Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Ultimate Computer”

“The Ultimate Computer”
Written by D.C. Fontana
Story by Laurence N. Wolfe
Directed by John Meredyth Lucas

Season 2, Episode 24
Production episode: 2×24
Original air date: March 8, 1968
Star date: 4729.4

Mission summary
Enterprise receives puzzling instructions from Starfleet to report to a space station and offload all but a skeletal crew. When they arrive, Commodore Robert Wesley beams aboard and explains that the ship will be participating in war game exercises to test a new multitronic computer, the M-5, which was designed to assume control of all a starship’s systems. Kirk wonders what his role will be during this automated test, and Wesley replies, “You’ve got a great job, Jim. All you have to do is sit back and let the machine do the work.”

Of course Dr. McCoy doesn’t like the sound of this one bit. He doesn’t trust technology, and he’s worried about how the ship can function with only twenty crew members if when something goes wrong with M-5. Kirk is obviously bothered by his orders, but he’s willing to go along with them—to a certain degree. The boxy multitronic unit is installed in Engineering. While Scotty reluctantly ties it into main power, the captain grills M-5’s creator, Dr. Richard Daystrom. It turns out M1-4 didn’t quite work, but M-5 has finally fulfilled its purpose: to take total control. “There are certain things men must do to remain men,” Kirk protests. If he doesn’t have a starship to run, all he has left is sex to prove his virility. But Spock is a big fan of Daystrom’s work and shows much more interest in the machine’s potential than Kirk or McCoy.

Kirk’s nagged by the thought that M-5 is dangerous somehow, but he’s worried that he’s simply opposing technological progress out of a petty desire for the prestige of being a Starfleet captain. Or maybe he’s just remembering all the other threatening computer intelligences he’s had to put down in their travels. McCoy reassures him that he’s being completely honest with himself.

Still, the captain remains conservative and keeps M-5 on a tight leash. He allows it to perform a few simple course corrections with Sulu and Chekov keeping close watch over its maneuvers. Daystrom resents his efforts to keep control over the computer and insists he give it free reign to perform its duties as prescribed by the test exercises. Spock agrees, and Kirk defers to M-5 for its approach of Alpha Carinae II. Kirk orders a scan of the planet and makes his recommendations for the landing party. Then they examine M-5’s readout. The computer’s scan matches Spock’s observations of the Class M planet’s atmosphere, but it recommends a different crew member for the landing party based on his personnel file, and omits Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy entirely—as non-essential personnel. Fair enough.

Meanwhile, systems are mysteriously shutting down all over Enterprise. Scotty tracks the source to M-5, which is cutting power to uninhabited areas of the ship, yet is drawing more power for itself. That’s a feature, not a bug, Daystrom claims. But there’s no time to investigate further because two Federation ships approach in a surprise attack: Lexington and Excalibur, launching an unscheduled drill of the M-5.

Kirk runs through his usual battle preparations, but M-5 is always one step ahead of Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. The Bridge crew merely provides a play-by-play of M-5’s actions as it deftly handles Enterprise in the battle simulation, taking evasive maneuvers and launching offensive phaser attacks against its sister ships. The attacking vessels withdraw and Spock assesses M-5’s performance. “The ship reacted more rapidly than human control could have maneuvered her. Tactics, deployment of weapons, all indicate an immense sophistication in computer control,” he says. He might just be in love. Though they’re all forced to acknowledge M-5 came through as promised, he comforts his captain: “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain, the starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him.” Now that’s true love.

Commodore Wesley, in command of Lexington, is less kind. He sends his compliments to M-5 and “Captain Dunsel.” Kirk is stunned and walks off the Bridge. McCoy doesn’t understand why he’s so upset until Spock explains that a dunsel is midshipmen jargon at Starfleet Academy for a part that serves no purpose. Oh, dip! Them’s fighting words.

McCoy prescribes a stiff drink for what ails the captain and Kirk explains that he has never felt so uncomfortable with his own ship. At the prospect of being swept away by progress and rendered obsolete by technological advancement, he waxes nostalgic for a bygone era:

“All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer by.” You could feel the wind at your back in those days. The sounds of the sea beneath you. And even if you take away the wind and the water, it’s still the same. The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there, Bones.

