In the wake of Leonard Nimoy's death last February, I decided to rewatch the entire original Star Trek series, all 79 episodes. I had watched them each many times over in high school in the 70's, though the local station removed a scene or two from each episode to add commercial time and I often missed the opening segment because I didn't get home from school in time. Back in those stone ages we had no DVR or other method to record shows. I hadn't seen many episodes of the original series since high school.
Now I can watch the entire episodes whenever I want in full and in order through the magic of Netflix. I finished this quest a few days ago. Some spoilers below.
I could talk about the heavy sexism, the ability to predict future technologies (the flat screen TV in episode 74), the social issues in the 23rd century as viewed from the 60's, or just the lessons in leadership you can get from Kirk. Given the topic of this blog, let's talk about computing in Star Trek which they often just get so wrong, such as when Spock asks the computer to compute the last digit of π to force Jack-the-Ripper to remove his consciousness from the ship's computers.
Too many episodes end with Kirk convincing a computer or robot to destroy itself. I'd like to see him try that with Siri. In one such episode "The Ultimate Computer", a new computer is installed in the Enterprise that replaces most of the crew. A conversation between Kirk and McCoy sounds familiar to many we have today (source).
MCCOY: Did you see the love light in Spock's eyes? The right computer finally came along. What's the matter, Jim?
KIRK: I think that thing is wrong, and I don't know why.
MCCOY: I think it's wrong, too, replacing men with mindless machines.
KIRK: I don't mean that. I'm getting a Red Alert right here. (the back of his head) That thing is dangerous. I feel. (hesitates) Only a fool would stand in the way of progress, if this is progress. You have my psychological profiles. Am I afraid of losing my job to that computer?
MCCOY: Jim, we've all seen the advances of mechanisation. After all, Daystrom did design the computers that run this ship.
KIRK: Under human control.
MCCOY: We're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that's different. And it always will be different.
KIRK: Am I afraid of losing command to a computer? Daystrom's right. I can do a lot of other things. Am I afraid of losing the prestige and the power that goes with being a starship captain? Is that why I'm fighting it? Am I that petty?
MCCOY: Jim, if you have the awareness to ask yourself that question, you don't need me to answer it for you. Why don't you ask James T. Kirk? He's a pretty honest guy.
Later in the episode the computer starts behaving badly and Kirk has to convince it to shut itself down. But what if the computer just did its job? Is that our real future: Ships that travel to stars controlled only by machine. Or are we already there?