Unlike that abhorrent mess that was The Omega Glory, The Ultimate Computer may be one of the more important episodes of classic Star Trek. It’s not that I find it a great episode and it’s far from a favorite of mine, but it has some important things to say about technology.
The episode opens with Kirk annoyed at being asked to come to a Starbase without much in the line of a reason. He bumps into old pal Commodore Robert Wesley who tells him he’s to offload all but 20 members of his staff and then test a new computer system created by famed doctor, Richard Daystrom. (Remember that name; the Daystom institute will become a Trek go-to!) Needless to say, Kirk isn’t happy, but he does as asked. Sit down before you read this; I don’t want you to fall over. Ready? Things go wrong! Didn’t see that coming, right?
This leads to one of those important lessons. Technology advances and as it does so, it sometimes puts people out of jobs. It’s not a nice thing to realize, but you know what people forget? It also creates new jobs. Yeah, all those people who lost their jobs changing the horse shoes on their favorite carriage pullers must have been upset, but the mechanics that got work with the advent of the automobile probably aren’t complaining. No, it doesn’t happen overnight and it’s never easy to be on that end of the stick but progress does lead to new things too. Sure, it’s hard to see Kirk being the target of that automation. McCoy tries to ease Jim’s pain and I actually respect him in the story (even if his solution is alcohol). He really does care about Jim and offers some genuine friendship in this story*. I also credit Jim for being able to ask himself some hard questions. “Only a fool would stand in the way of progress!” Is he just dealing with loss of prestige? Is it a question of pride that drives him to dislike the M5 computer? Or is he such a good captain that he could feel things were wrong before they actually went wrong? (*McCoy has his moments but he’s so busy picking on Spock that he fails to pay attention to the things going wrong, so he doesn’t wow me, he just made me appreciate his humanity a bit more in this episode.)
The other thing that is vitally important comes from the “emotionless” Spock. He may respect the efficiency of the M5 but he would not want to serve it. He points out that “a starship also runs on loyalty” and you realize just how much respect Kirk’s crew has for him, including that of his Vulcan science officer. Loyalty; it’s not something that just happens. It develops based on the character of a person. A person creates loyalty by building something with his team, strengthening it and making it better for all. He’s not selfish. He forms bonds. He watches out for those under his command, even the redshirts when he can! Spock may be a Vulcan but he has seen all these traits in Kirk and it would be impossible for the rest of the crew not to have seen the same things. There’s a life lesson in here and we should mine that like we’re digging for gold, because I say from experience: a team that relies on one another can do nearly anything!
Now that’s not to say this episode is flawless. It’s got its issues. I’m talking about those items we laugh at that perhaps aren’t meant to be funny. I don’t mean Spock’s matter of fact declaration that they’ve been sent “pursuing a wild goose” but the moments like when Daystrom the Unhinged talks to the computer about how great they both are. (In fairness, William Marshall sells Daystrom’s breakdown very well; I love his “we don’t want to destroy life!”) But how about Kirk’s rib-jab to Daystrom: “Alright Doctor!” Go back and watch it; it’s quite funny! Speaking of deranged doctors, McCoy observes Daystrom as he loses his mind and offers a prognosis to Jim about how unhinged he’s becoming… from 2 feet away. Did McCoy perhaps think that in space no one can hear you whisper.. when you’re standing next to the guy? And what about when Kirk decides to address the Enterprise crew of the danger coming at the hands of Wesley? He uses the intercom to address all 19 crewmen… 8 of which were on the bridge with him. But the silliest thing is actually the very thing that saves Kirk. He leaves shields down and plays dead to, as he says, rely on Wesley’s compassion not to fire. But Wesley showed zero compassion up until now and calling Jim “Captain Dunsel” in front of other members of his staff was not the mark of a good leader. Not to mention, Wesley is busy accusing Kirk while he’s taking fire, but never says he suspects the M5 – he seems to think Kirk suddenly became a madman. (Although Kirk wouldn’t know that was going on, but we do! So, I ask again, what compassion?)
