55 Years Later, Star Trek Finally Fixed Its Weirdest Canon Quirk
Evil robots need humans to talk them down, right? Maybe not anymore.
In March of 1968, the only way for Captain Kirk to wrest control of the USS Enterprise away from an out-of-control AI was to convince it of its own shortcomings. But, this episode of the classic Star Trek — “The Ultimate Computer” — was just one of many occasions in which the human element was weaponized by Kirk and the crew to beat an out-of-control sentient computer. Although the show was called Star Trek, if we just looked at Kirk’s proclivity for taking down evil AIs, the show very well could be reconsidered as a kind of Van Helsing-esque romp, in which Captain Kirk battles robots instead of vampires.
From the M-5 of “The Ultimate Computer,” to Nomad in “The Changeling,” and even V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the mythology of Trek rests on the trope that human compassion is the best defense against corrupted AI. There are exceptions, of course. In The Next Generation, Data tended not to try and destroy everyone, and even when he did (“Descent”) the recovery was swift. And, overall, after The Original Series, the vast majority of Trek has asserted that organic life needs to be around to keep AI from running amok.
But, in a recent Lower Decks episode, “A Few Badgeys More,” this very old sci-fi Trek trope unfolds in a surprising new way, which, upon first watch, may be subtle enough to be missed. Although there are two plots happening simultaneously, the entire episode is focused on the scheming machinations of different evil AIs. Tendi and Boimler are tasked with checking out the “Self-Aware Megalomaniac Computer Storage” at the Daystrom Institute on Earth, all because two previous evil AIs they each have experience with, seem to have reformed. Selfish Exocomp “Peanut Hamper” claims to value organic life now, while “Agimus,” an AI that Boimler and Mariner defeated in Season 2 also claims to want to help the Federation now. As Tendi and Boimler head off to see if Agimus and Peanut Hamper are reformed, Mariner jokes: “Ohh have fun with the sinister robots who definitely aren’t trying to trap you guys.”
But then, Mariner, Rutherford, and the rest of the Cerritos crew are confronted with the re-emergence of “Badgey” a murderous holographic AI created by Rutherford in Season 1. So that's three evil AIs all in one episode, which gets even more complicated when aspects of Badgey’s personality start fragmenting.
However, the bottom line of all these storylines is where Lower Decks throws a curveball. While all the characters, from Tendi to Rutherford, to Boimler, to Mariner, all attempt to talk to the different evil AIs and convince them not to be evil, they all fail. Nobody achieves a Captain Kirk-like victory in which the spirit of humanity triumphs over the cold will of the AIs. Instead, Peanut Hamper does genuinely reform, while Agimus feels empty after taking over an entire planet. Finally, after gaining total control of every subspace relay in the Federation, Badgey realizes his life is meaningless, and peacefully ascends to another plane of existence.
In each case, Lower Decks has the Megalomaniac Computers come to positive conclusions on their own. Arguably, having mishaps without clear heroes and villains is a hallmark of the comedy of Lower Decks overall. But, in this episode, there’s something a bit deeper, and almost plays out like a comedic version of the entire first season of Star Trek: Picard. Back then, Picard, Raffi, Seven, and the motley crew of the La Sirena unraveled a mystery in which ancient evil AIs (from another dimension) were trying to help emergent AIs (Synths) destroy all organic life. In the end, Soji (a Synth) rebelled against the evil androids and struck a blow for peace.
Essentially, that story boiled down to a moment when good AIs beat bad AIs which is philosophically kinda like whenever Data defeated his evil brother, Lore. Meanwhile, in Discovery Season 2, an evil AI called Control was just straight-up evil and had to be destroyed no matter the cost, and was barely slowed down when a nice robot/cyborg named Airiam tried her best to fight back.
In all cases, these contemporary victories involving Starfleet versus AI, have, like in the classic era, ended up okay because some human (or organic being) talked some sense into the AIs — or failing that, just blew them up. But, hilariously, in Lower Decks, the evil AIs just talked sense into themselves. The trope of scary AIs turning nice isn’t new for science fiction — in fact, it's been around since Isaac Asimov’s final story in I, Robot; the “Evitable Conflict.” But, this nuanced look at self-correcting AI is rare in very popular TV and film sci-fi. And, even among the 800-plus hours of Star Trek, it's hard to find an evil-AI-turned-good story quite like this one. There may not be a discernable moral or useful present-day allegory in “A Few Badgeys More,” other than perhaps this one idea: The malevolence of AIs might not be a moral problem, but instead, a glitch that might work itself out.