Sunday, April 26, 2020

ST:TNG 1.13 Datalore

I enjoyed the recent first series of Star Trek: Picard but was very aware of missing the references as I've not seen all of Star Trek: The Next Generation - and most of that when it was first on. Helpfully, @GDgeek and @ScottKAndrews came up with a list of 12 essential episodes:

1.13 Datalore
2.9 The Measure of a Man
3.16 The Offspring
3.26 The Best of Both Worlds
4.1 The Best of Both Worlds part 2
4.2 Family
4.3 Brothers
5.23 I, Borg
6.26 Descent part 1
7.1 Descent part 2
7.25-26 All Good Things…

So, to begin with…

1.13 Datalore
"But... but... but..."
How achingly young everyone is - and how new the whole enterprise. It’s all so new that the Captain’s log at the beginning has to explain to us that Data is an android.

Wesley Crusher, doing work experience on the bridge of the Enterprise while everyone else is in uniform, seems to be dressed as the Thirteenth Doctor Who.

Colds have been eradicated from this utopian future but there’s some silliness about sneezing. The tone is odd; the silliness stilted - less laugh-out-loud as somewhat amusing. I know from other episodes that these actors are good with comedy, so it’s just the material here not being very funny.

I’m horrified to hear the Enterprise whoosh past the screen in the opening titles, despite the silent vacuum of space. This is Star Trek as fantasy, as lacking in scientific credentials as Star Wars. But Star Wars makes no claim to get the science right.

Another shock as our heroes beam down to an alien planet realised entirely in studio, the forced perspective background looking especially cheap. I remember this "new" iteration of Star Trek when it first arrived as sumptuously rich and extravagant. Here it looks like Time-Flight.

On this alien world we learn about Data’s origins: he was discovered here 26 years ago, he says. Geordi is able to see clues no one else has - which is really odd. Given how strange and precious Data is, did no one think to conduct a proper survey?

Having found a secret base, they recognise the name of a famous Earth scientist - Dr Noonien Soong. But they don’t immediately connect him to Data, or the fact they look so alike. Has no one really never noticed?

Soong, they all know, was Earth’s foremost robotic scientist, “Until he tried to make Asimov’s dream of a positronic brain come true.” Isaac Asimov was still alive when this episode was broadcast, but also admitted that the positronic brain he devised in stories written 50 years earlier weren’t exactly a practical idea. So it’s Star Trek linking itself to a lineage of science-fiction rather than of science. (Daleks have positronic brains in The Power of the Daleks (1966) and The Evil of the Daleks (1967), suggesting they and Data are related.)

Then our heroes find the dismembered parts of an android body just like Data, including his bare bum. It’s an incongruous detail, depersonalising him and his dismantled brother. But perhaps that’s the point.

It’s also odd to have Data then observe but not help in the assembly of his brother. Does he not want to be involved? Is he not allowed? It seems to be a question of etiquette. Despite the 26 years since Data was discovered, people are still awkward around him. There’s some fun in the discomfort

But I like the awkwardness of the crew in asking Data questions about all of this - the social niceties, the strangeness, of a friend and colleague you can make. But the scene in which Data confides in Beverely that he has a secret off-switch is really odd. Would the medical officer on the Enterprise not have full access to his schematics? If not, the suggestion is that’s he’s seen as a piece of engineering rather than a person with medical needs.

Data’s brother Lore says that he was made to supersede - to replace - the imperfect Data, and given the etiquette and awkwardness we’ve just witnessed, this seems cruel. We’re immediately put on our guard about Lore because he’s been mean to Data, though no one else has noticed.

There’s more awkwardness from the human crew, but Picard apologises to Data for his misuse of pronouns in referring to androids as “it”. My suspicion is that when they made this episode they weren’t thinking of trans rights, but that’s surely the association we make watching it now.

