Cult-TV Theme Watch: Judges

There has been much talk of “activist judges” on both sides of the political aisle for years now, but in general, judges are supposed to be paragons of virtue: impartial arbiters of the law who are above and beyond the vicissitudes and passions of the moment and must consider law based on history, tradition, and our obligation to a better, more equitable society in the future.

In broad terms, judges are men and women who issue judgments about the law based on knowledge, experience, and yes, personal interpretation.  Except during political campaigns, judges are generally held in high regard in Western society, as seems plain from both the superior position of the bench in the courtroom — high above the lawyers and jury’s station — and from standard judge’s garb, traditionally black or red robes.

But in cult television history, judges have not always been successful impartial arbiters of law.  Sometimes, in fact, they have passed judgment in the most ruthless of ways, and with secret agendas. 

The alien who “judges” humanity, in fact, is a common trope in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe.  Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) utilized the concept as its creative book-end in the premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint” and the series finale, “All Good Things.” 

In both situations, the omnipotent Q (John De Lancie) brought Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his command crew to a 21st century legal proceeding where Q acted as judge (and prospective executioner).  The matter he judged: were humans a grievously savage race, guilty of terrible crimes in the galaxy?  Picard not only had to defend his crew, but the human race, and even human history.

In earlier Star Trek lore, another mischievous God-being, Trelane (William Campbell) held court and passed judgment on Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in the first season story “The Squire of Gothos.”  There, Trelane accused the good captain of conspiracy, treason and fomenting insurrection, crimes which would see Kirk hang.  Memorably, the specter of a noose hung over Kirk as this judge prepared to rule against him.

On Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999), Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) had his own run-in with a nasty judge: Makbar, the Archon on Cardassia Prime.  In an episode reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial,O’Brien was held in the Cardassian legal system he couldn’t comprehend for a crime he did not commit.

Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) also featured some villainous judge characters. In “The Rules of Luton,” Moonbase Alpha’s Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) faced the cruel justice of the Judges of Luton, three living trees (!) on a world populated by sentient plants.  Again, the idea here was of the human race running afoul of indecipherable alien law and being judged by standards not its own.  In this case, the Judges of Luton, like Trelane before them, were terribly brutal and believed that ignorance of the law was no excuse for criminal behavior. 

Koenig’s crime?  Along with Maya (Catherine Schell), he picked a flower and sampled a berry.  But on Luton, of course, those were the acts of murderers…

On Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979), Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) once had to briefly adopt the role of Judge for the Colonial Fleet when Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) was accused of murdering Ortega, a competitor in the game of Triad.  In the tradition of all drama set on terra firma, Judge Adama even spoke an immortal line about a lawyer’s defense being “highly irregular.”

There were at least a few episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century(1979 – 1981) in which judges were also seen.  In “Time of the Hawk,” Hawk (Thom Christopher) was tried for murder before a council of cosmic judges, but thanks to Buck’s appearance as a character witness, spared the death sentence.  Later in the same season, Buck was tried as a traitor himself in “Testimony of a Traitor.”

Judges have also appeared in far more grounded settings in cult-tv history.  A panel of FBI higher-ups judged Mulder (David Duchovny) during the finale of The X-Files, “The Truth,” and a regular character on Picket Fences (1992 – 1996) was Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston), a man who — in keeping with his name — could feeljustice in his bones.  Judge Bone was a flawless legal and moral barometer, and always balanced the law perfectly.

We have also met some unofficial and frightening judges in cult-tv history.  In two second season episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Surprise” and “Innocence,”), Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was forced to combat a fearsome blue skinned demon called “The Judge” (Brian Thompson) who could separate the wicked from the righteous at a touch….literally burning up the wicked.

One ofMillennium’s (1996 – 1999) most memorable early episodes, “The Judge” gazed closely at the idea of vigilantism in late-1990s America.  There, a self-proclaimed “judge” (Marshall Bell) set out to deliver his own brand of justice to those who had escaped the reach of the law.  When he was revealed to be a hypocrite for his views on crime and punishment, the judge was punished most egregiously.  One of his own enforcers fed him to his pigs.  Importantly, “the judge” did not die before offering Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) a job as a vigilante enforcer. It was an offer that noble Black quite rightly turned down…

2 responses to “Cult-TV Theme Watch: Judges

  1. Excellent John. Further, and I know this isn't one of your favorites in the world of SF, but Stargate SG-1 dipped into many of these themes along the way to good effect as well. I suspect Stargate Atlantis, which I'm watching now, had its moments as well. cheers my friend – sff

  2. Hi SFF,I am almost through five seasons of Primeval — a fantastic series — and after that I'm looking to get into Sliders, at least first season, and Stargate SG:1. I really need to fill in those "gaps."best,John

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