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Star Trek – The Ultimate Computer (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Ultimate Computer is the second classic produced by John Meredyth Lucas, following on from The Immunity Syndrome. (Although it is credited to him, Journey to Babel was actually overseen by Gene L. Coon.) Like The Immunity Syndrome before it, The Ultimate Computer is a bottle show, filmed on the show’s standing set. It features a relatively small guest cast, even trimming the number of extras appearing on the Enterprise sets.

It seems that these sorts of constraints and pressures brought out the best in Lucas. Lucas steps behind the camera on The Ultimate Computer, and helps to bring the show to life. Although he is using familiar sets, he often figures out ways to shoot them that feel original and fresh – no mean accomplishment two years into the show’s run. The guest cast that Lucas has assembled is superb – with William Marshall turning in one of the best one-shot guest appearances in the history of Star Trek.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

However, what is most notable about The Ultimate Computer is the funereal atmosphere that haunts the episode. There is a solemn and reflective tone to the episode, particularly during the early tests of the M-5 computer. The Enterprise is dark, abandoned, empty. Kirk is reflective. As with Bread and Circuses at the end of Gene L. Coon’ tenure, Spock offers McCoy an olive branch. In many respects, The Ultimate Computer seems to hark forward to the film series, with Kirk wondering how he might define himself if he is not a starship captain.

Appropriately enough for a series staring down the barrel at cancellation, The Ultimate Computer would have made for a pretty great finalé.

"Dammit, I told you we should have used a surge protector..."

“Dammit, I told you we should have used a surge protector…”

It is interesting that Star Trek brushed up against cancellation so regularly, but that the episodes airing on the cusp of that cancellation were always weak at best and terrible at worst. The show seemed to be facing the axe on a regular basis, confronting the possibility that its days (and remaining episodes) were numbered. Star Trek pretty consistently refused to bow out on a graceful note. After all, The Turnabout Intruder ended up being the last episode of the show produced and aired.

The City on the Edge of Forever would have been a fantastic finalé for the first season, but the production team churned out Operation — Annihilate! the following week. NBC was still trying to decide if it would pick up a full season order while The Gamesters of Triskelion was in production. When Star Trek faced cancellation at the end of the second season, the last two episodes produced were The Omega Glory and Assignment: Earth. The Omega Glory was a recycled pilot script, and Assignment: Earth was a thinly-disguised pilot for another show.

In thy image...

In thy image…

The Ultimate Computer is a rather solemn affair. The script was originally submitted by Laurence N. Wolfe, a mathematician and Star Trek fan. Wolfe’s script was more fixated on Richard Daystrom and the M-5 computer than the established Enterprise crew. It felt like Kirk and the crew were pushed to the edge of the script about a frustrated inventor and a psychotic computer. There are traces of that episode in the finished script, particularly the second half once M-5 (somewhat inevitably) runs amok.

However, once the script was purchased, it was handed over to D.C. Fontana. Her influence is keenly felt in the first half of the script, before The Ultimate Computer leans into the familiar “computer runs amok” plot that the audience is expecting from the moment that Daystrom unveils his creation. Fontana was always strong when it came to character, and so she focused The Ultimate Computer on what the advent of the M-5 would mean to James Tiberius Kirk, starship captain.

In a bit of a fix...

In a bit of a fix…

It is the first half of The Ultimate Computer that is most interesting, as James Tiberius Kirk reflects on his own place in the universe – wondering what he might be if he is not the commanding officer of a ship of the line. It is a rather introspective plot thread, one that harks forward to Kirk’s character arcs in the films. “There are certain things men must do to remain men,” Kirk reflects. There are certain things that Kirk must do to remain Kirk – one of the central thematic threads of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The Ultimate Computer even leans on the same nautical themes that Nicholas Meyer would so firmly re-establish in the feature film series. “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,” Kirk offers, a quotation he’d repeat in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. There’s a sense of nautical romance in Kirk describing his role to McCoy. “You could feel the wind at your back in those days. The sounds of the sea beneath you. And even if you take away the wind and the water, it’s still the same. The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there, Bones.”

"Well, I'm probably out  of a job in about two weeks anyway..."

