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Data's Humanity

Data is one of the most interesting characters in Star Trek TNG. A central theme for Data is his quest to become more human. During the course of TNG, we see him evolve in many ways. He is always, however, limited—until the film Generations—by his lack of emotion.

There is no doubt that Data becomes more and more socially competent and aware as the series progresses. But is this actually progress towards humanity? I don't mean he remains less than human. I mean that he has, in many ways, humanity to start with.

Data is, throughout the series, one of the most generous and least judgmental characters. This is seen in "The Neutral Zone", at the end of the first season, when three people from the twentieth century are revived, and some of the crew (including Riker) express attitudes of rather unreasonable disgust. But not Data, who is ready to be friendly with anyone.

In the second-season episode "Pen Pals", Data pleads for the Enterprise to save a planet about to be destroyed by natural forces. He has rather improperly been in contact with a child there by radio. Captain Picard is unwilling to help because of the Prime Directive—an early example of it being taken to the point of absurdity—and there is a rather odd debate among the senior staff in which they consider among other things whether there is a cosmic plan involving the planet being fated to die. (Dr Pulaski, with her usual good sense, comments that the rigid idea of the Prime Directive is "callous and even a little cowardly".) Eventually Picard relents, and the planet is saved, without the inhabitants becoming aware of the Enterprise (the child's memory is erased). Captain Picard tells Data that "Remembrance and regrets, they too are a part of friendship... and understanding that has brought you a step closer to understanding humanity." What? Data cares about a child, tries to make the others see the inhabitants as real people rather the subject of theory, and goes beyond a rigid rule to save a whole planet. Captain Picard was initially prepared to let billions of people die because of the rule book, and now he pontificates to Data about how he has taken a step towards the humanity which he, Picard, presumably exemplifies. He changed his mind—good—but which of the two is the better example of humanity? Remind me again which one is just following a program?

The Prime Directive, of course, requires more detailed discussion. But I will note here that the original concept was not interfering in the natural development of a society's development. In "The Paradise Syndrome" (TOS), for example, the Enterprise rescues a planet from an asteroid, but the inhabitants can't be allowed to know about it, and this does not seem to be controversial. Arguably what is at stake here is not the Prime Directive but a sort of fanatical fundamentalism about it. Captain Picard, who is (at least in the earlier part of TNG) a repressed and uptight character, not surprisingly takes a rigid view at first. But he eventually relents—and it's interesting why he does. He hears, accidentally, the voice of the child calling for Data. His emotions are engaged, and he realizes the right thing to do. His is the response of the person who gives to charity when there is a human face to relate to, a pretty child on a poster for emotional appeal. Obviously that's better than not to be moved at all. But Data is not motivated not by easy emotion, since he doesn't have any; his is a more deeply human response.

In "Deja Q", the episode where Q is expelled from the Continuum, everyone is, naturally enough, very down on Q. Everyone but Data. He is not exactly friendly at first, and he pulls up Q when he doesn't toe the line, but he speaks up for him when it is appropriate, treats him with basic courtesy, and he tries to save him from alien attack. It is Data who shows ordinary human decency rather than rejoicing over Q's misfortune. (Q, when eventually restored, refers to Data as his "professor of the humanities".)

Again and again Data shows these characteristics. Sometimes it leads to him being taken advantage of. In "Legacy" he forms a friendship with Ishara, the sister of his late friend Tasha Yar, and is betrayed. But (in spite of his comments at the end of the episode) he does not close off his willingness to trust.

Data definitely develops in terms of his ability to understand and participate in ordinary social interaction. ("Data's Day" includes some memorable examples.) There are, as for example in "Legacy", some developments in his understanding about the implications of human relations. But are these really the most basic things which define "humanity"?

Let's consider "Pen Pals" again. Data shows compassion. In his development, emotion is always being stressed as the key (which he doesn't have), but as this episode illustrates, compassion and morality are not ultimately matters of emotion (that's not to say emotion isn't involved usually). They're about choices, about how you want to live. J.K. Rowling deals with this very well in the Harry Potter books: Snape is not at all a nice person, but he chooses, in the most important things, to do right. In this sense, Data is human. His desire to be human in the emotional sense is not any less important, of course.

