Monday, June 22, 2009

Star Trek--"The Ultimate Computer"

I am no Luddite, but I have always enjoyed morality tales about technology getting away from mankind. I think most of them are implausible. We have known for forever that you cannot stand in the way of progress. Just ask John Henry’s broken heart. When a story comes along that can plausibly demonstrate man’s superiority over machine, I have to give it all due credit. Such is the case with “The Ultimate Computer.”

Dr. Richard Daystrom, namesake of the Daystrom Institute in subsequent trek series, arrives on the Enterprise with his latst development. It is M-5, a computer that can take over all functions of a Starship with the intention of eliminating human error. With the ship under M-5’s control, it surveys a nearby planet and makes recommendations for a landing party. Later, it effectively engages in a war games executrices. Kirk is skeptical that a ’perfect computer should have this much power and control when living beings are a stake.

Right on cue, Kirk’s fears are confirmed. M-5 alters course to intercept a freighter. It opens fire, destroying it. Daystrom reveals in included a survival instinct in M-5 which apparently lacked much discretion. M-5 subsequently destroys another starship when it considers staged war games to be real. The other ships involved have permission to destroy the controlled Enterprise, but Kirk is able to use his extraordinary ability to talk a computer to death for the fourth and final time in order to prevent further bloodshed.

It is interesting to note Kirk’s train of thought this time. He argued that M-5’s programming prevented it from murder, yet it killed everyone on board the Excalibur, a violation of the “laws of God and man.” M-5 knew the penalty for murder was death, so it shut itself off. Is this a contradiction? In “The Menagerie,” it is stated the Federation only imposes the death penalty on trespassers to talos Iv, which is ridiculously excessive in its own right. But does the Federation have the death penalty for murder or did Daystrom just include that bit of logic as a fails afe measure? M-5 may have considered Daystrom a godlike creator for all I know. NOMAD revered Jackson Roykirk, so it is not without precedent.

Regardless of the unoriginal resolution, I liked the episode. One thing TOS did well was space battles, even with the low budget special effects. It is too bad they did not do more of them. The idea of computers taking over was acontemporary fear that sounds quaint now, but the great 2001: A Space Odyssey was filming at roughly the same time with a similar theme as “The Ultimate Computer.” the contrast between the two is fascinating. Kirk uses human ingenuity to disable M-5 while Dave uses the “primitive” technology of a screwdriver to shut off HAL. Which speaks better of mankind, the use of his natural abilities or his utilization of tools? Interesting topic for debate.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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