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Star Trek: "The Omega Glory" / "The Ultimate Computer"

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On my way home yesterday, I stopped at Newbury Comics looking for a Seagal movie for the weekend (DON'T YOU JUDGE ME), and I ended up buying (in addition to Marked For Death) a copy of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man. I've seen Wicker Man probably six times now. I'll almost certainly be watching it again soon. In addition to the legitimately good movies in my collection collection, I also own copies of LXG, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Sound Of Thunder, Blade Trinity, Batman and Robin, The Swarm, Viva Kneivel, Grizzly, Ninja III: The Domination, Gymkata, Death Wish III… Oh, and all the Friday the 13th movies except the latest one. I don't mention this to brag (okay, maybe a little to brag), but to provide some context. Because when I say I found the last tenminutes of "The Omega Glory" to be wildly entertaining—I'm not saying they were actually good.


We've had some weird episodes in our run so far—"Wolf In the Fold" springs to mind—but, at the risk of being immediately contradicted, I'd say "Glory" has to've take the weirdest turn yet. For the first two-thirds, it's pretty straight-forward, if tedious. The Enterprise visits the planet Omega IV, and they find another ship already orbiting Omega, the U.S.S. Exeter. The Exeter doesn't answer any hails, and when Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the soon-to-give-his-life-for-the-cause Lt. Galloway beam over, they find a bunch of empty uniforms and piles of white crystal. McCoy studies the crystals, and tells Kirk that they're actually the corpses of the missing crewmen; the water has been drained from their bodies.

So right now, you're thinking, it's some kind of monster. We've had the Salt Vampire, some kind of aqua-hungry nosferatu doesn't seem entirely out of the question. Disappointingly, though, this is all just the result of a horrible biological weapon that originated on the planet below. When Kirk and the others make the next step down to Omega (a helpful final log entry from dying officer informs them they'll be doomed otherwise), Captain Tracey, the last surviving crewmen of the Exeter, is running a village full of Siberian looking people named Kohms, and using his phaser technology to help wage wars against the rival Yangs, a white and warlike tribe that, according to Tracey, is too savage to be negotiated with. Tracey breaks the bad news to Kirk that he and his men are now stuck on Omega; they're all infected with the disease that killed the crew of the Exeter, and staying on the planet is the only way they can keep from dying of it too.

Of course, things are a wee bit more complicated than that. Spock and Galloway soon discover Tracey's phaser battles, which directly violate the Prime Directive; then Tracey shows up, no longer even pretending to be nice, kills Galloway, and lays the situation on the line for Kirk. He believes he's found a functional immortality on Omega, and one that, with some help from McCoy, he'll share with the rest of the galaxy—for a price. I started getting worried that this was going to turn into Star Trek: Insurrection (a movie I didn't hate when I first saw it, but has such a terrible reputation among my friends that I shudder even at the name), but I needn't have. The immortality hope is a fool's gold. The natives on Omega are just exceptionally long lived because of the effect of the virus on natural selection. Which doesn't exactly make sense, but the short answer is, this is not anything that would travel.

While McCoy's figuring this out, Kirk and Spock are thrown into jail, and Kirk has a chance to get friendly with a captive pair of the vicious Yangs. The fight sequence here is fun; by now, the Kirk/Spock byplay is so well drawn that it manages to shine in even the worst episodes. Spock figures out that the bars on the cell windows can be pulled free, and Kirk and the Yang man team up to clear their window. But Kirk is too trusting, and as soon as he turns his back, the Yang knocks him over the head and makes off with his female buddy. (If you suspect that this will be important later when the Yangs re-enter the episode, give yourself a cookie.)

The escaped Yang gathers his fellows together for one big attack on the village, and not even Tracey's phaser prowess can save the Kohms. The budget constraints on the series really show here, as we don't actually see anything of the battle; Tracey does his best to sell a wild-eyed monologue describing the carnage, but it doesn't quite work. One of the problems of the first part of the episode is that we spend so much time with crazy Tracey and Kirk and the others that we never get any real sense of the conflict between the Yangs and the Kohms, which turns out to be a lot more important than you'd imagine.

Just how important? Well… are you ready for this? After Tracey and Kirk do some running around, the Yangs arrive and take everybody captive. The Kohms have been wiped out, and while Kirk and Spock and McCoy are waiting for their fate to be decided, Kirk muses on how the biological warfare that most likely forced the Yangs out of the cities, turning them into the bloodthirsty savages they've become, is an awful lot like the Cold War back on Earth. And then he says, in a line of dialogue that heralds the death knell of sense in "Omega," "Huh, Yangs sounds like Yankees." And Spock says, "And Kohms sounds like Communists."

That's because—they are! And this isn't Earth, and nobody ever even hints at a parallel universe. Instead, the screenplay (by Gene Roddenberry himself) posits the parallel evolution of a humanoid race that not only developed political conflicts resembling our own right down to the names… Aw jeez, I almost feel bad for telling you this. I feel like I'm spoiling somebody's birthday. I mean, I'd actually heard about this in advance, but it caught me completely by surprise, and while this is actually a terrible, terrible episode, there's something wonderful in finding out for yourself just how bad it gets.

But hey, they don't pay me the big bucks not to deliver on my implications, so here goes. The Yangs worship an American flag. And one of them (the one that bonked Kirk over the head earlier) starts speaking to the flag in a phonetic rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance. Kirk joins in, because he's got this wacky idea that he knows what's going on here, but before he can convince the Yangs he's right, Tracey starts trying to turn the Yangs against him. He points out that Spock looks a lot like the picture of the devil in the Yangs sacred book (and yeah, the resemblance is pretty goddamn ridiculous), so we get some trial by combat nonsense. Kirk wins, Spock gets Sulu and some red-shirts to beam down, and now that Kirk has things in hand, he gets out the Yangs most precious document, and gives them all a big speech about how awesome democracy is.