“Well, I’m probably out of a job in about two weeks anyway…”

The Ultimate Computer feels like an episode that harks forward to a new era for the crew of the Enterprise, beckoning forward into the future. It is no small irony that The Ultimate Computer is the third-to-last episode of the second season, followed by two failed pilot scripts from Gene Roddenberry. (Particularly given how Daystrom himself could be seen to mirror Roddenberry.) The shots of the abandoned and powered-down Enterprise are strangely haunting, and there’s a sense that Kirk is standing on the cusp of a future that no longer needs him – at least in this form.

As with Bread and Circuses, there’s even a bit of closure to the conflict between McCoy and Spock, as Spock reveals he has a heart and he does care deeply for his colleagues. “I simply maintain that computers are more efficient than human beings, not better,” he states, warming the viewer’s heart. McCoy tries to press the issue, “But tell me, which do you prefer to have around?” Spock stands by his moment of empathy. “I presume your question is meant to offer me a choice between machines and human beings, and I believe I have already answered that question.”

He'll rue the Day(strom)...

He’ll rue the Day(strom)…

It’s a beautiful exchange, one that feels like it closes the book on the relationship between Spock and McCoy – it’s a rare concession from Spock that humanity, for all its flaws, can be oddly endearing. In fact, it does such a wonderful job of wrapping up the character beats between Spock and McCoy that McCoy is lost for words. “I was just trying to make conversation, Spock.” Then Spock responds with an even more heart-warming gesture: having expressed his sincere appreciation of his friends, he then gives McCoy the witty zinger that is expected.

In many respects, The Ultimate Computer feels like it would make a more satisfactory conclusion than any of the other end points for the original Star Trek crew before Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. However, The Ultimate Computer not only features an abandoned Enterprise, ask Kirk what he might do when this is all over, and allow some small sense of resolution to the dynamic between Spock and McCoy; it poses a challenge to Star Trek as a whole.

Lights out...

Lights out…

For all his flaws and issues, The Ultimate Computer paints Daystrom as a romantic idealist. When the crew challenge him on the M-5, Daystrom offers a very utopian defense of his machine. He isn’t trying to render mankind redundant, he is trying to make the universe safer and the future brighter. “Men no longer need die in space or on some alien world,” he insists. “Men can live and go on to achieve greater things than fact-finding and dying for galactic space, which is neither ours to give or to take.”

That is arguably a more utopian proposal than anything Star Trek has offered to this point. After all, the second season has been particularly ruthless when it came to killing off Enterprise crew members to raise tension. It seems like the Enterprise is staffed with warm bodies willing to die to provide a nice act break. Like Thalassa’s implication that Mulhall is expendable in Return to Tomorrow, Daystrom seems to be offering a critique of the show – a charge that it cannot answer.

Second star on the right...

Second star on the right…

It’s interesting to read Daystrom’s argument in light of the transition from producer Gene L. Coon to his successor, John Meredyth Lucas. Although Lucas inherited a lot of his scripts and concepts from Coon, there is a clear shift in tone and content between the show as produced by Coon and Lucas. In particular, Coon seemed more interested in galactic politics and space empires than Lucas. Coon made frequent use of the Klingons, and emphasised the idea of a cold war between two major powers. In contrast, Lucas downplayed these elements.

Under Coon, it seemed like the Enterprise was likely to find itself caught in the midst of a cold war with a rival political power. The Klingons and the Federation locked horns over developing planets in shows like Errand of Mercy, Friday’s Child, The Trouble with Tribbles and A Private Little War. Once Lucas took over, these elements were downplayed. Although elements of the cold war bled into scripts like A Piece of the Action and The Omega Glory, it was less direct. (And Kirk generally seemed more benign.)

"Doctor Daystrom, I believe this fell off your shoulder..."

“Doctor Daystrom, I believe this fell off your shoulder…”

As such, Daystrom seems to be offering a strong philosophical statement about Star Trek‘s utopia. Coon had tried to construct a twenty-third century that mirrored the twentieth century, a rather cynical extrapolation of current political trends into the distant future – suggesting that the Federation’s foreign policy would be just as pragmatic as that of the United States. Daystrom seems to reject this idea, suggesting that Star Trek should not be about imperialism in deep space; it should be something more.

Daystrom himself is an absolutely fascinating character. A lot of that comes from the performance of William Marshall, who imbues Daystrom with a sense of ego and pride that masks a much deeper insecurity. Despite the fact that The Ultimate Computer is Daystrom’s only on-screen appearance, the character made quite an impression on the franchise. After all, The Measure of a Man would reveal that the most prominent computer research in the Federation was conducted at the Daystrom Institute.

Computer says no...

