Thu
Jul 1 2010 3:28pm
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: 2x24
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.

Analysis
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: instincts. 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.


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

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.


Eugene Myers recently bought a new desktop computer and named it Daystrom. Unfortunately, like the M-5, it was far from “the ultimate computer” and he had to exchange it for a laptop named Rimmer.

Torie Atkinson wonders what would it have been like if this episode had featured a slightly more archaic ultimate computer.

50 comments
j p
1. sps49
A very good episode.

Computers and automation have taken plenty of jobs from people already, with little thought for what the people would do afterward.

I always wondered, how did M5 generate a force field? Force of will? Extra parts in it's casing? And this is yet another example of how turning off the power would solve everything(is there no "scram" switch?).

How did no one in the opposing force think "computer malfunction" instead of "Kirk's lost it, we gotta kill them"?

I like the parallels drawn between M5 and Data. Both occupy Uncanny Valley in their own way.
Rachel Hyland
2. RachelHyland
Favorite things about this episode:

- Gotta love its continued relevance. As Torie pointed out, the man vs. machine issue certainly hasn't abated in the forty years since this was made. In fact, it has... whatever the direct antonym of abated is.

- McCoy is at his sarcastic and reactionary best in this one: "Fantastic machine, the M-5. No off switch." Also, serious Spock-baiting points: "He finally met the right computer."

- Seeing Kirk get teased by Commodore Wesley is kind of cute, if an example of very poor people management skills. The Pointy-Haired Commodore might be a better name for him.

- Ah, poor Ensign Harper. You were too incidental to live.

- Is it un-PC to mention that Daystrom is black? 'Cause that was a pretty big deal in 1968, right?

Favorite things about this post:

- "If he doesn’t have a starship to run, all he has left is sex to prove his virility."

- "Oh good, it's religious!"

- "Uhura has a crap job, and now a computer comes along that takes her one responsibility on the ship away from her?"

- "Enterprise is Kirk’s steady galpal and it’s genuinely sad when he talks about feeling distant and 'at odds' with her."

- Plus the whole EMH rumination. Spot on!

Great recap and analysis, Torie and Eugene, as ever. Many thanks!

Question: The Daystrom Institute... okay, I remember that guy who wanted to dismantle Data worked there, and also it's where Geordi's dreamgirl Leah Brahms studied, but I don't recall it from DS9. Context?
Marcus W
3. toryx
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...)


This is the part where I cracked up. Well done!

When I first started watching this episode my first thought was: "Another computer episode?" One of my biggest complaints about TOS is that it seems like they had a very small deck of plot cards. This general feeling was multiplied (by a factor of four) when the solution to the problem was to talk the computer into submission. Again.

But aside from that quirk I really like this episode. It's one of those where the relationship between the characters really stands out. Spock seems to be at his best when he's interested by humanity rather than dismissive about it and I like the way his admiration for technology is set up against McCoy's distrust of it.

I also like the level of self-awareness Kirk demonstrates. His struggle to deal with the awareness that progress may leave without a determined future in this episode seems to be the seed of his doubts and uncertainty in the movies (something that I personally think they took too far).

Anyway, there's a lot I like about this episode. I'm just disappointed that they resolved it with their own cliche.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
Definitely one of the better episodes, though a bit heavy-handed at times. A lot of the arguments on both sides, but especially on Daystrom's side, are gross simplifications and even then were somewhat outdated or already handled by people who think about these kinds of things. Strawmen with a framework, but strawmen nevertheless.

Kirk actually has a slightly more difficult time getting this computer to self-destruct than with, say, Nomad. Maybe that's because it isn't 100 % logical, what with Daystrom's engrams and all.

Daystrom tends to get lost in the whole thing, but he really is a tragic figure.
revgeorge
5. revgeorge
Does it strike you that most Star Fleet Commodores are either insane, incompetent, or almost pathologically antagonistic towards Starship Captains? Commodore Wesley falls into the last category. Although himself being a commander of a starship, you would think Wesley would be worried about his own obsolescence.

