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The Ultimate Computer

This episode provides solid proof of the benefit of a memorable guest star -- both in the actor chosen and the character written. On the surface, this episode appears to be about an advanced computer running amok and taking over the ship, but in reality it is the story about failures, hopes, and self-examination. For good measure, it all happens in the context of a story about whether humans should be risking their lives in order to advance humanity's knowledge of the universe.

These are powerful ideas, and therein lies the strength of this episode. The human issues are timeless (insecurity, failure, dreams), and the bigger question has circled about since the very first plane crash. In fact, it is stunning to hear Daystrom speak sentences which were uttered almost verbatim by NASA detractors after the 2004 Columbia disaster. (As an aside, I personally believe that the presence of people is essential to exploration. Robots cannot experience wonder, and rovers can give only glimpses of what might be known were a person standing where they rove. I believe this is Roddenberry's approach, and the underlying -- though unstated -- conclusion offered by this episode.)

There are many memorable scenes, including two long exchanges between Kirk and McCoy which add dimensions to each character. There is even some wonderfully character-driven humor when Daystrom inquires about McCoy's identity. Here is a perfect example of humor that is not artificial or stuck in just for the sake of having humor. It is a light moment generated by the identities of the characters and their genuine reactions to the situation at hand.

Shatner continues to look a bit tired, and his acting has some touch-and-go moments. But he is picked up by Kelley, who is superb, and Marshall who carries all of his character's subtext through the entire episode. In fact, this is an amazing accomplishment, part of which is due to perfect casting. The viewer knows from the first frame that Daystrom is something of a temperamental genius, and there is a palpable sense that something is wrong with the scenario, but we don't know quite what. Thus, we are not surprised when things go awry, and yet we continue to wonder what is behind it all until the character's breakdown comes. Marshall (better known for his later work in the "Blacula" films) is a model of understatement, portraying Daystrom as a man on the edge of sanity, but someone who could genuinely go either way, depending on the outcome of this experiment.

Marshall is aided by a script which does not take the easy way out. It would have been safer to reveal early that Daystom's whole career rides on this experiment. We (and our heroes) might have viewed and reacted to him differently if we had known this all along. With that knowledge, however, the tragedy of the ending would have been muted since we'd known it was possible. But introducing him as a genius, and brushing off questions about his previous accomplishments, keeps the viewer free to ride the crest of the story, and then go down with him as the experiment fails. This is effective and courageous writing.

It is not, however, perfect writing. There are some cloudy moments in the plot when everybody blames Kirk while supposedly knowing that M-5 was in command, since that's the whole reason they were there in the first place. And the comparisons between what Kirk would do and what M-5 recommends are clumsy at best. Why is Kirk giving orders while the supercomputer is supposedly running the ship? And why don't starships raise their shields when fired upon? A couple of well-placed lines of dialogue could have cleared these things up. This clumsiness muddies things just enough to take the sheen off the episode.

But credit must be given to the writers for avoiding the temptation to sum up the experiment in one of those Important Speeches they've been putting into Kirk's mouth in recent episodes. The tragedy of the broken genius speaks for itself, and our characters show themselves as above the need to rub it in.

Rating: Top (2)


Exquisite. The solution is slightly pat (cannot M-5 and all power-hungry computers be preset to suspect slippery ship captains when they call?) but Marshall is 100% magnificent as the (rather forceful) bearer to the Enterprise of unbeatable efficiency. Always nice also to witness Kirk wrestling with the latest craze from senior management..

Posted January 22, 2012 09:36 AM by Philip2014

Excellent writing and entertaining analyses of these great old Trek episodes. But why are there so many spambot reviews?

Posted August 3, 2014 12:26 AM by Kevin