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The Ultimate Computer

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 9, 2006 - 10:36 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Ultimate Computer' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Commodore Wesley comes aboard to tell Kirk that the Enterprise has been selected for a great honor: the ship will test the M-5 multitronic computer, which was designed by the brilliant Dr. Daystrom to run a starship without needing to put humans into dangerous situations. Kirk is reluctant to delegate judgment calls to a computer and when the M-5 destroys an ore freighter it mistakes for a threat, he calls off the wargame simulations with Starfleet. But the M-5, which is drawing power directly from the ship's engines, refuses to disengage and creates a force field to defend itself. When four starships arrive for a mock battle, the M-5 fires full phasers, destroying the Excalibur and causing fatalities on the others. Discovering from Daystrom that he imprinted human engrams onto the computer's circuits, Kirk convinces the machine that it has committed murder and, according to Daystrom's own ethical beliefs, must die for that offense. The computer shuts down, leaving the Enterprise vulnerable to an attack, but Wesley chooses not to fire on a defenseless vessel and spares Kirk's ship and crew.

Analysis: I'm not sure Dr. McCoy has a better episode than "The Ultimate Computer," even though he doesn't treat any patients in sickbay. He plays ship's counselor better than Deanna Troi ever did and earns a decisive victory in his longstanding argument with Spock about the advantages of illogical humans over rational computers. I'm also not sure that Star Trek has ever done a better "bottle show" - an episode filmed entirely on standing sets, which usually means that all of the action is located on the ship itself. Nearly everything that occurs in "The Ultimate Computer" takes place via dialogue, on the bridge or in engineering; with a single exception, we don't personally witness any of the deaths M-5 causes and we see none of the workings of the machine itself beyond colored lights flashing on a panel. Yet the M-5 remains one of the series' most compelling villains, and McCoy's witty, sarcastic human retorts provide the perfect foil.

"The most unfortunate lack in current computer programming is that there is nothing available to immediately replace a starship surgeon," Spock taunts McCoy, to which McCoy retorts that if there were, they wouldn't have to replace him, because he wouldn't serve on a ship where everyone else was nothing but circuits and memory banks: "You know the type, Spock." They are both concerned about Kirk, who clearly isn't happy about the honor of testing a machine designed to replace him; though Kirk is sincerely upset when M-5 kills a member of his crew and starts blasting apart starships, there's also a little edge of pleasure at being proved right, a sense of relief that M-5 isn't all it's cracked up to be.

That is, of course, Daystrom's greatest nightmare: the boy wonder, as McCoy rightly guesses, has had trouble living in the shadow of past glory, being scoffed at and surpassed by his own students. It's evident that the creator is a bit unbalanced even before the machine goes berserk; he speaks of it as if it's his child and speaks of its power requirements as if it had a human body. As if McCoy didn't already have his hands full with Kirk, who is at least aware of the enormity of his ego - it isn't quite at the god-killing proportions of Star Trek V: The Voyage Home, but he's quite familiar with his attachment to the prestige of his position, and he gets a solid lesson in how much he doesn't like to be contradicted when the M-5 gives landing party recommendations and proves that it knows more about Kirk's crew than Kirk does. Interesting that it classes the captain as non-essential personnel on the landing party, though; having listened to Riker and Chakotay tell Picard and Janeway all the reasons they shouldn't beam down into potentially hazardous situations, I was sort of hoping for that speech, even though I'd seen the episode enough times previously to know what's coming!

Knowing what's coming doesn't in any way diminish the pleasure of such moments as listening to McCoy say to Kirk, "Did you see the love light in Spock's eyes? The right computer finally came along." Yet Spock is nearly as skeptical from the start as Kirk. He assures the captain that he is gratified to see the machine executing all requirements and marking yet another milestone in Daystrom's career - Spock holds an upper-level computer expert classification, we learn, and the Enterprise computers he knows so well were based on Daystrom's designs - but he says repeatedly that he would never wish to serve under one. He admires the speed of the computer's response but refuses to choose machine over man, saying the computer makes an efficient servant but "the starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it or him."

It's a lovely scene, nearly as lovely as Kirk reciting John Masefieldís "Sea-Fever" - "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by" - and speaking nostalgically about what it must have been like to feel the wind at your back as a sea captain. (Made me suddenly see Kirk and McCoy as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin from Patrick O'Brian's novels.) It's a little ironic to hear such sentiments from Kirk, whom Lenore accused in "The Conscience of the King" of being as mechanized as his ship; Kirk is more often the champion of technology to those who resist it, not the man resisting the increasing automation of his society. One wonders what he would have made of Data and his role in Starfleet. Poor Kirk - though Wesley calls him Captain Dunsel when the wargames are going well, he reverts to yelling, "Jim! Why don't you answer!" when the M-5 turns vicious, as if Kirk is supposed to be able to do something about the monster installed over his protests in his engine room while his crew departed. In the end, it's necessary for Daystrom to have been mad and to have created a mad computer in order to evade the question of what would have happened if someone had succeeded in creating a computer that could do everything initially credited to the M-5.

Watching the battle is perverse fun, since we know starships must be destroyed and crewmembers must die in order to convince Starfleet that the M-5 is a terrible idea; even watching Daystrom fall apart has its tragic pleasures, the man admitting that he couldn't stand watching himself become irrelevant in precisely the ways Kirk feels irrelevant with a machine to replace him. Despite its power, M-5 does reason like a child, and it has absorbed Daystrom's surprisingly old-fashioned values, proclaiming that the penalty for murder is death, which is no longer true in the Federation. Would an M-5 imprinted with Kirk's engrams be a very different thing than one imprinted with a mad scientist's? One suspects that the experiment will never be carried out, but what an episode that would have made.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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