Well this is another episode where a computer is talked to death. And another episode that opens with standard orbit, even if that’s around a space station! And it’s also the episode where Spock put me in my place: I worked hard for the A+ computer certification years back but Spock has an A7 which must be at least 7 levels higher than my cert. Very humbling. Still, this episode left me with some food for thought and that’s always a good sign when watching Star Trek. However, unlike Spock, I’m not sure if that’s fascinating or interesting… ML
The view from across the pond:
In this episode Kirk is at risk of being replaced by a computer. The “M-5” only needs 20 crewmembers to run the ship, and Kirk is there as little more than an observer. When the M-5 makes an assessment of who should beam down to a planet, it doesn’t include Kirk, who is “non-essential personnel”. It’s a brutal observation, but probably true. Later iterations of Star Trek would rarely show the captain beaming down as part of an away team. His or her place is on the ship.
“All you have to do is sit back and let the machine do the work.”
Bring back the luddites.
“There are certain things men must do to remain men. Your computer will take that away.”
Oh, the Luddites are already back. Or should that be cavemen? Leaving aside the usual hideous Trek gender stereotypes, this is a valid debate, and is just as relevant today as it was in the 60s, or indeed during the Industrial Revolution. In recent years I have seen supermarket checkouts being replaced by self-service, and assistants in banks being replaced by machines. Every one of those machines represents a lost job. The M-5 threatens to replace hundreds of crewmembers, including the captain. The scary thing from Kirk’s point of view is that it works. It is actually better and quicker than him, and Spock’s sentimentality about a starship relying on logic misses the point that the M-5 can be a tool as well as a replacement, switched off where necessary. The fact that it goes wrong doesn’t mean the idea is a bad one. It just means that Daystrom screwed up on the details.
To give Kirk his due, he challenges his own feelings about the M-5. He asks if he is “afraid of losing my job to that computer”, even worrying if he is being “petty”. This is not the first time we have seen Kirk question himself in this way, and I find it impressive writing and the sign of a good captain. With Kirk it’s never “my way or the highway”. McCoy actually says something sensible for once in reply:
“Why don’t you ask James T. Kirk. He’s a pretty honest guy.”
In the end Kirk proves his worth, using human intuition to bet on the “humanity” of Commodore Wesley. It seems like a bit of a leap, considering this is the man who labelled him earlier as “Captain Dunsel”, a term that refers to an obsolete piece of equipment on a steam ship, the “dun sail” from before the days of steam power. That is an incredibly nasty jibe to make, so you can understand why a computer might not have bet on this man’s “humanity”.
I suppose that no article about The Ultimate Computer would be complete without mentioning Daystrom’s skin colour. I long for the day when it’s not even worthy of comment because it’s completely irrelevant, but in 1968 it was unusually progressive to show a black man as the inventor of the computer systems used in starships. The message is slightly damaged by showing Daystrom as a washed up nutjob, whose glory days are behind him, and who is so desperate to recapture his previous success that he is screwing things up, so maybe we’re not quite as progressive as people think. I had the nagging feeling that we were actually being shown how a black inventor is ultimately a failure, so this isn’t quite the leap forward in the portrayal of race that most reviewers claim it to be. Having said that, Daystrom’s skin colour is never remarked upon within the narrative, and has no bearing on anything, so that in itself is progress. As somebody who has watched Trek back to front, I’m more than familiar with the name “Daystrom Institute”, so it was great to see the man behind the name here. Most importantly, he did demonstrate the awesome ability of the M-5 before it went rogue, so perhaps he’s not the failure he thinks he is. What happens here is a tragedy, but the uncomfortable truth facing Kirk is the same truth we have faced ever since the days of the Luddites. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and you can’t fight progress. Maybe one day we’ll all be “non-essential personnel”. RP