Star Trek Reviews

Return to season list

Star Trek TOS - Season 2 - Episode 24

Star Trek TOS - 2x24 - The Ultimate Computer

Originally Aired: 1968-3-8

Synopsis:
Enterprise is used to test the new M-5 computer. [Blu-ray] [DVD]

My Rating - 8

Fan Rating Average - 5.94

Rate episode?

Rating: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
# Votes: 30 3 7 4 4 8 13 25 35 23 19

Filler Quotient: 2, filler, but an enjoyable episode nevertheless. You can skip this one, but you'd miss out on some fun.
- There's no essential plot or exposition in this episode that renders it unskippable, but it's definitely a fun ride!

Problems
None

Factoids
- This episode establishes that Spock holds an A7 computer expert classification.
- James Doohan, who plays Scotty, is also the voice of M-5 and Commodore Enwright.
- Barry Russo, who played Lieutenant Commander Giotto in The Devil in the Dark, also played Commodore Robert Wesley this episode.
- Sean Morgan, who played Harper in this episode, also played Brenner in Balance of Terror and O'Neil in The Return of the Archons.

Remarkable Scenes
- Kirk: "There are certain things men must do to remain men. Your computer would take that away."
- Kirk questioning himself about whether or not his hatred of M-5 is because he doesn't want to lose his job.
- M-5 declaring Kirk and McCoy to be non-essential personnel for the away mission.
- M-5 performing excellently in a war game.
- Kirk: "Machine over man, Spock? It was impressive. It might even be practical." Spock: "Practical, Captain? Perhaps. But not desirable. Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain the starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him."
- Kirk: "20th century Earth. 'All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer by.' 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."
- M-5 going psycho on the autopilot ship.
- M-5 murdering one of the Enterprise crewmen.
- McCoy: "Please Spock do me a favor and don't say it's fascinating."
- M-5 going psycho on a fleet of four Constitution class ships!
- Daystrom pleading with M-5.
- Kirk talking M-5 to death.

My Review
This is the best "Kirk-talks-a-computer-to-death" episode yet. The themes of luddism in Starfleet along with the superiority complex of an insecure genius are nicely explored by this well paced and reasonably deep story.

At first I groaned when the act out to the teaser closed on the apparent notion that the very idea of letting a computer control a starship should for some reason be considered scary, as the plot itself in that moment seemed to be exuding luddism. But as the episode progressed it became clear that this luddism, while common among many of the main characters, was regarded by the characters themselves as a character flaw. They all struggled with it and their ambivalence added a delightfully human counterpoint to a story about increased mechanization and automation leading to the obsolescence of certain jobs.

As for Daystrom, I was pretty disappointed by his character. My disappointment stems largely from the fact that as a concept, his character was terrific, but the execution left much to be desired. The basic theme of the story is that as a computer engineering genius and a prodigy at a young age, Daystrom is struggling to top the achievements of his youth by distinguishing himself yet again with an even better invention. That Daystrom's ultimate achievement turns out to be crucially flawed because he invested too much of his tragically flawed character into it is beautifully poetic writing.

Having Daystrom overestimate his own perfection in such a tragically public way by surmising that the best method for making the ultimate computer is to make it exactly like himself is a well written tragic irony and ends up being the centerpiece of the story. Daystrom is flawed. M-5 is a reflection of Daystrom. Hence, M-5 is flawed. But once we examine the details of how such a great concept unfolded in the actual storytelling, it starts to come off as somewhat less profound.

For starters, it's not clear why Daystrom required so much of the crew to evacuate the ship in the first place. Why not leave them aboard in case something goes wrong? Likewise, how could M-5 make such an obvious mistake as going out of its way to attack an ore freighter for no apparent reason or confusing a wargame with a real battle? These are no minor software bugs. You'd think Daystrom would have the resources at his disposal to test these very basic functions in a simulation before the field test with an actual starship. The only reasonable explanation at this point is that Daystrom was incompetent and that this incompetence was a result of his striking personal hubris.

That said, despite Spock's assessment otherwise, M-5's actions did conform to a certain logic, if you assume its motivations were the paranoia and megalomania imprinted onto it from Daystrom's personality. Erecting a forcefield around itself was certainly evidence of this, and a number of Daystrom's own statements lend credibility to this idea as well. At one point, Daystrom mentioned that M-5 was like a child to him and nearly came to blows with the Enterprise crew when they tried to shut it down after it so severely malfunctioned.

Likewise, when the fleet of four Constitution class ships attacked the Enterprise, Daystrom's only reaction to that was fear that M-5 could be destroyed in the battle, rather than acknowledging that many people could die, including himself, in the ensuing battle. Finally, the plot's resolution revolving around Daystrom's belief in god and the Federation's imposition of the death penalty on murderers doesn't paint Federation society in the most progressive of lights.

