Star Trek TOS: A Familiar Cautionary Tale of Man vs. Machine
Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 24
The Ultimate Computer
Commodore Wesley arrived on Enterprise, informing Kirk and Spock his ship would be playing war games with the crew. Early on — especially based on the title of the episode — this was established a “be wary of the machines” installment of Star Trek, a familiar theme. The experiment was designed to determine if computers could run ships more efficiently than humans. Kind of like automated cashiers. Ever heard of those in modern times?
Kirk and Spock were most concerned about the limit of crewmembers that would be called upon to be present during the trial — only 20. While Star Trek promoted the promise of computers, there was still a massive apprehension of computer-only operations.
The M5 Computer was at the heart of the plot. A Dr. Daystrom was the loudest proponent of the technology, and Spock even warmed up to his capabilities. Kirk was less enthused. Then, M5 started shutting off power on some regions of Enterprise. Naturally, this was perplexing to all because the computer needed to have a purpose in doing so. It was a mystery.
Daystrom investigated and decided M5 killed the power because the areas were uninhabited. Meanwhile, the actual war games commenced — and M5 performed marvelously. This spurred another conversation between Kirk and Spock about computers instead of man. Spock championed the use of computers for enhancement to procedure but insisted he would never prefer to work under only computers.
Kirk was feeling useless. So, McCoy and Kirk had a drink to lament the supremacy of the machine.
Another batch of war games hit, and the crew learned M5 had no off button. Strong HAL9000 vibes here. M5 was engaging in preemptive war during the war games, seeming to understand the stakes of the situation.
Kirk, who was frustrated before with everything about the M5, was irate now about everything. Unlimited power by the computer even spooked Spock, who previously gave M5 the benefit of the doubt. And with Kirk on the warpath, Spock fell in line with M5 skepticism. When M5 went rogue, an Enterprise crewmember died — which acted as a rallying cry for anti-computer sentiment.
Daystrom revealed he programmed the computer with human-like traits, sounding like artificial intelligence as humans know it nowadays. But that conversation with Daystom and Kirk was interrupted by another round of war games. Everyone freaked out over M5’s absolute power this time. The war games were again engaged by M5 and killed humans.
Spock picked up Daystrom’s scent — he created M5 as a mirror image of himself. And that was the malfunction.
The only solution to neutralize M5 was for the other wargaming ship to destroy Enterprise. But at the last second, Commodore Wesley recognized the sort-of bluff orchestrated by Kirk. Kirk “gambled on the humanity” of Wesley — and it worked.
The parable was familiar. Computers are leaps and bounds more efficient than humans, but they have no souls. Therefore, machines cannot be trusted to fully replicate the activities of humans.
Themes: Man Versus Machine
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. His odyssey with Star Trek starts from beginning to finish, watching ‘The Original Series,’ all the way to the present day. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).