Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Ultimate Computer"

***1/2

Air date: 3/8/1968
Teleplay by D.C. Fontana
Story by Laurence N. Wolfe Directed by John Meredyth Lucas

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Starfleet informs Kirk that the Enterprise is to serve as test subject for the new M-5, a groundbreaking advancement in computer technology, designed to make command decisions faster than captains and reduce the number of people required to run a starship. An astute allegory for contemporary automation at the expense of "the little guy," this episode's first few acts are superb, as Kirk finds himself debating whether he's selfish for wanting to keep his job at the expense of technological progress, or if it's a matter of actual danger or principle.

A wonderfully acerbic debate between Spock and McCoy about the role of computers is also well conceived, ending in Spock's well-put notion to Kirk, "...but I have no desire to serve under them." Following the M-5's initial success, the scene where another captain calls Kirk "Captain Dunsel" is the episode's best-played and simultaneously funny and painful moment. (In a word, ouch.)

Once M-5 runs out of control and hijacks the Enterprise—resisting attempts to be shut down in acts of self-preservation (including murder and eventually full-fledged attacks on other Federation starships), the episode turns to an frightening analysis of M-5's creator, Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall), a man obsessed with outdoing his prior successes, who has created a monster that he has come to regard as a child. Though it pushes a little hard toward the end (Shatner and Marshall going a bit overboard), the story is a compelling one.

Previous episode: The Omega Glory
Next episode: Bread and Circuses

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4 comments on this review

Brundledan - Thu, May 16, 2013 - 12:56am (USA Central)
This is an excellent episode, but its strong characterization of Kirk falls down with an ending that finds him grinning and chuckling at Spock and McCoy's verbal jabs as the music takes us out on an upbeat everything's-peachy-again tone.

The problem is that the entire crew of the Excalibur has just been murdered, along with a good chunk of the crew of the Lexington. Some 500 men and women dead, a horrific tragedy that's made even worse by the fact that the Enterprise was the instrument of their destruction. There's no way the bridge crew ought to look this happy in the closing moments, and Kirk, knowing that the ship he so loves was used to do such a terrible thing, ought to be truly anguished.

If this had been a first-season episode it probably would have ended on a somber note, but the second season got considerably lighter and "The Ultimate Computer" was only one of a number of eps that year to end with inappropriate humor.
Alex - Fri, Jan 10, 2014 - 1:59am (USA Central)
Brundledan expresses my thoughts and then some. The episode itself fails to take it's own lofty premise seriously. Other things that I disliked were:

- Kirk's apparent crankiness toward Daystrom even before anything went wrong, and after some lengthy and deep on-screen self-reflection.
- The implausibility of a major military organization like Starfleet allowing this test to be carried without proper testing, training and precautions, as well as the possibility of such a flawed computer as the M5 of ever being granted a test run.
-When Commodore Wesley assumes that Kirk is responsible for Enterprise's attack on the Excalibur, even though he originally browbeats Kirk throughout the prelude to this mission ... and then suddenly comes to his senses and calls off the subsequent attack, thereby killing off alot of the tension and drama that had been built up for a climactic scene.

I get that some of these elements were put in place to set up the story as a drama of one man's (Daystrom) obsession with his creation, but this was an element that seemed to coalesce rather late within the story, and lacked relatability.
Paul - Fri, Jan 10, 2014 - 9:17am (USA Central)
@Alex: I think you can chalk up Starfleet letting Daystrom test the M5 and not checking its flaws by chalking it up to reputation. Also, Kirk understood almost immediately that the M5 could cost him his job, so being cranky toward Daystrom made some sense.

But you're absolutely right about Wesley. His first scene in the transporter room is off-kilter ("Hey old friend -- congrats on losing your job!"). Then (as you noted) it's weird that he would blame Kirk for the attack later but also think enough of him to hold off on firing on the Enterprise at the end.

But the entire episode is oddly characterized. Even for Shatner, Kirk is over the top in this one. His scream of "DAYSTROM!" near the end was really strange. Nimoy does his normal nice job, but even Kelley seems like he overacted ("That thing just destroyed an ore freighter!!!").
Paul - Thu, Mar 20, 2014 - 3:04pm (USA Central)
This is an odd episode. There's a lot of really strange characterization -- like the opening scene with Commodore Wesley. He acts quite odd to a friend who, essentially, is losing his job.

Also, the Kirk/Daystrom stuff at the end of the episode is just over the top.

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