But talk about overused plot points with computers, how about Commodores? Anytime you see a Commodore walk into the scene in TOS, you know hilarity will ensue. Well, not hilarity but some sort of conflict between Kirk & the Commodore.
jon meltzer
6. jmeltzer
#5: So, that should be Captain "Dilbert", not "Dunsel"?
Church Tucker
7. Church
Solid 4 (a rare time that both Eugene and I are south of Torie.)

@2. RachelHyland "- Is it un-PC to mention that Wesley is black? 'Cause that was a pretty big deal in 1968, right?"

Daystrom is black. Wesley's whiter than I am. But yeah, it was pretty huge (the Daystrom bit, I mean.)

"The Daystrom Institute... okay, I remember that guy who wanted to dismantle Data worked there, and also it's where Geordi's dreamgirl Leah Brahms studied, but I don't recall it from DS9. Context?"

I think this is the context. It's just a callback to TOS (it's possible that some EU books may have expanded upon the idea.)

I quite like Daystrom's backstory of trying to live up to his early success, which is something quite common among mathematicians and the like.

Also, he's scarily similar to The GF's dad, in terms of physical presence.
revgeorge
8. Stefan Jones
William Marshall also played The King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

We had fun with that in college.
revgeorge
9. ron m smith
As I recall, having seen the episode when it first aired, it was the first time I had ever seen a black actor playing a scientist on any TV show.
It was almost as big a deal as the first interracial kiss on TV, which was also Star Trek of course.
This was a VERY BIG step for 1968.
Paul Arzooman
10. parzooman
A personal favorite for a couple of reasons. First, it introduced me to the word "dunsel" which I use at my job to amuse a few and confound my bosses. Secondly, it has probably the most over-the-top Vulcan neck pinch reaction I've ever seen from William Marshall. A dramatic moment turned into comedy every time I see it.
revgeorge
11. FDRLincoln
I loved this one as a kid because we got to see other starships, even if it was just stock footage. The remastered/new special effects edition also replaces the Botany Bay footage with a different ship, which is nice.

The episode is my favorite of the Kirk-talks-computer-to-death episodes, in part because they actually gave a good reason why this computer was unstable...the circuitry was based on the engrams of an unstable man.

"Excalibur" is a great name for a starship.
Rachel Hyland
12. RachelHyland
@7. Church

Thanks for the correction! No one can be counted on more than a fellow Trek fan to point out such inexplicable brain malfunctions. Fixed.

@11. FDRLincoln

"Excalibur" IS a great name for a starship! Which is why a later model of it made such a great setting for Peter David's New Frontier novels. I always liked the class names (Galaxy, Intrepid, Nebula etc.) until the time-traveling ship in Voyager was "Wells class". That pun is almost worthy of The Animated Series.
Mike Conley
13. NomadUK
I always liked this episode a lot, as it appeals greatly to my innate Luddism, a trait which I feel more and more comfortable with as the years go by and our supposed civilisation spirals ever further out of control.

William Marshall's voice is fabulous. He and James Earl Jones should have gotten together and made an album of the two of them intoning words deeply. Oh, and throw Paul Robeson in as well.

As usual, others have covered most of the things I really like about this episode, including Daystrom's awesome bug-eyed reaction to the Vulcan nerve pinch.

I liked seeing more than one Federation Starship on the screen at once, even if it was done on the cheap!

And the scene in Kirk's cabin as he waxes nostalgic for the days of wind and water, and speaks of the stars, and his one true love (you know who she is), and quotes Masefield... Brings me practically to tears every time.

(There are precisely two such deeply emotive scenes for me in all of Trek: that's one. The other is Kirk's parting line to the Mirror Universe Spock, complete with rising background music. Damn. And, yes, the Constitution reading from 'The Omega Glory' is good, and I've said so, and his breakdown in 'The Naked Time' is also wonderful, and those give me shivers -- but the other two hit me in the heart.)

I was always stunned by the utterly cold efficiency and suddenness of the way in which Harper is dispatched; the poor bastard never knew what hit him.