Of course, Data eventually does achieve emotion, by use of his emotion chip, in the film Generations. After that he sometimes has the emotion chip switched on, and sometimes switched off. It's noteworthy that while makes a significant difference, he's clearly the same person either way.

Here's a quotation from Gwen Raverat about her Aunt Cara:

Aunt Cara was not, I think, at all warm-hearted; but she was really kind and generous; and as she wished people to like her, and had a pretty shrewd idea of character, she managed to make up an excellent working substitute for warmth of feeling. Indeed, I have often wondered whether intelligent kindness, such as hers, is not of more value to the world at large, than warm-hearted blundering.[1]

In many ways this is a good summary of Data.

Kurt Vonnegut said somewhere: "Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency."

Throughout TNG, Data's lack of emotion is presented as the key problem in his attempt to be human. However, you can make a case that there's another factor, at least as important, which is generally ignored: his lack of a bodily identity. The idea that our personal essence is a pure spirit for which the body is an irrelevant shell is rather a Gnostic idea. But if the body is a requirement for full humanity, Data is limited because his body is a shell. His head can be removed. He can detect and analyse the chemicals in a drink but he cannot taste it—until he gets his emotion chip, when he is delighted even by the taste of a drink he doesn't like (Generations). Again, though, Data is clearly the same person with the chip on or off, and perhaps the body he has is sufficient to give him a physical identity.

"In Theory": The case against Data

I should note, however, one particular episode. Throughout TNG, the narrative steadily builds the case that Data is becoming more human, though always limited by his lack of emotion. At any rate, he is a sentient being with a self that can try to be human. On several occasions his status as a sentient being is challenged, and TNG comes down on the side of Data. Most famously, of course, "Measure of a Man" where Commander Maddox, supported by Starfleet, claims Data as no more than a piece of property, but also in Dr Pulaski's initial view of Data as a "non-living device"—though she later comes to appreciate Data.

"In Theory", however, is an outlier, going against this trend. Data attempts, rather reluctantly, a romantic relationship, initiated by a female friend, Jenna. But in the absence of emotion, he has to rely on programs based on his extensive study of human romantic relations, with a special subroutine for Jenna. This gives rise to some memorable comedy as Data seems to be drawing heavily on old sitcoms for his models, from "Honey, I'm home!" to a lovers' tiff—Brent Spiner is a superb comic actor. Jenna becomes dissatisfied, though. His romantic acting is "just not the real you", she says, to which he replies "With regard to romantic relationships, there is no real me." Eventually she says that it's not enough: "Because as close as we are, I don't really matter to you. Not really. Nothing I can say or do will ever make you happy or sad, or touch you in any way." They break up.

The episode makes the case that Data's lack of emotion cuts him off from humanity in a fundamental way. This is emphasised by making Data's behaviour more extreme than normal. He shows an insensitivity to social interaction (by suggesting they should now have dinner as planned, immediately after breaking up) that is not normal by the fourth season. In the final scene, his very movements are mechanical. (There is, though, one final detail subverting the trend: as Data sits alone, his cat Spot jumps up in his lap, as if sensing unhappiness, and Data strokes him.)

As I said, this episode is an outlier. My own view, as stated above, is on the other side, but it is interesting that Star Trek does for once let Commander Maddox's view win the day—there is no real him.[2]

It's also possible to argue, of course, that romantic relationships are in a unique category (Troi's warning does suggest this). In that case no broader conclusions follow, and the episode is somewhat less significant. But that raises a question. Jenna has been a friend of Data, and appears to remain one—"close as we are" she says. Is friendship possible if you do not matter to the other person? Jenna first becomes seriously dissatisfied when Data's behaviour is unlike what she expects from their usual friendly interactions. Data thinks that for romance there is no "real him" and he must have a simulation, but this does not seem to be true of his relations in general. With Tasha Yar he didn't try to simulate human romance (except in the area where he is "fully functional"), yet they had a special relationship. (At any rate Data seems to have found the memory important.) Perhaps Data should have started there.[3]

