Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Die Maschinenmensch: The Ultimate Computer

"Oh, it's the end of the Earth!"

“The Ultimate Computer” is another somewhat deceiving story. It has a great deal of things all going on all at once and is indeed good in many of the ways people often say it's good. But there's a secondary tier of ideas this episode is also working with for which it doesn't tend to get the credit I think it probably should, and it's very indicative of the way Star Trek is always in some sense pushing against itself. On the other hand, “The Ultimate Computer” doesn't quite work either: Not all of the concepts it's trying to convey come across as well as they perhaps could have, and the script has an unfortunate tendency to contradict itself. I'd definitely say it's a good baseline target for the show to have been shooting for this season though. However, the one problem with that is that we're a month away from the end of the filming block for this year: It has the bad luck to end up being compared to “A Piece of the Action” and “Patterns of Force” (a comparison in which it is found wanting) and, just like those episodes, we probably could have stood to see “The Ultimate Computer” about ten weeks ago.

The original pitch for “The Ultimate Computer” came from a mathematician named Laurence N. Wolfe, who wrote it around his passionate interest in the titular devices. However, D.C. Fontana found the script he submitted to be basically unworkable, as it was almost entirely about the story of Doctor Daystrom and the M-5, to the point the Enterprise crew was barely in it. Indeed, the simple explanation for why the episode as aired is in some sense disjointed is because Fontana rewrote it so heavily: There are very much two stories going on here, and they actually probably didn't belong in the same script. Let's start with the most obvious reading of “The Ultimate Computer”, and what I'm presuming to be the original pitch: The concept of a computer so sophisticated and humanlike it can actually replace people, and what would drive a person to create such a device in the first place. As we've talked about before in regards to the mid- to late- 1960s context in which these episodes were being made, one of the larger sources of malaise at the time was the fear that the rapid increase in both the power and awareness of computers in the immediate postwar age, as well as the move towards mechanizing the workforce that helped usher in what can be called the post-industrial era in late-stage capitalist Westernism (a theme we'll be returning to a little later on) would eventually dehumanize society. This, combined with a distrust of unchecked logic and bureaucracy, a healthy fear of Stalinism and good old fashioned Red Scare thought poisoning paranoia that defined the Cold War led to many lamenting what they saw as the erosion of “traditional” “American” “values” such as individuality, loyalty and personal achievement.

Aaron and Unnunillium, two of my estimable commenters, pointed this out under my blog entry on “A Taste of Armageddon” in the first season and quite reasonably wondered why I didn't have more to say about it then. And while that theme certainly can be read into that episode, and arguably in other first season stories like “The Return of the Archons”, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and most obviously “Court Martial”, the reason I didn't would be because in my opinion this is the best episode to talk about that sort of thing in the context of: It not only provides a decent example of the typical argument, it also gives some hints about how Star Trek can tackle the issue with a slightly different approach then what would be considered the norm. While the M-5 itself is basically just another computer that gains sentience and decides it's superior to humanity and goes on an ego-tripping rampage, which is (and you have no idea how much I'm resisting the urge to make a MythBusters joke here) just about the most stock science fiction concept imaginable, the actual story for this half of the episode is Richard Daystrom.

Daystrom is seen as one of the best and most memorable characters in all of Star Trek, and rightly so in my opinion. He's an incredibly gifted person whose achievements were not always seen for what they were, and who didn't always get the credit he deserved. His breakdown in the climax where he confesses to the camera that he was never taken seriously because of the young age at which he made his biggest breakthroughs, not that his “colleagues” weren't perfectly willing to steal his ideas and pass them off as their own, is a gut-punching bit of dialog and should hit very close to home to anyone who was dismissed, belittled or otherwise not taken seriously as a child (or indeed who went to graduate school, for that matter). This is what drives Daystrom to create something as ludicrously ambitious and overreaching as M5: His now-fanatical desire to have himself and his work recognised by their own merits for the first time in his life, and, in a great twist, this is why the machine goes bad-It has just as obsessive and single-minded dedication to its goal that Daystrom does, as he patterned its neural engrams off of his own.