Various people have commented on Wesley's rudeness to Kirk, but I never saw it that way. Wesley strikes me as a by-the-book officer, ramrod straight, and all of that. He does what Command tells him to do, and he tells his subordinates (in this case, Kirk) what they need to do, and expects them to do it. The 'Dunsel' crack is delivered with a trace of sadness in his voice; you can hear it. He knows what's going on, and what's coming down the pike, and he doesn't like it one bit, but orders are orders. For 'Regards to Captain Dunsel', read 'It's been fun, Jim, but we're all fucked'.

A couple of things always did bother me about this episode, though:

First, I never quite understood the conversation between McCoy and Kirk regarding Daystrom's career and the development of the M-5. I'm replaying the dialogue from memory (always a risky proposition), but it seems to me that, at first, Kirk defends Daystrom with something like 'No matter how long it took, he came up with the M-5'; then, he turns around and points out that 'genius doesn't work on an assembly-line basis'. Well, which is it?

Second, I don't think the out-logicking of the computer here is nearly as satisfying as his pwnage of Nomad, which I consider to be the pinnacle of Kirk's anti-computer career. He asks 'Why?' a few too many times for my taste. And since when does Starfleet allow the death penalty for anything other than violation of General Order 7?

RachelHyland@12: Excalibur is, in fact, such a great name for a ship the Royal Navy had one: HMS Excalibur, a high-test peroxide-powered submarine; she was scrapped in 1968.
Frank Lazar
14. LazarX
As a mad computer story though it pales next to HAL 9000 in the 2001 and 2010 Space Odyessy movies. In comparison HAL becomes deadly simply because of it's observational skills in lipreading, it's knowledge and command of ship systems, and it's first strike.

It's noted that in depth, that the HAL computer is essentially someone trying to wrestle out of a rock and hard place it's been put in... trying to settle between two mutually opposing programs, 1. to give full answers and react honestly to it's fellow crewmembers and 2. to keep the true facts of the mission from them. It shows it's realtive weakness in that while a Human could decide and make such a choice for one or the other, a logical computer can be just as hung up as Maimonides donkey who dies of thirst because it can't choose between two equally distant waterholes.

HAL is a much more interesting character because we get to know it. The crew work with HAL like a colleague which makes it's betrayal that much more painful. HAL is also a much more tragic figure in that it's very much like a person forced into a situation it did not want. (while it's somewhat shown in the movie, it's explained more throughly in the novel that HAL didn't start at murder, he only did so when his attempt to remove Earth Control by sabotaging the AE35 unit was thwarted and detected)

The other difference of course is that HAL ultimately finds redemption in the sequel movie and novels.

The other interesting comparison to be made was that of Daystrom and Chandra the creator/fathers of their respective machines, both of whom go over the line in thier own way.

BTW M5 did not totally go into the scrap heap. It's stage hardware made a redux appearance as Gary Seven's cybernetic helper in "Assignment Earth". Treks's first failed attempt at a spinoff pilot.
revgeorge
15. Brian2
@NomadUK: I'm not sure what your point is about Kirk commenting on Daystrom. Take the general theory of relativity. It was an extremely difficult and frustrating piece of work, but Einstein persevered and finally succeeded. That plainly satisfies the "no matter how long it took" condition. Did he do it on "an assembly-line basis"? Not sure what's meant by that; like "genius," it sounds like the usual 60s blustering about what creative activity might be like if you ever came across it. But it's pretty certain that if you did pin down what's meant be that, the answer would be no, Einstein didn't work on an assembly-line basis. Problem-solving of this kind isn't a uniform process proceeding on a predictable schedule.
Mike Conley
16. NomadUK
Brian2@15: I'm not sure what the point of your reply was, actually; are you thinking that I'm arguing about whether genius is on an assembly-line basis? I'm not.

My problem is that the conversation seems not to follow a logical track. Here's the exchange between Kirk and McCoy:

M: Biographical tape of Richard Daystrom.

K: Did you find out anything?

M: Not much, aside from the fact that he's a genius.

K: Genius is an understatement. At the age of 24 he made the duotronic breakthrough that won him the Nobel and Zimagni prizes.

M: In his early twenties, Jim. That's over a quarter of a century ago.

K: Isn't that enough for one lifetime?

M: Maybe that's the trouble. Where do you go from up? You publish articles, you give lectures, then you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture past glories.

