In “Man on a Punched Card,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) is once again on the run, hunted in a new and dangerous way. His pursuer, Fletcher (Don Knight), has hired a computer company to determine where this fugitive will show up next, based on the probabilities it calculates.
Now Richards must out-think a machine.
But that machine is tracking Ben’s every move, determining his motives, calculating possibilities, and making predictions. It knows for instance, when he will be in a small town, Paso Vista.
One of the experts at the computer company, Terri (Lynda Day), however, possesses an interest in Richards that is much more than professional. She requires his special blood to help her save a hospitalized child, one whom she has not acknowledged with her fiancé.
Terri attempts to track down Richards, using the computer’s predictions, but she has no intention of turning him over to his pursuer.
“You cannot make an effective trap without first understanding your animal,” a character suggests in “Man on a Punched Card,” a better-than-average episode of the 1969-1971 series, The Immortal.
The episode is an often-clever meditation on the way that technology changes the way we live, and the moral ramifications of that technology. One might say it is like a prehistoric episode of Black Mirror (2013 - ), mixed with the man-on-the-run format of The Fugitive (1963-1967). Here, Ben Richards must contend with a nemesis that can predict his every feint, every retreat, and every move.
Can a man out-think a machine?
The answer to that question is cheated a bit, I must admit, in the drama because Ben gets help from a programmer, the person who understands best what the computer is looking at in terms of Richard’s behavior.
“No machine has a right to choose a man’s fate,” another character notes, and that, for certain, is the point. A computer can do many things, but it can’t make moral choices. It may be able to “define your soul…on tape,” as Terri states, but it can’t decide if defining a soul is the moral things to do.
A computer, at least at this stage of development, is only as moral as its user’s intentions. In “Man on a Punched Card,” the computer company personnel are unscrupulous enough to work for Fletcher, which speaks volumes about those who work there.
While this meditation on the power of computers is intriguing, and makes for a suspenseful episode, some other elements make the episode feel dated.
For one thing, the computer plays sound-effects from the original Star Trek (1966-1969). I am certain that Lenovo, Dell and other modern computer companies are missing a bet by not programming their laptops and desktops with these classic series sounds. I don’t know about you, but I would love it if my machine made those familiar chirps and whistles.
Secondly, Terri’s whole subplot here involves the fact that she doesn’t want to tell her fiancé -- who runs the computer company with her -- that she has a child from a previous romantic relationship. She feels shame because of this fact, which is surely a product of 1960’s thinking. Today, there are blended families everywhere, and no one would “hide” a child like this, or should hide a child like this, anyway.
But even this old-fashioned idea finds relevance, thematically-speaking, in the episode. The computer’s powers are turned on its programmer, Terri, and the machine begins to trace her activities, and learn the truth about her, and her formerly-secret past. What this act suggests is that computers can create a world where privacy is a thing of the past. There no secrets anymore.
In terms of being dated, we also have the title. When we think of computers today, we don’t think of cards, punched or otherwise. I remember in the 1970’s, however, being absolutely thrilled whenever my father brought home those rectangular computer cards that had holes punched irregularly throughout them.
I also enjoyed this episode because – although there are hints of attraction between Terri and Ben – the female character of the week is strong-willed, and working according to her own agenda. She is using Ben, and when we find out why, we can’t blame her for her actions.
Of course, in real life, Lynda Day and Christopher George were actually married, and they have good chemistry in this episode. After brushes with the law and other standard “action” scenarios, the computer makes a fascinating nemesis.
Next week: “White Horse, Steel Horse.”