I remember years ago on Reddit visiting the Star Trek subreddit and finding a post entitled, “I just finished watching TNG for the first time. Who is your favorite character, and why is it Data?” That made me laugh. It’s funny because it’s true. The ensemble characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation are each defined by a single trait. Picard is aloof, Riker is strong, Worf is noble, Geordi is tenacious, Crusher is incisive, Deanna is empathic, and Data? He’s different. Data is relatable.
He’s an android who wants to understand human emotions and perhaps even experience them one day. Unfortunately, he lacks the capacity to feel anything, so he has to watch his crewmates suffer, celebrate, and struggle with no common frame of reference with which to understand them. For some reason, this makes him remarkably likable and interesting.
When we first meet Data, he’s childlike and curious, sometimes even arrogant and annoying. But something interesting happens over the course of the show’s seven seasons. He becomes more in tune with people’s emotions, and he fights back against his own limitations.
Episodes like “The Most Toys,” “Brothers,” and even “A Matter of Perspective” give him ample opportunities for growth. I’d like to share parts of them as a means of explaining why I agree that Data is the best one of the main characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The Most Toys
In “The Most Toys,” Data is imprisoned against his will by a collector of rare artifacts who treats him like a prized possession instead of a sentient being. Data pushes back against this indignity by refusing to wear a costume and sit in a chair as long as possible until he has no other choice. But his final act of defiance is amazing. He aims a vicious weapon at his captor and commands him to surrender.
The captor just killed his most trusted assistant who was helping Data escape. He taunts Data’s lack of emotions because if he felt anything, Data might be able to feel enough rage and need for revenge to kill him. The android is programmed against needlessly taking a life. So the captor thinks Data is powerless. But Data resolves the dilemma in his mind by simply saying, “I cannot permit this to continue,” and he pulls the trigger. The only thing that saves the bad guy from a gruesome death is a timely beam up of Data.
In “Brothers,” Data comes tantalizingly close to receiving an emotion chip that would help him overcome the limitation in his positronic brain. He would be able to finally feel. He gets to meet his creator, Dr. Soong, who is dying. Unfortunately, Data’s evil brother Lore also intrudes on the family reunion, hence the name of the episode. And Lore tricks Data and Dr. Soong by switching Data off and taking his place so that he receives the emotion chip instead of his brother. Then he fatally wounds Dr. Soong.
The ending of this episode is particularly poignant. Data speaks with his creator one last time and explains that he can’t grieve over his death. Dr. Soong accepts that with quiet dignity, noting that Data will grieve in his own way. That’s okay because we the audience grieve for Data and the tragic loss of what is in essence his father.
Not only that, but Dr. Crusher gets one more bittersweet line at the end when she says, talking about a pair of quarreling brothers whose feud almost killed one of them, “They’re brothers, Data. Brothers forgive.”
A Matter of Perspective
At the start of “A Matter of Perspective,” we get to see how much Data has grown and learned about the need to temper his focus on telling the truth. Data is about as impartial a judge as one could imagine. When he enters Picard’s art class and begins praising his fellow artists’ work, we understand that they are truly great artists. Eager to join in on the praise, Picard asks Data what he thinks of his own painting.
Data just says, “Interesting.” Clearly, he would prefer to leave it at that, but Picard doesn’t take the hint and instead asks him to elaborate. Which Data does. To a painful degree. He notes how inept and inappropriate Picard’s juxtapositions are, as well as the disturbing nature of his artistic influences. Picard finally stops him mid-sentence, and bitterly thanks him for the critique. It’s funny and oddly relatable for anyone who’s struggled with social cues.
When I first thought of writing this article, this was the scene that I intended to singularly focus on. But I realized that there’s so much more to say about this character. We all have to learn a proper balance between giving our opinions and being considerate of the feelings of others. We all experience loss and tragedy, and we have numerous chances to forgive and be forgiven. And we sometimes have to defend ourselves from unjust acts of aggression, even though we don’t want to cause harm to anyone.
Perhaps some people aspire to be stoic and wise like Picard, brave and clever like Riker, or even ingenious and flexible like Geordi. But for regular folks like me, Data represents who we are. He’s not aspirational; he’s simply relatable. An episode like “Data’s Day” opens a child’s eyes to the complexity he had never known before in the world around him. “Measure of a Man” introduces the idea of fear about not being treated fairly, becoming voiceless, and having to be defended by someone else. And there are many other episodes that highlight other childhood worries and times of learning.
Basically, Data represents the child in all of us. He’s doing his best to navigate a world swimming in emotions without any natural means of relating to it. It’s wonderful to see him forge relationships with others the best he can. The love, respect, and kindness his crewmates show him feel totally earned. And they give us hope that we can earn those same things from the people we care about in our own lives. So I suppose Data is aspirational in that way.
No matter how clumsy or imperfect we might be at the beginning of our lives, we can mature into the person our Creator designed us to be. Just like Data.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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