While the storytelling isn't perfect, with a few small tweaks and a better ending it could have been worth at least one more point. With the ending as written, Daystrom just suffers a nervous breakdown, Kirk saves the day, and we never hear from the poor man again.

A better version of this story would have omitted the attack on the ore freighter entirely and focused on a longer, more protracted wargame with the Federation fleet. I would also have had Daystrom talk down M-5 rather than have Kirk do it. A suitably profound climax scene would have featured Daystrom outlining to M-5 the flaws in its judgement while beginning to realize the flaws in his own judgement which led to his flawed creation in the first place. By confronting the flaws in his creation, Daystrom would finally begin to confront the flaws in his personality, leading both to the safe cessation of hostilities and a moment of profound personal growth for Daystrom.

Personally, I find that alternate ending a lot more touching than what we saw instead. However, as written, the episode is still terrific and one of Star Trek's best so far.

The following are comments submitted by my readers.

  • From Glenn239 on 2012-09-27 at 3:23pm:
    '9'. Picking up on the idea of ditching the destruction of the freighter scene and substituting more military exercises with the starship fleet, I think that’s a good idea. Have two military exercises instead of one. M5 loses the first engagement outright, and because M5 is patterned off the egotistical Daystrom, the computer concludes the humans must have cheated the first time.

    Anyways, the Enterprise "pooper scooper" effect is demonstrated in this episode. Enterprise just phasered 430 guys deader than doornails aboard the Excalibur not just ten minutes ago, but now the episode is over and Kirk and the boys have no time for that. Lexington…you and Potemkin go scrape that one off the pavement.

    I also find it curious that none of the forces trying to take over the Enterprise ever realized that the easiest way to do so would be to open the hanger bay doors with all the internal doors open too. "No one can hear you overact in the cold, dark vacuum of space, Kirk."
  • From penguinphysics on 2013-01-10 at 4:06pm:
    I think that this episode should have a better rating in the 'filler' category, considering that the Daystrom Institute is so frequently mentioned in later stories.
  • From Kethinov on 2013-01-10 at 5:46pm:
    Occasional casual mentions of the Daystrom Institute are little more than trivia. Such is not an adequate justification to regard this episode as nonfiller.
  • From Paul Bonzulac on 2013-01-14 at 12:12am:
    Great review. I disagree about one thing, though: you have to have Kirk talk the machine into killing itself. Otherwise, the hero is just standing there while the guest-star does all the work. The star of the show has to save the day, after all.

    Great point about making the show more about a protracted war-game, but they didn't have the budget for that. They could barely afford Blackula.
  • From Scott Hearon on 2014-04-09 at 10:09pm:
    Very nice review, and one I agree with very much. I gave this episode a 7/10 - a really good one, but with a few relatively minor flaws.

    I do like your idea for an alternate ending. And to the poster above me, I understand that it's more "Hollywood" to have the "hero," Kirk, be the one who saves the day, but having Daystrom do the talking would have been far better. And Kirk still would have needed to make the decision to leave the deflector shields down, which gives him a chance to use his human intuition and experience to save the lives of his crew. This kind of tag-team action between Daystrom and Kirk would have been more fulfilling to me.

    Excellent pacing in this one. The premise grabbed me rather quickly. Once it was clear that this was not merely some social ommentary on machines making humans obsolete and taking away jobs, I was right on board.
  • From McCoy on 2016-11-02 at 12:10pm:
    Sorry, guys, but you don't know many scientist, do you? 90% of them are just megalomanians with no distance to themselves. Your concept of alternate ending is illogical... According to historical sources - most of nazis scientists didn't realised they were doing wrong. They've keep talking about science and progress in turning people corpses into useful things (i.e. making lampshades from human skin). Daystroms "ilumination" would be too utopian happy end for my personal taste. Kirk was the one, who needed to do talking. Well, maybe Spock in that role would be interesting.
  • From Chris Long on 2017-11-13 at 12:59pm:
    Late to this party as usual, but I agree with most of the review.
    The death penalty for murder was standard in 1960's USA along with most of the rest of the world.

    When the episode first aired, it made perfect sense, in that light... at least to this youngster!

    It's easy to armchair quarterback the lack of progressiveness in this episode with regard to that except that... In the episode, 'The Dagger of the Mind', there are "clean hospitals for sick minds!" implying that psychos and murderers were treated rather than executed. Same with 'Whom Gods Destroy'.

    Another episode where the Federation shows it has a death penalty is of course, 'The Menagerie'!

    TOS can be all over the place when it needs to be.

    P.S. I really enjoy your reviews and having a place to spout off! ;-) Thanks!

Prove to me that you are a real person and not a spam robot by typing in the text of this image:

Return to season list