The Good: Excellent character work, Good pacing, Generally good acting, themes
The Bad: Predictable plot, Theme is pretty well done by this point...
The Basics: When Captain Kirk takes aboard a new computer system, he finds his ship is controlled by an unstable element that will kill others unless he can stop it!
Perhaps the stigma against Star Trek fans would lessen some if those detractors knew the influence the series had on other major popular culture series'. Rewatching Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines recently, I found myself contemplating how thematic elements from the Terminator series were originally explored in Star Trek, in episodes like "The Ultimate Computer." Perhaps if more people who like Terminator watched that, they would appreciate Star Trek fans more. Okay, probably not, just like it is probably not the intellectualism of Star Trek that keeps the subculture down . . .
The U.S.S. Enterprise is recalled to Federation space to participate in war games being orchestrated to test the new computer by Dr. Richard Daystrom, the man who is responsible for building the Enterprise computers. Ridiculed as obsolete by other captains once the M-5 computer is installed aboard the Enterprise, Dr. Daystrom seems prepared to declare the tests of the device a success. When the war games begin, mock hits by the four opposing starships are met with real lethal force. As the body count rises, Dr. Daystrom suffers a mental breakdown leaving Kirk, powerless, in command of a vessel run by an unstable, homicidal computer that is about to be engaged by three fully armed starships!
This, of course, is an unenviable position to be in, but it follows quite truly in Star Trek's tradition of airing episodes on the evils of technology and the exploration of technology dominating organic life forms. This is also one of the few episodes that features space battles and it sets up the idea that StarFleet is a militaristic organization dependent upon some sense of battle readiness. This is the first of only a handful of episodes in the Star Trek franchise featuring war games scenarios, with only "Peak Performance" from Star Trek: The Next Generation and the early moments of "The Way Of The Warrior" from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine coming right to mind as others. Star Trek was far more about exploration than using a military war machine!
"The Ultimate Computer" uses some pretty tired themes in Star Trek. By this point in the series, there have been at least four episodes where the Enterprise visits an alien culture to find people enslaved or dominated by machines or computers. When the Enterprise arrives, Kirk and Spock usually discuss this, Kirk deplores the situation and he finds a way to free the people of the overbearing offending technology. This is the first time the Enterprise has had to deal with the technological improvement actually having an effect on them!
As a result, "The Ultimate Computer" takes an intriguing tack; it explores downsizing! Dr. Daystrom believes that the M-5 may revolutionize computers to the extent that starship captains will no longer be a necessity for space travel. Exploring the possibility of the crew of a starship becoming more or less obsolete is a wonderful twist and writer D.C. Fontana executes it beautifully.
The reason the episode works so well is that Fontana keeps the story focused on character issues. Captain Kirk, stalwart hero, becomes moody and depressed. Fearing Daystrom's creation might live up to its hype, he comes to worry that he might no longer be needed and initially, it appears he has just cause for concern. This episode features one of the rare moments where Spock actually tries to define and articulate the depth of respect he has for Kirk and that moment, where Spock and McCoy are on the same side trying to save Kirk from the lesser angels that plague him, is a shining scene for the characters and the series.
As well, Fontana and director John Meredyth Lucas give ample time to explore Dr. Richard Daystrom. My only beef with Daystrom is that he is one more in long string of people who in one way or another outshine Kirk and for some reason has to be put in his place. Star Trek has a pathetically monolithic sense of who the heroes in the series are and as a result, anyone who comes aboard who outranks Kirk, is a political liaison or a scientific notable of serious accomplishment will by the end of the episode be reduced to something far more petty, emotionally damaged, ineffectual or dead than Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. Universally in Star Trek (the original series) people of renown are made lesser than those we see each week, which makes one wonder if in the Star Trek universe, success is just a stepping stone to suicide! In the case of Daystrom, at least some time is spent pumping up his accomplishments and giving the viewer a sense that he is someone who would like to improve the human condition.
This is an episode of Star Trek where the themes seem to contradict with the practices of the series. The starship Enterprise exists pretty much as a military-organized socialist community. Everyone participates, everyone reaps the benefits. There are no pay checks, no worker feuds, opportunity abounds for everyone not in a red shirt to advance. So the idea of a computer handling the day-to-day operations of a starship captain is not necessarily a bad or ignoble idea any more than striving for full employment in the United States by reducing the workweek to 30 hours per week would be. The goal is laudable; more time to do other things and live life instead of living for work.
But even with that minor conflict of interest, "The Ultimate Computer" makes its point well; human life is not disposable and machines will never be able to fully replace the innovation and style that humans possess.
"The Ultimate Computer" contains some of the best performances by William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Shatner is required to play the difficult role of the uncertain leader. Until now in the series, he has been in command, vital and very much the head that directs the ship. Here Shatner plays Kirk with a slouch and a quiet, withdrawn desperation. Shatner takes a very straightforward script and fleshes it out with layers of body language, making the piece a surprising treat for fans.
In addition to Shatner's performance, Leonard Nimoy manages to play a softer Spock without making him seem at all illogical. But it is William Marshall who holds his own best against Shatner's dynamite performance. Marshall portrays Daystrom and opens the episode by playing the character with quiet authority. As the episode progresses, Marshall inserts more nervous body language and when his character has his breakdown, the actor gives a performance that is heartwrenching to watch.
"The Ultimate Computer" holds up for fans of science fiction and Star Trek even now. As well, this is a wonderful drama that most working-class people will be able to appreciate and empathize with. It is entertaining, solidly enjoyable with its character elements and not overly technical, making it easy for those who do not love Star Trek or science fiction to get into it.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!
For other Star Trek reviews, please check out my index page for an organized list.
© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.