In the TOS episode Court Martial, the Wikipedia summary says:

Captain Kirk is placed on trial for negligence after a crewman is killed during a severe ion storm. Kirk maintains that his actions were proper and should not have led to the officer's death, but the evidence seems strong against him. Will Kirk's crew be able to save the captain from conviction?

Spock's third-act new evidence was rather slim. From the Wikipedia description of the plot:

[...] Spock, noting he has been able to beat it at chess four times and was well on his way to a fifth, reveals that his "leisurely" activity was in fact an investigation of a computer that had told an account of the incident that, as an eyewitness, he absolutely knew was false. His victories had come despite the fact that Spock was the one who wrote the computer's chess program and the machine should therefore be incapable of doing any worse than a draw; when McCoy asks how that is possible, Spock explains he is convinced that the system has somehow been tampered with since game programming he made three months before has now been altered.

Really? No protected memory? Altering the logs affects the game AI? Is this really supportable, even from the POV of 1969 computers?

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    In 1969, to the less-than-experts writing the show, and to 99.99% of the audience watching the show, it wouldn't seem unreasonable that the computer would be programmed as one vast system, and that perturbing any part of that system would disturb the rest. Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 13:24
  • But that's just it. They did have experts. They had scientific consultants by-the-dozen. Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 6:42
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    I guess that no one thought about Kirk's sabatour skills, since he did alter the Kobyashi Maru program to his benefit. And that was practically public knowledge. Womanizer by day, hacker by night?
    – Jersey
    Commented May 9, 2013 at 16:06
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    In 1969 IBM had not only memory protection, but virtual machines.
    – Gaius
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 7:16

5 Answers 5


Rather than tampering with the logs themselves, a crafty saboteur might program the computer to monitor all requests for data and alter the output on-the-fly to implicate Kirk whenever certain relevant data banks were accessed. This constant monitoring could consume enough CPU resources that a CPU-bound application like a chess program might search its game trees less deeply and make inferior moves as a result.

  • I like this idea. It fits in-universe and saves Spock's cred. Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 6:55
  • If the log data itself was protected, this might be the only way to alter the playback. Maybe Spock was/will-be using some kind of UDP protocol that's more sensitive to network interference. Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 7:25
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    I can also say with reallife experience, this type of thing is harder to debug (making it more likely the crewman made the requisite mistakes with this type of tampering). (Not that we saw Spock go through the code, but he didn't need to fix it just prove it)
    – Izkata
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 15:09
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    I just checked, it was you @KyleJones that answered my Timecop question. You're good at retconning.
    – John O
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 17:51
  • This answer is either speculation, a real-world answer to a in-universe question, or both. Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 16:24

Popular perception of computers in 1969 was that they were mysterious magical boxes. For example, in an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, the plot revolves around a computer that can "answer any question" and when one of Tony's bosses flippantly asks how old Jeannie is as a demonstration, they have to find a way to grab the printout before the brass realizes she's several million years old, or something like that.

In another contemporary show, Adam West's Batman, they defeat a robot villain (henchman?) by telling it a joke. This causes its head to explode, since obviously robots can't laugh at jokes.

Let's just say that in 1969 they weren't hiring computer scientists as consultants to get those details right.

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    Let's not mention the fact that a computer would explode just about any time Kirk talked to it. The Enterprise's computer must have had some serious safeguards.
    – Jeff
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 13:52
  • "Let's just say that in 1969 they weren't hiring computer scientists as consultants to get those details right." and in 2022, nothing much has changed.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 17:57

The computer system in the 23rd Century might be much more holistic, organic in design if not component, and just as brain damage in a living brain can manifest itself as symptoms such as aphasia or inability to perform simple physical tasks like writing, computer tampering might manifest as an inability to win at chess. In fact, chess games might make for a good diagnostic marker to check for damage or tampering.

  • This fits very nicely with other SF -- Asimov's robots. When testing a robot to see if there was something wrong with its "first law", the expert tested all sorts of seemingly irrelevant reactions.
    – Basya
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 7:27
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    "more holistic, organic in design" - what a great euphemism for "failure to adhere to principles such as encapsulation and separation of concerns" ;) Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 16:33

Spock's a pretty smart guy; he could have designed the chess program in the first place with such a situation in mind; perhaps with the thought that any computer hacker wouldn't think to check if meddling with the logs would affect the chess program, of all things.

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    True...but there's about 30,000 simpler and more effective things Spock could have done instead. Logically, he would have done (some of) those. Besides, he would have stated if that had been his intention.
    – Jeff
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 13:53
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    Interesting idea ... but then he would have checked right away -- it wouldn't have been new evidence when the case was supposed to be closed...
    – Basya
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 7:28

The Enterprise computer's 'database' may be based on some sort of holographic storage medium (note: this sort of thing has in fact been suggested in real life, for the sake of fast retrieval). The thing about holograms is that the information in them is distributed throughout the medium. So altering the log might have had side-effects throughout the storage, including effects that subtly compromised the function of the chess program.

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    Hi, welcome to the site. Is there any canon evidence to support this explanation though, or is this just a theory you came up with on your own? A good answer should be grounded firmly in canon evidence, not in conjecture, or parallels to how things work in the real world. Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 15:59

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