K: All right, it's difficult. What's your point?

M: The M-1 through M-4 remember? 'Not entirely successful', that's the way Daystrom put it.

K: But genius doesn't work on an assembly-line basis. Did Einstein, or Kazanga, or Sitar of Vulcan produce new and revolutionary theories on a regular schedule? You can't simply say, 'Today I will be brilliant!' No matter how long it took, he came out with multitronics -- the M-5.

M: Right. The government bought it, then Daystrom had to make it work. And he did. But according to Spock, it works illogically.

K: And he won't let Spock near it. What are you saying? That he's tampering with it? That he's making it act that way? Why?

M: Jim, if a man had a child who'd gone antisocial -- kill, perhaps -- he'd still tend to protect that child.

K: Now he's got you talking about that machine like a personality.

M: I'm afraid that's the way he thinks about it.


My problem is, I just don't see the logical thread in this conversation. What is Kirk's point? What's McCoy's? How do we get from 'Daystrom's brilliant' to 'Daystrom's nuts'? What does the 'not entirely successful' reference mean?

I can't remember ever having understood this conversation. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
jon meltzer
17. jmeltzer
@13: It's not Starfleet allowing the death penalty, it's Daystrom believing that murder must only be punishable that way and passing the attitude on to M-5. It's lucky for Kirk that he didn't get something like this:

KIRK: What is the penalty for murder?
M-5: Psychiatric rehabilitation and continued therapy.
KIRK (to himself): Shit. Now what?
Mike Conley
18. NomadUK
jmeltzer@17: I see your point, and you could be right, but, if so, it's a weakness in the characterisation. A computer genius of the 23rd century believing in the death penalty for murder is up there with Albert Einstein believing in burning witches at the stake.

I think it's more like a guy from 1968 wrote a script and figured theye'd still be hanging, electrocuting, shooting, gassing, and euthanising criminals 200 years from now — though, of course, the move to abolish the death penalty in most civilised countries was well underway. (I suppose he could well be right, but, if so, I'm glad I won't be around to see it.)

However, your suggested script modification has me in stitches.
Church Tucker
19. Church
@16 NomadUK "My problem is, I just don't see the logical thread in this conversation. What is Kirk's point? What's McCoy's? How do we get from 'Daystrom's brilliant' to 'Daystrom's nuts'?"

We don't. We go from "Daystrom is brilliant" to "Daystrom may be acting like a parent and not like a scientist, which might be bad news in this situation."

I have to say that I'm amused that NomadUK's usual "I don't have much to add, but..." post spawns as many posts as went before him.
D M
20. pavid
Nitpick - is it not Ceti Alpha V??

"I leave you as you left her--marooned forever on Ceti Alpha V.


KHAAAAAAAAANNNN!!!!"

or was the name changed for the Wrath of Khan??
Mike Conley
21. NomadUK
or was the name changed for the Wrath of Khan??

No. Unfortunately, Gene Coon appears to have been ignorant of basic (and I mean basic) astronomical nomenclature, and in 'Space Seed' named the star Ceti Alpha, rather than the correct Alpha Ceti (the brightest star in the constellation Cetus, the Whale, or sea monster).

And, yes, all sorts of rationalisations for this have been offered, but I firmly believe the truth is that he wasn't thinking when he wrote this.

So Eugene and Torie got it 'right' in the summary, because they're too sophisticated to make a mistake like that, but they are, sadly, wrong.
Eugene Myers
22. ecmyers
@13 NomadUK

I'm going to have to listen to Wesley's "dunsel" comment again, since I missed the sad tone. But that would make me feel a lot better about him.

I also agree that Kirk's use of logic against the machine didn't work very well in this case. Maybe he should have tried the corbomite trick instead. His constant questions of "Why?" bugged me, but you've just reminded me of what it reminded me of when I watched it--the episode of The Prisoner when Number 6 breaks the computer by asking it a question it had no answer for: "Why?"
Mike Conley
23. NomadUK
the episode of The Prisoner when Number 6

Ooooo. Time for a The Prisoner rewatch...?
revgeorge
24. Capper7
@NomadUK

I don't believe that the conversation between Kirk and McCoy is illogical at all.

