Sunday, April 17, 2016

In Memoriam: Lt. Commander Data

"I am the culmination of one man's dream. This is not ego or vanity. But when Dr. Soong created me, he added to the substance of the universe. If, by your experiments, I am destroyed, something unique, something wonderful, will be lost. I cannot permit that. I must protect his dream." - Lt. Commander Data ("The Measure of a Man")

I just watched Data die. He met his end in a film with a lot of potential yet lifelessly directed by a man who either hates Star Trek or does not understand its characters. Data deserves better. Spock may be the most iconic Trek figure but Data is its most important. Through him we have explored what it means to be human; love, loneliness, pleasure, pain, hate, humour, taste, memory, creativity, fear, mortality, friendship, parenthood, ethics, duty, loyalty - pick any human value, attribute or trait and chances are there's a Data episode dealing with it.

Brent Spiner deserves huge credit for making the emotionless android an instantly likable figure. His Data has the strength of ten Klingons but wouldn't hurt a fly; the smartest man on the Enterprise but without any trace of an ego; forever discriminated against or slighted as a "mere machine" but never resentful; infinitely brave, unhesitatingly loyal. Who wouldn't want to have him for a friend or a comrade?

So, in order to wash the taste of Star Trek: Nemesis off, let's have a look at the episode that transformed Data from comic relief to the best character in not just the Trek universe but in all the science fiction I've ever read or watched. The Measure of a Man aired in the middle of The Next Generation's second season. The series had not yet found its footing - the characters hadn't gelled, the writing was clunky, and the collective weight of Spock, McCoy and Kirk still weighed them down. This episode turned it around, not just for Data but the whole series.

Commander Bruce Maddox believes he's very close to duplicating the (long lost) research of Data's creator Dr Noonian Soong, and giving Starfleet the ability to create thousands of superhuman androids (Blade-Runner style) to serve on every ship in the fleet. This would involve disassembling Data and then attempting to recreate him. Data believes Maddox's research isn't mature enough and refuses to undergo the procedure. He resigns from Starfleet but Maddox contends that Data is "property" of Starfleet and not a sentient officer with rights, and so he cannot resign. The JAG officer for the sector agrees ("Data is a toaster").

These are themes that play throughout the series. Data commands fierce loyalty and affection from those he serves with (having your lives saved countless times can do that to you) but the rest of the fleet often do not view him the same way. To some, he's just an "it" not a "he," viewed with distrust and sometimes open hostility. Not that Data ever objects to this - he accepts in his calm, logical way this trait of humans to behave unpleasantly towards those they do not understand or see as different.

Picard, being Picard, will not give up without a fight and challenges the decision. The rest is courtroom drama (the episode was written by a lawyer) that is best not summarised. I'll instead quote three of my favourite exchanges below.

***

This exchange begins in the 43rd minute of the one-hour extended cut. I was not aware of the Martin Luther King phrase, so it did not occur to me that this episode was about slavery until Guinan spells it out for Picard. And it hit me as much in the gut as it did him. Given the challenges of telling a story in the time, budget and censorship limits of television, Star Trek is usually a bit ham-fisted in how it handles "messages" and telegraphs them well in advance. This episode is a glorious exception and there's no better scene to lay out in plain terms what's at stake here. This post has been about my Trek favourites: my favourite character, my favourite episode... and this is my favourite scene. You couldn't have picked two better actors than Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Stewart for it.

Guinan: "Do you mean his argument was that good?"
Picard: "Riker's presentation was devastating. He almost convinced me."
Guinan: "Well, you've got the harder argument. By his own admission, Data is a machine."
Picard: "Mm-hmm. That's true."
Guinan: "You're worried about what's gonna happen to him."
Picard: "No... (sighs) I've had to send people on far more dangerous missions."
Guinan: "Well, then this should work out fine. Maddox could get lucky and create a whole army of Datas, all very valuable."
Picard: "Oh, yes, no doubt."
Guinan: "He's proved his value to you."
Picard (smiles wryly): "In ways that I cannot even begin to calculate."
Guinan: "And now he's about to be ruled the property of Starfleet. That should increase his value."
Picard (turns to her): "In what way?"
Guinan: "Well, consider that in the history of many worlds, there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do because it's too difficult or too hazardous. And an army of Datas, all disposable... You as their leader, you don't have to think about their welfare, you don't think about how they feel. Whole generations of disposable people."
Picard: "You're talking about slavery."
Guinan: "I think that's a little harsh."
Picard: "I don't think that's a little harsh. I think that's the truth. But that's a truth that we have obscured behind a comfortable, easy euphemism. Property. But that's not the issue at all, is it?"

***

The bravest bit about Star Trek: The Next Generation was replacing galactic playboy James T Kirk with "a middle-aged bald English Shakespearean actor" no one had ever heard of. And in this one 8-minute scene, Stewart is more memorable than all of Shatner's scenes across three seasons and seven movies put together.

His closing arguments: "Your Honor, the courtroom is a crucible. In it we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product, the truth, for all time. Now, sooner or later, this man (points toward Maddox), or others like him, will succeed in replicating Commander Data. 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 (looks toward his human First Officer, Riker), 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."

***

Data: "Sir, there is a celebration on the holodeck."
Riker: "I have no right to be there."
Data: "Because you failed in your task?"
Riker: "No, God, no. I came that close to winning, Data."
Data: "Yes, sir."
Riker: "I almost cost you your life!"
Data: "That is true, sir. But, commander... Will. I have learned from your example."
Riker: "What could you possibly have learned from that ordeal?"
Data: "That at times, one must deny one's nature, sacrifice one's own personal beliefs, to protect another. Is it not true that had you refused to prosecute, Captain Louvois would have ruled summarily against me?"
Riker: "Yes."
Data: "That action injured you and saved me. I will not forget it."
Riker: "You're a wise man, my friend."
Data: "Not yet, sir. But with your help, I am learning."

***

There you go. Having just watched one of the low-points of Star Trek, I now attempt to end the day by recalling its finest hour.

But I don't want to - can't - take leave of Data just yet, so I'll leave you with a bit of his poetry. He was forever trying to understand humanity and to be more human (why he sees humanity as an improvement is beyond me - and the likes of Spock and Q, who tell him as much). One of the ways he attempted this was to indulge his creative side: he painted, and his acting and musical performances were very well received. His poetry, though, has its critics. Here's his "Ode to Spot" (his cat):

    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.