Star Trek; The Next Generation

"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It's continuing mission, to explore new worlds; to seek out new life and identity. To boldly go where noone has gone before."

--Opening narration from the television show Star Trek; The Next Generation

Lieutenant Commander Data

Plot Summary:

Star Trek. If you don't know of Star Trek, you must have been living in a galaxy far, far away for the last 30 years! But hopefully you have at least heard of Star Trek, even if you have not personally attended a Sci-Fi Convention dressed as a Klingon warrior. Possibly you are not well versed in the many incarnations Star Trek has undergone in those three decades. If you are not familiar with the acronyms TOS, TNG, TMP, TAS, DS9 or VOY, don't feel ashamed, there are even some avid fans who still wouldn't be able to tell you what these stand for. Luckily for you, I can!


"The Original Series". (You know, the one with Captain Kirk and his trusty sidekick Spock? This is the one that started it all. A notable plus, the first televised interracial kiss happened on this show in the 60's. The lips involved were William Shatner's Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols' Lieutenant Uhura.)
"The Next Generation". (Ah, now this one in my opinion is the cream of the crop! Captain Jean-Luc Picard and First Officer Riker. And since they are too good not to mention, let's not forget Data, Geordi, Counselor Troi, Dr. Beverly Crusher and Worf! A notable plus, this is the show that really made the Star Trek phenomenon come back to life.)
"The Motion Pictures". (When Star Trek boldly goes to the silver screen.)
"The Animated Series". (You know, cartoons.)
"Deep Space Nine". (Instead of a roving ship getting into adventures and trouble, Deep Space 9 is the name of a stationary sattelite station where roving ships can come to, bringing them adventure and trouble. A notable plus, the station's Captain Cisco is a black man, the first minority captain to headline a Star Trek show.)
"Voyager". (A Star Fleet ship that isn't the Enterprise gets flung to the far reaches of the Universe. Their exploration mission has become a mission to get themselves back home. Too bad they're so far away that they will never make it back to Earth within their lifetimes. A notable plus, this ship is headed by a female Captain Kathryn Janeway.)

So now that you're up on the lingo, you're ready to come with me as I explore in detail the instances of artificial life in the world of Star Trek. The Next Generation episodes have the best and clearest examples of robots (androids) interacting with society, so I will focus specifically on TNG (you know what that is now, right?) to look at the way artificial life (meaning robots) have been portrayed on television.


What is its role/function? Why was it created?

Although Lt. Commander Data appears to be a man, he actually is an android. His creator, the brilliant roboticist Dr. Noonian Soong wanted a son and decided to make one for himself. In fact Data actually has a brother named Lore, who basically is Data's evil twin. Lore was created first, and while he possessed emotions (Data does not) he also had the ability to lie. The colonists on the planet were jealous of the perfectness of Lore, and when Lore's penchant for power and destruction was discovered, he was dissassembled. Soong then created Data, but did not plan on giving Data the emotions that had been the downfall of his brother until Data was ready for them.

When Soong's home planet in the Omicron Theta star system was attacked by "The Crystalline Entity", in the desperate evacuation Soong is forced to leave Data behind. Years later Data is found by Starfleet officers from the USS Tripoli and rescued. (See "Datalore" episode) Data enrolls in Star Fleet Academy, earns a degree and eventually gains the rank of Lt. Commander aboard the flagship of the fleet, the USS Enterprise. (See "Encounter at Farpoint" episode)

How human is it? Was it meant to be human?

When dealing with robots and machines, (excluding cyborgs, which are humans with artificial mechanical/computerized implants) an android is meant to be as human as they come. Data is a computer in human form; he has super strength and intelligence, yet his driving force is to endeavor to become more human. Throughout the show series, Data learns and grows, much like a human child would (albeit a very advanced human child!). By the end of the television series' seven year run, and going into the motion pictures, Data obtains and installs the emotion chip that was a gift from his "father" Dr. Noonian Soong. (See "Brothers" episode) The motion pictures then set Data along the path of learning to adjust to and cope with his new found feelings, and in turn becoming more human, which is a whole 'nother kettle of fish! (See "Descent Part I" and "Descent Part II" episodes)

How does it interact with human society? What are the reactions of humans to it?

Data tries his hardest to fit into human society, and for the most part, once people get used to him, they accept him for what he is. It is evident that Data has gained some sort of stauts in the ranks of Starfleet and those of human society. Data holds a rank and position of authority, capable of commanding the ship when needed; and through his efficiency and loyalty Data has also gained the respect and affection of his fellow co-workers. In fact Geordi LaForge, the chief engineer for the Enterpise is Data's best friend. (See "Descent Part II" episode).

However there is one person who could not adjust to thinking of Data as anything more than a machine. Dr. Katherine Pulaski, who in season two temporarily replaced Dr. Beverly Crusher, never really felt comfortable with granting Data human status. She maintains that while Data looks like a human, he is and always will be a machine only capable of fulfilling its programming, and for a long while she insisted on reffering to Data only as "it". In "Elementary my Dear Data" Pulaski says that Data could not be capable of deductive reasoning, only computation. Eventually she relaxes her stance a bit and gives Data a little credit, although not the status of a full fledged person.

What are the consequences of its existence within the context of the work?

Within the context of Star Trek, Data provides a key element of how humans would/should relate to advanced forms of artificial intelligence. The character of Data makes people think about how robots could exist in our not so distant futures. Data performs a valuable function on the ship. He serves as a Star Fleet officer in every sense of the word. On Star Trek, our noble adventurers seek to find "new life and new civilizations". They encounter strange aliens with different cultures and values and make an effort to discover how to live peaceably with all of them. An android with a "positronic neural network" that acts as a brain and operating system is just another life form to deal with. Admittedly it is a life form that was created by humans, but the fact remains that the end result is still a "new race", one to be explored and appreciated. Theoretically, an entire race of Data's could exist, and the humans (as well as humanoids and other aliens) would have to learn how to live in harmony with "The Androids".

What is its influence on the notion of robots? Did it introduce any new ideas?

At one point the question of Data's control over his own existence is questioned. Is he truly a sentient being, to be accorded all the rights and priveleges theroff, or is he simply a machine to be exploited? In "The Measure of a Man", Comnmander Bruce Maddox, a scientist on the verge of a breakthrough in the same technology Dr. Noonian Soong specialized in, wants to dissasemble Data and study his positronic brain in order to produce more "Datas". Data refuses to undergo Maddox's experiments which in essence might serve to end Data's life, leaving him a victim of a complex lab experiment. Maddox then reveals orders from Starfleet Command which serve to transfer the Lt. Commander to Maddox's control. Unable to fight the orders, Data makes the decision to resign from Star Fleet. Maddox objects and goes to the Judge Adjutant General (JAG) saying that Data is the property of Starfleet therefore, can not resign. A hearing commences to decide Data's fate. This episode raised interesting questions and compelling arguments for both sides. In the end Captain Picard comes to the realization that if Data were truly to be considered "property of Starfleet", they would then have carte blanche to produce a literal army of "disposable people". He sees that this is only a pleasant euphemism to hide the enslavement of a new race of beings. One Data may be an oddity, but thousands of Datas become a race, and should be entitled to all the rights granted other sentient beings in the United Federation of Planets. As a final statement for the defense, Picard says "Starfleet was founded to seek out new life-well there it sits!!" After a long and interesting trial, the JAG officer agrees, and Data is allowed to refuse Maddox's procedure.


Back to the Televison Main Page!

Links for further study:

Star Trek TNG Episode Guide

Yahoo's Search for Star Trek Resources