McCoy suggests that Daystrom's early success as a genius may put substantial pressure on him to produce a second successful breakthrough, and he therefore questions how successful Daystrom's M-5 breakthrough really is -- whether it is a product of the pressure on Daystrom and Daystrom is taking unsafe shortcuts (like Kirk's son did with protomatter in the Genesis devise) or whether it is a true genius breakthrough. Kirk's response is, basically, why should Daystrom feel pressure? He's unquestionably a genius, and genius breakthroughs don't run on a schedule, so he should recognize that he will eventually make another successful breakthrough when the time is right. Kirk is just saying that he believes that Daystrom should not be feeling the pressure that McCoy seems to think he is under as an "unproductive" early blooming genius.

McCoy's next comment, about whether Daystrom is treating M-5 like a parent would treat an anti-social child, follows the previous thought -- Daystrom has incentive and is under pressure to hide the fact that his big breakthrough, M-5, is less than perfect. So less than perfect that he won't even let Spock near it.

Kirk is trying to give Daystrom the benefit of the doubt, while McCoy is trying to point out that there are all kinds of other unhealthy psychological reasons for Daystom's actions, and therefore they should not just assume that the M-5 is working just fine, as Daystrom wants them to believe.

That's my take on it, anyway.
Mike Conley
25. NomadUK
Capper7@24: I like your interpretation, and I'm sure it's probably right. It's just weird: I have some kind of mental block or something regarding this particular exchange. No matter how many times I read it or hear it, I just can't seem to get it to scan for me.

Very strange. Oh, well. At least I know it's not my incipient Alzheimer's; as I said, it never made any sense to me, even as a kid (when, presumably, my brain was still working).

Church@19: Sorry about that! On the other hand, nobody's forcing anyone to respond to me!
revgeorge
26. roblewmac
I always thought the COMPUTER called Kirk "dunsel"
Church Tucker
27. Church
@25 NomadUK

It wasn't a complaint. Merely an observation.
revgeorge
28. hassenpfeffer
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?


The episode is prophetic in more ways than one. The Commodore knows that upper management always finds ways to outsource the workers below them while sparing their own jobs.
Eugene Myers
29. ecmyers
@23 NomadUK

I think BridgetMcGovern probably has dibs on a Prisoner Re-watch, but it would be awesome.
Torie Atkinson
30. Torie
Whoa, gone for a holiday weekend and look what I find!

@ 1 sps49

Yeah, interesting that they'd think Kirk was the issue and not that totally experimental computer thing made by the kinda crazy guy.

@ 2 RachelHyland

There's some great McCoy-Spock banter in this one for sure.

I only remember offhand mentions of the Daystrom institute in DS9, but DS9 wasn't as interested in the research/exploration aspect that would require it to have a big role.

@ 3 toryx

Yeah, plot cards for sure. What other cards were there? "Earth just like ____", "Escaping from slavery"... Let's come up with a deck!

@ 4 DemetriosX

Definitely gross simplifications BUT I know enough technology people to have encountered the overblown, hyperbolic "THIS WILL TOTALLY CHANGE EVERYTHING I WILL HEAR NOTHING AGAINST IT" mentality.

@ 5 revgeorge

Pretty much anyone else in Starfleet is crazy or megalomaniacal (or both!). Remember Ambassador Asshat? And Galactic High Commander Douchenozzle?

@ 9 ron m smith

Not actually TV's first interracial kiss, as is widely believed. I Love Lucy did that a decade earlier. Even Star Trek had been there before--"Elaan of Troyius" has Kirk kiss an Asian woman. And if we're just talking white/black, Nancy Sinatra kissed Sammy Davis, Jr. on Movin' with Nancy. But we'll get to that when we get to that. :)

@ 10 parzooman

I love that bit, too. Comic genius.
Torie Atkinson
31. Torie
@ 11 FDRLincoln

I know! It finally makes sense. But way to blame it all on humans...

@ 13 NomadUK

If you like the Masefield bit, you should read the Patrick O'Brien novels. I'm reading them right now and they have a lot of awe-inspiring captain-loves-his-ship moments (and great comedy, too).

