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The Enterprise arrives at a starbase, and Kirk is informed rather brusquely that all but 20 of his crew are going to be taken off and the Enterprise is going to be fitted with the M5 computer for testing. The M5 is the most sophisticated computer designed by the contemporary computer genius, Richard Daystrom, who was the designer of the Enterprise's current computer systems. The M5 was designed to captain a starship; the newly-installed M5 on the Enterprise is going to be tested in various scenarios.
The main characters' reactions to this is interesting. As Kirk says, he doesn't want to stand in the way of progress, but the prospect of a computer-controlled starship makes him uneasy. McCoy, of course, is flat out against the idea. Spock professes admiration for Daystrom's accomplishments and the hope that the M5 pans out, although later we learn that he hopes for this just so that Daystrom will be further honored, not because he think it's desirable.
Daystrom himself is a giant man with a giant personality to match. He is extremely confident in the capabilities of the M5, and immediately perceives the Enterprise crewmen as being against him, even though we know that Spock is not. Despite this, we get an underlying sense of nervousness from Daystrom, as if he's not quite as certain about M5 as he claims.
Interestingly, Daystrom deflects some of this nervousness by claiming that Kirk is against the M5 because he doesn't want to give up the "glory" of command to a computer that would do it without fanfare. This actually sparks some self-probing by Kirk, asking McCoy if he thinks he (Kirk) only likes command because it makes him powerful. No doubt that's one aspect of it - Kirk enjoys commanding the crew. However, I don't think he enjoys it for the petty reason of bossing people around, but because he knows he has a talent for making the crew into a cohesive unit to accomplish their missions. I think the other aspect of command that Kirk likes is the relative freedom to explore the galaxy with the incredible resources of the Enterprise and its crew at his disposal. And isn't that what we would want in a captain?
Once the M5 is installed, the Enterprise starts out on its testing mission. The first tests are simple course changes, communications, and landing party assignments, which are no problem for M5. Kirk insists on turning off M5's control of the ship in between tests, which Daystrom chides him about.
The first big test is when two other starships approach unannounced - an unscheduled war games test for M5. Commodore Wesley on the Excalibur sends them a message confirming it's an unscheduled test, and so all ships should have their phasers set to minimal power. The M5 maneuvers the Enterprise to successfully attack and defend and eventually scores sufficient hits to declare it the winner in the test.
The aftermath of this has two interactions that are pivotal in the episode. Kirk is especially glum that a computer has apparently commanded the ship in an engagement as well as he could have. Spock says that while he is gratified that the M5 is living up to expectations, he wouldn't want to be part of a crew commanded by a computer. He declares that a starship functions successfully not only by efficiency, but by the loyalty to a single, living captain. This is a defining moment for Spock and his relationship to Kirk, clearly stating his loyalty and his belief that all crewmembers' loyalty to Kirk is essential for the success of the Enterprise's missions. It's a quietly thrilling moment.
But then we are slammed with our next pivotal conversation: Wesley sends a message to the Enterprise congratulating M5 and "Captain Dunsel" for the victory. Kirk acts like he was slapped in the face and makes a quick exit from the bridge. McCoy plays the part of the viewer, demanding to know what the message meant. Surely McCoy couldn't be so obtuse to not realize that a "dunsel" is something useless. Honestly, given the supposedly close friendship between Kirk and Wesley, I can't believe Wesley sent such a message. Perhaps he meant it more jokingly than Kirk took it.
Kirk retires to his quarters for some self-pity, which McCoy tries to kick him out of. But there turns out to be little time for it, because the Enterprise approaches an unknown ship, returning Kirk to the bridge. The unknown ship is identified as an automated ore freighter shipping cargo between planetary systems. Even though M5 has identified the ship, it still powers up the Enterprise's phasers and approaches aggressively. Kirk tries to disconnect the M5 from control, but cannot. M5 uses the ship's phasers to destroy the freighter.
The fact that the freighter was unmanned was pure luck, a fact that does not escape Kirk or the others. He demands that Daystrom disconnect M5 immediately and orders further testing to be canceled. However, Daystrom cannot disconnect M5; somehow it has programmed in additional connections between itself and the ship, and even initiates a new power link, killing an engineering crewman.
Kirk orders Spock and Scotty to set up a bypass of M5's connections. They have to regain control of the ship before they reach their war games rendezvous with four other starships. Meanwhile, McCoy has an interesting discussion with Daystrom about M5. Daystrom becomes overly protective of M5's failures, almost like a parent protecting a child. And then he tips over into mild insanity, rambling on about how he wanted to make computers to control ships so that men would no longer have to go on dangerous missions and die in space. McCoy realizes that Daystrom is close to losing it completely.
Spock and Scotty are ready with the bypass, and Kirk orders it done over Daystrom's objections. However, M5 has anticipated their actions and the bypass is ineffective. They reach the rendezvous for war games with M5 still in control.
