Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
Computers In Science Fiction: Classic Movies | Computers in Science Fiction: Contemporary Movies | Computers In Science Fiction: Novels and Short Stories
Robots in Science Fiction | Androids in Science Fiction | Cyborgs in Science Fiction
This entry is about computers found in TV science fiction series. They can appear as sidekicks to enable the hero to have someone to share his/her thoughts with, as the 'hub' for the show, usually as the interface of the system on-board the spaceship central to the show (with the sole purpose of running the ship's automated systems, monitoring the critical systems and processing system requests for information) or, occasionally, it can be the 'villain of the week'. Some are more useful at this than others.
This entry is not intended as a definitive guide to all computers in TV science fiction. Rather it is intended to show the evolution of the way computers are portrayed, which has changed as our knowledge and perceptions of computers have changed.
Doctor Who (1963)
Doctor Who was a long running science fiction series on the BBC, though it has been shown around the world. Many of its stories featured computers, too many to list here, but the following three are of worthy note. Some of them were good, some 'evil', but none were a match for the central character, the Doctor.
WOTAN ('The War Machines', 1966) (Will Operating Thought Analogue), a computer created to streamline telecommunications, housed in the Post Office Tower1. It had ambitions of mechanising the world with the aid of a few brainwashed human allies and an army of War Machines, heavily-armed, self-contained mobile computers which proved more than a match for troops, but by establishing a magnetic force field, the Doctor was able to capture one of them. He then re-programmed it to destroy WOTAN.
BOSS ('The Green Death', 1973) (Biomorphic Organisational Systems Supervisor), an intelligent, erudite HAL copycat who uses his Global Chemicals employees as pawns in his game for world domination via the medium of hypnotism and psychological bullying. A side-effect to the toxic dumping was giant, bullet-proof maggots.
Xoanon ('The Face Of Evil', 1977), another artificial intelligence, this time its schizophrenic nature was caused by the Doctors previous meddling, and created invisible creatures in the image of the Doctor. The egotistical computer even carved the image of the Doctors countenance in a cliff face as 'The Evil One'. Xoanon was worshiped and feared by the tribal descendants of a marooned exploration team on an unknown planet, and kept the natives firmly in their place.
Xoanon's condition is notable as it was created as a result of the Doctor's own meddling at some (unspecified) time in the past. It is in fact the operating system from an exploration ship that crashed on the planet many generations earlier. Some of the ship's crew were originally to have surveyed the world for possible colonisation, but then the Doctor arrived (in an unseen adventure) and helped the technicians to repair the computer. Unfortunately he neglected to erase his own personality print which subsequently made it schizophrenic. The computer arranged for the crew to be split up: the technicians (Tesh) on the one side and Survey Team 6 (Sevateem) on the other. It began as an experiment, raising the Tesh as ascetic telepaths who would tend with religious fervour to its every need, while allowing the Sevateem to descend into savagery. Over decades, this lead to the development of two castes of society warring against each other. On returning to the planet, the Doctor realises his original mistake, and manages to use the reverse memory transfer system to wipe the additional personalities from the computer, leaving it sane and in proper control once more.
See also the Doctor Who BBC site for other computers seen during the series.
Star Trek (1966)
Self aware: No
Number of Users: Unlimited
Possibly one of the most famous computers in science fiction, the Star Trek computer was introduced in the original series and continued through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and all the Star Trek movies.
Comprising a largely voice activated system, the computer can be queried and given orders and respond in a synthesised, female voice (played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry). The computer always refers to itself in the third person.
The computer itself (referred to as the computer core) is massive, some several metres in diameter and several desks high. The core is surrounded by a sub-space field that allows the computer to process at faster than light speed. Some ships, such as the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D and USS Prometheus have several separate computer cores. The USS Enterprise for example has two cores in the saucer section (between decks 5 and 14), and one core in the stardrive (or engineering) section (between decks 30 and 37). This design was used because the two sections could separate, and needed independent, autonomous computers.