I completely agree with @ 24 Capper7 on the latter point. That's exactly how I read the scene.

@ 14 LazarX

You might be right, but I've tried three times to watch 2001 and every time I've fallen asleep. So in my book, M5 wins. :)
Mike Conley
32. NomadUK
Torie@31: I've tried three times to watch 2001 and every time I've fallen asleep

Oh, Torie... Do try again. The great thing about 2001 is that there's so little dialogue, you can focus your attention on the utterly phenomenal level of detail in each and every scene. It's exquisite. It is -- and I brook no argument on this -- if not the greatest, certainly one of the 5 greatest films ever made.

And I have read one of O'Brien's novels, Master and Commander, I believe (obviously, I bought it shortly after the film came out -- which is great fun, and it never ceases to amaze me how Russel Crowe can turn out such fine performances and yet be such an utter arsewipe); I liked it, if for no other reason than that it requires a certain effort to get through. I need to read it again, and try some of the others as well.

Tell you what: I'll read O'Brien again if you give 2001 another try!
Eugene Myers
33. ecmyers
@31 Torie

Perhaps a viewing of 2001 with copious amounts of alcohol is in order! It's a beautiful film, but it's like watching all the slow bits of ST: TMP, for good reason. The first time I saw it, my 10th grade English teacher screened it for the class and pointed out all the sexual imagery. It was a formative experience.

We can follow up the film with Tarkovsky's Solaris, which I've never made it through...
Mike Conley
34. NomadUK
ecmyers@33: Perhaps a viewing of 2001 with copious amounts of alcohol is in order!

Of course, alcohol wasn't the drug of choice for many in the audience back in 1968....
Torie Atkinson
35. Torie
@ 32 NomadUK

The first time, I was 16 and couldn't get past the apes. The second time, I was in college and gave it another go--I made it about an hour in before I started dozing off. And the last time was a few years ago at a huge public screening in a NYC park, and I STILL fell asleep at about the hour mark. I guess I could try again...

Master and Commander (the movie) was great fun and I wish they would do more. I can't believe Crowe is doing crap like Robin Hood now. Maybe he needs to add another wing to his house.

@ 33 ecmyers

The slow bits of ST:TMP didn't bother me, so it's surprising that 2001 was so soporific.

I actually have Solaris in my Netflix queue and have been meaning to check it out.
Rachel Hyland
36. RachelHyland
@ 35 Torie

2001 is the most-overrated sci-fi film ever. It's the Citizen Kane of the geek set. Long, boring, self-congratulatory nonsense. It's one of those movies you have to have seen, if you're a proper sci-fi nut, just as one has to have read Ulysses if one wants to be considered a serious literature-type, but neither are really worth the time and effort.

@ 33 ecmeyers

Solaris, on the other hand, is awesome! One of the most under-rated sci-fi films ever. It's like the Amistad of the geek set.

All in my humble opinion, of course.
j p
37. sps49
When I watched 2001, I had no clue what was going on except for the HAL 9000 trying to kill the crew. Then I read "The Sentinel", and now I understand all but the very end.

Re: HAL- during Independance Day's theater run, when Jeff Goldblum's character booted up his laptop and the startup screen was an image of HAL's face (and the sound clip was "Good morning, Dave), my friend and I were the only people in the theater to laugh. Not enough geeks around here, apparently.

~

The Aubrey/ Maturin books are okay, but I prefer C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels.
Mike Conley
38. NomadUK
sps49@37: So, now go read Clarke's novel, and understand the end, too.

Always meant to read Hornblower as well, but just haven't gotten to them yet.

RachelHyland@36: There is just no accounting for taste.
revgeorge
39. Ludon
sps49@37 after NomadUK@38: After reading Clarke's novel try to find a copy of his The Lost Worlds of 2001. This is essentially Clarke's account on how the story took shape and a little on why some elements of the story were different between the novel and the movie. I found the alien's point of view of a baseball game to be rather fun.

Now, about Dr. Daystrom. In school - way back in the early 70s - a teacher once said that books, movies and TV will be our best barometer on our progress in reaching racial equality. He said that when a character can be written as being of any race for no other reason than the choice of the writer and no one makes anything of it and when a character (written with no race specification) can be played by an actor of any race and no one makes anything of it we will have made some significant progress.