Because, see, the piece of paper is the Constitution of the United States.

This doesn't make any sense at all; and what's great is that it doesn't even try to make sense. A more cowardly television show—one of your Twilight Zones or Battlestar Galacticas—would've given us some third act twist to explain why an alien race that hasn't mastered space travel has managed to work up a Constitution that matches ours even down to the handwriting. But not our Trek! Never mind the creepy way the Yangs are all white to a man, or the fact that the Kohms, despite Kirk's admonitions to the contrary, seem to be basically the bad guys. Let's just relish the richness of the loogey Roddenberry has hawked into the face of reason and logic. This is sublime awfulness, gang. Dare I say it? This approaches the glory of "HOW'D IT GET BURNED?"

The second episode this week, "The Ultimate Computer" (a surprisingly literal title for the series), isn't anywhere near as terrible. It's got a great guest star, a decent hook, and some edge of the seat battle sequences. There's something a little flat to it, though, and while I never had a "You've gotta be fucking kidding" moment while watching, my mind did wander. The perfect Trek episode needs something more than just basic competency to be memorable; "Computer" entertains, but never really excites, not even when the stakes are at their highest.

As befits their status as The Ship That Has To Do Damn Near Everything, the Enterprise gets called to a star base and told they are about to receive a singular honor. Dr. Richard Daystrom, the computer genius, has perfected his masterwork, the M-5 system. To test it, Starfleet is going to hold a war game; the M-5 will take control of one ship, and square off against four others to test its combat readiness and ability to run a vessel. The Enterprise gets put under M-5's command, which means a steep-but-temporary crew reduction (down from 400 to 20, which includes our leads and a reasonable cushion of expendable ensigns) and a lot of hand-wringing about the horrors of replacing humans with machines.

Which, quite frankly, I don't buy. I can understand the relevancy of addressing the question to a modern audience, but this isn't swapping auto-factory workers with mechanical arms. The M-5 may be the most sophisticated machine in the universe, but it has no physical presence. It can't beam down to a planet, it can't open negotiations with new life, and it sure as hell can't fix itself when something goes wrong. "Computer" goes out of its way to show the dangers of autonomy, but while it's charming to see that even in The Future, people still struggle with the same problems, I'm not all that interested in a Trek that feels the need to explain why technology is a harsh mistress. John Henry versus the steam engine this ain't.

Besides, has there every been a sci-fi story in the history of anything where giving a computer complete control didn't end in the computer going psycho? It's like generations of writers spent their childhoods getting mocked by somebody's graphing calculator. From the moment we find out that the M-5 will be running the ship—into simulated combat, no less—we all know where this is going. I'll give the ep the benefit of the doubt and assume the story wasn't quite as predictable to audiences at the time, but it's still disappointing to have things go exactly as you'd expect they would, right down the line. Hell, Kirk even talks the machine into offing itself!

For those of you who haven't seen this in a while: initially the M-5 is in top shape, acing the war games and even inspiring a commodore to refer to Kirk as "Captain Dunsel," slang which basically means he's superfluous on his own ship. (This is a surprisingly dick move on the commodore's part, too. He might be trying to make some grand comment about how they'll all be outmoded some day, but it really comes off as an attack, and a thoroughly unmotivated one at that.) But then the M-5 starts acting up, destroying an unmanned freighter for no reason and then openly attacking the four ships it had earlier engaged in the games. Lots of frantic running around trying to shut down the system ensues, including Daystrom himself (whose along for the ride and not entirely right in the head) trying to convince the M-5 to stand down. But in the end, only Kirk can explain to it that by killing humans, it violated its purpose. I guess it makes sense that Kirk gives the speech. He's done it so many times by this point that he could do it in his sleep.

But like I said, "Computer" is competent, and it has its good bits. There's a lot of great Kirk/Spock/McCoy dialogue, and Kirk's comments on how strange it feels to actually be at odds with his own ship are nicely done. The battle at the episode's climax, while not exactly showy (shades of "Omega" here in that we hear about a lot of things happening, but we don't see a lot of them), is fairly intense; Kirk having to sit back and watch while the Enterprise murders hundreds is a exciting in a way the rest of the episode doesn't quite manage. And best of all, we get William Marshall as Daystrom. Marshall played the King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse (after Gilbert Lewis left), but to me, he's Blacula, from Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream. SBS is a mixed bag (it's got Pam Grier, but it's not, y'know, Pam Grier enough), but Blacula, goofy title aside, is surprisingly great, and Marshall's the reason why. He's one of the all time coolest screen vampires, and while "Computer" doesn't give him a ton to do, he does manage to find the tragedy at the heart of the character: as the others note, this is a genius who peaked early, and has spent every day since trying to prove he wasn't a fluke. Maybe if we'd focused a little more on that, "Computer" might've been more memorable.

"The Omega Glory": D+
"The Ultimate Computer": B

Stray Observations:

  • Great exchange between Kirk and Spock after Spock executes a neck pinch: "Pity you can't teach me that." "I have tried, Captain."
  • Lousy as the "Omega" climax is, McCoy gets a terrific line: "Spock, I've found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very careful."
  • Good one from Spock during "Computer": "Captain Wesley is a dedicated commander. I would regret serving aboard the instrument of his death."
  • Next week we finish up the second season with "Bread and Circuses" and "Assignment: Earth."