The Ultimate Computer
Overall Ep :
First Aired :
8 Mar 1968
Season Ep :
The Woden freighter seen in this episode is a re-use of Khan's DY-100 ship. That was supposed to have been built in the mid 1990s, are these ships still in service 270 years later? This nit is fixed in the remastered episode, which replaces the ship with a copy of the Antares seen in "Charlie X".
Daystrom asks the M-5 what the penalty for murder is, and it replies that the penalty is death. Is that so? We've been told before that Starfleet only uses the death penalty for violation of the quarantine zone around the Talos system. It doesn't punish murder with death. In fairness, Daystrom might believe that murder deserves the death penalty, and the M-5's mind would thus have that same belief.
Great Moment :
Kirk's sense of loss and confusion leads to some nice scenes with McCoy in this episode.
Body Count :
At least 53 on the USS Lexington, and the entire crew of the USS Excalibur, presumably 430. Plus one of the engineers aboard the Enterprise is killed by M-5.
James Doohan, Scotty, provides the voice for the M5 computer as well as the unseen Commodore Enwright.
TNG's Daystrom Institute, which this website pretends to be a part of, is named after Dr. Richard Daystrom.
The M-5 is the fourth computer Kirk has talked to death. The others are Nomad from "The Changeling", Landru from "The Return of the Archons", and the Mudd Androids from "I, Mudd".
The "Alpha Carinae" system which the Enterprise visits in this episode is a real star system, also known as Canopus. Located in the southern constellation of Carina, Canopus is much brighter, larger and hotter than our own sun. In fact it is the brightest star within 700 light years of Earth - though Sirius appears brighter, since it is closer to us than Canopus. Canopus is an F-type star, white to the naked eye, 310 light years away from Earth. It is very much younger than our sun, and will have a far shorter life. The planet Dune in the famous series of Frank Herbert novels is the third planet in the Canopus system.
Barry Russo, who played Commodore Wesley in this episode, also played Commander Giotto in "The Devil in the Dark".
Producer John Meredyth Lucas bought the teleplay because the episode could be made quickly and cheaply, using only the existing Enterprise sets.
The Enterprise arrives at a Federation space station, having been summoned by Commodore Enwright without any explanation. Commodore Wesley, commander of the USS Lexington, beams aboard and explains that the Enterprise has been selected to carry out a historic and potentially revolutionary test program - the ship will be fitted with the M-5 multitronic computer. Designed by the brilliant Dr. Richard Daystrom, the man who created the duotronic computers currently used aboard Federation ships, the M-5 is capable of handling virtually all ship functions, rendering most of the crew obsolete. A skeleton crew of 20 remains on board for the few remaining functions, along with Doctor Daystrom, who will control M-5 and monitor the tests.
Installation of the M-5 goes smoothly, though several of the Enterprise officers voice concerns about both the practicality of the M-5 and the concept behind it. Kirk especially seems disconcerted by the prospect of being rendered obsolete by the machine, and comments that there is something "wrong" about the computer, though he cannot say what. He openly wonders whether it is merely his own ego talking.
In the initial tests the M-5 performs admirably, handling some routine course changes and simple turns. Kirk is somewhat resistant to the tests, only turning M-5 on for each manoeuvre and then immediately disengaging it afterwards. Spock sides with Daystrom, gratified by the M-5's apparent success.
The ship arrives at Alpha Carinae II. Both Kirk and M-5 make recommendations for the landing party to investigate the planet. Notably, M-5 assigns a different geologist - one who served on a merchant marine freighter in the area, and once visited the planet on a geology survey for a mining company; a fact Kirk evidently didn't know. The M-5 also omits Kirk and McCoy from the landing party, stating that they are "Non-essential personnel".
M-5 also begins to shut down power to areas of the ship on its own initiative, since those areas were no longer needed for the much smaller crew.
As the Enterprise proceeds on course, two Starships arrive for an unscheduled battle drill - the USS Lexington and Excalibur. The M-5 responds with great speed, rapidly landing hit after hit on the starships and defeating them both easily. Spock notes that the tactics and deployment of weapons both indicated an immense sophistication in computer control - but goes on to note that whilst impressive and apparently practical, the M-5 is not desirable. He states that computers make excellent and efficient servants, but that he has no wish to serve under them - and that nothing can replace the Captain of a Starship or the loyalty of the crew towards him.
Commodore Wesley hails the ship and concedes the battle, complementing the M-5 unit and giving his regards to "Captain Dunsel" before signing off. Kirk, clearly upset, walks off the bridge as McCoy wonders what the "Dunsel" reference is. Spock explains that the term is used by Midshipmen at Starfleet Academy, and denotes "a part which serves no useful purpose".
McCoy comes to Kirk's quarters and the two share a drink as they talk about the M-5. Kirk notes that even in a time far removed from the days of wooden sailing ships, a ship is still fundamentally the same - "The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there, Bones." They are interrupted by a hail from the bridge, reporting that a large slow moving ship has been detected. It turns out to be the Woden, an automated ore freighter with no crew.
M-5 suddenly accelerates and fires photon torpedoes on maximum power, destroying the Woden. Kirk's frantic attempts to disengage it fail, as the controls lock up. Kirk informs Daystrom that the tests are over, and they are going to deactivate M-5 completely and return to the space station.
However, the M-5 has thrown up a forcefield around itself to prevent any interference. Scotty has an engineer try to disconnect it from the power link, but the man is instantly disintegrated by the M-5. Spock suggests that the automatic helm navigation circuit relays might be severed, returning control of the helm to the humans. He sets out to do so with the help of Scotty. Dr Daystrom remains with the M-5, apparently surprised himself by how it has behaved. Spock notes that this is illogical, as of all people Daystrom should have known what to expect from his creation. He adds that the M-5 itself is not acting logically, strange for a computer.
