Stardate: 4729.4 (2268)
Original Air Date: March 8, 1968
Writer: D. C. Fontana/Laurence N. Wolfe
Director: John Meredyth Lucas
“We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.”
The Enterprise has been inexplicably ordered to a remote space station where most of the crew has been ordered to a secure holding facility. What is going on? Kirk demands an explanation from Starfleet and so Commodore Enwright (voiced by James Doohan) decides to send another Starfleet Commodore aboard the Enterprise to explain the situation. Commodore Robert “Bob” Wesley (Barry Russo) arrives and says that the Enterprise is scheduled to be “the fox in the hunt” for a series of covert war games. The purpose is to test the strength and viability of a new “ultimate computer” called the M-5, the most ambitious computer ever developed which has been designed to correlate all computer activity aboard a starship. The M-5 was built by a brilliant computer engineer named Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall). It is actually the fifth such computer of its kind, a Multitronic unit (the first four versions, M-1 through M-4, all mysteriously failed). We learn all of this information thanks to Spock’s expertise as an A-7 classified computer expert. Additionally, we learn that Dr. Daystrom’s purpose in building this computer is actually altruistic, he believes it will alleviate a great burden on humanity. Like all forms of technology, it begins in a flurry of salvific optimism, but it faces a great degeneration in the face of human moral failings:
“Men no longer need die in space or on some alien world! Men can live and go on to achieve greater things than fact-finding and dying for galactic space, which is neither ours to give or to take!”
Thus, the game is set –the Enterprise will be used as a test for this new super computer amidst a series of conflict simulations. With a thinning crew of merely 20 people, one of whom is Dr. Daystrom, the Enterprise departs with M-5 at the helm. Spock remains cautiously optimistic about the computer’s efficiency, while Dr. McCoy is cynical about the idea of granting a computer such tremendous power over the ship. What happens if something goes awry? Are there enough crewmen aboard the ship to regain control? This episode sets up a brilliant confrontation between the organic ingenuity of Kirk versus the sterile encroachment of the M-5’s speed and efficiency. For Kirk, artificial intelligence quickly becomes a direct threat to his livelihood.
As part of the exercise, the Enterprise arrives at Alpha Carinae II, a class-M planet with two major land masses, a number of islands, and unspecified life form readings. Suddenly, the power is shut down on deck 4 and then on deck 5, as well. As it turns out, the M-5 computer has begun shutting down power to areas of the ship in order to absorb more power for itself (an ominous bit of foreshadowing). Kirk and the computer then disagree over the personnel who should be involved in the landing party on Alpha Carinae II. Notably, the M-5 computer believes Kirk and Dr. McCoy are “non-essential personnel” and are not necessary to on the planet’s surface. An angry Kirk defends the essential nature of his own value judgments as captain which are superior to mere computational calculations, but Dr. Daystrom continues to defend his machine. Next, two starships approach for the war games –the U.S.S. Lexington and the Excalibur– and the M-5 passes its first series of tests with flying colors leading Commodore Wesley to taunt Kirk for being “Captain Dunsel” –a “dunsel” is a pejorative term used around Starfleet which refers to a part without a purpose. Despite the apparent success of the M-5, Spock begins to expressly distrust the computer’s power. Speaking with Kirk privately, Spock remarks:
“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.”
Soon a large unidentified ship approaches, but this time it is not a drill. The Woden, listed in the Starfleet Registry, is an old-style ore freighter converted into a fully automated ship with no crew aboard. However, the computer does not seem to understand the Woden’s purpose. The M-5 then takes full control of the Enterprise and fires photon torpedos, traveling far out of its way in order to destroy the ore freighter. The M-5 then goes rogue and prevents the Enterprise crew from disabling its own source of power. It kills a redshirt and taps the Enterprise’s warp engines in order to grant itself virtually unlimited power. Meanwhile, the Enterprise is set to reach its rendezvous point in one hour and Kirk and crew decide they must regain control of the ship before then. Spock develops an idea: the automatic helm navigation circuit relays might be disrupted from Engineering Level III so that he ship can be piloted manually, but the M-5 remains one step ahead and plan is quickly foiled.
Dr. Daystrom reveals how he built the computer –via a method of impressing human engrams onto the computer circuits, not unlike synapses in the human brain, and that he used his own engrams so that the M-5 is like a mirror of Dr. Daystrom’s mind. While they plot a way to regain control of the ship, the Enterprise arrives at the rendezvous point and the M-5 guides the Enterprise toward several Federation ships and begins firing phasers at the Hood, Potemkin, Lexington, and Excalibur (within moments 53 crewmen are killed aboard the Lexington and 12 are killed on the Excalibur, while 1,600 men and women still lie in the path of the M-5). Tragically, a computer which was designed to save mankind is now actually destroying it. Dr. Daystrom then appears on the edge of a nervous breakdown as he manically rants about his own greatness, he was once apparently known as the “boy wonder,” before Spock quickly knocks him out with a Vulcan nerve pinch.
