Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Ultimate Computer

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: March 8, 1968

Crew Death Count: 1 (Ensign Harper; the entire crew of the USS Excalibur and at least 53 on board the USS Lexington are also killed)

Bellybuttons: 0, but M-5 does have a pretty seductive control panel

“The Ultimate Computer” is good science-fiction and good human drama, making it an especially welcome relief after having our intelligence so recently tarred and feathered by “The Omega Glory.” This week, the Enterprise is ordered to an unnamed space station – supposedly Starbase 6, but I don’t recall hearing the name mentioned – with no stated purpose. Upon arrival, Commodore Wesley (Barry Russo, promoted from Enterprise security chief in “The Devil in the Dark”) informs Kirk that the Enterprise will provide a real-world test for the new M-5 computer system (voiced by James Doohan), developed by Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) to operate starships without need of a crew. M-1 through M-4 were “not entirely successful,” but Daystrom promises the M-5 is absolutely ready for its close-up. The computer performs well early on, but soon starts blowing up ships and won’t return control of the Enterprise, leading to a showdown between Federation starships, with a more personal showdown on the Enterprise to save everyone from technology run amok. As an aside, the dialogue in “The Ultimate Computer” is so consistently sexist – referring only to men as if no other gender matters – that I’m just going to acknowledge it here and be done with it.

“What can I do to get you into a new computer system TODAY?”

Technology consistently proves unreliable in TOS (remember the transporter failure in “The Enemy Within”?), but Starfleet takes the dramatic leap of faith of removing all but twenty of the Enterprise crew for the M-5 test. The crew’s whereabouts is a little disconcerting – Kirk describes them being held on the space station in “a security holding area,” implying M-5 is nearly as classified as Project Genesis will be in about fourteen years. The eternal humanist McCoy is hostile to the M-5 right from the start, threatening to resign if such a system ever threatens to manage sickbay; then M-5 shuts down sickbay for lack of patients. Scott is equally opposed, primarily because he’s required to give M-5 too much control over the ship’s systems. Spock is understandably fascinated by the M-5’s premise, but eventually makes clear that he sees it only as a tool and not a replacement for his colleagues. “Computers make excellent and efficient servants,” he tells Kirk, “but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain, a starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it or him.”

Kirk gets by with a little help from his friends

Despite his misstatement that the crew owes loyalty only to the captain and not each other – and his reduction of starship command to men only, a detail we need to remember when we get to “Turnabout Intruder” – Spock’s point is well taken. Who is the M-5 really intended to serve? Daystrom and Spock both initially talk of efficiency. Spock describes the computer’s formal mission: “Its purpose is to correlate all computer activity aboard a starship, to provide the ultimate in vessel operation and control.” That fits Wesley’s description of the test run, citing “routine research and contact problems…navigational maneuvers and the war games problem.” Later, Daystrom talks of saving lives, and we can assume Starfleet’s official position is the same. “Men no longer need die in space or on some alien world” Daystrom says. “Men can live and go on to achieve greater things than fact-finding and dying for galactic space.” Then Daystrom ventures into anti-imperialist territory, saying, “It [space] is neither ours to give or to take.” Most of the episode considers who will be harmed if M-5 is successful. But who benefits?

Who is really the easiest person to replace? The boss.

Daystrom’s claim that M-5 will free people to “achieve greater things” fails to acknowledge the tremendous advances in knowledge resulting from just the Enterprise’s journey, let alone all the other Federation personnel out there doing the same. It also assumes that members of the Enterprise crew aren’t already doing exactly what they want to do. Do we really believe Kirk, McCoy, Spock, or any of the other crew members – Sulu and Chekov look appropriately sullen while M-5 beats them to the punch at every step – want to be anyplace else? The M-5, like technology in our real world, is always sold with the promise of improved quality of life. Sometimes it really does make life better – a pacemaker seems a lot better than death by heart disease – but more often than not, we find ourselves scratching our heads over how this buggy, cumbersome technology is really helping. And the answer is simple: it’s not intended to help end-users. Daystrom’s (and Commodore Wesley’s) efficiency claim is based on the false premise of efficiency as a substitute for learning, knowledge, compassion, and empathy. Spock discards the importance of efficiency late in the episode when he says, “I simply maintain that computers are more efficient than human beings, not better.” Negotiating with alien cultures and gathering knowledge are best accomplished without being chained to efficiency benchmarks. Reducing all activities to a measure of efficiency is hostile to life but we’ve allowed corporations to convince us otherwise. Then consider the industrial-defense complex putting the cart before the horse, where “needs” are driven by a desire to preserve budgets and staffing. The result can be contracts for monstrously expensive systems that are often unnecessary and sometimes don’t even work. “The government bought it,” McCoy says of the M-5, “then Daystrom had to make it work.”