Wesley signals them to star the war games, and M5 signals back as if it knows the situation is a game, but then begins attacking with full phasers. In the confusion of the first attack, two ships are badly damaged. The other ships signal the Enterprise desperately, but M5 is allowing no responses. M5 attacks again, killing the remaining crew of one ship. Wesley orders the other ships to back off and signals Starfleet for permission to use the remaining ships to destroy the Enterprise.
One aspect of the situation I found a little odd is that Wesley never seems to comprehend what might have happened on the Enterprise. His communications are mostly beseeching Kirk to stop the attacks - doesn't he think Kirk would if he could? Even when Wesley asks for permission to destroy the Enterprise, he doesn't really hit on the idea that the computer control is what has gone berserk.
On his part, Kirk is desperate for some way to stop M5. He badgers Daystrom, but Daystrom makes cooperative noises and doesn't do anything. Only once the crew of one starship is dead and Kirk accuses M5 and Daystrom of murder is Daystrom finally galvanized into action.
Daystrom begins talking with M5 via a microphone, trying to convince M5 that it has committed a crime. M5 talks back, justifying its actions. It's clear that M5 for some reason perceived the ships as a threat and was defending itself, but it's equally clear that this perception was a mistake. Daystrom tells M5 that murder is a sin. Then he begins slipping farther into madness, going off on a rant on how people laughed at him behind his back because his greatest discoveries had happened so long ago, and that M5 was going to show them all!
Kirk remembers that Daystrom said he put part of his own personality into M5, and makes a gamble. He has Daystrom sent to Sickbay - McCoy says he's on the verge of a breakdown - and then begins talking to M5. He gets M5 to state the premise for why murder is a sin, and then convinces it that it has committed that sin by getting it to scan the dead starship. M5 agrees, and shuts down all power to itself and lowers the ship's shields.
By this point, Wesley has received permission to destroy the Enterprise and his ships are approaching. Kirk orders the Enterprise's shields to stay down. Wesley feels like something is wrong and breaks off the attack. Eventually communications are restored so Kirk can make the situation clear. The ending is very bittersweet, since many lives were in fact saved, but many hundreds of lives were lost.
This episode is an excellent example of a classic science fiction premise: taking an emerging trend in technology and pushing it to its logical limit. With more and more automation by computers, even when the series originally aired, it's only logical to think that computers could potentially replace people in almost everything eventually. Here we see some of the possible consequences of that.
I appreciate that the philosophical and "humanistic" aspects of this idea are explored first. How could a crew follow a computer? What kind of decisions need to be made logically only, and which ones needs some compassion and perhaps common sense to temper them? An example of this is the landing party assignments. M5 said that Kirk and McCoy were nonessential. Perhaps they would be, except that their huge amount of general experience means that they could pick up on things that the other crewmembers might not. On the other hand, M5's choice of one geologist over the other based on the geologist's non-Starfleet experience was a good example of how the encyclopedic knowledge available to a computer can be useful.
From the general aspects of the situation, the episode progresses to some specifics that are unlikely, but more exciting: M5 taking over the ship and attacking everything in sight. I would have to think that in such a computer test, this scenario is unlikely - more likely that the computer would just choke on some test - but it provides excitement and drives home the true risks of turning control over to a computer.
Daystrom was also an interesting and compelling character. He was very charismatic, almost making M5 succeed by the force of his personality alone. I can see how he could have convinced Starfleet into conducting such an in-depth test of M5, when really such a test was rather premature, since we have no indication that M5 has ever commanded any ship outside of simulations.
We also see that Daystrom is very conflicted. His biggest breakthrough happened when he was young, and he feels like he's been trying to live up to his own reputation ever since. We also see that his ultimate goal with computer-controlled starships is to keep people from having to "die in space" on exploratory missions, feeling that humanity's true calling is to produce art and other creative works. It's interesting how these two aspects of his personality and past intertwine, creating an insane zeal. Did he always have such altruistic goals for his work, or did he develop a zeal for such goals as a way to justify his single-mindedness in pursuing the work on M5? After all, it would be easier to justify cutting corners in developing M5 if it were for a noble purpose.
One wonders what will happen to Daystrom after the events of this episode. Although the events surrounding the test of M5 were tragic, it clearly also was an extremely capable computer. Is the flaw in it (from the human aspects from Daystrom) a fatal one?
Another very positive feature in this episode is the chemistry between the big three characters. We see Kirk and McCoy have some significant introspective conversations. Kirk's quoting of a poem in order to compare space travel and sailing is a classic scene. We also get some great interaction between Kirk and Spock (especially mentioned above). Spock and McCoy have some typical wrangling, although Spock effectively shuts that off when he takes McCoy's side of the issue: that computer command isn't a good thing. There are little jokes, like McCoy saying, "Did you see the love light in his eyes? The right computer finally came along," describing Spock's reaction to M5. This is the kind of writing that makes you like the characters and feel like you know them.
One weak point of the episode is that the situation is resolved by Kirk convincing a computer to kill itself. This has been used numerous times; this episode's iteration is particularly similar to Kirk's badgering of Nomad in "The Changeling". Given the other strengths of the episode, I can overlook it!