Starfleet's so-called "court martial bell" is a beautiful prop – not to mention a conversation piece that any STAR TREK fan would love to have on their desk!
Unless you want to fork over almost 300 USD for a new Lions or Rotary Club bell, you'll be relegated to finding antiques at a more reasonable cost, converting and restoring them.
In his article "Ding, Ding! This Court Is In Session", Greg Schnitzer (Co-Executive Producer of fan series Star Trek New Voyages/Phase II) explains exactly what this prop is, and where it appeared in STAR TREK: The Original Series. It's a highly recommended read, and should give you all the information you need for your own happy hunting.
This "DAMAGED VINTAGE BELL" was found at a great price, and luckily it did not have any custom engraving (as many of the pre-owned ones do):
As a second stroke of luck, the broken piece was the Lions Club ornament on top, which would have been removed anyhow. However, it left behind a ridge of torn metal:
This article will demonstrate the conversion of an "antique find" into a pristine screen-accurate replica!
Starfleet Usage & Protocol
Before the photo set, let's take a moment to examine Starfleet's protocol on utilising this item, which appears at trials & hearings in “Court Martial” [1x14] (Kirk), in “The Menagerie, Part I” [1x15] & “The Menagerie, Part II” [1x16] (Spock), and finally in “Space Seed” [1x24] (Khan/McGivers et al.).
From these episodes, we can extrapolate that the bell is a ceremonial "call to order" device at courts-martial wherein an officer is being formally tried on charges (full ceremony at trials would likely be mandated), and on occasion at legal hearings deemed to be of exceptional gravity. In the case of hearings, the added formality may be at the discretion of the presiding officer(s).
Consider the bell's appearances:
- Kirk's trial by court-martial for culpable negligence. Note that neither the bell nor dress uniforms were yet present at the inquiry "to determine whether a general court-martial should be convened", but appeared once the court was in session.
- Spock's trial by court-martial for mutiny. Again, neither the bell nor dress uniforms were present at the hearing wherein he waived his rights and requested general court-martial — both appeared in the following scene when the court-martial was convened.
- The gathering with Khan and Lt. McGivers, which featured Kirk immediately dispensing with the charges & specifications against Khan and his crew in favour of a different form of "sentencing", and giving the Lieutenant an alternative to standing court-martial. Although described as a "hearing", it was exceptional in its legal process: serving as a resolution rather than a precursor to any sort of trial.
In his article referenced above, Mr Schnitzer rightly points out that:
Interestingly, it's not used at the competency hearing for Kirk in "The Deadly Years," it's not used during the trial for Mr. Scott in "Wolf In the Fold," and it's not used at the mutiny trial of Mister Spock in "Turnabout Intruder."
It is also not used at the ship's hearing against Harcourt Fenton Mudd ("Harry Mudd") on various charges in “Mudd's Women” [1x03].
These examples are interesting indeed, as we can conclude that the bell's presence or absence in any scene was systematic and not haphazard. Dress uniforms consistently accompanied its on-screen appearances, while there was an absence of such (with the crew in their standard service uniforms) at any hearing where the bell was absent. This indicates a deliberate collaboration between the Properties and Wardrobe departments to create distinct atmospheres of greater or lesser legal ceremony.
In the context of the above logic, the bell's notable absences can be explained:
- There are numerous situations – such as the disease in “The Deadly Years” [2x11] – that could render a captain physically or mentally unfit to command, without any criminal wrongdoing. A competency hearing is an examination of fitness; it does not imply legal charges.
- In “Wolf in the Fold” [2x07], Mr Scott was on trial for murder: by the Argelians, not Starfleet. Moreover, the shipboard gathering in the briefing room was only a fact-finding session to produce computer evidence, which the Argelian Prefect reserved the right to discard completely.
- The specific dialogue in “Turnabout Intruder” [3x24] is that "A hearing will be immediately convened to consider the charges and specifications of a general court martial on the charge of mutiny". As with the examples above, it is the pre-court-martial hearing that is called, despite that the impostor Kirk attempts to turn it into a kangaroo court.
- Albeit a civilian context, the hearing in “Mudd's Women” [1x03] is similar to the previous example: it was convened to consider charges going forward, and resulted in the decision to hand Mr Mudd over to the legal authorities at the earliest opportunity. Harcourt is yet to stand trial on said charges (Kirk later suggests that he could appear as a character witness).
The bell's absence from hearings is consistent with scenarios from the "real-world" legal system – such as out-of-court examinations or pre-trial conferences – that are designed to examine a matter in dispute. These forums are not for judgements or convictions, but to prepare the parties for a pending trial wherein such decisions will be made.
Prop Cleaning & Conversion
The bell in its initial state, with a broken top ornament that's about to be successfully re-shaped (or messed up beyond all repair) with a Dremel:
Initial rounding of the top ornament completed and showing some of the original bronze underneath:
The partially-disassembled bell, washed & dried and ready for chemical cleaning:
First application of home-made bronze cleaner. Equal parts salt and flour are mixed with white vinegar to form a paste, then brushed on vigorously. Note the substance already turning green as it reacts with the metal:
The promising results of the first application, after allowing to stand for 20 minutes, washing, and drying:
A more generous second and third application of the bronze cleaner follow:
All but the most stubborn patina is now gone, with a known side-effect — the metal has been plated in pink, due to reaction with elements left behind:
A close-up of the top ornament shows the contrast between the "pink-plating" and the original brass underneath:
Further disassembly of the bell and the application of an ultra-fine sanding sponge removes the pink without scratching up the surface (N.B.- even 200-grit sandpaper is too abrasive for this purpose). See the colour shift in progress between the upper and lower rims of the bell:
A sponge scrubbing with Bar Keepers Friend™ and thorough drying has now removed the last of the darkened areas from the visible surfaces of the metal:
To eliminate the scarring left behind by the Dremel, the top ornament is installed into a drill and spun in succession against 120-grit sandpaper, 200-grit sandpaper, an ultra-fine sanding sponge, and fine steel wool, to produce a smooth finish:
The fully disassembled bell, after a penultimate polishing with fine steel wool, and a final polishing with Brasso™ (not pictured) to help preserve the original finish:
One part is added — a thin rubber washer installed between the base and the bell for a firmer grip and less abrasion:
A "Before & After" comparison:
The bell is now ship-shape (no pun intended), but the included striker is less than screen-accurate: a project for another time!