Written by Laurence N. Wolfe, D.C. Fontana, and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by John Meredyth Lucas
Over the years there have been many cautionary tales about letting computers run our lives too much. From Battlestar Galactica with its human-hating robots to the Terminator series of films, there almost seems to be the message that if we let them get too smart, we’re going to pay for it.
In the second season of the original Star Trek series, we have our own variation on that theme. It’s actually handled pretty well, although
Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) is famous in Federation circles. His advances in computers are what have made starships possible. He even has a whole institute named for him, and it lasts into the next generation, despite what happens in this episode.
The Enterprise is charged with testing a new computer, created by Daystrom, known as the M-5, that will nearly completely automate the ship. Most of the crew is removed from the ship and the M-5 is installed, much to the consternation of Captain Kirk (William Shatner). He’s not so sure about having computers make every decision on board the ship, although Daystrom digs at him that it’s Kirk’s ego that can’t handle it.
What might not have been predictable back in the 1960s is pretty predictable now. Initially, the M-5 passes the tests with flying colors. The remaining crew begins to get a bit nervous when the M-5 starts shutting down systems it deems unnecessary all over the ship. Daystrom shits down their complaints saying the computer is just being efficient.
When the wargames begin, the M-5 responds to the simulated attacks with lethal force. Now there is no debate that the computer is a problem, only how to disengage it. Daystrom is emotionally invested in the success of the M-5 and begins having a breakdown on the bridge, so is no help. Kirk and his small crew find themselves in a ship that is about to be treated as an enemy by the ships that were engaging in the war games.
This is a good study of humanity in addition to being a cautionary tale of letting technology take over. Kirk’s ego is bruised by the thought of being replaced by a computer. He sees himself as a necessity while the M-5 does not. That’s made clear when they both decide on a landing party to beam down under a specific set of circumstances and the M-5s do not include Kirk.
There’s a good moment where Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) discusses what it would be like if they tried to replace him with a computer. It’s foreshadowing the holographic doctor that we see in Voyager and beyond. It’s so interesting to see moments like this when back in the 1960s there was little thought to something like that and yet somehow it all fits into the Star Trek universe.
Daystrom’s breakdown is indicative that by the 23rd century, we still haven’t made some advances in mental health. He’s so invested in his work and what he’s created that he can’t separate the M-5 from his own identity. He admits to embedding the programming with his own human engrams, so the link between the two is more like parent and child. Asking him to destroy the M-5 is akin to asking him to kill his own child, yet he knows it must be done.
The story is a bit of a cliche but manages to be compelling. Despite what Daystrom has attempted to create, the computer cannot reason the same way as a human. It sees a series of possibilities and not the nuances that trigger a gut reaction or instinct in the live beings when they are in charge. It doesn’t know anything but black or white; yes or no; friend or enemy.
The actors are good here. Shatner manages to really capture everything good about the role. Kirk is both threatened by the M-5 and has to overcome it and outsmart it. He must find a way to convince it to stand down when it doesn’t see that it has to. William Marshall as Daystrom does a great job as a man breaking down when his ultimate creation fails; when his child has gone awry. It’s a really great performance that could easily have been overacted and both of these actors are really what makes the episode worth it.
There are some good effects with the space battles that are supposed to be just war games but turn lethal. On the remastered version, they seem to have a marked improvement over the years of watching this as reruns.
While predictable, The Ultimate Computer is a good episode on both the story and action front. The acting stands out and there’s enough suspense to keep the viewer engaged even all these years later.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Omega Glory
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Bread and Circuses