With Star Trek: Discovery almost here, we continue our #BackTrek countdown through the best bits of the sci-fi series to date.
Although obviously Star Trek: The Next Generation’s answer to Mr Spock, Data was always about more than just saying “Is this what you humans call… love?” At a time when artificial intelligence was in its infancy, here was a mainstream TV show using Data, played by the incomparable Brent Spiner, to explore the ramifications of whether an artificial being could be said to truly have sentience.
Of course, it was often ridiculous and, looking back now, it’s striking quite how bad the make-up job was: caked in white foundation, poor Spiner looks less like a futuristic android and more like a middle-aged goth at a gig by The Cure.
Data embodies everything that made TNG great. While his indefatigable logic led to many hilarious one-liners and even moments of pure farce, this sad-eyed, cybernetic Pinocchio also provided some of the most moving and thought-provoking moments in Star Trek history. At some point he should be given his own spin-off. (Netflix: make it so.)
Picking the 10 best moments of Data brilliance is nigh on impossible – but we’ll try anyway. In reverse order…
Not exactly a top-notch episode, but still endlessly rewatchable for its sheer wrongness. The Next Generation made a lot of missteps in its opening season, but having a crew we didn’t yet know succumbing to a personality-altering space plague was one of the worst. In terms of Data’s story, it’s the day our android pal loses his virginity to an intoxicated Tasha Yar, after she romantically mentions avoiding “rape gangs” as a street-kid. It’s as bad – and brilliant – as it sounds. Watch through your fingers, set phasers for cringe, and, as a sobered up Tasha hisses at episode’s end, pretend it never happened.
TASHA: What I want now is gentleness. And joy. And love. From you, Data. You are fully functional, aren’t you?
DATA: Of course, but-
TASHA: How fully?
DATA: In every way, of course. I am programmed in multiple techniques, a broad variety of pleasuring.
TASHA: Oh, you jewel! That’s exactly what I hoped.
9. Data Dances (Season 4, Episode 11)
In between almost scuppering the wedding of his friend Keiko to Transporter Chief O’Brien, and helping foil a Romulan plot, Data takes dance lessons from Dr. Crusher. A natural – if alarmingly vigorous – tap dancer, he struggles with the ballroom moves. But it’s all good – Data learns a lot about human social interactions. And, best of all, he involuntarily smiles.
CRUSHER: I’ll show you. I’ll lead. Now, you’ll notice that I don’t just repeat the same pattern over and over. I improvise. Now you lead. That’s good. Now, look up, Data. Look into my eyes. You’re holding me too tight.
DATA: This is a very complex set of variables to coordinate, Doctor.
CRUSHER: You are doing fine. Now, smile. Act like you’re enjoying yourself.
8. “Captain” Data tears Worf a new one (Season 7, Episode 5)
With Picard apparently vaporised and Commander Riker caught up with tomb robbers down on a desert planet, the mantle of captain falls on Data’s robo-shoulders. It’s another acting masterclass from Spiner, as he has Data doing what a machine would do: learning through mimicry. So, throughout the double episode, fans are treated to Data’s very subtle impersonation of Picard, from the way he orders to make things so to tugging the front of his uniform. But, as he tackles the Romulan threat with aplomb, the finest moment is when Data, following Worf’s persistent grumbling over Data’s decisions, calls the Klingon into the ready room. Worf might be a 7’ lumpy-faced killing machine, but Data is the boss. Although, touchingly, he’s concerned he might have lost Worf as a buddy.
DATA: If you do not feel capable of carrying out this role, I will assign it to Commander La Forge and return you to Tactical. I would not enter it into your record as a reprimand, simply as a transfer.
WORF: I would prefer to remain at my current post.
DATA: Then I expect you to conform to the guidelines I have laid out.
WORF: Aye, sir.
DATA: Dismissed. Mister Worf, I am sorry if I have ended our friendship.
7. Data experiences laughter (Season 3, Episode 13)
Widely regarded as the best Star Trek ending ever, but not because the hateful Q materialises on the bridge playing the trumpet accompanied by a sombrero-wearing Mexican band, nor because the all-powerful space god makes two swimsuit models appear, stroking Riker’s chest. Let’s face it – that’s awful. But the writers redeem themselves with a sudden moment of pathos. Q bequeaths Data a gift: Laughter. As with all things Data, watching him succumb to a burst of uncontrollable laughter isn’t just funny, it’s moving, too.