Computer says no…

Although William Marshall’s ethnicity is never explicitly mentioned by the script, it still informs some of the character. As Robert J. Saywer notes in Boarding the Enterprise, “it’s impossible to overstate the impact it had in the 1960s when white Captain Kirk referred to the black Daystrom as ‘sir’.” It is easy to exaggerate how progressive Star Trek was, particularly given the myth-building around the franchise. However, casting the Federation’s foremost computer researcher as an African American was a bold and optimistic move from the show.

In the context of 1968, this was massively important. While the Civil Rights Movement had made substantive gains, there were still countless issues of institutionalised prejudice to overcome. In April 1968, Martin Luther King would be assassinated; he had been organising the Poor People Campaign, an attempt to raise awareness of poverty in contemporary America. Although King had planned to extend campaign beyond the African American community, there was still substantial economic disparity between the African Americans and their white counterparts.

Damn computers! Takin' our jobs!

Damn computers! Takin’ our jobs!

A survey conducted in 1959 had determined that 57.8% of all African Americans lived in poverty, the highest percentage among any of the surveyed groups.  – highest percentage among the surveyed groupings. In 1969, African Americans were still only earning 64% of what their white counterparts were earning in the same job. That said, it should be noted that there is still a significant economic disparity between the African American community and the white community.

As such, it is nice to see such a prominent role for an African American on Star Trek, particularly one in a clear position of authority. At one point, Daystrom seems to call Kirk out on his sense of privilege and entitlement. When Kirk expresses uncertainty about the M-5, Daystrom suggests, “Perhaps you object to the possible loss of prestige and ceremony accorded a starship captain. A computer can do your job and without all that.” It’s a striking challenge for an African American character to offer a white lead on television in 1968.

Shaking things up on the Enterprise...

Shaking things up on the Enterprise…

That said, the casting of Daystrom as an African American was a coincidence, as Marshall has explained a number of times over the years. In The Official Fan Club Magazine, Marshall noted that he was not the first choice for the role:

The part had been written originally for a white actor. Maybe they weren’t able to get that and my agent, who they had contacted, put forth my name to Gene Roddenberry, who said, ‘My God, I never thought of it,’ he said. ‘It would just be great.’ That’s what happened.

Still, regardless of how the script had been written or how the part had been planned, William Marshall makes Richard Daystrom his own. He gives the character a wonderful depth and nuance, crafting one of the most memorable guest characters from the original Star Trek series – if not the entire franchise.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

Even outside of the cultural importance of casting William Marshall as Richard Daystrom, The Ultimate Computer seems to reflect its time quite well. The episode is very much a product of the late sixties, offering an exploration of uncertainties and anxieties that had rooted themselves in the popular psyche. The Ultimate Computer is essentially a story about a man afraid of losing his job to a computer, a fear to which many contemporary viewers could relate.

Star Trek was quite fond of its renegade computers. The Ultimate Computer is – appropriately enough – perhaps the ultimate example, but the show is packed with stories about computers warping and destroying societies. This is rather literally expressed in episodes like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, The Changeling or even Spock’s Brain – stories based around computers that had outlived or outgrown their creators.

"Let's do the 'everybody laughs' ending!"

“Let’s do the ‘everybody laughs’ ending!”

In some cases, the computer did not even need to conquer the society in question to horrify the audience – consider the computer banks that have helped to render war completely sterile in A Taste of Armageddon or to frame Kirk in Court Martial; or the androids that had literally replaced their creators in episodes like What Are Little Girls Made Of? or I, Mudd. Despite the fact that Star Trek was a show about how wonderful technological advancement had allowed mankind to journey through the cosmos, the show was terrified of computers.

It makes sense in the context of the times. Computers were becoming more and more a part of everyday American life. In April 1965, Gordon Moore would theorise that microchip capacity tended to double roughly every eighteen-to-twenty-four months, a theory that still (loosely) holds true today. In December 1968, Douglas Engelbart would demonstrate how far computer technology had come, and offering a glimpse of many of the features modern users take for granted. The age of the computer was fast approaching.

Flash of genius...

Flash of genius…

This captured the public imagination, and it seemed increasingly plausible to imagine a world where mankind no longer ran these incredible (and rapidly evolving) machines – where the computers had outgrown mankind. In Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, published in 1964, Lewis Mumford speculated:

Through mechanization, automation, cybernetic direction, this authoritarian technics has at last successfully overcome its most serious weakness: its original dependence upon resistant, sometimes actively disobedient servomechanisms, still human enough to harbour purposes that do not always coincide with those of the system.

