Saturday, January 7, 2017
STAR TREK: "THE ULTIMATE COMPUTER" (1968)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*
Though earlier episodes preached against the hegemony of machines in other cultures, "Ultimate Computer" brings the moral closer to home.
Kirk is astonished to receive orders that the Enterprise will be outfitted with a new, more sophisticated computer, the M-5,that's so powerful that it will make the presence of men aboard starships obsolete-- thus putting Kirk, among others, out of a job. The acid test for the computer is to see how it handles under simulated combat conditions, in a sham battle with four other starships.
Fontana's script does a fine job of personalizing Kirk's dilemma, allowing him to call his own prejudices about "progress" into question. It doesn't help Kirk that the system's creator, Richard Daystrom, is a bit of an arrogant prick, a former "boy genius" intent of proving himself with yet another amazing breakthrough. He prates about saving men's lives from the dangers of space, but he seems more concerned with his personal repute.
Under the control of M-5, with only Daystrom, Kirk, and a skeleton crew aboard, the Enterprise performs a few minor maneuvers efficiently. Then, for no clear reason, the computer directs the ship to destroy an unmanned freighter, and when the crew try to turn the machine off, it shields itself from their efforts. The computer then proceeds to the site of the war games, but only the humans aboard know that M-5 is playing for keeps.
A taut script and a strong (sometimes overly strong) performance by William Marshall as Daystrom make this a superior episode. It shows a symbolic similarity to various "Mister Hyde" scenarios in the series, given that the ship seems bent on destruction despite all human attempts to appeal to it. The script does not explain this unremitting hostility. One possible explanation might be that since Daystrom patterned the computer's cognitive faculties upon his own brain engrams, he may have "downloaded" much of the resentment he felt toward the Federation for failing to constantly recognize his greatness. Thus M-5 is much like an arrogant child, lashing out in the awareness of its power, much like Charlie X. This hypothesis accords with the script's statement that M-5 is able to absorb its creator's remorse for having killed-- the "Doctor Jekyll" in the equation-- and so gives itself up to be killed in the end. The computer gets turned off but the Enterprise and her crew are spared, thanks to certain human beings who have mastered both the good and bad sides of consciousness.