assigned to investigate an ion storm.  Captain Kirk faces a court martial for his negligence, but he denies doing anything wrong.  During the investigation, surveillance footage of the captain’s control panel reveals that he did indeed eject the pod while the ship was only at yellow alert.

A case like this seems irrefutable.  How can one dispute video evidence when it is well-known how fallible our memory can be?  Spock, on the other hand, was not convinced…and proceeded to conduct an investigation of his own.  In the end, it was found that the video footage had been fabricated, and the culprit was the ‘dead’ crewman himself, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Finney.  In an attempt to frame Kirk, Finney altered the computer database to take revenge on the captain for ruining his career years earlier.  The tampering also affected a chess program that Spock created, which prompted the Vulcan’s suspicion.  It is strange that altering surveillance footage would also affect a chess program.  In fact, the episode seems to have several misunderstandings on how computers function.

For a cautionary tale on the use of technology as legal evidence, some important technological limitations are overlooked.  Firstly, the video footage should have been extremely difficult to alter without the court noticing.  The 1960s SciFi era was either optimistic about what computers can do, or just ignorant on the subject.  The manipulated footage shows Captain Kirk’s hand pressing the wrong button on his control panel.  To produce this effect, the video image pixels of Kirk’s hand on each frame of footage would have to be changed for the entire scene.  Editing this extensive is unlikely to go unnoticed.  Alternatively, Finney could have cut in substitute footage of another person’s hand pressing the wrong button (or Kirk pressing it in a different occasion), but this sort of edit should still be obvious for a trial tasked with scrutinizing the footage.  Lighting, background sounds, or the position of clothing would all have to be merged.  Was this all prepared before the incident occurred?  If so, how did Finney know Kirk would assign him to the pod?

The real heart of the story is that we must question even the strongest evidence when searching for the truth.  However, the above explanation on how video footage could be altered represents my own bias of what is possible.  Perhaps I am just ignorant of futuristic technology and film works differently in this universe, allowing for extensive and seamless editing.  Although if this were the case, Starfleet should be familiar with the process, which may presumably be its own technology!  It is possible that this video footage wasn’t scrutinized by the court precisely because it was so implausible that anyone could tamper with it, and it was known to be such a reliable form of evidence.  With accelerating advancement in technology, we are putting more and more trust into things for which we can only guess the limitations.  It would be most sensible to question any technology used in the courtroom, as the computer is only as reliable as the person who programs it.

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