In the end, with a bit of luck and human ingenuity, Kirk manages to persuade the M-5 that killing humans is contrary to its purpose, and he persuades the M-5 to destroy itself to atone for its own sin of committing murder (another scenario in which Kirk “talks a computer to death” similar to “The Return of the Archons” and “The Changeling”). Additionally, Kirk gambles his way out of further confrontation with Starfleet as Commodore Wesley decides not to launch a return attack on the Enterprise when Kirk surprisingly orders the shields lowered –thankfully Kirk’s unpredictable human know-how saves the day.
“Compassion. That’s the one thing no machine ever had. Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps men ahead of them.”
My Thoughts on “The Ultimate Computer”
In an age of rising artificial intelligence, wherein factories, spaceships, airplanes, and cars are increasingly powered by autonomous machines, and many forms of employment from cashiers and bank tellers to truck drivers and office administrators, remain under the looming threat of being “automated away,” this wonderful episode serves as a prescient reminder that our present-day conundrum has actually been a persistent source of anxiety since the 1960s (and even much earlier in the Industrial Revolution). The M-5 proves to be one of the most formidable opponents yet faced by the Enterprise, and once again it is the result of hubris among a cynical clutch of bureaucratic elites within Starfleet who seem all too eager to witness Kirk’s downfall. The notion that a starship captain’s unique role could simply be handed over to a computer for efficiency is patently absurd, especially for a ship like the Enterprise whose primary mission is to traverse into previously unexplored regions.
This is also a smilingly fun episode. There is lots of playful banter between Spock and Dr. McCoy on an adventure which was obviously produced on the cheap as no additional sets were needed by the Star Trek production staff, however I was most struck by the character of Dr. Richard Daystrom. He is a brilliant scientist whose inventions quite literally power Starfleet, even if his most recent string of experimental computers (the M-1 through M-5) have all been failures. In some ways, he is equally as important as Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of Warp Drive (as featured in the TOS episode “The Metamorphosis” or the TNG movie First Contact among other iterations of Star Trek). At any rate, after Dr. Daystrom’s breakdown, he is set to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility. I would be curious to dive further into his story –perhaps it is a question for a future Star Trek writer if it has not already been done.
This was the only TOS episode written by Laurence N. Wolfe, a mathematician who was fascinated with computers. As a friend of Ray Bradbury, he gave Bradbury a “Spec script” and Bradbury then shared it with Gene Roddenberry who liked the idea (Roddenberry had always wanted Ray Bradbury to write a script for TOS but alas it never came to pass). The rough script was also given significant rewrites by D.C. Fontana. By all accounts at this point in the Star Trek production things were a bit haywire behind the scenes. Gene Coon had left as had Joseph Pevney and D.C. Fontana was soon to follow them. John Meredyth Lucas purchased this script because he knew it would be a cheap story to produce using only existing Enterprise sets and he decided to direct the episode himself.
Star Trek Trivia:
- In this episode, Spock says he is a classified A-7 computer expert.
- We learn that “Dunsel” is a term used by Starfleet to refer to a part that serves no use or purpose.
- African American actor William Marshall was known for his baritone voice and for appearing in the 1970s Blacula blaxploitation film series as well as a variety of television shows. He portrays Dr. Richard Daystrom in this episode, whose name was originally John Daystrom in the original script draft.
- Apparently, Dr. Daystrom appears in several Star Trek novels and the future “Daystrom Institute” is referred to in TNG. Kirk compares Daystrom to several geniuses: Einstein, Kazanga, and Sitar of Vulcan.
- James Doohan once again provides the voice for the M-5 computer in this episode. He also provides the voice of the unseen Commodore Enwright.
- George Duning’s score for “Metamorphosis” is re-used in portions of this episode, particularly when Kirk fantasizes about sailing on the high seas (he previously expressed a similar fantasy in “Balance of Terror”).
- Barry Russo plays Commodore Wesley in this episode. Previously, he appeared as Commodore Giotto in “The Devil in the Dark.”
- Sean Morgan plays the redshirt Ensign Harper in this episode. Previously, he appeared as Brenner in “Balance of Terror” and O’Neil in “The Return of the Archons” and “The Tholian Web.”
- Interestingly enough, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released less than a month after this episode aired.
- In this episode, it is revealed that there are 430 crewmen aboard a typical starship.
“Your brilliant young computer just destroyed an ore freighter! In fact, it went out of its way to destroy an ore freighter!!” God help us when Bones goes ballistic.
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Between the M5 and HAL 9000, just two years before Colossus, it was clearly a time when AI in the sci-fi universe was really taking off. It’s good that we have much more awareness now with the AI progress we’ve made in real life.
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