Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Ultimate Computer" (June 8, 1968)

Stardate 4729.4

A special “honor” is bestowed upon the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The vessel will be the “prey” in a war games scenario involving four other Constitution class starships: The Lexington, the Potemkin, the Excalibur and the Hood.

During the war games exercise, the Enterprise will also play host to the brilliant Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall), and his new invention: the M-5 multi-tronic computer.  The M-5 is a “thinking” machine that can perform the operations of the Enterprise’s crew. 

Only Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his command crew, along with Daystrom, will remain aboard the vessel as the new computer’s capabilities are tested.

Kirk is not happy about M-5 assuming operational command of his ship, and even less happy when Commodore Wesley (Barry Russo) refers to him as a “dunsail,” a nautical term that means “superfluous,” “useless or “unnecessary” part of a vessel.

Once underway, the M-5 malfunctions, destroying a freighter, the Woden, that it encounters. The M-5 also kills a technician who attempts to “pull the plug.” 

Now Kirk -- with a reluctant Daystrom’s help -- must appeal to M-5’s morality before the “ultimate” computer destroys four starships and their crews…

It’s always amazing to consider how far Star Trek (1966-1969) was ahead of its time. Although the sets and costumes may seem aged by today’s standards, the ideas and themes of most episodes remain as relevant, timely, and significant as ever.  Case in point: “The Ultimate Computer.”

This story involves a machine, the M-5 that renders man himself “obsolete.” In a future Starfleet of M-5s, humanoid crews -- and captains too -- are superfluous.  In the story, Kirk faces the very real possibility that Starfleet, in five years, will have no use for his abilities and training.  He faces the possibility of losing his job, in other words, to a machine.

This is not some remote possibility, for many of us, living here on Earth in 2017. Indeed, in the June 25th, 2016 edition of The Economist, there was a special report published titled “Automation and Anxiety” which examined the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, and asked the question: will smarter machines cause mass unemployment?” 

So, some 49 years and an odd number of months after Star Trek’s “The Ultimate Computer” aired, the very themes it obsessed upon were part of our reality here in the 21st century.  There has been much talk of governments in Western countries providing citizenry a “basic income,” not because people are entitled or lazy, but because machines are developing at such an incredible rate, and will soon render obsolete many jobs, careers, and whole fields of work.

I have written here before how it is sometimes bothersome to me the way that Star Trek suspiciously views “progress” (think of how the androids are handled in “What Are Little Girls Made Of,” or how the rehab colony is handled in “Dagger of the Mind.”)  In this case, however, it is important to note that Star Trek is very tempered and even-handed (not to mention accurate…) in its exploration of this problem.

Kirk faces the possibility of losing his job to a machine, even as the machine is proven to be undependable, and he can breathe a sight of relief.  But leave it to Mr. Spock to note, in the episode, that though computers make excellent tools, he has no desire to serve under one.  This is a valid statement, and one that I think people of all beliefs can get behind.

As Spock might remind us, better machines are always going to be developed, and utilized. But humanoids must always be the ones managing and overseeing these tools, lest disaster result. 

Today, we live in a world of drone warfare, and robot expeditions to other worlds.  But in both cases, the operators are human. There is still, therefore some connection to our laws and moralities.  The machine do not operate alone, without oversight, as M-5 would eventually operate.

Dr. Daystrom’s way of overcoming this drawback is by impressing human “engrams” on the machine. In other words, M-5 is programmed with his sense of morality; with his very world view and belief system.  Daystrom believes this will make the machine more human, more capable of making compassionate decisions. And ironically, this detail is the only thing that permits Kirk to “talk” this computer to death. It holds the same “human” beliefs as its creator.

What we see, intriguingly, is that M-5 suffers from the neuroses of his master. Therefore, a machine can’t make the “jump” to being human, without terminal malfunction.  Star Trek returns to this idea, of machines needing humans, to be “whole,” in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

William Marshall proves a powerful presence as Daystrom, a tragic figure. As the episode makes plain, Daystrom achieved his (amazing) success with Duotronics at a young age, and has spent the rest of his adult life as a has-been. Therefore, M-5 is his “comeback” in the scientific community, and his whole sense of ego, his whole identity, rests on the computer’s success.  It is no wonder that he starts to go mad, as his creation does. He’s under a lot of pressure. 

And yet, Daystrom is not a typical mad doctor or “egghead” character. He is a man of morals, a man who wants nothing more than to prove to the world that he still has something to offer it.  These characteristics make him a three-dimensional person; and someone that we can feel great pity for.  His name is honored in the Star Trek franchise, and particularly in The Next Generation (1987-1994) wherein many episodes make note of “The Daystrom Institute” (“The Measure of a Man,” “Data’s Day.”)

As far as the episode’s climax goes, “The Ultimate Computer” has both virtues and drawbacks.  The virtues involve seeing the Enterprise pitted against four other starships in a war game scenario that proves frighteningly real. 

The drawback is that the main crisis arrives, and we are left to watch Kirk talk-to-death yet another super-computer.  This “talking to death” of a computer also occurred in “Return of the Archons” (a superior episode) and in the second season tale “The Changeling,” in regards to Nomad.

The problem with this solution is that Kirk has to be so persuasive in his arguments that a computer agrees, basically, to commit suicide, based on his discourse.  While Kirk is indeed one hell of a public speaker and persuader, it isn’t always believable, at least to this viewer, that computers would destroy themselves based on human rhetoric.

Still, I’ve always felt that “The Ultimate Computer” is a powerful episode of Star Trek because it grapples meaningfully with automation, and the impact of advancing technology on people, and their livelihoods.  

