09 May 2009

Star Trek: The Ultimate Computer

The nostalgia waves from the new Star Trek have had a powerful effect. Seeing the new/old crew today made me reach for my complete season sets of the classic series, pick an episode I haven’t watched in a while, and enjoy the magic of seeing these characters in their original versions—now given a new life in the wider world. It’s a thrill to feel so good about Star Trek again. So here’s a quick drive-by review of an oldie but goodie from the second season.
Episode #53: The Ultimate Computer
Directed by John Meredyth Lucas. Written by D. C. Fontana. Guest starring William Marhsall, Barry Russo.

Kirk vs. the Supercomputer turned into one of the great Trek clich├ęs—four episodes feature it—but this is the best of them all, although “The Changeling” might give it competition. Kirk manages to easily overcome through argument the M-5, the war-game computer installed on the Enterprise to see how efficiently it can run a ship with a minimal crew. Of course M-5 seizes control and turns the war games into mortal battles, leaving Kirk to convince the computer to execute itself.

These episodes usually hinge on Kirk’s climactic philosophical debate with the thinking machine, but here the dramatic focus lies elsewhere. The computer’s creator, Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall, who would play the title character in Blacula in 1972), has his own personality tied into the M-5, and getting control of the Enterprise from M-5 before Starfleet decides to wipe the rebellious ship off the starcharts requires more an investigation in Daystrom’s mind than into the wiring of the computer. Kirk also discovers that knowing men, and their capacity for passion, is as powerful a tool as a supercomputer.

Marshall gives a magnetic performance as an apparently rational man who hides a deep irrational secret. His conversation with his “child” is a more intense scene than Kirk’s later tricking of the computer. Daystrom’s mental breakdown is queasily convincing. The casting of Marhsall also displays a perfect example of the equality that Star Trek brought to televion: Marshall is a black actor, but no one brings any attention to his race or treats him any differently because of it. In 1960s television, this simply wasn’t done: the race of non-white characters were their roles. But in the progressive 23rd century, the human race is simply the human race.

Spock provides some character surprises. He feels empathy toward M-5 and its quest to create complete efficiency—but he eventually rebels against it and sees that a biological crew provides benefits that a computer never could. He also identifies the M-5 as displaying “illogical” behavior, the first clue that the computer’s malfunction goes beyond its circuits and back to its creator.

The strength of the drama (and the building tension, complete with genuine space-battles and destroyed Federation ships) shouldn’t come as a surprise with D. C. Fontana at the typewriter. She is one of Star Trek’s finest writers, perhaps my personal favorite, and her episodes usually have perfectly tuned characterizations and moments for everyone to shine. McCoy gets plenty of chance to grumble and berate Spock, such as when Spock first observes the M-5 in operation: “Did you see the love light in Spock’s eyes? The right computer finally came along.”

I can’t believe I haven’t watched “The Ultimate Computer” in so long; it’s one of the best episodes of Season 2. I must have simply forgotten its quality in the haze of “Darn, Kirk’s going scream philosophy at a glowing ball again.”