Friday, March 4, 2016

Star Trek: The Ultimate Computer

It's time for me to look at another episode of the original Star Trek series. Today, it is:

The plot behind The Ultimate Computer is as relevant today as it was when it first aired in 1968. In the episode a computer capable of running and commanding a starship is installed on the Enterprise for a series of tests, making Kirk fearful of losing his command. As McCoy explains, "Jim, we've all seen the advances of mechanization...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."

Yes, machines have been taking people's jobs since the beginning of the industrial revolution and if recent predictions of artificial intelligences causing massive unemployment come to pass, then we'll see a radically different world come into being. As it is, computers and robots are already working as journalists, replacing cashiers and are or will soon be performing a wide variety of jobs.

As the episode begins Commodore Wesley comes aboard to explain that the Enterprise crew will be removed to test the M-5 computer's ability to handle "a series of routine research and contact problems... plus navigational maneuvers and the war games problem."
"You've got a great job, Jim. All you have to do is sit back and let the machine do the work."

We all know how much Kirk loves uppity computers, as the Kirk vs. Computer theme is one of the classic TOS episode types. Just take a look at The Return of the Archons, The Changeling,  or even I, Mudd.

Even Spock isn't too crazy about the idea, telling us: "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."
Soon Kirk meets Dr. Richard Daystrom, the designer of the Multitronic Unit, M-5, that's being installed on board. Daystrom was played by the wonderful William Marshall who delivered a superb performance.
Before 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced the world to HAL-9000, Star Trek gave us M-5.

Daystrom and Kirk have stormy working relationship from the very beginning that soon spirals out of control. M-5 first makes good decisions on investigating a planet and then in an unscheduled war games drill before running into problems.
First Scotty becomes concerned as power is being turned off across the ship, but Daystrom explains that power isn't needed in those areas, as they are unoccupied and that M-5 "pulls more power to enable it to do what is required of it, just as the human body draws more energy to run than to stand still."
All is proceeding according to plan until M-5 goes out of its way to destroy an automated ore-freighter (which should look very familiar, as it's the same model that was used for the Botany Bay in Space Seed).
Kirk uses this opportunity to put M-5 "out of a job", but M-5 establishes a force field around itself and when they try to pull the plug on it....
Zap! An engineering Red Shirt bites the dust. 
 Further attempts to disable M-5 are unsuccessful before the scheduled battle drill commences. 
The attacking battle fleet goes in expecting the Enterprise to be firing at 1/100th power, but M-5 fires phasers and photon torpedoes at full power. It doesn't go well for the attacking ships.
In typical Star Trek fashion damaged ships are portrayed as looking like boats that are taking on water.
Finally, Daystrom then talks to M-5 to explain things: "You're killing, we are killing, murdering human beings. Beings of our own kind. You were not created for that purpose. You are my greatest creation. The unit to save men. You must not destroy men...You must not die. Men must not die. To kill is a breaking of civil and moral laws we've lived by for thousands of years. You've murdered hundreds of people. We've murdered."
Eventually though, Daystrom and M-5 each have a bit of a meltdown. Spock takes care of Daystrom.
And Kirk talks M-5 into a coma leaving the Enterprise vulnerable to attack from the remaining starships from the drill. Kirk takes a gamble that the attacking ships wont go after the Enterprise when it looks defenseless and it naturally pays off. We end with a bit of verbal sparring between McCoy and Spock about the value of computers and all is well (unless you were on one of the starships M-5 attacked).

The Ultimate Computer might not make anyone's top ten list but it is good Trek. Its core story very much works, but like a lot of Star Trek tech (except for perhaps warp drive and transporters) it's only failing is that it likely isn't visionary enough. The computer age will be here long before the 23rd Century.

Love it or hate it, the next one up is The Omega Glory.

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