We of course also need to talk about William Marshall: While I'm not sure if his casting was intended from the start, making Daystrom of African descent is a grand slam for the series. While the show does not overtly draw attention to his ethnicity as his tragic character arc could have been done with someone of any skin colour, making him African does subtly get us to pay more attention to how underappreciated he is. The story of someone who is never really seen as an equal, never treated with the proper amount of respect or even treated as a full person is of course all too well known to people of colour living within Western societies. This way, Star Trek can talk about social injustices of all kinds, even outright racism, while still depicting its setting as more idealistic and without having to jump through too many narrative hoops to get its point across. It's a tactic that will pave the way for some of the best of Star Trek to come, and just as strong a lesson the franchise could have stood to pay more attention to at various other points of its history. Also, having Marshall in such a dynamic and powerful role here, combined with things like the introduction of Doctor M'Benga (the only good thing about “A Private Little War”) and the increasingly more fleshed-out and central space Uhura's been able to carve for herself this year increases the show's progressive lot substantially. It also helps Marshall is just an outstanding actor, and perhaps just a touch hammy.

In other words, this part of “The Ultimate Computer” is very much Daystrom's story: It's the story of someone who sought solace in machines and his own technical ability, hoping he could prove a fully computerized and automated future was the way forward for humanity, perhaps to himself as much as anyone else. This is Star Trek doing pretty much exactly what it should be doing: Putting the guest star in the limelight and giving him the bulk of the story's drama and gravity while we watch the main cast react, because of course, “The Ultimate Computer” is also about the effect Daystrom's confidence, drive and beliefs have on Kirk, Spock and McCoy. It's exactly the same tack the show took (and correctly, as far as I'm concerned) in “The Doomsday Machine” and here's where D.C. Fontana comes in, because it's a bit more nuanced this time and Fontana ends up pulling off some extremely clever narrative sleight-of-hand. Firstly, as the episode opens we're led to believe this is going to be another rote, almost by-the-numbers first season-style logic versus emotions debate. Spock is very intrigued by Daystrom's new machine as he's a big fan of him and his work with improving the efficiency of computers, McCoy goes on a curmudgeonly tirade about how he don't trust no newfangled computerized thingamawhatzits, declaring machines will never replace people, and Kirk is caught in the middle trying to decide where he stands on the whole thing.

But this doesn't actually turn out to be what the episode is about (well, on the whole-there's one big caveat I'll get to): We expect Spock to be completely taken in by the M-5 to the point he has a “Galileo Seven”-style overflow error when the computer inevitably goes berserk and its logic fails to provide the proper solution. But he doesn't-Instead, he becomes the first person to figure out there's something fishy about the M-5 precisely because it's not behaving logically, and continuously emphasizes that while computers may be more efficient at performing tasks than people, they're merely tools and that given the choice he'd much rather work with humans. Furthermore, we expect McCoy to go into “Bristling Unchecked Passion Mode” for the entire episode and, er, “rage against the machine”, as it were. And while there is indeed quite a lot of that, McCoy also snaps quite frequently into being the person who can empathize with and understand people and their motivations. While he's wrong about Spock, he reads Daystrom like a book, and one of the best scenes in the episode is where he rants at him in engineering about the M-5 taking over the ship and deciding to randomly start destroying things...and in the next scene it turns out he was baiting Daystrom to react in order to learn more about his personality and history.

Then, of course, there's Kirk. According to the rules this kind of story should be obeying, he should be righteously angry about the sanctity of individuality, personhood and the inalienable right of a man (and, naturally, it has to be a man) to shape his own destiny. The war games scene should be resolved like the end of “The Deadly Years”, with Kirk confidently swinging onto the bridge and taking a manly amount of control of the situation and shutting down M-5 by force, probably by punching it. “No machine will replace me, damn it!”. Except...that's not what happens. Kirk convinces the M-5 that it has violated its own personal code of ethics by killing the Excalibur (and here once again is that idea that a starship can be killed, murdered in fact, and that's before getting into the highly symbolic name) and that it should face consequences for that. This isn't the James T. Kirk School of Computer Repair where he causes a machine to explode itself through logic paradoxes, this is talking to somebody and asking them to accept responsibility for their actions, and the M-5 is very much a person: Even Spock calls it a human mind amplified by the power of a computer. For a story that's supposed to be sceptical of technology and bureaucracy eroding Traditional American Values™, Kirk sure doesn't seem to be acting like the the ruggedly masculine “American” “Individualist”. That's because “The Ultimate Computer”, at least according to Fontana, isn't that story at all. It's a critique of that story that uses its framework to tell an altogether different story.