GEORDI: Data, why are you laughing?
DATA: I do not know. But it was a wonderful feeling.
6. Data Gets Too Radical for the BBC (Season 3, Episode 12)
Analysing the history of armed insurrection, Data concludes that “terrorism is an effective way to promote political change”. Airing at a time when the UK was still experiencing violence from the IRA, the BBC censored the show – not least because Data mentions the “Irish reunification of 2024”.
DATA: Would it be accurate to say that terrorism is acceptable when all options for peaceful settlement have been foreclosed?
PICARD: Data, these are questions that mankind has been struggling with throughout history. Your confusion is only human.
5. Data and Spock discuss what it is to be human (Season 5, Episode 8)
While aiding Ambassador Spock in his covert quest to reunite the Vulcans and the Romulans, the pointed-eared sage engages Data in a thought-provoking conversation about what it is to be human. Praising Picard as “remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human”, Spock considers there to be an “almost a Vulcan quality to the man.” This puzzles Data, for whom Picard is a “role model in my quest to be more human.” Spock, expressing what passes for surprise in a Vulcan (he slightly raises an eyebrow), muses: “Fascinating. You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills and no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.” But, as it turns out, it’s not just Data who’s given food for thought. Why, asks Data, has Spock, half-human, chosen to deliberately shut out half of his biological make-up?
DATA: As you examine your life, do you find you have missed your humanity?
SPOCK: I have no regrets.
DATA: ‘No regrets.’ That is a human expression.
SPOCK: Yes. Fascinating.
4. Data on trial for his freedom (Season 2, Episode 9)
In an episode that frequently pops up in fans’ Top 10 episodes, Measure of a Man is a Data-centric episode that marks the moment when, in the eyes of the Federation and not just his friends, he is acknowledged as a sentient being. Close-minded and ambitious cyberneticist Maddox requisitions Data for research, hoping to build more androids in Data’s image. In a formal hearing, Picard successfully argues that Data satisfies two out of the three criteria Maddox himself stipulates for sentient life: the android is self-aware and intelligent. And no one can come up with a way of testing whether any of them experiences consciousness. Touching on monumental issues like free-will, slavery and existentialism, this is Star Trek at its best.
PICARD: (As part of his final summing up) Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery? Your Honour, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits. Waiting. You wanted a chance to make law. Well, here it is. Make a good one.
3. Data in a deerstalker (Season 2, Episode 3)
Silly but immensely fun, this holodeck-set episiode sees Data take on the role of that most famous of sleuths Sherlock Holmes. As Data is able to solve the mysteries in seconds flat, Geordi orders the computer to come up with an adversary capable of beating Data. Taking Geordi at his word, the computer creates a super-Moriarty, an AI with the knowledge that he is a simulation. This leads to a moral conundrum as, told he doesn’t truly exist, Moriarty argues that he has life just as Data does.
DATA: The game is afoot! Come, Watson!
2. Cain and Abel – Star Trek style (Season 7, Episode 1)
Data’s evil twin, also played to perfection by Brent Spiner, gets his comeuppance at the hands of Data, but not before tempting his brother with the chance to become fully human like him. Choosing to end Lore’s life, Data is left with his emotion chip – will inserting it change who he is as a person? The answer, as we discover in the movie Star Trek: Generations, is yes. And it makes him swear, too.
LORE: I’m willing to forget about what happened back there and take you with me. We don’t need anyone else. We’re brothers. I’ll give you the chip our father made. It contains much more than just emotions. It has memories. Memories our father wanted you to have.
1. The Ode To Spot (Season 6, Episode 5)
Long before computer-written poetry was a reality, Star Trek: TNG imagined how an artificial human might go about it. Data’s verse in honour of his cat, Spot, is amongst the show’s best writing. The awfulness of the forced rhymes are a joy – “talents” with “counterbalance”! – and, as you’d expect from an android, the ode is heavy on factual information but bereft of the essential ingredient of poetry: emotion. Or is it? As with everything Data does, it’s strangely touching. “You cannae change the laws of metaphysics…” says no one. Missed a trick there, writer dudes.
The Ode to Spot, by Lieutenant commander Data of the USS Starship Enterprise
Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.
I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.
A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.
O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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