Friday, April 26, 2013

The Ultimate Computer

Back in 1990 when the BBC finally decided to start showing Star Trek: The Next Generation I was watching Datalore with my parents. Within about a minute of Lore being reactivated my mum said, “I'll bet he turns out to be evil.” Some stories have a weight of inevitability about them. If a character develops a cough or a headache then they will be dead soon. In The Ultimate Computer it's obvious things are going to go badly from the moment Commodore Wesley tells Kirk the Enterprise will be used to test the new M-5 computer, and that all he has to do is, “sit back and let the machine do the work.”

Sure enough the M-5 goes berserk after mistaking simulated war games for the real thing and, as is always the way in these situations, Captain Kirk talks the M-5 to death. However, if the overall course of the plot runs on rails
The Ultimate Computer deserves some credit for taking an unexpected detour on the way. The first two acts are more character driven than might be expected in a rogue computer story as Kirk tries to cope with discovering that the M-5 really can do his job better. This still gives the story a weirdly contemporary edge. Who wouldn't worry about being replaced by a computer? It's odd to see Kirk so rattled. A man who has faced down Klingons and alien invasions, and generally shown himself to be a decision making machine, is faced with the prospect of being replaced by a machine better at making decisions.

MCCOY: 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.
KIRK: Am I afraid of losing command to a computer? Daystrom's right. I can do a lot of other things. Am I afraid of losing the prestige and the power that goes with being a starship captain? Is that why I'm fighting it? Am I that petty?

Kirk has dabbled with self-doubt before but it's never really convinced.

KIRK: I could've prevented all of it.
SPOCK: I don't see how.
KIRK: A walk in paradise, among the green grass and flowers. We should've beamed up at the first sign of trouble.
SPOCK: You are under orders to investigate this planet and this culture.
KIRK: I also have the option to disregard those orders if I consider them overly hazardous. This isn't that important a mission, Spock. Not worth the lives of three of my men. I drop my guard for a minute because I like the smell of growing things, and now three men are dead. And the ship's in trouble.
In that scene from The Apple Kirk's self-doubt is there to justify the Enterprise crew massacre which it follows. Three crew have been killed and the script needs Kirk to seem affected. It's an artificial script device because once Kirk has beaten himself up over the deaths of Kaplan, Hendorff, and Mallory it's never mentioned again in the episode; not even when Marple is also killed.

Kirk's self-doubt is handled much better in The Ultimate Computer . “I've never felt this way before. At odds with the ship. I sat there and watched my ship perform for a mass of circuits and relays, and felt useless. Unneeded.” It makes Kirk petty and he takes any chance he can to downplay the achievements of the M-5. “All it's done is make the required course changes and some simple turns. Mister Sulu and Mister Chekov could've done that with their eyes closed.” This time self-doubt is not an emotion he indulges in and forgets, it's a theme running through the first two acts. It humanises Kirk because we can relate to what he is going through. He's not declaiming, “why oh why didn't I realise this weird alien planet was alien and weird?” He's faced with the realisation that he is the best person he knows at doing his job, and yet the machine is better.

With this in mind it's interesting to see the end of act one used as a red herring. “Captain, I've located the source of the power shutdowns. It's the M-5 unit, sir. That thing's turning off systems all over the ship.” Scotty's line bluffs the audience into thinking M-5 is out of control. Throughout act one Kirk and the audience have seen the M-5 unit performing flawlessly. Kirk and the audience are both waiting for the M-5 to fail. Kirk because he doesn't want to be replaced in a job he loves, and the audience because they know the M-5 won't be around next week so it's due to be proved faulty at some point. When Daystrom discovers the reason for the shut downs in the opening moments of act two it's designed to confound audience expectations, “as I suspected, it is not a malfunction. M-5 was merely shutting down power to areas of the ship that do not require it.”

In a different episode the M-5 going mad would be the moment of crisis. Act one would have ended with the discovery that M-5 will not allow itself to be turned off and the remaining three acts would have been about the crew's attempts to disable the rogue machine. Instead of being the crisis point for the whole story the M-5 seizing control is the resolution to the plot about Kirk's fear of replacement, and also ups the stakes for the second half.

Ironically it's the characterisation which stops The Ultimate Computer from achieving it's full potential. Not the characterisation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy which is spot on. In fact McCoy get all the best lines in the episode, and this is some of the best material he's given across the series. “Did you see the love light in Spock's eyes? The right computer finally came along.” The problem lies with the characterisation of the secondary characters which never quite seems right.

