Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Original Series, Season 2: The Ultimate Computer

Airdate: November 10, 1967
54 of 80 produced
53 of 80 aired


The Enterprise has been selected as the test-bed for a breakthrough in computer technology - a completely automated system for starship operations that could liberate mankind from the dangers of space travel. Will Captain Kirk be able to deal emotionally with the notion of his own obsolescence? And is the M-5 everything it's cracked up to be?
This jumpsuit I have invented with revolutionize the leisure-wear industry!


Matthew: Could a story get more Sixties topical? Then-contemporary fears of robots replacing humans, in places like factories and communications systems, are transported to the 23rd century. So this is a fine sci-fi treatment with many analogues in sci-fi literature. The story also serves as a good platform for an interesting psychological study of both Daystrom and Kirk. Daystrom, instead of being just a mad scientist, has an argument for automation that is plausible. It was wonderful to make Daystrom black, and to do it in the way Trek does it best - without any mention that this would be unusual whatsoever. Also wonderful was that they didn't feel the need to make Uhura attracted to him.

Kevin: This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but I think that its also interesting to say nothing of ballsy to present a flawed genius being played by a black man. There's a tendency when having an important character played by a minority to strip them of any flaws to prevent the accusation you are dismissing minorities in that role. I'll discuss this more later, but I thought Captain Janeway at points got that treatment. Giving her a flaw (like fucking Chatokay stupid) would have been seen as dismissive of the idea of female captains, so she was almost always pretty damn perfect. It's a credit to the writers and the implicit notions they develop that not only was the idea that no one thought it notable that the famous scientist was black, there no hint that anyone even considered the notion that his failings were a result of his being black, either.

Matthew: The scenes between our main characters were realistic and touching. Seeing Spock and McCoy respond to their friend's distress was illuminating. We got a lovely scene of the friendship between McCoy and Kirk, with McCoy serving drinks in a manner similar to the movies (not to mention the lines regarding a "tall ship and a star to steer her by.") Spock's dialogue was nice, and his dialogue stresses the importance of Captains and a crew's loyalty to them.Coming from Spock, this also reinforces his personal loyalty to Kirk. D.C. Fontana's work on the teleplay really shines through. This story could be seen as another extension of the theme of how important captains are to this part of the Federation's history, this time with a computer as foil instead of a rogue captain or a stuffed shirt bureaucrat.

Kevin: I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the emotional dimension to the story. We've seen it before in episodes like "Court Martial," "Obsession," or "The Enemy Within," where Kirk's vulnerability or self-doubt come to the fore and it makes for both a better character and a better story. I also like what this does for Spock's arc as well. Spock seems to accept the necessity of at least some emotional attachment between Captain and crew, and doing so, finds a threat to that a problem, even if it comes from the most logical mind he may have ever encountered. It adds a dimension to his actions on Pike's behalf in "Menagerie" and is a nice stop along the road of his become comfortable in both his Vulcan and human selves.

Matthew:  I wasn't quite clear on why the M-5 computer was able to engage in wargames at 1/100th power initially, but then could not do so when the main wargame fleet attacked. I was also unclear on how McCoy and Kirk knew that this would be the case. It's a minor point, because the drama was the same. How did this unit get past testing when the first 4 failed? Slightly more troubling was the final M-5 solution - it was pretty tropey (Kirk convinces a computer to shut down), but not the worst. At least Kirk used some knowledge of Daystrom's psychology, not just "logic games".

Kevin: The drama here was both pretty darn gripping and well paced. The script could have gone right to the M-5 freaking out in the wargames and destroying the Excalibur. The shock would have competed with the horror for screentime. Having it attack the crewless ore freighter gives the crew and the viewer time to stew over what is coming. It's both awful and inevitable.

Kevin: As a side note, don't you love the naming conventions for Constitution class starships? Exeter, Intrepid, Defiant...Excalibur. It was the perfect name for the ship in this situation. The name evokes the noble Arthurian legend struck down by technology gone awry. They could have named the USS Full of Adorable Puppies, and it wouldn't have hurt more to picture its lifeless hulk, floating in space. It's those little details that get me.

