TNG: S3E16: “The Offspring”

In which Data has a child who doesn’t appear in any more episodes. Infer from that what you will. 

"Sirs, I know this may not be appropriate, but how do you handle it when your underwear gets all bunched up under the jumpsuit? I feel like I'm carrying walnuts down there."

“Sirs, I know this may not be appropriate, but how do you handle it when your underwear gets all bunched up under the jumpsuit?”

I never pay attention to writing credits, which is remiss of me, but I wonder if there’s some correlation between writer, central characters, and the opening theme. Someone should watch all of Star Trek and find out. Anyway, the Enterprise is on a routine star-charting mission and in a scene that makes me want to watch West Wing, Wes, Geordi, and Deanna are strolling through the corridors talking about someone coming back from a cybernetics conference and locking themselves in a lab. It is, of course, Data and, less of course, is constructing an android, whose name is Lal and who refers to Data as ‘father.’

So that’s a thing.

Now, the Enterprise is a ship of exploration aboard which children are permitted, even welcomed. The fact that officers get to flit off to conferences and then, depending on the reading of some of this dialogue, ignore their duties for weeks at a time certainly points to a level of laxness that would never fly on a ship whose primary purpose was military. But this does have me wondering about family leave. I would hope that in a Star Trek utopia, a couple of crewmembers aboard the Enterprise who get pregnant can apply for (and may even be ordered to take) time away from their duties to do proper prenatal and newborn care. Will Data be afforded those privileges? Heck, when he applied for time off, did he say it was because he was ‘expecting?’

No, apparently not. Data just told Picard. Data used a new piece of technology to build the hardware of a positronic brain at the conference and since it showed promise, he brought it back and put it in a body. Picard states in this delightfully mild-with-dangerous-undercurrents tone that he would like to have been consulted, but it does seem that nobody else consults the captain about having children. These are the harvests sown during “The Measure of a Man” and it’s showing some rather interesting cracks in Picard’s bastion of absolute morality. We’ve seen before, such as in “Pen Pals” that he can be moved from high-minded idealism when confronted in person by that which must be sacrificed in order to achieve it. His attitude here suggests that his initial resistance to Maddox and subsequent defense of Data in court was less a respect for ‘new life and new civiliations’ and more a staunch loyalty to his friend and lieutenant. Troi gets him to grudgingly come around in the end, but he’s still somewhat appalled that Data did this without him.

I have to admit, listening to Data talking about scanning the literature on child-rearing has me a bit worried, as well. Data likely has zero instinct when it comes to child-rearing. That may not be a bad thing necessarily, but it is an unknown. Similarly, his child will also lack certain instinctive behaviors, and we too littleabout Data’s early years to be able to anticipate the problems that may come from this.

One of the deepest abiding mysteries on Star Trek is how this mirror works.

One of the deepest abiding mysteries on Star Trek is how this mirror works.

Lal is escorted to the holodeck to choose a gender and appearance from several thousand composite images Data has programmed in. When Troi wakes up, she gives a few pithy comments about the four finalists while Lal looks into some weird probably-mirror-but-who-knows. Personally, I think a holodeck mirror should just scan you and create a holographic double  that mirrors your movements instead of doing anything as crass as reflecting photons off of a surface.

Apparently, replicator technology has come far enough since Data was created that they don’t have to slather Lal in pale makeup and gold contacts. Howeveer, given hat Data has provided Lal with a database full of probably everything ever, it’s interesting that Data still has to initialize that access by introducing her to chairs and paintings by name. It seems to indicate that android ‘instincts’ consist of information locked in memory but which have not yet been called by the appropriate reference.

Actually, this fits in very well with what we’ve seen of Data when he attempts to parse a sense of humor. He seems to attempt to parse the meanings of the words individually and assemble them until someone tells him it’s not meant literally. It’s like the difference between looking up the definitions of the individual words ‘vote,’ ‘early,’ and ‘often,’ and receiving the additional cultural context of the whole phrase “Vote early, vote often” as it applies to an electoral system that affords each person only one vote and is therefore implied to be at least somewhat corrupt. Humans are very good at this kind of parallel processing, while Data has been shown not to be.

Observe Data's face as Lal fails to master the simple Nazi Salute.

Observe Data’s face as Lal fails to master the simple Nazi Salute.

Also, there is a certain amount of getting the positronic brain accustomed to the android body Lal has to go through. Humans go through this process as well, although in the case of humans it’s usually smellier. Data is slowly duplicating all of his own neural pathways in Lal, but Wesley suggests she should go to school. Not to learn, but to socialize. After transferring his own ‘heuristic associative’ pathways, Lal enters the ‘why’ phase, which Data is not fully equipped to deal with, and turns her off. It’s supposed to be a cute moment. It does not read that way.

Meanwhile, Picard is arguing with an Admiral who wants to take Lal away and study ‘raise’ it on a starbase without Data’s supervision. Once again, and despite Picard’s own personal misgivings, he stands firm in defense of Data despite all the beurocratic machinations going into motion against him. Also, he has to explain to Lal that the schoolchildren were making fun of her.  He has to go to Crusher for advice. I don’t mean that unkindly towards Beverly, merely that for all of his scanning of the literature, Data does not have the depth of social experience to draw upon.

Picard made some strides in his defense of Data, although nobody bothers referencing the precedent set down a season ago, but it’s still going to come down to the decision of one Starfleet Admiral Haftel acting as a creepy cross between a CPS agent and a kidnapper.

Father does NOT approve.

Father does NOT approve.

Data gets Lal a job as a bar back for Guinan so she can observe normal social interaction. Guinan is an excellent teacher, so this will be good for her. Also, Lal can use contractions where Data cannot. She gets to watch flirting, kissing, (“He’s biting that female!”) and two crewmen leaving the room for a little alone time. It looks interesting, so naturally she tries to emulate. Riker is terrified.

Finally, face to face with Admiral Haftel, we finally acknowledge that androids have the rights and privileges of living beings, and yet Haftel does not seem willing to recognize this and keeps trying to separate her from Data. It takes an in-person interview where Picard reminds the admiral that Lal is  considered a sentient being and backs the admiral into asking what she wants. Shortly after that, Lal has a panic attack. An actual panic attack, complete with real fear and ominous music swells. Data is in the middle of his final plea to the Admiral which ultimately fails, and Picard has to step in, before they’re all interrupted by the news that Lal is breaking.

Presented without joke.

Presented without joke.

Troi tells them that Lal experienced real fear… real fear that Troi sensed, and it is at this point that Admiral Haftel (who has some expertise with cybernetics) offers to assist in the surgery. Because Data can’t hold a grudge, he accedes, but in the end it doesn’t work, Haftel comes out to deliver the news to Wes, Geordi, and Deanna, and is shaken to the core. It’s a truly amazing moment full of feels, as is the moment when Data watches his daughter die. In the end, all he can do is upload her memories and return to work. I think that was supposed to mitigate some of the impact of the episode, but it really doesn’t at all.

One thought on “TNG: S3E16: “The Offspring”

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