To quote one of my favorite bad Kirk lines: “Out of the nowhere; into the here!” It’s a pleasure to take a crack at another Trek Remastered review, and a very special one at that…Other than “The Doomsday Machine,” no classic Trek episode has been more anticipated in Remastered form than the late second season’s “The Ultimate Computer.” The spectacle of starship-on-starship action, achieved almost entirely through duped stock footage in the original episode, has had fans of the Remastered project slavering since the project was originally announced.
Now the episode is here, with little fanfare in a way—so does it deliver?
No question the original episode does. I’ve made this point before but one of the hallmarks of the original series, and one rarely matched by any of its offshoots, was its stunning parade of unforgettable guest star turns. In “The Ultimate Computer” we have William Marshall in a performance that’s literally towering—he’s probably the tallest guest star on the series other than Ted Cassidy. Marshall plays Dr. Richard Daystrom, a legendary scientist and the developer of Starfleet’s computer systems. His newest project is the M-5 Multironic Unit and, well, you know the rest.
It’s odd that “The Ultimate Computer” directly follows “The Changeling” in this syndication package since the two stories are so similar: two tricked-out thinking machines run amuck, both defeated by Kirk’s time-honored technique of driving computers crazy with logic. Both are also classic Trek “bottle shows” of the type beloved by producer Bob Justman because they employed only the standing Enterprise sets. But while Nomad (as built by special effects artist Jim Rugg and voiced by the inimitable Vic Perrin) has its charm, “Ultimate Computer” has the one-two punch of the impressive Richard Daystrom and the throbbing, supercilious M-5. Marshall is magnificent: you easily believe that this is a human legend boarding the Enterprise with his regal bearing and profound bass voice, the finest this side of James Earl Jones. But Marshall also adds the perfect grace notes to let you know that this hero has feet of clay: he’s arrogant, dismissive of Spock, Kirk, the Enterprise—just about everything not built by his own hands.
The M-5 is interesting in its own right, although almost comically bulky by today’s standards. The combination of Matt Jeffries’ typically clean design work, Rugg’s interesting lighting effects and vaguely intimidating sound effects (a powerful hum of energy that seems to change in intensity along with the M-5’s mood) along with James Doohan’s clipped vocal characterization (Doohan did amazing unheralded work in this area on the series) makes for a memorable mechanical heavy.
Daystrom (Marshall) with his M-5 (background) and McCoy
As an examination of Kirk’s ego, “The Ultimate Computer” is effective if a touch heavy-handed. The captain is reduced to the status of humiliated victim rather handily—even given the demonstration of the M-5 as a system that might very easily replace him and his job, it seems a bit whiny and out of character for Kirk to walk off the bridge after Commodore Wesley refers to him as “Captain Dunsel”—didn’t Kirk go through any hazing at the Academy worse than that? The episode also shares with “Changeling” a Trek hallmark which, while highly enjoyable, illustrates the differences between TV drama of the day and what would pass muster now: both episodes feature wholesale death and destruction loaded with human casualties…and after all that both wrap up with an easygoing joke and a smile, the dead seemingly forgotten.
But the good more or less outweighs the bad: Kirk’s “all I ask is a tall ship” moment with McCoy in his quarters hearkens back to some of their great private meetings in early episodes like “Balance of Terror.” McCoy’s position as a technophobe has probably never been put to better use as he grows increasingly infuriated at Daystrom’s arrogance and M-5’s “imperfect” slip-ups (and only McCoy could pull off this line: “Did you see the love-light in Spock’s eyes? The right computer finally came along.”) Spock goes nicely through his own mini character arc as he’s first quite logically impressed with Daystrom and the M-5, then gradually moves from suspicion to an outright declaration of loyalty and friendship to Kirk, noting that he far prefers to serve under a human commander as opposed to a mechanical one.
The plotline ingeniously mixes the battle of wits between the Enterprise officers and Daystrom with the wargame scenario that pits the Enterprise against three Constitution-class starships, with the Enterprise under M-5’s control ultimately destroying one of the vessels and killing its 400-person crew. Shatner’s anguish as Kirk’s beloved starship is used as a weapon of mass murder is perfectly played in a climactic 15 minutes that really has it all—a grand space battle reduced to a perfectly human equation of responsibility, arrogance and madness, with Kirk desperately searching for the key to stop the M-5 while his Starfleet comrades are being devastated on his bridge’s viewscreen. Even given the limited visual effects it’s a fantastic mix of daring scope and intimate, high-stakes drama that’s confined to one small room—a great example of the character-based drama that Trek at its best excelled at.
