53 "The Ultimate Computer"

(airdate: March 8, 1968)

Story: Laurence N. Wolfe      Teleplay: D.C. Fontana
Director: John Meredyth Lucas

Richard Daystrom: William Marshall

Commodore Wesley: Barry Russ

Stardate: 4729.4

Captain's Log: The Enterprise is selected to be the testing ground for the new M-5 Multitronic Computer, designed to essentially run a starship without human control. Despite misgivings, Kirk agrees, and the M-5 is installed, supervised by its creator, Dr. Richard Daystrom. Initial tests go well, but after the accidental destruction of an ore freighter, Kirk orders that the M-5 be disconnected. However, the M-5 is designed to protect itself, and thus it cannot be turned off. When four Federation starships arrive for scheduled war games against the M-5, the Enterprise attacks them, killing the Excalibur and damaging the others. Appealing to the M-5, Kirk convinces it that it has committed murder - contrary to its programming. The M-5 shuts itself down and the crew regain control of the ship.

Whoops!: The model for the Woden is a reuse of the Botany Bay model from "Space Seed." Which normally wouldn't be a problem, except that the Botany Bay came from 1996. Is it really likely that this class of ship (or even one resembling it) would still be in service almost 300 years later?
     Why does the M-5 believe that the penalty for murder is death, when, at the very least, this contradicts "The Menagerie" and the whole General Order 7 thing? [This is Daystrom's personal belief and not the actual law, imprinted onto the M-5.] And why exactly does the M-5 break down and start shooting at everything that moves? The implication is that Daystrom was unstable when he imprinted his memory engrams onto the M-5, but that still doesn't really explain what actually triggers the problem. Is the M-5 just really paranoid?

Classic Lines: "We're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that's different. And it always will be different."
     McCoy: "Please, Spock, do me a favor and don't say it's fascinating." Spock: "No. But it is...interesting."
     Spock gets some good lines, including "Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them" and "Commodore Wesley is a dedicated commander. I should regret serving aboard the instrument of his death."
     "There are certain things men must do to remain men."

Technobabble: Part of the M-5's maintained control involves rerouting Enterprise functions away from the "H-279 elements" and "G-5 systems".

Don't Wear a Red Shirt: Ensign Harper, an engineer, is vaporized when the M-5 establishes a power connection with the warp engines. The entire crew of the Excalibur is killed by the M-5 during war games, while the other three ships suffer many casualties.

Library Computer: Dr. Richard Daystrom was a computer scientist whose breakthroughs in comptronic and particularly duotronic systems revolutionized computers. At age 24, his duotronic breakthrough won him both the Nobel and the Zee-Magnees Prizes, and it became the basis of all the computers aboard a starship. His genius was likened to Albert Einstein, Kazanga, and Sitar of Vulcan. His work in multitronics, after four unsuccessful attempts, led to the M-5 Multitronic Unit. While running a field test of the M-5, he suffered a nervous breakdown, resulting from a fault in his computer which led it to commit murder.
     The M-5 Multitronic Unit was designed by Dr. Daystrom to essentially run a starship on its own by coordinating all the computer systems aboard. Only twenty crewmen were required during its initial test run - when a starship normally needs around 430. It had a new, unfamiliar control mechanism, and it reacted more quickly than people could have, indicating "an immense sophistication in computer control". Normally hooked into the main power plants of the ship, it could call upon more power as necessary, and could even establish a power source directly with the warp engines, tapping from the matter/antimatter reserve. It could also protect itself with a force field and through deception. Daystrom imprinted his own memory engrams onto the M-5 in an effort to help it advance past the normal limitations of computers. This led to the M-5 behaving illogically. It believed that murder was wrong and punishable by death.
     Alpha Carinae II is a blue-green class-M planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. It has two major land masses, a number of islands, and is inhabited.
     Commodore Enwright is the commander of the space station near which the M-5 tests are conducted. The space station is of the same type as Deep Space Station K7 ("The Trouble with Tribbles").
     Four starships, all Starship [(Constitution)]-class, are involved in the M-5 war games. They are the Excalibur, the Hood, the Lexington, and the Potemkin. Commodore Bob Wesley commanded the Lexington during the M-5 tests. His uniform bore a starburst insignia. The captain of the Excalibur was named Harris, and was killed during the war games.
     The Woden was an old-style ore freighter, converted to automation. It was destroyed by the Enterprise under the M-5.
     Astrobiologist Phillips has surveyed twenty-nine planets biologically similar to Alpha Carinae II. Ensign Carstairs is a geologist who served on merchant marine freighters before joining the Enterprise. This is his first tour of duty. He once visited Alpha Carinae II on a geology survey for a mining company. The chief geologist aboard the Enterprise is named Rawlins.
     Spock holds an A-7 computer expert classification.
     McCoy knows how to mix an alcoholic drink called a Finagle's Folly.
     A dunsel is a term used by midshipmen at Starfleet Academy, referring to a part which serves no useful purpose.
     John Masefield's "Sea-Fever" (1902) is still known in the 23rd century.

Final Analysis: "The M-5 is not responding like a computer." While other episodes obliquely hinted at the fear of computers taking over (a very '60s theme, it must be said), "The Ultimate Computer" is the first to directly state that being run by computers is a Bad Thing. As such, the M-5 takes center stage in this battle of wills. All the actors do a fine job of conveying the threat, and Fontana's script nicely balances the plot with character moments and human issues. The definitive "Kirk vs. computer" episode.

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Page originally created: April 5, 2008
Page last updated: June 9, 2018

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