Matthew:  I was completely on board with this episode despite any slight flaws until the conclusion, an awful and inappropriate laugh to the credits. Hundreds of Starfleet personnel have died, for the sake of a computer test no less, yet Kirk, Spock and McCoy are made to be jovial as if we've just come from the Shore Leave planet.

Kevin: They've done it a few times, but never so egregiously. I could easily see Kirk seriously considering leaving Starfleet over this. Even if it were not really his fault, his failure to stop what happened would haunt him, haunt anyone, forever. The laugh rises to the level of outright character assassination.


Matthew: I loved William Marshall as Richard Daystrom. His performance was of an obviously brilliant, but unhinged and insecure genius. His voice and his stature were regal and imposing. He was totally committed to the role, and it was a joy to watch. He really seemed like a guy who could realistically be responsible for the new technological age that the culture of the Federation is enjoying in the 23rd century.

Kevin: I think he deserves particular praise for keeping it all on this side of the line of two-dimensional mad scientist. Dr. Soong, later in the franchise, kind of gets minted as a kook pretty much from the word go. Daystrom on the other hand has a slower burn to his break with reality, and it's grounded not in his work per se, but in his ego. It makes the breakdown both more sympathetic and credible. I compare it to Olympic athletes, who are largely little older than teenagers in the years following their triumph. Imagine having the most important thing you've ever done or will ever do be a four minute routine when you were 16. What would you do with yourself after that? Daystrom is an interesting and wholly believable meditation on that question. William Marshall himself is also welcomed to the club of guest stars who had screen time with Shatner and held their own. Club membership includes a nifty jacket and decoder ring.

Matthew:  Similarly good were our main cast. Kirk seemed genuinely wounded by the notion of being replaced, and both Spock and McCoy responded to this in their own ways. This episode, correspondingly, gets filed with some of the best "character development" stories, such as Amok Time, Journey To Babel, and City on the Edge of Forever. Good company! The supporting cast also did well, adding color to their scenes.

Production Values

Matthew: I loved the design of the M-5, and it was no wonder they brought parts of it back for Assignment: Earth. The sort of "glowing slotted lights" look was different from the "moving dot lights" look that typefied the other computers. Just this little touch makes it seem more advanced and futuristic. In the effects shots, the remaster showed lots of neat shots of other Constitution class ships. The original effects just had a fuzzy repeated optical of the Enterprise. 

Matthew: The costume on Daystrom was interesting. It was sort of like they ran out of material on the standard monochromatic future jumpsuit, so they sewed on some extra sleeves and made it a fabulous future jumpsuit.

Kevin: I have nothing to add to that, save that the caption you added to the picture above is still making me crack up.

Matthew: One small note: They gave Commodore Wesley the high back captain's chair from Mirror, Mirror. Nice touch.

Kevin: There should be some trivia contest where they hold up an object and you have to name all the episode the object appeared in and as what object. I think among the right small, but fanatical, core of fans, this show would be a hit.


Matthew: If it weren't for the stupid ending, this would be an easy 4, maybe even a contender for a 5. So it comes down to me leashing my bile when it comes to a laugh to the credits. Which I can and will do here. 30 seconds of stupid doesn't erase 50 minutes of very good Star Trek. The story was at least average, and both the acting and effects were quite good. So it's a 4.

Kevin: I am going with a 4 as well, for a total of 8. We'll call the laugh-out the "Marla MacGivers Moment," the instance or character that holds back a good episode from greatness. The story is classic science fiction and classic Trek. The cast gives it their all with fantastic results. Maybe the re-re-master can just cut to Kirk on the Guardian of Forever's world saying "Let's get the Hell out of here," and the appropriateness of the emotion will overcome the jump in context, and the result will be an unequivocally great episode.

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