That said…what fan watching this episode post-Star Wars didn’t dream of seeing a REAL space battle play out between four powerful starships? There’s a lot of fun stuff here, from the new space station clearly intended to represent a Vanguard station from the Pocket Books Trek series, to the replacement of the old Botany Bay stock footage for the freighter drone Woden with the freighter drone design from the Animated Series (when I appeared on G4’s Attack of the Show with Dave Rossi I remember talking with him before the show about what kind of stuff they would be doing—this was before I’d seen more than a frame or two of Trek Remastered—the topic of “Ultimate Computer” came up and I immediately said “You’ve got to use the Animated Series robot freighter for the Woden!” So I take full credit for this idea, Dave—although you’d probably already thought of it and just couldn’t admit it to me).
It’s difficult to fully appraise the use of new effects in this episode due to the typically brutal syndication edit—just as “Tomorrow is Yesterday” had lengthy, effects-heavy action sequences edited down, so it appears does “Ultimate Computer” and it seems at least a couple of shots from the two war games engagement are missing. That said CBS-D does come up with a variety of interesting shots, although even here, in an episode where they’re pulling out all the stops, there are two or three uses (some flopped) of very similar shots of the Enterprise hitting another Constitution class ship far in front of it with phaser fire. There’s no doubt however that the new work trumps the original in terms of laying out the tactics and action of the space battle—now the attacking ship formations are seen with a satisfying mix of foreground and background angles and perspective, and lightning fast bits of action. “Ultimate Computer” always showed off Trek’s superb editing, music and sound effects in these battle sequences (and indeed in the “death” of M-5) and the new effects add even more excitement to one of the most enjoyable and gripping installments of the original series. I can’t wait to see the uncut version of this episode on DVD.
Looking at the whole Remastered Project
At the risk of making this the longest Trek Remastered review in recorded history, since we haven’t done regular reviews of the series here for a while it’s worthwhile to give a bit of an overview of the project over the past few months. We’ve seen season one released on DVD (and presumably, given recent developments in the DVD hi-def format wars, we’ll see Trek Remastered released on Blu-Ray at some point soon). While I did my appearance on Attack of the Show arguing against the very idea of the Trek Remastered concept, I’ve always been able to see both sides of this argument and in fact I’ve watched every Remastered episode with great anticipation and a mix of excitement and, occasionally, disappointment. For the incredible (for the most part) restoration of the original 35mm imagery on the show to the razor-sharp, almost hallucinatory color values we get to see now, this project has been well worth the effort. There have been a lot of absolutely beautiful things done—in particular the matte paintings have been eye-popping, flawless and have beautifully captured the spirit of the original Al Whitlock work while increasing its depth and detail—take a look at the cityscapes in “A Taste of Armageddon” and even the brief pan across the surface of M113 in “The Man Trap”—for me these shots recreate the childhood wonder I had looking at the great sci fi films of the Fifties and Sixties as well as Trek.
It’s true the space shots have been a mixed bag. There’s been some beautifully textured work, there’s been convincingly photographic work—and there have also been a lot of shots that just read as too obviously CG to me. It’s a trade of one type of unconvincing approach (heavy matte lines and film grain being the chief vice of TOS) for another in some cases. I still manage to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the advantages of camera movement and motion afforded by the CG approach—sometimes it’s like watching a sophisticated version of the Animated Series, but the Animated Series was fun to watch too. There’s definitely been a sense that after a year of work, schedules and budgets have cut down on a lot of the little “extra” fixes we were spoiled by early on. After the smooth work on the finished first season episodes, it was disappointing to see the work on “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Day of the Dove,” where I could honestly say that the original effects work with all its flaws and limitations was more effective. But then a week later, on arguably one of the worst episodes (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”), the CBS-D team will go above and beyond the call of duty.
I still look forward to seeing what this team will do with episodes like “Elaan of Troyius” and “The Cloud Minders” and I’m going to be sad when this is all over because it’s given me yet another excuse to watch my favorite TV series all over again. The fact is, though, I don’t think Trek Remastered will be the final word on TOS where this kind of approach is concerned. Without the pressures of budgets and schedules, fans are already showing they can do work like this at home and make Trek’s effects look exactly the way they think they should. I doubt you’d see anyone capable of redoing the entire series but there are enough fans around with the talent to take on individual episodes, pool their resources and eventually do it all. But we have to credit Mike and Denise Okuda, Dave Rossi and the people at CBS-D for pointing the way and tackling a truly momentous task with obvious love and dedication to this series.
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For more from Jeff Bond, check out his fine magazine Geek Monthly (of which he is editor-in-chief).