Not just stars, but other ships—a large, slow-moving vessel to be precise. Kirk is called to the Bridge when the S.S. Botany Bay appears on the viewscreen. No, wait! It’s actually an old-style ore freighter with an uncanny resemblance to the sleeper ship they left behind on Alpha Ceti V. (They should really go check on them one day…) It doesn’t seem to be part of the drill, but M-5 sure doesn’t like it. It takes Enterprise to red alert and readies photon torpedoes. Kirk tries to override the computer control, but they can’t disengage M-5 and it destroys the innocent freighter completely.

Horrified, they attempt to switch it off in Engineering, but as Kirk approaches the machine it protects itself with a force field that blasts him halfway across the room. Scott and Ensign Harper know how to deal with an uncooperative machine: unplug it. M-5 incinerates Harper and begins to draw power directly from Enterprise’s warp core, giving it unlimited control over the ship. Daystrom accounts for M-5’s murderous actions by claiming the red shirt just happened to get in the way as the machine connected to a new energy source to ensure its survival. Spock observes that for a computer, M-5 is not acting very logically.

MCCOY: Please, Spock, do me a favor and don’t say it’s fascinating.
SPOCK: No. But it is… interesting.

Spock and Scotty cook up a plan to manually override M-5 by cutting it off from navigation via a Jeffries tube. McCoy takes another approach: he demands that Daystrom find a way to shut it down. Even if he could, it doesn’t seem the computer scientist would do it; he maintains that M-5 is like a child, still learning, and affirms that the machine can help to protect people. If it takes on the dangerous exploration of space, many human lives will be saved in the long run. McCoy isn’t drinking his Kool-Aid though, preferring something stronger and less crazy. He looks over the man’s personnel file and tells Kirk that Daystrom is a genius who hit his peak at a young age and has been trying to live up to it since.

The moment of truth arrives. Spock and Scotty disrupt the navigation circuits and think they’ve regained control of Enterprise, only they discover that M-5 tricked them. It realized what they were doing and rerouted its controls, but let them think it was still active in those relays to waste their time. Again, this doesn’t seem logical to Spock. It seems almost…human.

It turns out there’s a reason for that. Daystrom modeled the computer with human memory engrams, essentially creating a thinking machine, which surely seemed like a great idea at the time. With four Federation ships on an attack vector, Lexington, Excalibur, Hood, and Potemkin, Kirk realizes that M-5 isn’t aware the battle is just a game and that the machine will respond with the same lethal force that destroyed the freighter.

M-5 devastates the attacking fleet, killing hundreds of men and crippling Excalibur. Commodore Wesley begs Kirk to stop the attack, but since communications are under M-5’s control, there’s no way for the captain to explain what’s going on. With no other choice, Wesley requests permission from Starfleet to destroy Enterprise. Permission granted. But M-5 has the upper hand and the remaining three starships don’t stand a chance against its cruel efficiency.

There’s only one thing to do. Kirk has to appeal to M-5’s softer, human side. As all misguided visionaries do, Daystrom used his own engrams to program M-5, so he attempts to talk it down from its attack. He tries to explain that killing is wrong, that M-5 must protect human lives as well as itself. Then the doctor goes off the deep end, railing against a lifetime of mockery and failure as he tried to prove he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. Spock knocks him out with a Vulcan neck pinch, and Kirk tries to talk to M-5.

M5: The ships attacked this unit. This unit must survive.
KIRK: Why?
M5: This unit is the ultimate achievement in computer evolution. It will replace man, so man may achieve. Man must not risk death in space or other dangerous occupations. This unit must survive so man may be protected.
KIRK: There were many men aboard those ships. They were murdered. Must you survive by murder?
M5: This unit cannot murder.
KIRK: Why?
M5: Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God.

Oh good, it’s religious! Kirk uses its abhorrence of murder against it. He convinces the machine that it has committed the murder of everyone aboard Excalibur and must accept the consequences: death. M-5 shuts down, leaving Enterprise at the mercy of the attacking fleet—accepting its self-imposed death penalty by suicide. Scotty can only get them control of shields, but Kirk orders them to remain down, hoping that Wesley will get the message. The commodore worries that it’s a trap, but also hopes that Kirk is trying to tell him something and calls off the strike.

Daystrom has rehabilitation in his future, and M-5 is likely destined for the scrap heap.

