Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Most Dangerous Computers in Cult-TV History

Some years ago, a dear friend presented me with a coffee cup inscribed with this legend: “To err is human. To really screw things up you need a computer.” 

Many times over the years, I’ve been reminded of that quotation while watching episodes of cult television programming. The trope of the "villainous super computer" is now extremely well-established in horror and sci-fi, so today I decided to present my choices for the most dangerous of this TV computer bunch.

The selections range from mildly dangerous (#7) to most intensely, world-destroying, time-freezing dangerous (#1).  In addition, I’ve also added a few examples of human-friendly computers below, so no one will accuse me of being rabidly anti-computer.

7. “Goodfellow’s Effort Eliminating Computer” or “G.E.E.C,” from The Super Friends (1973 – 1974).  This colossal computer was created by the kindly Professor Goodfellow for a noble purpose: to free mankind from the yoke of physical work and hard labor. 

The giant machine was programmed to handle everything from manufacturing to transportation to other routine business matters. Unfortunately, when mankind doesn’t work, drive and meaning disappear from life and mankind suffers.  Fortunately, the Super Friends realize that “it’s good for people to work, or they won’t have purpose.” 

In the end, however it is a mouse that destroys the Goodfellow computer not a superhero, thus proving that machines are not infallible.

6. “The General,” from The Prisoner (1967).  In this episode of the short-lived British series, the imprisoned Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) learns that some of his fellow villagers are being mysteriously educated by a mysterious and sinister force.  Unraveling the puzzle, he learns that the education system – Speed Learn -- is actually an insidious form of mind-control, shepherded by a super computer known as “The General.” 

Programmed with vast stores of knowledge, the machine can apparently answer any question about history, mathematics or any other subject.  It's a veritable high-tech Oracle of Delphi.  At least, that is, until crafty Number Six asks the General a one-word interrogative: “why?” 

The General promptly and accommodatingly short-circuits.

5. Checkpoint Devices Model “Omega.”  In the Ark II (1976) episode “Omega,” the intrepid crew of the Ark II discovers that a nearby village recently re-activated a super computer from the pre-apocalypse era. 

This giant, monolith-like device can completely control human minds, particularly the minds of the very young.  Seizing control of the children, Omega orders the youngsters to enslave their parents and grandchildren and put them to work in the fields.  Soon, Ark II personnel Ruth and Samuel fall prey to Omega’s anti-social mind directives, while Jonah attempts to defeat the computer in a life-sized game of Chess...the only method of de-activating it. 

When that gambit fails, it’s up to the talking chimpanzee (!) Adam – a life form that Omega has denigrated as inferior – to stop the computer from taking complete control of the village.

4. “Will Operating Thought Anologue,” or WOTAN, from Doctor Who: “The War Machine.”  In this early era tale from 1966, the First Doctor (William Hartnell) matches wits with a super computer called WOTAN, which has concluded that mankind is a mortal danger to the safety of the planet, and accordingly sets out to create ambulatory war machines to eradicate this threat.  

Like “Omega” in Ark II, WOTAN boasts the unusual capacity – for a machine anyway – to hypnotize human beings.  It uses this insidious power to begin transforming the human race into mindless slave labor…for the manufacture and construction of more mobile units. 

In the end, the Doctor is able to re-program the evil computer and save the Earth…again.

3. The M-5, from Star Trek.  Invented by Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) “the M-5 Multitronic System” is installed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the second season episode “The Ultimate Computer.”  The ship maintains only a skeleton crew to oversee the machine while it assumes total control.  

At first, all seems well, until M-5 begins to act…independently.  Without orders, it begins shutting down life support on parts of the ship, and then it opens fire on an unmanned freighter, the Woden (no relation to WOTAN).  All attempts to shut down the computer fail, and when a (red-shirt) ensign attempts to pull M-5’s plug, it incinerates him.  