Chekov and Sulu see community college in their future

By the end of “The Ultimate Computer,” it’s obvious that two parties would benefit from a successful M-5 trial: Daystrom and Starfleet Command. Daystrom seeks fame and influence (more on that later) and Starfleet Command seeks simplified operations. In this case, Starfleet has a strong argument. Kirk himself has assaulted a yeoman in “The Enemy Within,” killed multiple crew members with reckless decision-making in “Obsession,” and left various groups and societies stranded in a state of total chaos: “Space Seed,” “The Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “The Gamesters of Triskelion” all come to mind. Even worse damage was done by two other starship captains: John Gill in “Patterns of Force” and Ron Tracey in “The Omega Glory.” Who could blame Starfleet for wanting to replace these trouble-makers? Perhaps this explains Commodore Wesley’s startling hostility toward Kirk, referring to him as “Captain Dunsel” after the M-5’s initial success. Dunsel is an actual nautical term and refers to a useless or unnecessary component. The comment is so hurtful, even Spock is stunned by it.

Kirk goes to his room to compose an appropriately angry Tweet

“The Ultimate Computer” raises important questions about balancing the desires of the individual with the needs of the community. What benefits the Federation more: a fleet of automated ships directed by highly efficient M-5 computers, or ships fully staffed by flawed living personnel? What about the alien cultures the Federation makes contact with? And what about all the individuals put out of a job – their dream jobs – by M-5? Perhaps the vital quality isn’t loyalty, as Spock indicates, but enthusiasm. M-5 has no capacity to desire knowledge (unless it merges with living machines like V’Ger!) or care about the alien cultures it might encounter. A living crew motivated by excitement for first contact, or compassion for societies that might need our help, will no doubt make different decisions than M-5. In their inefficiency, they might gain more valuable insights. This explains why Kirk tries to include himself and Dr. McCoy in the landing party at Alpha Carinae II; they may be non-essential, as M-5 claims, but is anyone better suited to a first contact situation? This “soft” knowledge is what saves the day when Kirk gets command of his ship back. Targeted by Federation ships who only see an Enterprise out of control, Kirk orders the ship stopped and powered down. He knows Commodore Wesley, who wouldn’t attack a defenseless opponent, and brings an end to hostilities.

“If I can’t be a captain, I’ll time travel back to the 1980s and become a self-righteous cop in southern California.”

Of course, technology in our own lives is a different story, but not entirely. Automation threatens to send truck drivers, fast food employees, and factory workers to the unemployment lines; it already has in some cases. While some of those people might enjoy their work, it’s hard to believe dealing with hostile customers at McDonald’s for minimum wage and no health coverage is anyone’s dream job. By replacing those people with technology, are we adding to their burden, or liberating them to achieve great things? Kirk says, “There are certain things men must do to remain men.” The problem is, only the power structure – the individuals forcing the technology on us – decides what those “things” are, while the rest of us get carried downstream whether we like it or not.

The M-5 controls are clearly inadequate – there’s no CTL-ALT-DEL option

“The Ultimate Computer” is primarily about Kirk, a John Henry of the space-faring future, proving that no machine can out-captain him. Both the writing and Shatner’s performance remind us throughout the episode of the human qualities that make the journey worthwhile, something else that will be lost to automation. Early in the episode, when Daystrom questions Kirk’s resistance, he says, “Perhaps you object to the possible loss of the prestige and the ceremony accorded a starship captain.” We know this isn’t true, but Kirk gives the idea serious consideration, the very act of which proves the criticism wrong, according to McCoy. Later, Kirk quotes the famous John Masefield poem Sea-Fever: “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” (He’ll quote this poem again in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989).) He seeks comfort from his friends, including the aforementioned assurance of loyalty from Spock. McCoy gives Kirk not one but two pep talks, the second one delightfully reminiscent of a similar talk the two men will share in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Kirk also has the ingenuity to out-talk M-5, as he did with other power-hungry computers in “The Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “The Changeling.” Finally, he possesses a compassion beyond M-5’s capability. He does this by asking the question that no one else took time to consider: when M-5 says it must survive, Kirk asks, “Why?” Answering that starts M-5 down the path of termination. And when Daystrom undergoes a complete breakdown in the final act, Kirk doesn’t send him to the brig, despite the scientist’s obvious crimes. Instead, Daystrom is sent to sickbay because his intentions are clearly not malicious but a result of mental illness.

Will Kirk ever intervene with his dear friend who needs alcohol to cope with every problem?