Early computers used duotronic circuits, designed by Dr Richard Daystrom. Daystrom initiated a disastrous experiment with multitronics when he installed the M4 computer in the USS Enterprise NCC 1701 under the command of Captain Kirk. M4 was essentially a 'thinking' computer. It took command of the Enterprise to run a simulated battle with four other constitution class ships. Normally, there would be no way for one constitution class ship to defeat four others. During the mock battle, M4 turned the weapons systems back on to their normal settings and killed everyone aboard two of the ships. This happened because M4 had neural engrams based on Dr Daystrom's mind, which was unstable. He had created duotronics when he was 24 and had been struggling to re-create his previous levels of genius. The effort had made him mentally unstable.
Computers in later Star Trek shows (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager) all use optronics (optical electronics) as their technology base. These comprise optical chips, about 10 mm by 40 mm by 4mm with optical pathways built into them. Deep Space Nine's optical chips are cylindrical rods, because the station was built by Cardassians. They can be removed and replaced, or re-ordered to change the way a device functions.
The optronics based computers also act as an interface for the Universal Translator, which allows species who speak different languages to communicate.
The computer also offers a screen based interface called LCARS (Library Computers Access and Retrieval System). This is a highly customisable operating system that uses unmarked buttons (often referred to as 'Okudagrams', after the inventor of the interface, technical consultant Mike Okuda) and meaningless reference numbers on screens to give access to computer information. All ship stations (Helm, OPS, Tactical, Engineering and Science stations, etc) are LCARS interfaces.
Although the primary interface for the computer is voice, it is not intelligent. It will not volunteer information, does not 'think' in an intelligent way and can only deal with one request per user at a time (in other words you cannot ask it two or more questions). Attempts to do this will be met with 'Please restate a single question.' Other quotes include:
Please do not address this unit in that manner...
Please specify how you would like to proceed, sir...
That information is not available...
This terminal is not a replicator...
Unable to comply...
Unable to respond...
Warp core collapse in 10 seconds
Reg Barclay once created a direct neural interface to the computer in the Holodeck, which nearly killed him.
More information is available at the Star Trek Official Site.
The Tomorrow People (1974)
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: Several
The Tomorrow People was a show about teenagers who have 'broken out' as 'homo superior', the next stage of human evolution. TIM is an advanced computer based in the Tomorrow People's Lab. He was constructed by John, with help from the Galactic Federation. Timon Irnok Manta constructed key components and provided his voice. He is based on biological components, and can be considered to be alive. Although TIM cannot be turned off, his external connections can be deactivated, but he still continues to think.
TIM has telepathic abilities, he can communicate via telepathy and has some sort of replicator which he can use to create objects from nothing. He controls the jaunting belts and bands (which the tomorrow people use to determine their teleport location), as well as the communication and teleporting equipment used between Earth and the Galactic Federation.
TIM, like all advanced computers in science fiction can connect to almost any computer in the world, and has access to almost unlimited information. He acts as a father figure to the Tomorrow People, and is very protective of them, he will sometimes rebel against the Galactic Federation to support the Tomorrow People.
Blake's 7 (1978)
Name: Zen / Slave / Orac
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: One
Blake's 7 had three computers of note: Zen, Orac and Slave, which were all voiced by Peter Tuddenham.
Blake and his band of chums (a space-aged Robin Hood and his not-so merry men and women) are on the run from the evil Federation. They have a ship called the Liberator, which gets blown up, so they get another ship called the Scorpio.
All three computers were self-aware with a voice interface. Zen was built into the Liberator and had a screen, Slave was built into the Scorpio (he had little lights which flashed on his rotating display, which looked like an egg timer), and Orac was a perspex box that looks cheap by today's sci-fi budgets but at the time probably cost a small fortune.
Orac was built by Ensor, while Slave was built by Dorian, and Zen by the Altans, the race that built the Liberator.
Orac was the most useless computer ever built. It could predict the future with 100% accuracy, but in the most vague terms imaginable. He did have other uses such as monitoring Federation transmissions, breaking Federation codes, taking over other computers, etc. He got his irritating personality from his creator, Ensor. However, as far as his original purpose was concerned, he was pretty useless.
Blake: Show us the future.
- Orac displays the Liberator exploding -
Blake: When will this happen?
Blake: Yes, but when?