Now Data is suspicious of Lore, and Lore uses the word “brother” to make a connection. He is, unlike Data, programmed to please humans, he says - but it’s all very manipulative. My thought was of the algorithms of social media that seek to keep us hooked by playing to our (worst) emotions.

But I really like the walk-and-talk scene in the corridor of Data and Lore together. Just like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Brent Spiner makes the two characters distinct individuals, so it doesn’t immediately register that this is a trick shot. Again, Lore is manipulative - suggesting that the emotionless Data is envious or jealous. It’s nicely played, and this early into the series we don’t know Data well enough to be sure about him.

Data tells Lore how he got his Star Fleet uniform: “four years at the Academy, another three as ensign, ten or twelve on varied space duty in the lieutenant grades”, taking up at least 17 of the 26 years since he was discovered. What happened in the years before he joined the Academy? And also - as we will see - it is appalling that after 17 years of service in Star Fleet, the organisation still isn’t sure about Data’s status, rights or personhood.

I’m also unconvinced by the sci-fi cliche that Data can’t use contractions or crack jokes. Word processing software and predictive text can deploy contractions - the rules are simple enough. A child can grasp jokes. It plays, I think, into an insidious myth about autistic people that they don’t understand jokes and are taciturn, unfeeling, somehow lesser than neurotypical people. I don’t know if the production team meant to link Data to these supposed traits of autism, but now I’ve made that connection it makes me very uneasy to see how they’re deployed.

After their conversation, Data leaves and Lore is left alone, reading a computer screen. It’s innocuous enough, but sinister music tells us he is up to something - though we’ve not seen him be naughty yet. We are being manipulated.

On the bridge of the Enterprise, security chief Tasha Yar asks Picard how much he really trusts Data. The crew are shocked, and Picard’s response is really interesting:
“I trust him completely. But everyone should also realise that that was a necessary and legitimate security question.”
As when he apologised to Data about a misuse of pronouns, this is Picard’s compassionate management style, in sharp contrast to the ruthless, selfish Gordon Gekko kind of businessman in Wall Street, from the year before this was broadcast. It’s there, too, in the corporate culture of the Enterprise - with a ship’s counsellor so respected she has a seat on the bridge (if not a uniform), and (as well see in later episodes) organised entertainments that mix up different ranks socially.

Lore opens a bottle of Champagne, which begs the question whether androids can get drunk. In fact, it’s been poisoned and Lore finally shows his true colours. Suddenly the episode kicks into gear, and what follows is tense and involving.

Even so, there’s a very odd scene on the bridge, where Lore pretends to be Data and no one notices except Wesley. The telling detail is that Lore doesn’t understand Picard’s order to “Make it so” - a catchphrase already, just a handful of episodes into the series. When Lore has gone, Welsey tries to share his concern but first Picard and then Wesley’s own mother tell him to shut up. Well ha ha, Wesley is a bit precocious and annoying - but this is the captain of the flagship of Star Fleet snapping at a child in front of everyone on the bridge. A child, I might add, whose dad is dead and whose mum seems to have history with the captain. Where is the sensitive management style now? It’s particularly galling because Welsey is right!

Lore then uses Wesley, who still doesn’t fall for the trick. He helps the real Data, and there’s a fight. When Picard and Dr Crusher arrive, Lore threatens to kill Wesley - again, manipulating them through his understanding ofd emotions. But luckily our heroes are able to teleport him away. We’re not told where he goes: the implication is, I think, that he’s been beamed out into space where he won’t survive. Wouldn’t they check?

Picard doesn’t apologise to Wesley - who was completely right about Lore - but expects to see him back on the bridge. Again, ha ha, how funny that Picard won’t back down and its at Wesley’s expense. It’s a really odd, unsatisfying ending to an episode that’s otherwise about respect for other people’s feelings. If I were Wesley, I’d be going straight to the ship’s counsellor to discuss workplace harassment.

But blimey, on the subject of abuse of staff by Star Fleet, next up is 2.9 The Measure of a Man

No comments: