TOS Rewind #50: "The Ultimate Computer"
And now, The Ultimate Computer (03/08/1968)
The podcast for this episode can be listened to or downloaded here.
Well, no Trek-related obituaries, so I'll get right to my thoughts about our current episode. When "The Ultimate Computer" came up in the queue, I fondly remembered the past 30,000 times I've seen it, but what I didn't remember was what an exceptional episode it is.
To begin with, I watched the remastered version of the episode, and this is definitely one case where the improved special effects added to the story. I enjoyed getting to see another design for a Federation starbase and really appreciate that it follows the established design lineage (i.e. Space Station K-7 in "The Trouble with Tribbles"). I also was surprised by how much the new effects add to the drama of the action sequences.
The story, superficially at least, is just Kirk vs. Computer again, but it is the best of those stories. (Although "Return of the Archons" and "The Changeling" are tied for a close second.) The premise--a revolutionary supercomputer is installed on the Enterprise for the purpose of replacing the human crew--is handled insightfully. Kirk's response to the prospect of losing his captaincy to a machine rings true. His reaction when Commodore Wesley refers to him as "Captain Dunsel" is affecting, and we are sympathetic to his plight. The support and compassion McCoy and Spock show him is sincere and touching; they both, in their own characteristic ways, are unwavering in their loyalty and friendship.
What really makes this an exceptional episode, though, is Dr. Daystrom. I never fully appreciated the depth and complexity of this character--He is arguably the antagonist, but he is also sympathetic and perhaps even pitiable. His genius is undeniable, one of the Federation's greatest minds, but he is also a paranoid schizophrenic, and he transferred those traits to his M5 computer, which is put in control of the Enterprise. This sets up wonderful dramatic tension, and William Marshall makes the very most of the role. And now that I think about his excellent performance, I found myself asking an interesting question: Did Daystrom's genius cause his insanity or was his insanity a innate condition that was expressed, due to his experiences, as genius? It's the old Nature vs. Nurture argument, and while I'm hardly an expert, I tend to think the latter scenario is the case. Daystrom had a predilection for schizophrenia that might not have developed except for his early success and the perceived scorn of his contemporaries.
Even with these richly deserved plaudits, I do have a complaint that concerns Commodore Wesley. When the task force is getting its ass kicked by M5/Enterprise, he keeps yelling things like "What is Kirk doing?!" It seems unlikely that he simply forgot that M5 was put in control of the Enterprise for the express purpose of seeing how well it can handle situations such as combat, so I'm mystified as to why he blames Kirk for M5's rampage. It doesn't make any sense, but ultimately (heh) it's a minor quibble with an otherwise superb episode.
I'll close with the full text of the magnificent poem Kirk quoted:
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
By John Masefield (1878-1967).
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)
"The Ultimate Computer" is one of the rare episodes that was not only a childhood favorite but also holds up extremely well to the passage of time.
Despite the fact that Trek was a science fiction/adventure show, it didn't actually touch on the role of technology and human society all that often, at least not at the detail that this one does. This is not a knock against the program as these issues can be weighty and tough to distill into a 50 minute television show that above all needs to entertain. The seriousness of the ideas is easily seen in the excellent scene in Kirk's quarters where he and McCoy discuss he relentless march of technology and how it has this tendency to disrupt the fabric of human society, all the way down to the individual. The scene isn't all that long but it gets the point across effectively and as Eric points out below, uses the poem to accent the feelings Kirk is expressing.
"We are one big happy fleet!" (I wonder how Khan would handle his job being outsourced!)
The chance to get a bit, if you'll excuse the term, meta with the workings of Starfleet doesn't come along very often throughout the original series and this episode takes full advantage. Daystrom's M5 is allowed to control one of the most powerful starships in the fleet so we have to assume that the top commanders are at least entertaining the idea of an automated fleet having been convinced that, to quote McCoy, "the right computer finally came along." The fact of the matter is, it's quite easy to see from the early action of the episode, exactly why the top brass thought it was worth pursuing. The Enterprise does indeed operate more efficiently under the control of the M5. It doesn't seem all that far-fetched, even knowing the outcome of the episode, that those in charge would consider the M5 a better choice to control the helm, weapons, etc than Sulu and the gang. But Kirk and his breed of captain prove to be irreplaceable. It's funny how no one speculates how well an M5 would replace Spock!
Daystrom is the character that really makes this show tick. Not only is Daystrom a very well developed character, one of the best non-regulars, he is also emblematic of a shattered genius. The story moves beyond its focus on the benefits and perhaps dangers of placing a ship under computer control and becomes a psychological study that gives us a character that is worthy of both scorn and pity. McCoy is the audience's emotional view of Daystrom; at the start of the show he is suspicious and dismissive of Daystrom and his machine. By the end he feels the sympathy that we do. William Marshall gives the role the depth that is needed and makes the character's swagger to emotional meltdown quite believable. Marshall pushes the envelope of scenery chewing but is never out of character. Shatner actually plays this episode more on the subdued side; perhaps this was the direction but the thoughtful, vulnerable side of Kirk really adds to the character.
As far as Eric's complaint about Commodore Wesely, I have to agree. Wesely acts as though he's completely forgotten that the Enterprise is under computer control. Sure, Kirk's supposed to have a "kill" switch at his chair, but an extra sentence of dialogue would have made this a bit more believable.
The new CG effects really help with this episode. Not only do we get to see another Federation space station, but the exterior shots of all the starships are much better than the old optically re-printed Enterprise shots we had before. Of course when I was young, just the idea of all those extra Enterprise-like ships on the show was exciting and I didn't really care what it looked like on the screen.
Next time: "Bread and Circuses"