That is a terrifying thought, particularly to a world that was already living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. It is quite easy to pick up that fear threaded through episodes like The Return of the Archons or The Apple or The Changeling.

"What do you mean it doesn't have minesweeper?"

“What do you mean it doesn’t have minesweeper?”

Of course, Star Trek was not alone in expressing these fears or anxieties. Less than a month after The Ultimate Computer aired, MGM would probably released the definitive “psychotic computer” science-fiction film of the sixties. As Chris Darke wrote in Alphaville, this was reflecting a very real contemporary concern:

With science fiction’s focus shifting away from depicting other worlds in outer space towards otherness of life on earth it was well placed to accommodate the fears that were coalescing at the same moment: fears of automation and atomic destruction, of consumerism and standardisation.

Matthew Weiner would even incorporate this anxiety into his sixties period piece, Mad Men. The character Michael Ginsberg’s schizophrenia was focused around fear of the office’s computer system, a dramatic development that mirrors common schizophrenic paranoid fantasies during the era.

Daystrom gets his Spock on...

Daystrom gets his Spock on…

However, while this paranoia finds expression in the climax of The Ultimate Computer – when the M-5 runs amok and causes mass casualties – there is a more intimate and grounded fear woven into the rest of the episode. Over the course of The Ultimate Computer, Kirk finds himself faced with the possibility that he may be replaced by a machine. “Only a fool would stand in the way of progress, if this is progress,” he confesses to McCoy. “Am I afraid of losing my job to that computer?”

McCoy politely dodges the question, but he does observe, “We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.” Rather pointedly, the M-5 itself refers to Kirk and McCoy as “non-essential personnel.” In a very real way, Kirk and McCoy are faced with the prospect that there may be a machine that can do their job better and cheaper.

Sad Kirk is sad.

Sad Kirk is sad.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that The Ultimate Computer clearly takes place in a familiar economy. Cost is very much a factor here, in a way that it would never be for the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The argument seems to be that Starfleet and the Federation are a business. Describing Daystrom’s pitch of the computer to the Federation, McCoy observes, “The government bought it, then Daystrom had to make it work.” There is the implication of significant investment.

As such, The Ultimate Computer reflects a very real and substantial fear in sixties America – the creeping fear that there was a computer being designed somewhere to do any job, doing it cheaper and more effective than any human operator. While the threat of nuclear war or computer domination was so so large as to be abstract, the fear of losing a job to a computer is a much more personal apocalypse. Indeed, Kirk’s anxieties and discomfort are completely relatable.

"Wait until they see the 0.1 patch!"

“Wait until they see the 0.1 patch!”

The spectre of so-called “technological unemployment” loomed large in the national consciousness at this point in time. As Gregory Ray Woirol observed in The Technological Unemployment and Structural Unemployment Debates:

Popular concern about the employment impact of automation took off in 1962, and this concern played a major role in keeping economists interested in the structural issue until the professional debate picked up again in 1963. The most prominent of the popular contributions made in early 1962 was a pamphlet by Donald Michael entitled Cybernation: The Silent Conquest. Michael’s pamphlet became a classic in the automation alarmist literature and was soon widely quoted. Michael saw a future only twenty years hence where computers would do all the work and where jobs would exist only for the technicians needed to keep the computers running. The emergence of a new peak of popular concern over automation was reflected in almost all the popular periodicals.

This is a much more tangible and understandable fear than dread of a psychotic computer seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. The idea that a person can be reduced to nothing more than an economic process, one which can then be automated and refined, is unsettling and haunting – and The Ultimate Computer reflects that fear better than any other Star Trek episode.

"I'm getting a twirling hourglass... what does that mean?"

“I’m getting a twirling hourglass… what does that mean?”

There is one other interesting idea echoing through The Ultimate Computer. This idea makes very little sense in the context 1968, but fits quite comfortably given everything that happened in the decades since. It is possible to read Richard Daystrom as a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry – the man who created Star Trek. Roddenberry had worked in television before Star Trek, and would work in the medium in the years following. Roddenberry was a prolific – if not always successful – producer and writer.

