Heresy of the Week – Data was the point of Star Trek: The Next Generation


data mister tricorder

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

“Star Trek: The Next Generation had a cast of strong characters, but the strongest, and most meaningful, of all was the android longing to be human, called Data.

I grew up on a diet of — amongst other things — Star Trek: The Next Generation. I later found that Deep Space Nine resonated more deeply with an adolescent-to-adult me; I engaged with The Original Series with the fascination of an anthropologist or archaeologist; Voyager pricked my curiosity and brought out the explorer; and Enterprise…well, it wasn’t as bad as it the press it gets, but that’s another heresy for another week.

But it was TNG which woke me up. And sitting on the living room floor from the age of about six, it was even then clear; Data was the point of the whole thing.

That’s not to dismiss the other characters out of hand. Geordi was actually my favourite, even as Riker was the one I wanted to be. Or maybe Worf. But whilst Guinan was the conscience, and Wesley Crusher the ambition, Data was undoubtedly the heart.

It might sound a little odd, I suppose, given that he is a character that feels emotions only in one (two-part) episode during the series run, but Data embodies so much of what Star Trek represents. His overwhelming ambition and drive is to learn about humanity, to become human himself. He explores social interaction with the voracity of a curious child, and through TNG‘s 7 years becomes more than the sum of his parts.

In the episode “The Measure of a Man”, Data’s very personhood goes on trial. It is one of the series’ finest episodes, and in defence of the android against a Starfleet scientist who wants to disassemble Data for research, Picard says:

“Now, the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this… creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be; it will reach far beyond this courtroom and this… one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom – expanding them for some… savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him, to servitude and slavery? Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well, there it sits! – Waiting.”

 

And there it is; Data is the exploration so referenced in the opening quotation (repurposed nonsensically as a “captain’s oath” in J.J. Abrams’ reboot [Not a reboot – Ed.]). He is also the exploration of the human, through the alien. The Doctor, in Voyager, performs a similar function, and arguably Spock does the same in TOS.

It is that mirror, seeing ourselves as outsiders, which forms the heart of Star Trek. All sci-fi is analogy, and analogy as an art form is something that Star Trek has mastered. If Data, a machine of our own creation, strives so hard to be a man — and more, to be a good man — then that provides us a window into our own soul, an idea that we too can strive to be the best of ourselves, and that there is, indeed, nobility in humanity.

It is also no coincidence that the crew’s story ends, in Star Trek X: Nemesis, with [spoiler] Data’s unhesitating self-sacrifice to save his captain, a man who had guided him on his journey towards humanity. It is a plot element which has been heavily criticised, but if self-sacrifice is the ultimate in human nobility, then Data’s personal journey is complete.

Star Trek is more about exploration of ourselves, than exploration of space. And in that self-exploration, Data is the alien glass through whom we can see clearly.

One comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more – except for the last bit. They should never have killed off Data as he was so well-loved it made many fans (including myself) heartbroken at his loss (I’ll always refuse to watch Nemesis for this reason as I don’t want to see it – it was bad enough hearing about it). I know Brent Spiner said he was getting too old to play Data any more as he was supposed to be a non-ageing ‘lifeform’ but they could just have had him transfer to another starship or leave Star Fleet or something.

    Like

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