Commodore Wesley really dislikes Kirk. There's his “Captain Dunsel” comment (Dunsel apparently being an academy term for a part which performs no useful purpose) made over an open communicator so the Enterprise bridge crew, and possibly the crew in the other ships, can all hear him burn their captain. Then when the M-5 has taken over and is using lethal force during the war games Wesley believes it's Kirk who is out of control. “Jim. Have you gone mad? What are you trying to prove? Break off the attack! Jim, we have fifty three dead here... If you can hear us, stop the attack.” When the Lexington takes damage there's a shot of Wesley on the bridge asking, “what the devil is Kirk doing?” It brings to mind the season one story Court Martial where the other starship captains at Starbase 11 are all too willing to believe Kirk killed Ben Finney. Unfortunately the episode wants to end with a point about the M-5 lacking the human factor by having Wesley make a leap of faith, “the Enterprise looks dead. I'm going to take a chance he's not just laying a trap.” Kirk is gambling on Wesley's humanity, but if Wesley really thought Kirk had gone mad (and note the 'he' in Wesley's line about laying a trap) and murdered so many with his attack, then would Wesley show any compassion?

Likewise Daystrom is written a little off beam. He's great for the majority of the episode, acting exactly like a proud parent indulging his baby, and always trying to find the best motive for the M-5's increasingly bizarre actions. After the M-5 overrides the off switch Daystrom convinces himself it's in the best interests of the unit to not switch it off. When the M-5 destroys an automated ore freighter he describes this as, “minor difficulties,” and when the computer vaporises engineer Harper while directly tapping the power of the warp engines Daystrom tries to dismiss this as an accident. “The ensign simply got in the way.” However, no matter how wilfully blind Daystrom wants to be there is one moment he can't really ignore.

After the M-5 destroys the automatic ore freighter Kirk, Spock, and Daystrom head to engineering to turn off the M-5, only to find it has protected itself with a force field. “ It's not my doing, Kirk,” says Daystrom, and presumably this means the M-5 was not built with the ability to project force fields; this makes sense it would be rather like fitting airbags to a desktop PC. Still it's not just Daystrom who overlooks this new ability. Once M-5 has repelled Kirk, it's never mentioned again, in fact this amazing ability of the M-5 unit is demonstrated and then shuffled off screen as quickly as possible because it's a sticking plaster on the story logic. An easy answer to someone's question during script development wondering why Kirk didn't just head down to engineering with a phaser and melt the M-5 into slag. Sometimes these fixes make the story stronger, see By Any Other Name and the Kelvan's ability to distill humans into solid shapes which results in the memorable death of Yeoman Thompson, but here it fixes one story logic question only to raise another; why doesn't Daystom notice his computer can do things it was not designed or built to do?

Lastly there's M-5 itself which counts as a character because it's based on Daystrom's engrams. It's never clear why the machine goes mad. It just goes from coping with a surprise simulated attack, to taking pot shots at automatic ore freighters, before moving on to mass murder. Still there's enough slack built into the script to allow viewers to supply their own explanations. Given that Daystrom did imprint his own engrams on the machine it's possible that what we see is overconfidence. The M-5 is as frustrated, for want of a better word, at Kirk for constantly taking the Enterprise back under control as Daystrom, “you'll find it won't be necessary for you to regain control of the unit after it's completed each manoeuvre.” It sees the ore freighter as an opportunity to cut loose and show what it can really do. Overconfidence blinds the M-5 to the consequences of destroying the freighter, and once it realises what it has done it has no alternative but to protect itself by destroying any pursuing ship. 

It's easy to watch The Ultimate Computer and wonder what benefits Starfleet expected from the M-5. Yes the computer was incredibly good at small details, such as recalling personnel details even Kirk didn't have instantly to hand, and it could steer the ship as efficiently as a human navigator, and it was better in direct combat, but when have we ever seen the events in an episode hinge on one of those factors? It's difficult to see what advantages M-5 could have brought to the battle against the Gorn in Arena. How would it have dealt with the Kelvans from By Any Other Name or Apollo in Who Mourns For Adonais? But asking this question misses the point. The episode is not about why Starfleet would want to replace Captain Kirk with a computer, it's about what will happen when computers get clever enough to replace even Captain Kirk. Thematically The Ultimate Computer belongs with stories like The Return Of The Archons, or A Taste Of Armageddon where people's lives and deaths are planned centrally by a big computer. That seems to have been the future perception of computers in 1968. Not the internet, but a big central IBM computer which told you when to work, when to sleep, and when to eat your protein pills. This attitude is the reason Commodore Wesley demands to know what Kirk thinks he is doing when the M-5 attacks the war game fleet. The Ultimate Computer is warning that in the future the infallible computer will be your boss, and when it goes wrong you'll still get the blame.

Enterprise crew deaths: Just one, engineer Harper.
Running total: 46

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