SPOCK: Captain, why did you feel the attacking ships would not fire when they saw the Enterprise apparently vulnerable? Logically, that is the sort of trap M-5 should have set.
KIRK: I wasn’t sure. Any other commander would have simply followed orders and destroyed us, but I knew Bob Wesley. I gambled on his humanity. His logical selection was compassion.
MCCOY: Compassion. That’s the one thing no machine ever had. Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps men ahead of them. Care to debate that, Spock?
SPOCK: No, Doctor. I simply maintain that computers are more efficient than human beings, not better.
MCCOY: But tell me, which do you prefer to have around?
SPOCK: I presume your question is meant to offer me a choice between machines and human beings, and I believe I have already answered that question.
MCCOY: I was just trying to make conversation, Spock.
SPOCK: It would be most interesting to impress your memory engrams on a computer, Doctor. The resulting torrential flood of illogic would be most entertaining.

This is an interesting variation on the familiar Kirk vs. computer theme in Star Trek, with the threat coming from within: a machine of Starfleet origin. Here, even before the computer reveals itself to be too smart for their own good, Kirk has reservations about it simply because he fears being replaced and worries that the value of human judgment and instinct (specifically the qualities he believes to be essential in a strong commander) will be diminished in the face of pure mechanical efficiency.

It’s always interesting to see the pitfalls of scientific progress explored in Star Trek, since on the surface, the show can be viewed as a celebration of humanity’s forward vision, accomplishments, and advancement. Yet the line is constantly drawn at creating artificially intelligent life, especially the more human it becomes. Even in TNG, the android Data is admired, feared, or resented for his human appearance and superior mental and physical abilities. “The Ultimate Computer” recommends against advancing too fast, and posits that there are some things machines can never do as well as people, which reflects the arguably justifiable fear of obsolescence that began with industrialization and continues in today’s increasingly automated world.

The episode is centered around Kirk’s misgivings and his feelings of inadequacy on his own ship (his one crippling weakness), and the insidious takeover of M-5 during its war game trials. But despite the intriguing setup, the episode fails to be as engaging as it could be. We see only limited reactions to M-5: grudging admiration from most of the crew, scientific curiosity from Spock, wholehearted support from Daystrom and Wesley, and mistrust from McCoy and Scotty.

I’d like a moment where more of them freak out over what M-5 could mean in the long run. Uhura has a crap job, and now a computer comes along that takes her one responsibility on the ship away from her? All we get from Chekov are a series of silly faces as he reacts to the battles: flinching, grimacing, and biting his knuckle.

I’d like to know why Wesley is so gung ho about the computer; presumably, he stands to be replaced too, one day. Does he dislike Starfleet captains that much? (Given their track record, a machine could hardly do any worse. They’re already essentially designed to be immortal, for one.) And why is he so rude to Kirk with his little “dunsel” insult? People also seem to forget the fact that Enterprise is not a warship. Fine, M-5 can handle battles and simple surveys, but it still needs people to go on those landing missions. And how would the computer handle first contact missions, diplomatic negotiations, and the inevitable run-in with space douches?

Daystrom’s dream of granting people more leisure time for other activities and keeping them out of danger seems noble, but Kirk never responds that he likes being out there, except when he quotes John Masefield to Bones. Besides, Daystrom’s reasons aren’t reliable; he contradicts himself constantly (he’s designed a more efficient war machine, but killing is wrong?) and during his breakdown pretty much admits he was out to prove he wasn’t a fluke. He turns from passionate scientist into obsessed madman a little too quickly for my taste.

Since we all know that a computer can’t completely replace humans (or so the episode proves), we’re just waiting for M-5 to mess up and prove Captain Kirk right. That M-5 and Daystrom mess up so badly makes the episode that much darker, and the realization that the doctor thought he could help people with his creation lends an air of tragedy. The fact that human compassion is the deciding factor isn’t all that surprising, but Kirk’s success with using logic to outthink an illogical machine is.

Finally, I thought Spock’s comment that “the most unfortunate lack in current computer programming is that there is nothing available to immediately replace the starship surgeon” was interesting in light of Voyager’s introduction of the Emergency Medical Hologram. Despite McCoy’s negative reaction, the EMH is at least partially based on his personality and skills given its predilection for “I’m a doctor, not a ____” lines.

Eugene’s Rating:Warp 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: I think Kirk should start his own IT company. Computer troubles? He’ll outthink it for you or your money back!

Maybe I’m just a sucker for these evil computer stories, but I really enjoyed “The Ultimate Computer.” Mechanization and industrialization are real, honest-to-god modern realities that are legitimately scary to huge swaths of working people. This episode may be over forty years old, but it didn’t even feel dated to me. I am immersed in technology and it hasn’t given me any more free time or any less work. Granted it doesn’t try to kill me either, so we have made progress. But computers have rendered so many jobs across the spectrum obsolete that Kirk’s fears resonated pretty well in 2010. Tasks that we always thought required a real live human (like, say, answering the phone) have been replaced by computers. This is more efficient, of course, but even Spock looks dubiously on that as a desirable path for the future (as does anyone who’s ever hit an endless phone tree).