That the character's race has been a focus of part of this discussion suggests that we really have not made much progress.
Mike Conley
40. NomadUK
Ludon@39: Near as I can tell, the fact that Daystrom is black has been mentioned on this thread only to point out how remarkable it was that a black man was playing a scientist in a television show made in 1968.

One has only to look at the lead roles in prime-time television shows and major films to see that, no, we haven't made much progress. But, at least, society seem to have accepted that people with high concentrations of melanin in their skin can be scientists, too, which is, I suppose, something.
Marcus W
41. toryx
I've been too busy to keep up with the conversation but I have to say that I really hated Solaris. I'd rather watch 2001 and I'm not a particularly big fan of the movie. I really liked the book, though.

Torie @ 30: I don't think there were enough plots in TOS to make a full deck. Haven't we already covered them all? Oh wait, "Power of a God but ultimately childish" and "Power corrupts, unless it's Kirk who wields it," are two others.
Torie Atkinson
42. Torie
@ 40 NomadUK

I didn't think much of it as we've seen people of color in the Admiralty and in all ranks of Starfleet, which is pretty impressive. Lead roles, as you say, have a long way to go...

@ 41 toryx

Classic sci-fi smackdown!

So, cards so far:

Space Douche
Power Corrupts (Not Usable On Kirk)
Malevolent Computer
Just Like Earth in ______
Force Federation Ideals Upon _____
Mike Conley
43. NomadUK
Torie@42: Don't forget the 'Man cannot live enslaved' and 'Man cannot live in Paradise' cards.
jon meltzer
44. jmeltzer
Doomsday Machine (which is not the same as Malevolent Computer; witness _Immunity Syndrome_ )

Advanced Elder Race (Organians, Kelvans, Sargon, etc)

Monster of the Week (Salt Vampire, Obsessive Cloud Creature, Lights of Zetar, Metamorphosis)

Just Superkids (Charlie X, Miri, And The Children Shall Lead)
Torie Atkinson
45. Torie
@ 43 NomadUK

Oh right! I even mentioned the enslaved bit earlier and forgot to relist it. "Eden Sucks" is definitely on there.

@ 44 jmeltzer

Are the MotW all Lasts of Their Kind?

Clearly I need to learn Photoshop and whip up some decks for us to play. Have any of you played Nanofictionary? It's a card game with Character cards (Evil Twins! Mad Scientist!), Plot cards (A wormhole opens! You kill a man!), Resolution cards (Everything burns to the ground! They all live happily ever after!), etc. You put together a story and then have to come up with a narrative that fills in the gaps. I suspect this could be very easily adapted to Star Trek...
Marcus W
46. toryx
Torie @ 45:

Nanofictionary sounds like great fun. I've never heard of it before. That's probably because I moved several years back and now all my old gaming buddies are far away from where I currently live.

Anyway, it sounds like we could totally make a Star Trek version.
revgeorge
47. Bobsandiego
Oh come one you're missing a big card for your Star Trek Deck O Plots.
The Time Travel Plot. A card carried over to all the other shows and used until it was worn and faded.
Torie Atkinson
48. Torie
@ 47 Bobsandiego

!! How could we forget?? That's definitely going in the deck.
revgeorge
49. bobsandiego
@48Torie
And you can make into a great filk with the tune from 'The Time Warp' from RHPS.
(I'd do it but that's not a talent I have)
Michael Poteet
52. MikePoteet
I am really late to this conversation (I didn't find out about the rewatch until they covered "The Cage!"), but I just rewatched this episode and think it's just about the most perfect one-hour introduction to "Star Trek" anyone could have. The advanced technology balanced with the concern for humanity; perfect interplay between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy throughout; a fantastic performance by a guest star -- I wish Daystrom had returned at some point, so we could see how the "rehabilitiation" worked out; adventure and action balanced with reflection and philosophy. It's not my favorite Trek episode ever, but, if you wanted to give someone only one episode to say, "See, this is what 'Star Trek' is," you could do far, far worse than this one.

Just my two quatloos!

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