What Kirk is concerned about here isn't that the principle of machines replacing humans is unmanly: Indeed, he even says right from the beginning he's worried this might be what upsets him about the M-5 (and tellingly, he dismisses such thoughts as “petty”; focused more on pride and prestige instead of genuine ethics). What Kirk is actually troubled by is the possibility the M-5 will cause him to lose his job because working on a starship is the only thing he enjoys and knows how to do. Under Fontana, “The Ultimate Computer” is a straightforward examination and criticism of the materialistic consequences of mechanized industry and how capitalist societies privilege ever-more efficient, cheap and automated forms of production without consideration for the effect this has on the workers who are being replaced. Lack of concern for humans and basic human decency is an argument that can be made about just about any aspect of capitalism, not just industry: Consider, for example, how much the market (or at least the warped corporate conception of what the market is) has come to dominate just about every facet of discourse in the United States, and how this has utterly destroyed the humanities, social sciences and the creative arts. Nobody respects these endeavours anymore, because there's no net monetary value that can be applied to them. Late-stage capitalism measures the value of people by how much money they have, takes away their jobs because it's cost-effective, and, in doing so, removes a person's sense of self-worth.

In other words, what Fontana has done here is overtly liken the Federation (which is, of course, already tacitly descended from Westernism, even as that line is starting to become blurrier) to the early post-industrial West and made Kirk, in essence, a working-class spaceman. This is frankly as profound and transformational a shift as anything we've seen in Star Trek so far, and it's going to prove to be a particularly bleak example of life imitating art for William Shatner himself in just a few years. This isn't an entirely clean gear change, mind, and it's going to be a long time until this completely takes and becomes an important part of the franchise, but, like a lot of things the Original Series does, the seeds are sewn here. Most of the reasons why I don't think this is as clear as it could be in the finished product is, once again, the fact it was so extensively rewritten. There are quite a few scenes (presumably ones that were in Wolfe's original pitch) that seem to actively grate against this reading, almost as many as there are to support it. Spock's speech about how a starship “runs on loyalty...to one man” is probably the joint most egregious, along with Kirk flatly stating "There are certain things men must do to remain men. Your computer would take that away.” but the stilted and hokey invocation of John Masefield's “Sea Fever” is probably a close second.

(Although that said, also notice in this same scene how William Shatner starts playing with some gizmo in his quarters just before McCoy walks in: It's almost as if he's trying to convey Kirk's attempts to prove to himself he's capable of doing other things besides captaining a starship, which can also be seen as an echo of his earlier dialog with McCoy just after M-5 is installed: “Am I afraid of losing command to a computer? Daystrom's right. I can do a lot of other things”, which comes across to me as just as halfhearted and uncertain a bit of soul-searching).

The other reason this isn't as immediately clear as it perhaps could be is the long-standing confusion over how systems of production and labour actually work in the world of Star Trek. The basic standing Marxist critique of Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the show makes no sense because it depicts people working for a living in a world where money either doesn't exist or material goods are ubiquitous to the point nobody need work for them. Ergo, why does something like Starfleet exist? Personally, I find this particular argument to be riddled with holes and logic assumptions that aren't actually backed up by textual evidence, but I'll save rebutting it until we get to the series in question. However as it applies to the Original Series, there is perhaps a line of thought worth pursuing here, because, unlike The Next Generation, we actually *don't* have a really good sense of what the economic system in Star Trek is.