Furthermore, I’ve always loved seeing Russo’s Wesley in the command chair of his Constitution Class starship, ready to destroy the Enterprise, and M-5, to prevent any other loss of life. Marshall’s performance as Daystrom only adds to the episode’s virtues, and, finally, Kirk’s worry about becoming obsolete is one that many of us absolutely can identify with.

Next week: “Bread and Circuses.”


  1. Good review, John. This episode is clearly a bottle show, but in pure Star Trek fashion, a compelling and touching story is told. William Marshall is outstanding as Dr. Richard Daystrom, and he is very believable at all points during his emotional roller coaster ride.

    Commodore Wesley is another finely drawn character, the third adversary for Kirk to deal with. It's a chess match: Kirk vs M-5, Daystrom, and Wesley.

    M-5, the prop, looks sharp -- having no moving parts helps. On that note: While I appreciate your point, John, about the series sets looking like they are from a long time ago, I find it visually amusing that the frame captures accompanying your posting show sharp-looking Enterprise sets. Funny how that happens sometimes. However, your point is not off. Yep, it's 2017 and we expect some things, like sets, to look more "now".

    Final note: The battle between the Enterprise and its sister ships carries emotional resonance for the viewer. The bridge viewscreen showing the phaser impact on the dead U.S.S. Excalibur is powerful stuff. That flash is awesome.

    Your reviews, John, convince me that is a great series even when it's not great.

  2. John, great review. “The Ultimate Computer” was a good episode simply because it makes the Star Trek universe believable.


  3. John,
    Thank You for pointing out that Daystrom's name was honored in Star Trek - The Next Generation. I always liked to think that Dr. Daystrom, wonderfully portrayed by William Marshall, was acknowledged years later as the great man he was. I'd also like to think he found redemption somewhere along the way, after the events of this episode.
    I think the greatest strength of this episode is in its world building: the other starships; a lauded computer expert implementing the latest technology onto what's already been established; war games which seem a very natural and realistic outgrowth for Starfleet, and another captain who is both very human and ultimately, compassionate.
    Also deserving praise is the dialogue between Kirk and McCoy which harkens back to "The Cage" and would be revisited in Star Trek Beyond. This is exceptional stuff, a perfect example of why these character resonate.
    "The Ultimate Computer" reminds me of a recent article in which a Japanese anime producer was demonstrating a new program which he believes will entirely replace human animators in the near future. Hayao Miyazaki, upon seeing the program, called it "an insult to life itself." Perhaps someone needs to show that producer guy this episode of Star Trek.
    While I agree that this episode has its flaws, its strengths more than compensate. An excellent character study of man's place in a universe in which technology is omnipresent, but never overwhelms the human spirit.

  4. Sheri9:09 PM

    Good review, John, of one of my favorite episodes. "The Ultimate Computer" gives us more food for thought than most episodes because it was, is, and will continue to be applicable to contemporary times.

    I do agree that Kirk talking a computer to death got to be a bit of a trope in Star Trek, yet this also serves to ground Kirk--and by extension, Star Trek's milieu--in a moral, ethical reality. It's perhaps a bit unbelievable that M5 commits suicide in the fashion it does, but I just consider this a means of depicting something that would otherwise be undramatic. A computer simply shutting itself down when confronted with its moral error would would be visually boring. We mustn't forget, in our zeal to quibble with finer points, that this was in fact a television show that had to hold viewers' interest.

    I admit, John, that I don't quite understand your statement that it's "bothersome to me the way that Star Trek suspiciously views 'progress'.” You gotta be kidding me! If Star Trek was suspicious of "progress", well, it should have been . . . because that's honest! We have leapt into a world where not only was an auto plant maintenance tech killed recently by a production robot she failed to lock out, but artificial intelligence tech has real consequences: people have been stuck with unwanted merchandise inadvertently ordered by children chatting with Alexa; Vizio lost a huge judgment for failing to notify users about the data their TV's collected & transmittted (hi, Big Brother!), our cars have computer modules that track us and can be hacked (whoops, left turn!), our cell phones track our whereabouts even when they're turned off, Facebook exists to monetize our data . . . we are being reported on and commoditized by tech that's using us as we use it. Medicine isn't exempt: I know a guy who barely survived when his own son hacked into his pacemaker. My coworker's implanted electrode stopped her essential tremor so she could work, but she went on disability anyway because unknown interference made it go haywire every afternoon. Dialysis machines and other hospital equipment has been hacked.

    So we shouldn't pretend that "progress" is always benign or that it doesn't raise significant moral and ethical questions. Star Trek can be appreciated for spotlighting exactly those kinds of issues rather than blithely carrying on with the assumption that all progress is Happy Fun Time and will naturally lead to a better future. Maybe it isn't, and maybe it won't.

  5. Star Trek has often been lauded for breaking barriers with its casting of actors of various ethnicities, but casting the excellent William Marshall as Daystrom was quite daring for its time. By 1968, Hollywood was becoming more open to casting African-Americans, but they were usually in relatively small roles or roles related specifically to the African-American experience. Daystrom is a role I could see routinely going to a white actor like Lloyd Bochner or Alfred Ryder. By casting Marshall, I think the producers were quietly opening the door a little further for actors of color.

  6. Not to mention how ground-breaking it was to cast an African-American actor as a technical genius. America was willing to admit that African Americans could be sports stars or musicians, but for Daystrom to be an inventor, one whose computers were used aboard our beloved Enterprise, that was a very big deal in 1968! Whoopi Goldberg has talked about turning on Star Trek as a child, seeing Uhura on the screen, and running to tell her mother, "There's a Black lady on TV, and she ain't no maid!" Representation matters, and casting an African-American man as a brilliant inventor was huge.


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