Skip to main content

Love and Androids

So far this week, I've looked at the two most basic types of conflicts for characters in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- physiological needs and concerns over threats and safety. Pressing forward, it's more difficult to make sweeping generalizations about such and such an episode, we have to focus on individual characters and their motivations.



The simplest and most general type of psychological motivation revolves around acceptance and love. Human beings are social animals, and even our fictional creations seek relationships and affection. For the most part, the crew of the Enterprise is presented as a surprisingly well-knit and supportive work place considering that initially most of them are strangers to each other. However, there are tensions that pull the characters away from each other, a reoccurring theme in first season "character episodes."


 Sometimes you can almost guess what's written on each index card for the main character's motivations. Tasha Yar: gain measure of peace with troubled childhood. Worf: reconcile Klingon background with human upbringing. Wesley: stop getting treated like a kid.

Data is the character with the most obvious tensions over acceptance and one of the clearest character arcs over the course of the season. Even more than the truly alien Worf, Data represents a challenge to his friends and crewmates. Data simply does not get people and his attempts to blend in typically serve only to highlight this point. Very early on in the awful "Code of Honor," episode, Data attempts to tell LaForge a joke, failing spectacularly. A running gag in the first season is Data initiating a conversational info dump only to hear, "Thank you, Data, that's enough." By the second season, even the main computer gives him lip.

Data as a character really defines why I prefer looking at the needs of a character over situational conflicts (man vs. nature, man vs. man, etc.) What makes Data interesting, even early on, is this bottomless need to fit in paired with an utter inability to do so. Watching this 25 years ago, I initially figured this part of Data was a programming defect until the "Datalore" episode when it's revealed Data's incomprehension of basic human customs was feature not flaw. Data's creator intentionally created an imperfect android, one less offensive to the other human colonists of his homeworld. The other android created by Noonien Soong, Lore, tells the crew that the colonists grew alarmed by his more sophisticated understanding of human behavior. Although this phrase isn't used, Data is an example of the uncanny valley effect. The closer an android gets to being human, the more jarring the minor difference remaining become.

Actually, in retrospect, "Datalore" functions as a reboot for the character, the true beginning of his quest to be more fully human. By the end of the story, Data doesn't even seem to understand the betrayal that Lore's actions represent. To Data, Lore is a threat and once dealt with, Data continues on as before, alone but incomplete.

A better signpost to where the character is ultimately going happens later in the season in "We Will Always Have Paris," and "Neutral Zone," the season finale. Data has a pivotal role late in the earlier episode, beaming down to a computer lap and patching a flaw in time with a canister of anti-matter. Picard orders him into the risky situation because Data seems to be less bothered by the 'temporal hiccups' caused by the rift. Data, however, at first assumes the captain is sending him down because he is somehow expendable. Patrick Steward is able to provide Picard a moment of being taken aback by the android's clinical observation, a moment that Data seems to pick up on. Later on in the episode, three distinct Data's appear after another hiccup, with only one in proper phase to repair the rift. One of the android's calls out for the captain but it's the middle one that steps forward with a simple, "It's me!" The episode doesn't make a big deal out of this moment, but I actually like it a great deal. It's one of the first clear moments where Data expresses something like an emotion, first confusion and then the exhilaration of self-discovery. Not to beat a dead horse, but this is Data giving himself the measure of acceptance and recognition absent from the other characters with exception of LaForge.



Which is why Data's side-plot in the season finale strikes a chord with me. It's Data who beams over to the decaying satellite and rescues the freeze-dried 20th century passengers. Ryker and Picard seem repulsed by the survivor's behavior and attitudes but Data seems to identify with them.  It's Data who forms a bond with the musician and seems genuinely tempted, or at least curious, by L.Q. "Sonny" Clemmons' offer in the closing scenes. Sonny offers something that Data had not realized he wanted, companionship and the casual acceptance of another. These are themes, obviously, picked up and elaborated on through the run of the show.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 


SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

What I Read in 2017

The third in my series of year-end lists is literature. As in past years, I've divided this post into two categories: Novels and short stories. Each of these stories made 2017 just a bit brighter for me and I hope this list includes at least a writer or two new to you.


Novels:
I Wish I was You by SP Miskowski: This was the subject of a review earlier this year. The way I feel about this novel, the tragedy of a talented person crippled by anger and regret, transformed into a monstrous avatar of wrath, has not really left me. Beyond the perfection of its prose and its preternatural subject matter, I feel like this is one of the best evocations of the mid-nineties I've seen published. There's something about this book that lingers with me long past the concerns of its plot and characters. I guess what I'm trying to say is this work moved me. 2017 would have been a lot dimmer if I hadn't read this work.New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Robinson writes next-level sp…

Review of "Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste

Part of the reason American Gods works is that it offers a kind of reward to folk lore mavens and religious study majors. Do you have a working familiarity with obscure Northern European mythologies? Are you able to describe what Neil Gaiman got right and what he fudged a bit in terms of the Egyptian religion? Then the guessing games of that novel - just which Middle Eastern Goddess is this? - magnify its other charms. 
"Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste (released by Broken Eye Books), is a novella for people, like me, who are waiting impatiently for the next season of Bryan Fuller's show. It's not set in that universe, certainly, but approaches the question of folklore from a similar perspective. Namely, that myths have a definite, physical explanation and your knowledge of such things will expand your enjoyment of the work. In the case of Pretty Marys, the stories are urban legends and nursery rhymes about young women. The main character, Rhee, is named…