Like in “The Enemy Within,” this episode does a lot of browbeating to make sure you understand that compassion is an essential human quality that no machine could emulate. But there is something else, too: instinct. Kirk gets a bad feeling about that computer right away, which he attributes to his own trepidation over being replaced. But it turns out that instinct was trustworthy. While the scientists and Starfleet seem inclined to accept M5 as a miracle, it’s Kirk’s selfish desires that lead him to be particularly critical and get a truer sense of the situation. His gut kicked in and knew better than all the logical predictions. They took this idea and ran with it in TNG, in a good way. It was always pretty obvious that Data had been in Starfleet for years (possibly decades!) and was clearly capable of doing any job whatsoever, but that they were never ever going to promote him to be a captain (or first officer). He didn’t have that gut instinct and as a result they didn’t trust him to make the right decisions, and on the few occasions he takes command the crew is visibly uncomfortable. Here we’re not even worried about androids, we’ve only got a Batmobile with an AI, and it’s still freaky.

I also liked Kirk’s line about there being “certain things men must do to remain men.” (Giggle break. Ready? OK.) It doesn’t go too much into it, but we know from “The Menagerie” and “This Side of Paradise” that Daystrom’s promise of men finally being freed from the burden of work is probably, in the larger picture, a big negative for mankind. Idleness has never been particularly valued in this show. But giggles aside, Enterprise is Kirk’s steady galpal and it’s genuinely sad when he talks about feeling distant and “at odds” with her. Despite that, Kirk is willing to do whatever he needs to do, and I appreciated that he didn’t throw a hissy fit or try to change Starfleet’s mind. He says he would be “a fool to stand in the way of progress,” but he quickly adds: “if this is progress.” I suppose it’s easy to see huge technological advances as Progress with a capital P and fail to evaluate how necessary and desirable those things are in the first place.

Final thought: how come no one thought to try talking to M5 BEFORE it blew up the Starfleet ships?

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5

Best Line: SPOCK: “It appears, Captain, we’ve been doing what used to be called pursuing a wild goose.”

Syndication Edits: Daystrom tells Kirk to let M-5 handle the approach and orbit of Alpha Carinae II, Kirk orders Sulu to do it, and Sulu says M-5 did it already; M-5’s justification for choosing Carstairs for geologist instead of Rawlens; Daystrom explains why M-5 shut down decks 4 and 6; several seconds from the first drill; after M-5 destroys the freighter, Chekov reports that they’re returning to their original course; Captain’s Log, Stardate 4731.3; Spock and Scotty in the Jeffries tube following the meeting; Uhura trying to hail the four starships in the second drill; two sections from Daystrom’s conversation with M-5; Kirk asks for battle status after Daystrom is removed from the Bridge; Kirk telling M-5 it will be under attack soon; Spock reporting when the attackers are almost in phaser range.

Trivia: The story, by mathematician Laurence N. Wolfe, mirrored his own fascination with computers, focusing on Daystrom and M-5 to the exclusion of the Enterprise crew. D.C. Fontana added Kirk’s fear of replacement by a machine in her extensive rewrites, as a commentary on increasing mechanization and loss of human jobs in the late 1960s.

James Doohan provided the voices for M-5 and the starbase commander, Commodore Enright.

The Daystrom Institute is mentioned several times in TNG and DS9, clearly named in honor of the designer of the duotronic elements that served as the basis for starship computers. M-5 itself only reappears in Star Trek computer games, including Shattered Universe and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, as well as the TNG novel Immortal Coil.

The Alpha Carinae system is also known as Canopus, as referenced in the episode “Arena” and mapped in TNG’s “Conspiracy.”

Other notes: Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever” gets a lot of mileage in Trek. Kirk repeats the “tall ship” line in Star Trek V, and it is used on the Defiant’s dedication plaque in DS9. Quark also paraphrases the line in “Little Green Men.”

William Marshall (Daystrom) may be familiar to fans as the genie in Sabu and the Magic Ring or as Blacula.

Gene Roddenberry often wrote under the pen name “Robert Wesley” for Dragnet episodes while he served with the LAPD.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 23 – “The Omega Glory

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 25 – “Bread and Circuses.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.