Saturday, July 22, 2017

Episode Review - The Ultimate Computer (Original Series, Season 2)

For those who are new to my episode reviews, you can find the post where I establish my point criteria here

Overview – The Enterprise is ordered to serve as a test vessel for a new computer system, the M5, which has been designed by the brilliant scientist Dr. Richard Daystrom. The M5 is designed to take over the functioning of the ship, which distresses Kirk more than a little. As the battle drill begins, the M5 begins to act in a way that is far more than its designer had originally intended, and Kirk and his officers are suddenly in a real life and death scenario.

Score: 8/10 – This is a great episode, due largely to the complex and tragic character of Richard Daystrom. Played brilliantly by William Marshall, Daystrom is as compelling as guest stars come in Star Trek. He is brilliant, driven, and devoted to his work. That is countered by feelings that have given him a motive to prove himself at any cost. He used his own engrams to make the M5 more efficient and human-like, unaware that his own insecurities and resentment towards his lack of recent success was setting the scene for a nervous breakdown. This leads the M5 to be a seriously flawed piece of technology. It begins to take over non-vital ship systems, attacks unnecessary targets, and eventually begins to attack the Federation fleet that had been assembled as part of the test. We quickly see Daystrom’s descent into madness and the skeleton crew left on the Enterprise scramble to retake control of the ship from the ever-dangerous M5. All the while Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have a philosophical look at the use of technology and its roe in humanity’s society. There is suspense, action, drama, and even some humor mixed in. There are also a few interesting lines that to this day cause me to raise my eyebrows a little. Of particular note is the M-5, when describing why it cannot commit murder, says that murder is “against the laws of man and God”. While nothing in Star Trek has suggested that there is no religion on Earth in the 23rd Century, this is one of the mere handful of references of God in any meaningful context.

Relevance – 2 points. Richard Daystrom, despite his breakdown and setback in this episode, will eventually go on to wither found or be the inspiration for the Daystom Institute that is referenced to in the Next Generation and subsequent sequel series. Another point is scored for Kirk quoting from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever”. He recites “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”, which he will also recite in Star Trek V. This line is also on the USS Defiant’s dedication plaque.

Continuity – 2 points. Character continuity is strong here, especially among the trifecta of focus (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy). As the idea of the M5 replacing Kirk and many of the crew on the Enterprise is presented, Kirk shows a realistic resistance to the notion. McCoy, ever he humanist, speaks out quite vocally against the thought of computers further running things in his life. While initially Kirk and McCoy joke that Spock would feel more at home with computers and machines rather than humans, Spock responds that while computers make excellent servants, he has no desire to serve under them. He shows that the starship runs best when the crew has loyalty to its captain. Universe continuity also works, as once again we see how a super intelligent computer can be more of a danger than a benefit. Story continuity runs into a bit of a problem for me. When the M5 attacks the wargame fleet with full power, Commodore Wesley blames Kirk for the attack. What doesn’t work for me is that it was Wesley who ordered Kirk to have the M5 installed on the Enterprise and should have known that it was the M5 in control, not Kirk.  

Character Development – 2 points. This episode is a good example of how to balance a phenomenal guest star while still giving the main cast some good development. While McCoy ad Spock both get a fair bit of screen time in this episode, this story focuses on Kirk as he tries to come to terms with the possibility that he is not as essential to the functioning of the ship as he had originally believed. This is shown very well when asked what his recommendations are for an away team mission. The M5 assigns a different junior science officer, and then does not assign McCoy or Kirk to the team. Kirk seems a little put in his place when the M5 explains that the captain’s presence is not necessary on this mission, which goes against Kirk’s desire to be where the action is. Kirk still manages to show how the human soul can be superior to a computer when he uses his instincts to save the Enterprise and the crew still aboard from being destroyed by Commodore Wesley’s wargames fleet by keeping the shields down, gambling that Wesley’s compassion will overrule his orders to destroy the Enterprise.  

Social Commentary – 3 points. There are several messages or meanings that can be drawn from this episode. Most obvious is the ever-enduring question concerning the replacing of man with machine. Kirk admits that only a fool would stand in the way of progress, while McCoy reminds Kirk that “we are all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different.” Indeed, the modernization of our society makes more jobs obsolete causes many of us concern, and we debate whether replacing the human element is truly a more efficient system or a better system, or even if efficient and better are the same thing. On a different note, the character of Daystrom provides an interesting commentary on the dangers of putting too much pressure on oneself to repeat past success. Daystrom had great success early in his career, leading to the many of the computer systems currently being used in Starfleet. He resented the under-appreciation from his peers and felt left behind as the research went on. In many fields of work and study we may find ourselves in a similar situation, thinking that we have achieved greatness and finding ourselves quickly left behind in our past glories. It can be taxing to our mental health.

Cool Stuff – 2 points. One point for Dr. Daystrom. In future series, his name is the attached to a renown research institution. Knowing that makes this character even more compelling as we get to see the man behind the legend. Another point is scored for the M5, which takes its place among the most problematic computers that have threatened the crew of the Enterprise.

Rank – Captain (19 points). A strong and worthy episode. Daystrom is a great guest character, and there is a little something for everyone to enjoy. I highly recommend that everyone watches this episode.

If you would like to read other reviews from the Original Series, click on the link here.

If you would like to read an episode review from any of the Trek series, click the following link to get to the series catalog. If the episode you want reviewed has not been done yet, then feel free to request it in the comments and I will see what I can do.

1 comment:

  1. To be fair, the idea that Kirk might have sabotaged the M5 and took things up against Wesley's fleet to prove a point would not be that far fetched.