Orac: It is even closer now.
Eventually they get fed up with him and unplug him.
More information is available at Blake's 7 BBC site.
Knight Rider (1982)
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: One
'The Car's The Star' was certainly true on this show. Knight Rider was a huge hit in the US and UK. KITT or Knight Industries Two Thousand was the computer in the car (Pontiac Firebird).
KITT was the second (or third, depending on how you count it) attempt at a totally safe, ultra fast, thinking car for law enforcement. He was friend to Michael Knight. KITT's basic processor was designed to create a personality to complement Michael's. Where Michael was sometimes reckless, KITT urged caution. KITT also had an ego though, and would often show off. In Michael's maiden drive in KITT, he is urged by Devon Miles to accelerate while driving behind the semi. Michael does this as Devon explain's KITT's thinking.
Devon: KITT has two choices. Override your acceleration, or overtake the semi.
- KITT overtakes the semi -
Michael: Why'd it overtake? Why didn't it slow down?
Devon: It's showing off.
KITT was maintained by Bonnie Barstowe and then April Curtis in FLAG's semi-articulated lorry. It was here that he was fitted with any mission-specific equipment he would need.
KITT was very selfless in protecting Michael. Despite his molecular bonded shell, which made him almost invulnerable, he was endangered several times and chose to sacrifice himself, rather than risk injuring Michael. At one point, KITT even ejected Michael from the car to protect him. KITT certainly obeys the Three Laws of Robotics.
Red Dwarf (1988)
Interface: Voice / Screen
Gender: Male, then Female then Male again
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: Dubious
Holly, a tenth generation AI computer on board the Jupiter Mining Corporation ship Red Dwarf, must be the most senile computer in science fiction.
Dave Lister (a 3rd class vending machine technician) is punished for bringing an unvaccinated cat on board by being put into stasis for months, and rather neatly survives the radiation leak that kills the rest of the crew. Awoken three million years later, Holly informs him they are millions of light years from Earth and the only people on board are Arnold J Rimmer (a computer simulated hologram of his old bunkmate) and the Cat (a humanoid creature descended from the race that Lister's cat spawned). Later the crew is joined by Kryten (a mechanoid).
Holly is played by Norman Lovett, then later by Hattie Hayridge (explained in the series by Holly having a 'head sex change'). Holly is a disembodied head which appears on screens around the ship and on a wrist watch that Lister wears. Holly can also see from this.
There's a hole in your pocket. It's absolutely terrifying. It was like 'Attack of the Giant Gooseberries'.
Holly originally had an IQ of 6000 ('... the same IQ as six thousand PE teachers'), but as his (her) IQ is linked to runtime (essentially life expectancy), Holly was forced to deliberately become stupid in order to still be 'alive' when the radiation levels became low enough and Lister could be brought out of stasis.
Unfortunately, once Lister was released from stasis, Holly discovered several things.
He couldn't remember how to increase his IQ back to its original level.
Having piloted Red Dwarf out of the solar system in order to avoid spreading the radioactive contamination, he now didn't know where Red Dwarf was.
The ship had been steadily accelerating for the last 3 million years and was about to break the light speed barrier.
Holly's low IQ also means that he/she often can't come up with plans and the crew have to fend for themselves.
We have three realistic alternatives: (1) Sit here and get blown up, (2) Stand here and get blown up, (3) Jump up and down, shout at me for not being able to think of anything, then get blown up.
See also the Red Dwarf BBC site.
Quantum Leap (1989)
Interface: Voice / Handlink
Gender: Male, then Female
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: Unknown
Ziggy, the first sex change computer in mainstream science fiction (excluding Holly from Red Dwarf, which is, technically, more of a comedy).
Sam Beckett creates project 'Quantum Leap' and takes a time-travelling journey, leaping into people to change history for the better, then discovers he can't get home and his brain has been turned to 'swiss cheese' and he's forgotten a lot of his life. In fact, in his first leap, he forgets he was Sam Beckett - time traveller and thought he was a US test pilot with amnesia.