William Marshall’s charisma and powerful voice give Daystrom gravitas and prevent the character from becoming a caricature. Daystrom is secretive all along, supremely confident in M-5 while declining to specify what, exactly, went wrong with the first four systems. Daystrom’s mental decline parallels the M-5’s, becoming more self-absorbed with every step of the test. Daystrom defends M-5 when it destroys an unmanned freighter. M-5 protects itself with a force field, which Daystrom admits is a new feature devised independently of his programming. He even defends M-5 after it kills the engineering ensign who tries to disconnect M-5’s power supply. And when the war games starships determine to destroy Enterprise in self-defense, self-preservation becomes the bottom line: Daystrom worries only about the loss of M-5, not the hundreds of lives in jeopardy (or the hundreds already lost between USS Lexington and USS Excalibur).

M-5 invents a new game: Hide the Ensign

It’s no coincidence that Daystrom and M-5 are in lockstep. When Spock says that M-5 “behaves with an almost human pattern,” Daystrom admits that his real breakthrough was in recreating the synapse of the human brain, encoding his own brain engrams into the M-5. The term “engram” gets thrown around so much in Star Trek that I’ve come to take it for granted without thinking about what it means. According to MIT (where they have some pretty powerful engrams), “neurons called engram cells encode the details of the memory and are later reactivated whenever we recall it.” Research into engrams and other cells involved in memory formation and recall may lead to better treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. Daystrom has essentially given M-5 his memories and all the quirks of personality those memories cause. The implication is that M-1 through M-4 were too computer-y and Daystrom has fixed that by making M-5 more human.

Spock is grateful vampires don’t like green blood

Except that the real problem with technology is never the actual hardware or software, but the people designing and using the technology. Daystrom has given M-5 his own insecurities, just as designers and programmers in our world have been doing for decades. Employees at big tech companies are primarily white males who gather and analyze data based on their own inherent biases. The results range from soap dispensers that only recognize white hands to female Alexa accepting insults as compliments. Some of the most sinister bias is in predictive policing, a Minority Report style of law enforcement that targets individuals based on little more than where they live or who they associate with.

In “The Ultimate Computer,” M-5’s bias is more personal. Daystrom earned fame and a Nobel Prize at the age of 24 when he designed duotronic units that power all starship computers. Like Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, Daystrom’s name and work are legendary throughout the Federation. Kirk asks, “Isn’t that enough for one lifetime?” But McCoy understands: “Maybe that’s the trouble. Where do you go from up? … You spend the rest of your life trying to recapture past glories.” Daystrom resents others becoming famous by “building on my work.” He commiserates with M-5, which amounts to a dialogue with himself: “You are great. I am great. Twenty years of groping to prove the things I’d done before were not accidents.” When confronted by McCoy, Daystrom gets right to the point: “I’m going to show you. I’m going to show all of you.” All of Starfleet has been set up as a proving ground for Daystrom’s ego. And is our own world so different? Do we really believe that Zuckerberg, Musk, and Bezos are any more than con artists promoting their own vanity under the auspices of virtuous technology that does more harm than good?

Daystrom searches for himself

What saves the Enterprise – what our own technocrats lack – is that Daystrom still maintains a code of ethics. After killing hundreds, M-5, no doubt reflecting Daystrom’s own views, says, “Murder is contrary to laws of man and god.” While it’s troublesome that a scientist with such influence would be heavily guided by religion (and disconcerting that M-5 considers death the appropriate penalty for murder – conflicting with the claim in “The Menagerie” that only violating General Order 7 leads to a death penalty), at least Daystrom endowed M-5 with a “do not kill” philosophy. This disconnect is how Kirk talks M-5 into self-destructing. By M-5’s own logic, neither Daystrom nor M-5 deserves to survive with the threat of widespread death and destruction.

“I’m really regretting those Commodore computer ads I did in the eighties.”

Some have suggested that M-5 could be a prelude to the self-inflicted virtual warfare on Eminiar VII in “A Taste of Armageddon.” That might be a stretch, but it reminds us again of the dangers of giving too much control to technocrats like Daystrom, Roger Korby, or Tristan Adams, a lesson we would be wise to heed in the 21st century. “Only a fool would stand in the way of progress,” Kirk says. “If this is progress.” We know from hard experience that “progress” is more often a sales pitch than reality. Electric vehicles are not a magic bullet, Facebook is still mostly evil, and Amazon is bad for small business and consumers. One aspect of Star Trek’s life-first philosophy is that we may need technology, but Data and the Doctor aside, software and hardware should remain on the proper side of the dividing line between machines and people. Our technology, and all of its baggage we’re forced to carry, may be inescapable, but we should always keep our hands on the off switch.

Next: Bread and Circuses