However, as fans marched to support Star Trek and as fan clubs sprung up around America, it must have been clear that Roddenberry had created something much larger than anything else he had ever done before… possibly larger than anything he would do afterwards. Perhaps that creeping anxiety was setting in at this point in the season. After all, Roddenberry had been largely absent for the middle of the second season while working on a failed pilot for a Robin Hood show. The second season of Star Trek would end with Assignment: Earth, another failed pilot.

Commodore #64?

Commodore #64?

Daystrom is presented as a genius struggling with the fact that he will never quite measure up to his early triumph. When McCoy points out that Daystrom’s modern output never lived up to his early breakthroughs, Kirk responds, “Isn’t that enough for one lifetime?” McCoy muses, “Where do you go from up? You publish articles, you give lectures, then spend your life trying to recapture past glory.”

Given how much energy Roddenberry would invest in building up the cult of his personality within Star Trek between The Motion Picture and Encounter at Farpoint, it seems oddly prophetic. “You are great,” he assures his creation. “I am great. Twenty years of groping to prove the things I’d done before were not accidents. Seminars and lectures to rows of fools who couldn’t begin to understand my systems. Colleagues. Colleagues laughing behind my back at the boy wonder and becoming famous building on my work. Building on my work.”

Knuckling down...

Knuckling down…

It seems like Daystrom’s anxieties could be said to mirror that of the show’s creator. Roddenberry tended to build himself up as a singular visionary on any aspect of the franchise he oversaw. He fought Alan Dean Foster for script credit on The Motion Picture. David Gerrold has talked about how Roddenberry squeezed him out of credit on The Next Generation. When his ardent supporter Richard Arnold was placed in charge of licensing, Arnold would infamously claim that none of the novelists actually wrote Star Trek.

There are other interesting parallels, particularly in retrospect. It is revealed that Daystrom has created a wonderful technical accomplishment, but one with in-built flaws. The M-5 is flawed because Daystrom created it in his own image – his creation inherits his own brilliance and his own shortcomings. Given how Roddenberry’s influence on Star Trek was such a mixed bag – and how many of the show’s flaws can be traced directly back to his vision and creative direction – it feels like a rather apt metaphor.

In-console-able...

In-console-able…

After all, the next script produced would be The Omega Glory, Roddenberry’s failed (and already rejected) pilot – an episode that is racist and jingoistic, shallow and simplistic, embodying many of the worst tendencies of Star Trek as overseen by Roddenberry. Those problems were clear in Roddenberry’s other work for the show, but the fact that they were such a core part of an episode he had pitched as the pilot suggests how deeply engrained they are within the DNA of Star Trek.

Of course, the idea of Daystrom-as-Roddenberry is only that clear in hindsight. It seems unlikely that the script was written with that comparison in mind, even though there are hints of all these facets of Roddenberry manifesting themselves across the second season. Then again, the fact that Daystrom is a creator makes it inviting to imagine him as cast in the image of Star Trek‘s creators. After all, Rick Berman would also write Noonien Soong in a way that evoked Roddenberry in Brothers.

23rd century tech support was surprisingly unhelpful...

23rd century tech support was surprisingly unhelpful…

The Ultimate Computer is a masterpiece, and perhaps a suitably high end note for John Meredyth Lucas’ tenure as producer. This would not have been a terrible way for Star Trek to end, with an episode that seemed to hark forward towards the feature film series and even beyond towards The Next Generation. Sadly, we’re still two whole episodes away from the end of the season.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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4 Responses

  1. Wow, interesting analysis. I had never thought of the character of Daystrom as mirroring Roddenberry. But, as you say, in hindsight the parallels are there.

    “Colleagues laughing behind my back at the boy wonder and becoming famous building on my work. Building on my work.” Yes, I could actually imagine Roddenberry thinking along those lines in regards to Nicholas Meyer & Harve Bennett when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released to great success and critical acclaim.

    • Yep. It is one of those little touches that works very well in hindsight, even if it is hard to justify as intended at the time.

      Then again, TNG is positively packed with ageing genuises who seem like stand-ins for Roddenberry – Sarek and Soong come to mind, off the top of my head.

  2. Very cool review. I love this episode and Kirk’s nautical speech might be the single most romantic moment in the franchise. I’d never quite connected before how well this leads on the movies and Kirk’s story there.

    • Yep. Undoubtedly a happy coincidence – particularly given that Fontana had nothing to do with the movies. But it is fascinating how it harks forwards. (It’s also fascinating how The Ultimate Computer provides what would be a solid place to end the series, while the final two episodes of the season are terrible endings for different reasons.)

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