Monday, 28 October 2013

TOS - 2.24 - The Ultimate Computer

star trek - the ultimate computer
I don't care what you say. I want my blue shirt back
even if it has been stretched to 2 sizes larger.
And wash it before you return it to me !
Yes, George Takei was back in this episode after a rather long absence of what I speculated in my review of episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" that because he was acting in The Green Berets (1968).

In the 1980s when IBM introduced its 1st line of PCs or microcomputers for offices, I remember the anxiety people had regarding the digital revolution (I had no such issues because I was studying electrical engineering with a major in computer software engineering. Today's generation would have little anxiety about technology because they are born into it). Every week, TV showing how the smart technology could play chess, help a washing machine do its job better, making coffee, automate this and that in the workplace. Understandably, we all thought we maybe made redundant sooner or later, losing our jobs to the microchips. They're powerful and everywhere, and outsmarting us in many ways.

Cyberpunk movies like The Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) reflected the anxiety of the coming of the Information Age with their terrifying vision of a futurist dystopia. Especially The Terminator, where the central message is abundantly clear - we're doomed, and the smart machines are going to enslave us. This is far worse a fate than being made redundant. We're made extinct. But this is cinematic allegory reflecting reality. Having said that, as far as being enslaved by smart machines, there's an element of truth. Probably more so in the future.

Let's rewind to 1.5 decades before the onset of this digital revolution (or should I say fast forward 3 centuries into the future?), our intrepid Captain Kirk faces the same worry in this epsiode. In other words, he's worrying that he's going to be made redundant by M-5, the super smart computer, one that is far more intelligent than the existing computer installed on the Enterprise.

The crew of more than 400 is now dwindled down to a skeleton crew of 20 of only the most senior officers onboard. Captain Kirk is visibly perturbed by the idea that he's becoming a captain Dunsail, a term describes a midshipmen at Starfleet Academy in a part serving no useful purpose ("Dunsail", I guess is abbreviated from "Done Sailing").

There you go, 1.5 decades before the digital revolution, before the word 'computer' even entered the general population, Start Trek TOS is already portending, addressing this issue. It's light years - ok 1.5 decades - ahead. Future is hard to predict, but this episode nails it.

I mentioned in my review of episode 1.23 "A Taste of Armageddon" (almost exactly 1 season ago)that it's a predecessor of Wargames (1983), except that it's more about the dehumanisation element of smart technology in war than the computer that powers such futuristic dystopia. This episode, on the other hand, is more about computer who powers the wargames. However, this episode addresses both the computer revolution and wargames. There's very little question that this episode is a predecessor of Wargames (1983).

And not a pure coincidence, Wargames (1983) is released between The Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984). This is quite self-evident that the jitters of the digital revolution were fully felt and reflected in the cinema in the early 1980s.

Speaking of IBM that introduced their PCs into the workplace in the 1980s, we have to mention HAL-9000. Not that HAL is also a computer, and that IMB is a forerunner in artificial intelligence, and that IBM is also an acronym like HAL with one letter shift. M-5 the super smart computer in this episode is also a villain like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

HAL-900 and M-5, 2001: A Space Odyssey and this episode, one released in April 1968, and the other aired March 1968. Are they all merely coincident? My feeling to the answer is 'no'. If you read all my previous reviews on Star Trek TOS, I accounted for nearly all episodes where the ideas come from. No, this isn't in any way diminishing TOS writers. In fact, I have much respect for them. They maybe inspired by others, but they never just copied. According to TS Eliot, "Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal." And TOS writer stole aplenty!

But if this episode aired before 2001: A Space Odyssey, how could they be accused of stealing? Well, Stanley Kubrick didn't get the idea for his space epic from this epsiode. His sci-fi epic is an film adaptation of Arthur C. Clark's novel.

So it's that mean this episode has no relationship with 2001: A Space Odyssey at all? I think it's likely that Star Trek team heard about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and decide to ride on its success. Recent example of this approach was applied to episode 2.17 "A Piece of the Action" that it was made conveniently within months of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" was an answer to The Green Berets (1968).

With an excess of over 20 episodes to be produced a year, it's quite difficult to ask the TOS writers team to come up with totally original materials in such a timeframe with such pressure. Having said, as I pointed out above, they didn't just carbon copy. They stole. Star Trek TOS could hardly get their ratings off the ground. Trekkie today might find this surprising, or even shocking. They needed to apply every tricks in the book to make it work. Sometimes by riding on the success of others if needed be.

Sci-fi flicks weren't too popular, especially serious sci-fi, which there were few and far and between before Steve Spielberg made his Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977). He started the whole sci-fi shebang. It's not that Spielberg is a great director, which he's undoubtedly is one, but it's also because of the timing. When Stanly Kubrick made his 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same year as this episode and nearly a decade earlier, it wasn't very well received. Of course, one can argue that Close Encounter is much more entertaining than Space Odyssey. More entertaining, I agree, but a lesser masterpiece of cinema.

Space Odyssey was far too ahead of its time, and so was Star Trek TOS. Before them, there were really only few sci-fi flicks that match them in their thoughtfulness and to be taken seriously over a span of few decades, Metropolis (1927), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the War of the Worlds (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956), The Time Machine (1960), and Planet of the Apes (1968).

I didn't mention Lost in Space (1965 - 1968) because it's really more like Brady Bunch in futuristic setting. Well, if you look at the IMDB, it classifies it as Adventure, Comedy, Family. It focuses on family issues above all else.

The audience of the 1960s hadn't quite ready for sci-fi. They had no problem handling the Brady Bunch, however. There were only some 6 respectable sci-fi films I mentioned above that were made in the span of 5 decades! Today, it's quite far outcry when there're more sci-fis being made than, say, romantic comedies. Far more. Yep, sci-fi has come of age. After all, we're living in the Age of Internet, and Digital Revolution with smart phones and apps used by villagers in India and China. We've arrived in the future, and the sci-fi genre piggybacks on this thrilling ride.

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