Behind the Scenes of Star Trek’s ‘The Ultimate Computer’

William Marshall and William Shatner

Paramount William Marshall and William Shatner

On this date, December 7 of 1967, filming for one of the most influential episodes of “Star Trek” began. This story involved an idea that seemed unlikely in the 1960s but might be just around the corner in the 2020s. “The Ultimate Computer” was a tale of a genius inventor, his advanced computer, and a crew of humans who might lose their jobs to digital automation. 

The idea for the story was pitched by Laurence N. Wolfe and rewritten by Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana. The episode was part of the second season of Trek and aired in the United States on March 8, 1968. “The Ultimate Computer” featured William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), and guest star William Marshall (Dr. Richard Daystrom).

The story was simple — Daystrom had created a computer that was capable of running a complicated system, like a starship. The Enterprise was selected as the first ship to house the computer, called M-5. While it was onboard the Enterprise, the ship would be a part of wargames, which would challenge the M-5 for a real-life scenario in space. Needless to say, the tests do not go as planned.

The following are some fascinating behind-the-scenes notes from “The Ultimate Computer.”

Shatner Acted on an Apple Crate

TOS 2×24 'The Ultimate Computer' TrailerStar Trek The Original Series Season 2 Episode 24 'The Ultimate Computer' Trailer2011-09-26T11:35:20Z

According to Ande Richardson, who served as an assistant to “Star Trek” showrunner Gene L. Coon, Shatner was a great deal shorter than Marshall. She spoke to Ed Gross and Mark A. Altman for their book, “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years.

“Shatner was the one who had to have the apple crate on set,” remembered Richardson. “He’s the one that insisted that when William Marshall appeared on the show, that Marshall should be sitting down so Shatner could be as tall as him.” 

“He had to be at least eyeline or taller than the other person,” said Richardson. “I remember seeing him standing on it.”

This Was Wolfe’s One and Only Credit

According to Memory Alpha, this was the only script Laurence N. Wolfe would ever write. His day job was as a mathematician, and he wrote the story “out of his fascination with computers.”

Fontana rewrote it as a Kirk-centric story

STAR TREK 2.7 & 2.8 VHS Intros30th Anniversary VHS releases continued into 1997, each volume containing three episodes with an interview at the beginning. 'The Immunity Syndrome', 'A Piece of the Action' & 'By Any Other Name' are introduced by Walter Koenig. Then 'Return to Tomorrow', 'Patterns of Force' & 'The Ultimate Computer' with the late, great James Doohan.2009-10-20T16:40:52Z

Thanks to a series of videos created for the VHS release of “The Original Series,” fans know Fontana was tasked to rework Wolfe’s story. As James Doohan (Scotty) tells it, the script “was an excellent idea, it needed rewriting because Lawrence [Wolfe] had become so fascinated with his M-5 computer and its creator Dr. Daystrom, that the script did not feature our regular characters at all.”

“Even Captain Kirk was hardly in the show, having been superseded by the computer,” Doohan said. 

Inspiration for ‘The Ultimate Computer’

The warhead is still active.VOY 4×8 Year of Hell Part I2020-08-16T16:05:46Z

Writer Peter Aidan Byrne compared the episode to science-fiction staples which followed “Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” and the “Star Trek: Voyager” episode, “Warhead.” These stories are all related, according to Byrne. 

“Where ‘Terminator 2,’ released in 1991, infused its AI nightmare scenario with lingering Cold War anxiety over an atom bomb apocalypse, ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ ‘The Ultimate Computer,’ first airing in 1968, taps instead into its own era’s anxieties over the looming possibility that more and more working humans would be replaced by working machines, working computers,” writes Byrne. 

While there is no direct evidence that the episode was seen by James Cameron when he was working on the “Terminator” films, fans can be certain that it was seen by those Trek writers who would work on the franchise. In a way, “The Ultimate Computer“ was a first draft at a “V’Ger” story, the Borg, or even Control in “Star Trek: Discovery.

Writer Billie Doux says that the entire machine-replacing-human story is actually inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” So, in a way, “The Ultimate Computer” was one of many updates of her classic.

Marshall Became a Monster

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The man who played Dr. Daystrom, who was the rough equivalent to Dr. Victor Frankenstein, would appear in a few films in the role of a different monster. William Marshall starred in “Blacula” in 1972 and “Scream Blacula Scream” in 1973. Marshall was also a Shakespearian trained actor who usually played the part of Othello.  

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