Computers: you can’t live without them, and sometimes, you can’t even live with them. Erratic computers have been part of the Star Trek canon from the beginning. Here are some of their most memorable moments.
Before There Were Nanoprobes...
If there was a debate among the Enterprise D crew about whether it was a good idea to allow kids on a starship then, “that time Wesley accidentally released the nanites” would have been a perpetual argument in the “con” category. In the Next Generation episode “Evolution,” Wesley falls asleep while conducting a science experiment and accidentally unleashes tiny nanites. Basically the nasty cousins of Seven of Nine’s handy nanoprobes, they cause chaos on the Enterprise, from alerting Worf to enemy ships that aren’t actually there to shutting down life support. Luckily, Wesley confesses to Gunian, and the adults get together and figure out a way to save the ship and Wesley’s science experiment.
Nomad Goes Mad
Captain Kirk is known for getting out of a pinch with sheer bravery and brawn, but when necessary, he’s equally adept at using his brain. The Original Series episode “The Changeling” proves it, when Kirk saves the day matching wits with Nomad, a homicidal AI. Lessons learned from the episode include: Never beam aboard an unknown robot, Spock can mind-meld with machines, and it’s okay to kill off a major character — as long as you have the power to bring them back. Nomad gets a pass for murdering Scotty, but wiping Uhura’s memory wasn’t cool, nor was murdering a bunch of nameless security guards.
In “The Changeling,” Nomad mistakenly thinks that Kirk is his creator. But in the Voyager episode “Dreadnought,” the homicidal AI really does have a creator who’s a member of the crew: Lt. Torres. An automated warship created by the Cardassians, Torres had captured it as a member of the Maquis and reprogrammed it. But now, transported to the Delta Quadrant, it’s confused as to what it's supposed to target. Torres tries to reason with her baby but ultimately ends up blowing it to bits.
A Revolt that Never Was
On Deep Space Nine, the station’s perpetual need for repair is the bane of Chief O’Brien’s existence. But in “Civil Defense” it becomes the entire crew’s problem when he and Jake set off an old Cardassian alarm while deleting some files. The computer thinks a Bajoran miners’ strike is taking place, and seals the crew off into various real-life escape room scenarios, with a pre-recorded Gul Dukat acting as their maniacal host. The real Gul Dukat shows up to help but does little more than throw some pointed barbs at Garak, and ultimately it’s the Chief and a very lithe Jake Sisko (who’s small enough to wiggle through collapsed maintenance conduits) who end up saving the day.
Get Out Your Dictionary
Of all of the technological marvels showcased on Trek, perhaps the most impressive is the universal translator, which not only lets the people of Earth talk with alien species but with each other. The crew of the Discovery finds out how useful they are the hard way when the translators go wild in the episode “An Obol for Charon." When a giant orb infects the ship with a computer virus, the universal translator spits out words in random languages, but luckily the bridge has a back-up translator and the problem’s soon fixed. The same can’t be said for the ship’s holographic comm system, however, which is ripped out on Captain Pike’s orders early in the episode, setting the stage for the video screens seen in The Original Series.
The First Holo-Activist
With its beloved holographic doctor, Voyager often explored matters of holograms’ rights, from what freedoms they should have to if they were actually living beings. But many of these concepts were first explored in the memorable Next Generation episodes “Elementary, Dear Data” and its follow-up “Ship in a Bottle.” When La Forge asks the computer to make a Sherlock Holmes mystery that Data “can’t solve,” it creates a free-thinking hologram in the character of Moriarty. Picard convinces him — then deceives him — into hanging out in the ship’s memory systems, and decides to leave the issues of holograms' rights for another captain.
When the Enterprise Got Sexy
“Computed, dear!” It’s embarrassing enough to have a flirtatious computer at your workplace, but when it’s in front of a manly Air Force pilot from the past, it’s even more excruciating. That’s exactly what Captain Kirk has to deal with in The Original Series episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday." When the Enterprise goes in for repairs at Cygnet XIV, a planet dominated by women (with a sense of humor, apparently), they give the computer more personality than its captain can handle. Kirk has bigger worries, however: How to get back to the present after the ship snapped through time, and what to do about the pilot on board. The computer’s pet names and propensity to giggle were removed, but the female voice (famously provided by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) remained.
Worst Customer Service, Ever
When you’re far away from home and you’ve just had your first major clash with the Romulans, it sure is nice to find a state-of-the-art repair station nearby. In the Enterprise episode “Dead Stop,” Captain Archer and the crew find just that — but it seems too good to be true. TL;DR: it is too good to be true! The repair station tries to harvest Ensign Mayweather’s brain. Luckily, Dr. Phlox manages to save the day while Archer and Tucker encounter food replicators for the first time and then basically spend the rest of the episode doing the 22nd century equivalent of yelling “I want to speak to the manager!!” into the phone.
The Enterprise Almost Gets the Right to Vote
In a thought-provoking episode of The Next Generation, “Emergence,” what appears at first to be a computer malfunction ends up being the result of the Enterprise gaining sentience. Even more fascinating, the crew is able to explore its “thoughts” through a free-running program about the Orient Express which the computer is creating in a holodeck. It turns out what a starship gaining self-awareness craves is vertion particles — so it can make an Enterprise baby. The baby takes flight, but since the series ended two episodes later, the crew doesn’t actually have to think about whether or not the Enterprise is truly alive for too long.
Janeway: First Blood
One way in which the starship Voyager differs from the Enterprise is its use of bio-neural gel packs, which function as a sort of nervous system for the ship. Unfortunately, that also makes them susceptible to bio-viruses. In the Voyager episode “Macrocosm,” viruses accidentally transported up from the surface of an infected planet find their way into a gel pack, causing Paris to burn a pot roast and the rest of the crew to spawn fly-like bugs that turn into even bigger flying predators. But Janeway, returning from a diplomatic mission, goes all sweaty commando, making her way through the disabled ship with ease. In a move Rambo would be proud of, she ultimately lures the giant bugs into a holodeck with holo-characters as bait and explodes them all with an antigen bomb.
Jennifer Boudinot (she/her, @jenboudinot) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Collider, The Belladonna Comedy, and Points in Case. She's also the co-author of the books Dangerous Cocktails and Viva Mezcal. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a Kira with a hint of Dax.