Star Trek 2.24: The Ultimate Computer

The Ultimate ComputerThe Ultimate Computer” is your basic Luddite computer-goes-nuts plot. Kirk is upset when computer genius Dr Richard Daystrom is assigned to test his new M-5 computer unit on board the Enterprise. The M-5, according to Daystrom, is capable of taking over all the functions of the ship’s captain and most of the crew. Accordingly, most of the crew disembark on Starbase 6, leaving a skeleton crew of 20 aboard to supervise tests of the M-5, including a war game scenario with other Federation ships.

Kirk spends most of the first half of the episode moping about being replaced by a machine and making speeches about how a computer could never do the job with the same feeling as a human. Meanwhile the M-5 performs admirably, although disconcertingly it cuts power to a couple of decks – but this is explained by Daystrom as efficiency, since those decks contained no personnel. In a bit of foreshadowing, Kirk asks why it is M-5, not M-1. Daystrom replies that versions 1 to 4 were “not entirely successful“. Spock also comments that, lamentably, it is so far not possible to replace the ship’s surgeon with a machine – foreshadowing the later appearance of the holographic doctor in Star Trek: Voyager.

Of course the M-5 goes rogue, treating the war games simulated attack by four Federation vessels as a real attack and firing back with full phasers, severely damaging Commodore Wesley’s USS Lexington and killing everyone on board the USS Excalibur. When Kirk and Scotty try to pull the plug, they discover the M-5 has developed a damaging force field to protect itself and is now sucking unrestrained amounts of power directly from the warp engine reactor. Daystrom is surprised, but also inordinately pleased with his baby, descending by degrees into full blown mad scientist mode as he defends its actions and laments his past glories and how nobody understands him any more.

Wesley contacts Starfleet Command, asking for permission to destroy the Enterprise, a message Kirk hears but cannot respond to because the M-5 has locked communications. Permission is given, and things look hopeless. But then Kirk talks to the M-5, trying to reason with it on its own terms. Daystrom never intended it to kill humans, and in fact loaded his own personality engrams into the M-5 to give it his morals. When Kirk points out that the M-5 has murdered, the M-5 destroys itself in a fit of logic. Kirk is getting really good at talking rogue computers to death – it’s the 4th or 5th time he’s done it in the series so far. However, comms are still down and Wesley is about to attack. Kirk orders shields lowered, leaving the Enterprise completely vulnerable. Wesley interprets this correctly and calls off the attack. There’s a moral about Kirk knowing Wesley would do so, because he was human, not a computer.

One interesting point is that Kirk refers to the M-5 as a mass of “circuits and relays”. I guess relays are back in vogue in the 23rd century. Overall, it’s not a bad plot, just very predictable. An average episode, I’d say.

Tropes: Ludd Was Right, Master Computer, Foreshadowing, Unseen Prototype, AI Is A Crapshoot, Cut The Juice, Mad Scientist, Mama Didn’t Raise No Criminal, Glory Days, Brain Uploading, Logic Bomb, An Aesop.
Body count: Unnamed engineering ensign, at least 53 crew of USS Lexington, entire crew of USS Excalibur (over 400).

One Response to “Star Trek 2.24: The Ultimate Computer”

  1. Drachefly says:

    High-power transistors are often called ‘solid-state relays’. Alternately, the term could refer to a programming paradigm, the hardware element being so obsolete that the term has gone entirely out of usage.

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