Star Trek TOS: The Perfect Computer No Match for Imperfect Humans

Star Trek: The Original Series

Season 2, Episode 3

The Changeling

There were supposed to be four billion “Malurians” in a nearby galaxy to which Enterprise was headed. But Spock informed Kirk no signs of life whatsoever were present. Uh oh. 

Immediately after the revelation, a green light aimed right at the ship rocked the crew violently. About one-third of all episodes began that way — Enterprise turbulence. Kirk and the crew were under attack, and the ominous green light was not relenting. The reverberations to the ship were significantly more ferocious than past episodes. 

Trying to detect the source of the strike and the submarine feel of the episode, The Changeling was initially reminiscent of The Corbomite Maneuver

Kirk opened up communication channels, arranging a beam-up of the voice to Enterprise. But the voice was a robot. It called itself Nomad. The threat was a computer, paying homage to previous episodes Court Martial, The Return of Archons, and A Taste of Armageddon with man versus computer themes.

Nomad believed Kirk was his creator and was hence strangely loyal to him. The computer then notified the crew of its mission — the destruction of all non-perfect organisms. Star Trek again warned of the dangers computers can pose if allotted too much artificial intelligence and power. Thankfully, Nomad was relatively non-hostile toward Kirk after it interpreted him as his creator. 

The deed of extermining four billion Malurians — kind of a big deal — by Nomad comes to life, and that meant the crew was harboring a weapon of mass destruction. The computer was irked by Uhura’s singing voice, totally flummoxed by the why of her melody. Nomad began probing Uhura to understand her, much to Scott’s chagrin. That ended badly as the machine killed Scott.

But only for a few minutes. Evidently, Nomad was a healer and resurrector. Scott was restored to life, illustrating the full power of the computer. In the background, Kirk was plotting death for the machine. The consequence of the attack on Uhura and Scott was grim. Uhura had to learn basic functions all over again like a kid in kindergarten. Seems like a big deal compared to the “we’ll just teach her stuff” treatment from the crew. 

Spock analyzed the “brain” of Nomad, learning the entire strategy of the machine to sterilize everything deemed imperfect. This was a Holocaust computer. Spock determined the “sterilize” mission pertained to soil and such elements — not humans. A mixup in outer space along the line merged two computers, creating Nomad and its vile personality. 

Nomad busted loose from sickbay, killing guards along the way. Kirk scrambled to find a way for the destruction of the machine. Kill or be killed. Too, Kirk learned Nomad had plans to stop on Earth for its next stop, a clear death sentence for Kirk’s home planet. 

Throughout the episode, the show used point-of-view cinematography for the villain, a first to date in the series. It was effective and menacing. 

For the record, while Kirk always sought to avoid killing creatures and aliens — he had no qualms pulling the plug on machines. That’s how The Changeling climaxed, the death of Nomad

Interestingly, Kirk used the erroneous information believed by Nomad about its personal origins to prove its fallibility. It made Nomad go haywire. Spock was naturally impressed by the platter of logic used as a weapon. 

This was another circumstance in Star Trek where Stanley Kubrick must’ve dug while creating HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Themes: Man vs. Computer

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).