Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Ultimate Computer"


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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12 comments on this review

Thu, May 16, 2013, 12:56am (UTC -6)
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.
Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 1:59am (UTC -6)
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.
Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 9:17am (UTC -6)
@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!!!").
Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 3:04pm (UTC -6)
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.
jonn walsh
Sun, Jun 7, 2015, 7:37am (UTC -6)
A favorite of mine but there is a plot aspect that nearly kills it for me.
This is not Kirk's job. The Federation isn't merely a military organization...We're out there exploring and introducing our flavor of diplomacy and friendship to all the other species 'out there' by choice. We're out there because WE WANT TO BE. Starfleet personnel, Admirals, Captains and indeed, you would believe their crew as well, are living their dream. M-5 would simply be another tool at our heroes disposal.
Kirk, et al, are explorers and ambassadors in the final frontier performing interpersonal functions with other species that a computer could not begin to assume. No one's 'job' is in danger. It's an artificially created and inflated plot point.
Wed, Aug 19, 2015, 4:26pm (UTC -6)
I liked the episode overall but the whole Captain Dunsel thing was very offputting. It was quite inappropriate and disrespectful of a star fleet commodore to call another captain something like that.
Thu, Aug 27, 2015, 11:02pm (UTC -6)

My name is Captain Dunsel.

I'm sorry my command of the Enterprise did not go well.

I've been demoted to ship's junior cook, under some dude named Neelix.
Jason R.
Wed, Dec 2, 2015, 2:40pm (UTC -6)
The whole episode is a big cheat, and epitomizes Roddenberry's enduring failure to take AI seriously. It's a cheat, because the only way Roddenberry finds to nullify the AI as a threat to human commanders is to arbitrarily make it homicidal and insane.

Roddenberry's approach to AI, as exemplified in this episode, always struck me as cowardly and backward. There is a principled argument to be made for the need for human beings, even in the face of increasingly capable AI, but this is not it.

It was not until STNG - The Measure of a Man that the series really began to take AI seriously, if only a little, and I'm assuming by that point Roddenberry was on the way out in terms of his influence on the show.
Wed, Dec 2, 2015, 7:51pm (UTC -6)
Well, Jason R., if the story was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the human factor versus machine intelligence, then that thesis is undercut by having the machine's flaw being traits copied from its human creator. So maybe the story is more complex than simply "human 1, AI 0." Or it is that simple and they botched it.
Jason R.
Thu, Dec 3, 2015, 10:09am (UTC -6)
Yeah Grumpy, actually I thought about that irony after I finished this comment. While that is a clever interpretation, I just think it's giving too much credit to the writing. The plot device that makes the computer insane is really incidental.

Roddenberry doesn't ever seem to be willing to confront the idea that a computer might very well be superior in some respects to humans. His portrayal of AI in general has been lackluster. Data was the first serious attempt to do so, and even then Data's central premise was a desire to be more human.

I again don't fault Roddenberry for believing humans to be inherently superior to AI - I just fault him for lacking the imagination to present this thesis in a halfway intelligent fashion.
Peter G.
Fri, Apr 1, 2016, 3:51pm (UTC -6)
@ Jason R.

I think the point of this episode is pretty clearly that an AI's effectiveness is limited by the limits of its creator. If humans are flawed that means an AI will be flawed as well; its weakness will be a reflection of human weakness, except you can't reason with the machine.

While I agree with you broadly that Trek in general avoids the subject of AI, within the confines of this specific episode I think it approaches its subject matter very well. What Roddenberry thought at the time was likely quite correct at the time - which is that limitations in computer programmers would create severe limitations in computers. I doubt very much he foresaw the possibility of AI as a self-evolving system, even to the point we have now where a recursive program can teach itself activities such as playing Go such that it doesn't have to be completely programmed from the get-go. And he surely didn't think of AI in terms of quantum computing or bio-neural circuitry that could do computations at a godlike speed.

I personally prefer to attribute this lack of vision to the limitations on AI as they existed in the 60's, and to the fact that Trek is predominantly supposed to be a person-oriented show rather than hard sci-fi that deeply explores what various tech can do. It is for this reason that I prefer physics novelties such as we see in TNG to be backdrops to episodes rather than the central plot point to be solved. "Cause and Effect" is a great example of what I like, because it employs a novel physics idea as a backdrop but the real action is a character-driven mystery story.
Mon, Apr 18, 2016, 12:38pm (UTC -6)
@John Walsh The way they talk about it in the episode, it seems clear that there would still be crew, they simply do not need captains and certain personel.

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