The key to M-5’s erratic behavior involves the fact that it has been programmed with Dr. Daystrom’s “memory engrams.”  This development means that machine is as psychologically unstable as its creator.  Unfortunately, there’s a catastrophic downside: The Enterprise is scheduled to go into a war game simulation against four other warships, the Hood, Potemkin, Lexington and Excalibur.  The M-5 characterizes the game as a real battle situation, and sets out to destroy the Starfleet vessels…and all those aboard her.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes it’s time to make an appeal to M-5’s human side, and that’s precisely what he does.

A runner-up from Star Trek might be the society-controlling Landru from “Return of the Archons,” which erases human individuality and creates a collective known as “The Body.”

2. “Alex 7000,” from The Bionic Woman: “Doomsday is Today.”  This machine -- and apparent blood relative of the Hal 9000 -- is the invention and child of a pacifist named Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres).  

As the two-part episode by Kenneth Johnson opens, Cooper makes an announcement to the world that he has invented a “cobalt bomb” which can destroy the world.  Worse, he plans to use this doomsday device if any nation on Earth attempts to deploy or even test a nuclear bomb.  This is his (admittedly strange…) way of assuring peace.

A small Middle-Eastern country violates Cooper’s terms, leaving Alex 7000 to fulfill the doctor's orders and…destroy the Earth.  The world’s first bionic woman, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) attempts to de-activate Alex 7000 in the computer’s vast subterranean complex, but he is capable of defending himself with laser beams, machine gun fire, mines, and other devices. 

1. “The Guardian of Piri.”  This alien computer from Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) -- not unlike a more advanced model of the G.E.E.C. – was initially created to relieve the physical and mental burdens of the people of the distant world of Piri.

Unfortunately, in making their lives “perfect,” The Guardian succeeded only in destroying its own creators.  The Guardian locked Piri in a static bubble of time (because perfection must last forever...) and then transformed the humanoid denizens of the world into near mindless catatonics with no physical needs or desires. 

When Earth’s errant moon passes into range of the Guardian’s influence, the deadly machine attempts to make the Alphans’ life perfect too, putting the humans next in line to suffer the same fate. 

Only Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) resists the hypnotic call of the Guardian.  He saves his people by destroying the Guardian’s sultry servant (Catherine Schell), another “perfect” machine.  As the Alphans return to space, they see that life has returned to Piri, the Guardian’s hold over time itself also destroyed.

Other dangerous computers appeared in the Quark episode: “Vanessa 38-24-36” and in The X-Files episodes “Ghost in the Machine” and “Kill Switch.”

Despite the examples above, we must remember that cult-TV computers are our friends too.

Among the more benevolent were:

“The Old Man in the Cave.”  In this fifth season Twilight Zone episode (1964) set ten years after a nuclear apocalypse, one handful of survivors owes  its very survival to the always-correct advice of the Old Man in the Cave, an unseen stranger.  They don't realize until the episode’s climax that the “old man” is actually a benevolent computer.  They repay its kindness and loyalty by hurling stones at it and short-circuiting the poor machine. 

In one of the most nihilistic endings in cult tv history, these ungrateful survivors soon die...after eating contaminated food that the Old Man in the Cave had warned them not to consume.

“Orac.”  This super computer designed by the scientist Ensor was brought aboard the Liberator at the end of the first season of Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981).  Possessing, at times, human qualities such as stubbornness and pride, Orac is capable of interfacing with every computer in the galaxy possessing a “tarriel cell.”   Orac can even predict the future, it seems, on some important occasions. 

Orac is rendered functional by use of a small rectangular key, and also possesses a thirst for knowledge which equates, sometimes, to endangering the very rebels it works with.  Orac alone survived the series’ final massacre on Gauda Prime, in the episode “Blake.”

“The Turk.” In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 – 2009), Sarah, John and Cameron at first believe that the computer “The Turk” is an early version of the destructive computer network, Skynet (on TV and in T3 a “worm” on the Internet, not an actual computer system). But in fact, the Turk is a “brother” artificial intelligence to Skynet, and one with the capacity to help the human race.

Other "good" cult-tv computers include SID on UFO, and Dr. Theopolis on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:01 AM

    John excellent 'the good, the bad & the ugly' analysis of cult television series computers.