We know Starfleet and the Federation exist, of course, and that both are big enough organisations that pretty much everyone we've seen so far is a part of them. But is Starfleet a voluntary service? Do the officers get paid? We can't actually say for sure at this point. We don't hear much about money, no, although there was an offhand comment about credits in “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But crucially, nobody ever said Starfleet officers don't turn a paycheck, just as nobody said they do either, and regardless, having this happen to Kirk, someone we know and sympathize with, is still an effective way of conveying the message: The reduction in dignity and self-esteem he goes through is still very palpable. This does mean, however, that Fontana's depiction of Kirk as a working-class spaceman hurt by having his job taken away from him is going to come across really strangely to someone accustomed to the way Star Trek works after the 1980s, even though in 1968 it would have made absolute perfect sense to use “The Ultimate Computer” as a straightforward allegory about the effect of mechanization on people reliant on Western industry for their livelihood.

But in spite of the fact this episode may not be 100% successful in everything it's trying to do, it's still without question one of the more complex, and coherent, episodes of the season. The concepts and ideas it's working with are extremely mature and multifaceted ones, and its yet more proof Star Trek is capable of a lot more than flying around the galaxy dropping moral nuclear warheads on people. Honestly, the biggest complaint I have is still that this is one of the last episodes produced for the year: We could have used a lot more stories like “The Ultimate Computer” and a lot fewer like “The Apple”.


  1. The only way I can think to criticize that post is that your contrast of these good episodes with The Apple is getting repetitive.

    It's been a long time since I've seen The Ultimate Computer, but it was one of my favourite episodes because of that tension between Kirk and Daystrom, which provokes a kind of narrative collapse (it doesn't collapse completely). Daystrom's working life has culminated in the biggest threat Star Trek has faced so far: replacing Kirk. The dynamics of TOS without Kirk would be disastrous, not only in the way you've described Kirk as being able to subvert and save problematic and otherwise shitty episodes, but in shattering the central character relationship of the show. A Star Trek without Kirk is literally unthinkable.

    The mediocre writers of the show always code Kirk as a hyper-masculine figure, and William Shatner often subverts that masculinity on his own. Yes, this subversion has the wider ethical effect you've covered so far, but I think for Shatner himself, his reason for subversion is that hyper-masculinity makes for a terrible character, both to watch and to play. More than this, hyper-masculinity in real life results in a terrible person: the tyrannically abusive husband and father. Anyone who's gone to college or university can see the destructive tendencies of hyper-masculinity in campus rape culture. And however much we may validate the working class, let's not forget that many working class communities socialize young men into values of masculinity that are openly destructive: solving emotional problems with brute force and physical or emotional violence.

    Now the episode The Ultimate Computer faces Kirk, who so far has subverted masculinity in productive ways, with the horrifyingly destructive subversion that happened to the working class in the real-life North America: mechanization (and the later phenomenon of using the internet to ship real-time service jobs more frequently overseas) destroying the masculine man's ability to gain a livelihood through physical labour. This subversion left all the destructive culture of hyper-masculinity in place while removing their only justification: the ability of men to earn a living through physical labour alone. Facing this prospect, Kirk is left adrift, and if it wasn't for his good luck that technology wasn't up to the task of automating his job (yet), he'd still be drifting.

    1. Funnily enough, the reason I mentioned "The Apple" here is because I figured everyone was sick of me continually bringing up "A Private Little War" and "The Gamesters of Triskelion".

      "The mediocre writers of the show always code Kirk as a hyper-masculine figure, and William Shatner often subverts that masculinity on his own. Yes, this subversion has the wider ethical effect you've covered so far, but I think for Shatner himself, his reason for subversion is that hyper-masculinity makes for a terrible character, both to watch and to play. More than this, hyper-masculinity in real life results in a terrible person: the tyrannically abusive husband and father. Anyone who's gone to college or university can see the destructive tendencies of hyper-masculinity in campus rape culture. And however much we may validate the working class, let's not forget that many working class communities socialize young men into values of masculinity that are openly destructive: solving emotional problems with brute force and physical or emotional violence."

      I absolutely agree, in fact I start to make a somewhat similar argument in the context of the next episode, which also handily serves as an even better signifier of "Star Trek At Its Worst" than "The Apple".

    2. Not The Omega Glory. Anything but that.

  2. Captain Kirk faces entry into the reserve army of labour because of the changing organic constitution of capital. I love it.