The episode is very watchable, for the romantic part at any rate—the B-plot[4] about the subspace holes or whatever they are is less interesting and never really connects with the main story. The scenes where Data seeks advice about starting the relationship are excellent, as each character fits perfectly. Geordi can't decide what advice he can offer, Troi is wise and cautious, Riker is sleazy, Worf says that Klingons don't, and Picard says he doesn't understand women. (Worf does however warn Data that as Jenna is under his command he will be displeased if she gets hurt. Worf's loyalty to his subordinates is one of his most attractive features: we see it especially in "Lower Decks".)

"The Most Toys": a Data dilemma

In "The Most Toys" Data is kidnapped by Fajo, an ingenious but unstable collector who is fixated on having unique items. Data mentions that he is programmed for "a fundamental respect for life in all its forms and a strong inhibition against causing harm to living beings" (Data's words). Fajo points out, reasonably, that this may be a problem in Starfleet, and Data explains that he has "the ability to use deadly force in the cause of defence" though not to "participate in murder". Fajo forces Data to comply by threats to kill members of his own crew, and eventually does kill one after she tries to escape with Data. He taunts Data, who has acquired a weapon in this incident, that he cannot shoot him in cold blood[5] because he is only an android and is limited by the programming discussed. However, Data, saying "I cannot permit this to continue" fires, but is interrupted by being beamed away by the Enterprise. Data denies, or at least does not admit, that he was firing.

Data's attempt to kill Fajo is presumably supposed to raise issues about Data's personality and capabilities. However I find this unconvincing because (even if he has not previously shot someone at close quarters) his role on the Enterprise makes it hard to see that he is crossing any line here that he has not already consented to. For a human being there is a big emotional difference between pressing a button and swinging a sword, but for Data that does not make much sense. The most unsettling thing is Data's lie, which does seem to raise questions about what have been given to understand about Data.


The series finale, "All Good Things", perhaps deals with Data's development best. It showcased Data's development (among other things) by shifting time periods between the very start, the period of season 7, and a future in which he is a professor at Cambridge. In this future, Data is in many ways the most humane of the characters. The elderly Picard (suffering from a degenerative disease) complains that everyone thinks he is hallucinating. Geordi tries to calm Picard, but Data says, "In all honesty, Captain, the thought has occurred to me." (But he goes on to say that it could be real.) His respectful but honest response is striking. We see this in other interactions too. This highlights, not simply social development, but Data's increased ability to express the humanity that was always there.

Even better, in this future Data is now a mad cat person.

[1] Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), p. 90. The book is a memoir of a late-Victorian childhood in Cambridge, and remains a classic. [Return]

[2] That's putting it a bit strongly, perhaps, since you can still consider Data as a sentient being with rights, but the episode does seem to imply that his personhood is defective. [Return]

[3] On a number of occasions throughout TNG, Data displays behaviour, which seems to be spontaneous rather a planned simulation, indicating concern for others, but resists the suggestion that this may constitute anything equivalent to human feelings. He seems more inclined than many of his friends to insist on a strictly emotional definition of love and so on. In "The Offspring" he tells Dr Crusher that he is incapable of giving Lal love, and she says to herself afterwards: "Now why do I find that so hard to believe?" [Return]

[4] Star Trek TNG typically uses an A-plot/B-plot structure. The A-plot is the main story. The B-plot is a different story which runs in parallel. In principle the B-plot is supposed to support or connect with the A-plot; often they connect at the end and the B-plot unexpectedly helps resolve the A-plot. [Return]

[5] OK, in one sense everything Data does is done in cold blood. I mean, however, killing Fajo when there is no struggle in progress, Fajo is not in fact threatening Data, and they are just standing talking. [Return]

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