Sam designed this parallel hybrid computer to run Project Quantum Leap. Ziggy's main function is to analyse the original history of the person Sam has leapt into and calculate probabilities about what Sam is supposed to 'fix'. Sam occasionally ignores Ziggy's predictions. Sam gave Ziggy an ego, which was a real breakthrough in computer development. Originally, the computer was male, but after Sam leaped home to 1999, it was shown Ziggy had a female voice after Tina (Al's girlfriend) had done some reprogramming. She thought a female computer would be easier to work with.
Ziggy's ego proved a real problem for Sam. During Sam's first Leap, Ziggy refused to accept responsibility for not being able to bring Sam back, and cut power to most of the project, leaving only essential items available. The computer is prone to mood swings and sometimes refuses to predict what will happen for fear of being wrong. Ziggy also shut down the heating/cooling system in the project, which is housed in the desert, so Al appeared in Bermudas during the day and in Antarctic gear during the night. Ziggy crashed once and put an extra zero on everyone's paycheck. Then the computer began to spit out data in foreign languages. Al blamed the problems on foreign microchips.
While Al is in the Imaging Chamber, he communicates with Ziggy, Gooshie and the others via a handlink. The handlink has undergone a few design changes, most likely to make them more durable. Al tends to abuse them quite a bit, and one handlink died spectacularly while Al was attempting to retrieve information.
Ziggy digested the entire works of Shakespeare in a matter of seconds, explaining that with a one-million-gigabyte capacity, she was perfectly able of rubbing her belly, patting her head, and doing a trillion floating point operations at once. She also has an appreciation for the human figure. When Sam undressed in front of her she remarked:
Ooh, if you weren't my father...
More information available at Quantum Leap - Virtual Seasons.
Babylon 5 (1994)
Interface: Voice / Screen
Self aware: No
Number of Users: Unknown
The computer on Babylon 5 is crystal based. As in Star Trek, all Earth Force computers appear identical and are able to accept voice commands, deliver messages, run vital systems and interface with other machines. Another similarity is the computer referring to itself in the third person.
The five year plot line of Babylon 5 centres around humans taking their place in the galaxy alongside other races. In the end, they 'evict' the last of the ancient races and take their fate in their own hands. They screw it up a little, but on the whole end up running things fairly well.
Computer data can be stored in crystals for easy transportation, although it is difficult to see how such small crystals do not get lost through holes in pockets more often. Possibly the futuristic fabric of their pockets are tear proof. The crystals are read by being placed on a special pad on a computer terminal. Little more is known about the computer. Babylon 5 was a character-orientated show, not a technology orientated one. For example, the acronym for their pulse guns (PKG) is never explained, but Photo Kinetic Gun, is a good guess.
More information is available at the Babylon 5 Official Site.
Interface: Voice / Screen / Hologram / Romy
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: Unlimited
Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda is set on the starship Andromeda Ascendant, the last ship in the Highguard fleet, which defends the Commonwealth of Worlds (sounds strangely familiar to Starfleet's relationship to the United Federation of Planets).
The ship and its captain, Dylan Hunt (played by Kevin Sorbo), have been trapped near the event horizon of a black hole for over 300 years, but the temporal dilation effect means it only lasted a few seconds for the ship. Being frozen in time is a shame for Dylan as he misses the fall of civilisation, but then vows to restore it.
When the series starts, Andromeda is a disembodied personality in the ship who has a female figure (played by Lexa Doig) that can be displayed on screens and using holographic projections. Later the new engineer, Harper, builds her an android body, who eventually takes the nickname 'Romy'. Dylan admits it is weird being able to talk to her face to face.
Dylan: All those times you've seen me...
Romy: ...getting out of the shower.
Dylan: Can we just say 'On numerous occasions'?
Andromeda is everywhere on the ship and can answer the crew's queries by voice, hologram projection, or through Romy, if she's near enough. Andromeda can even talk to herself.
Dylan: You know they say talking to yourself is the first sign of mental decay.
Romy and Andromeda together: Only for wetware.
The Andromeda is a warship, so she has a warship's mentality. Romy is an accomplished hand to hand combat expert. In one episode she takes out five attackers while Tyr (a born warrior) just stands there watching.
More information available at the Andromeda Official site.