When questioned about the M-5, Daystrom defends it vigorously. He compares it to a child, growing and learning, and says that it only killed the engineer in self defence. Kirk and McCoy begin to wonder if Daystrom might be unstable himself - he made his great duotronic discovery over a quarter of a century ago, when he was twenty four, and has been trying to recapture past glories ever since. They wonder if perhaps Daystrom is influencing the M-5 in some way, explaining its illogical behaviour.
Scotty and Spock are ready to disrupt M-5's control. Daystrom responds angrily to this, trying to prevent the attempt and having to be physically restrained.
The attempt fails. It turns out that M-5 rerouted helm and navigational controls, bypassing the primary system. Worse, it sent electronic impulses through the primary system at regular intervals, to make them appear active, in order to decoy the crew into wasting their time on a useless attempt to disable it.
Spock notes again that the M-5 is not behaving logically, but rather in an almost Human manner. Kirk demands to know how the M-5 works, and Daystrom explains that he developed a method of impressing human engrams upon the computer circuits, with relays not unlike the synapse of the brain. Thus M-5 is not just a calculating machine - it actually thinks.
Four Federation Starships arrive for the scheduled wargames - the USS Lexington and Excalibur again, plus the USS Hood and Potemkin. The M-5 attacks with brutal efficiency, firing weapons on full power against the ships. Despite Kirk's frantic efforts, killing fifty three people on the Lexington and twelve on the Excalibur. Further hits to the Excalibur severely damage the ship, killing the entire crew.
Daystrom desperately pleads with the M-5 to stop the attack, but it refuses. He snaps under the strain, and starts ranting about the awesome power of the M-5. Spock steps in and neck pinches him unconscious. Kirk takes over, pointing out to M-5 that its primary goal is to preserve life - the M-5 states that "murder is contrary to the laws of man and god." Kirk asks it to scan the other ships, making the M-5 face the fact that it has just killed some five hundred people. The M-5, faced with this contradiction of its basic programming, shuts down.
Commodore Wesley brings his ships back towards the Enterprise, hoping to destroy it. Kirk has the ship lie dead in space, and Wesley decides to take a chance on it being genuinely disabled. The battle thus ends without further loss of life.
In the aftermath, the M-5 is removed from the Enterprise. Dr Daystrom is placed under sedation and heavy restraint, awaiting transfer to a total rehabilitation facility.
There's much to like about this episode. The basic premise is an intriguing one, and there's lots of good emotion generated from it. Seeing Kirk threatened with losing his job is interesting, because it's a threat he is pretty much helpless about. If the M-5 does what it is supposed to do, then there's no way for Kirk to fight it. At most he might try throwing his wooden shoe into the machine (Star Trek VI reference!), but that's never going to work in the long term. Seeing him wrestling with this adds a dimension to the character, especially given the way the author shows him harking back to the days of sail and contrasting it with his Enterprise.
There's also some nice tension and action going on. The crew's struggle to disrupt the M-5 all makes sense, as does the M-5's clever ways of outwitting them. The danger builds nicely, with M-5 first destroying a piece of machinery (ironic that the first victim of the M-5 is another automated ship, no?), then killing an engineer, then launching a whole space battle that kills hundreds.
One note I always found a little curious is Wesley's calling Kirk "Captain Dunsel". It's often described as a "joke", but it's really not. It's an insult, and it's always seemed like a rather cruel moment. I often wonder if Wesley disliked Kirk for some reason, and took this opportunity to have a little dig at him. Whatever the intent it clearly hits Kirk hard, leaving him walking off the bridge in humiliation.
The resolution is perhaps a little bit of a letdown, with Kirk talking yet another computer into killing itself. Although this one is actually subtly different to most. Usually, the whole "talking the computer to death" thing depends on forcing it into some logical trap - see for instance Nomad, which was programmed to destroy imperfection, and thus killed itself when Kirk showed it that it was imperfect.
Now on the surface this looks like the same thing; Kirk forces the M-5 to acknowledge that it was built to preserve human life, and confronts it with the fact that it has taken several hundred human lives. But remember, the whole point of M-5 is that it isn't
logical. It thinks like a human being thinks. So why would forcing it into a logical trap cause it to shut down, any more than forcing a human into a logical trap makes the human collapse in confusion?
Aha, but remember whose
mind it is based on. Daystrom defends the M-5's decision making, even after it begins to kill. But in the end, when confronted with the monster it has become, he cracks up. And the M-5, which is based on his own mind, does the same thing! It is not caught in a logical trap so much as an emotional one, and it folds up in the face of what it's done just as Daystrom does.
So in many respects, a great episode. Why not a 5 score, then?
Well, as I said before, one of the most interesting aspects of the episode is showing Kirk dealing with the prospect of automation killing his job. When the episode was written, just this was happening on a massive scale - computers were starting to enter the workplace, rendering many previously human-performed jobs obsolete. And the episode's solution to this issue is... "Well, it will be okay because the automation won't work and you'll just get to smash the machine and keep your job like before." Which is decidedly not what happened in real life.
So having poked at this real world issue, the episode really doesn't follow through on it, but rather just ducks the very issues it raised.
The usual redone effects. The episode benefits greatly from having CGI ships, especially for the battle sequences. The Woden is also replaced, being changed from a copy of Khan's DY-100 to the Antares from Charlie X. I'd have preferred to see a new design myself, but I guess they didn't have the budget for it.