Friday, May 08, 2020

ST:TNG 3.16 The Offspring

This is the third of 12 episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation recommended to me. First there was 1.13 Datalore, then 2.9 The Measure of a Man.

We start with a very effective trick: Geordi, Troi and Wesley walking and talking through the corridors of the Enterprise, making the place feel big and busy and real. The dialogue isn’t as crisp and effervescent as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing - but then that started nine years after this episode was broadcast. The point is how fresh and exciting the direction feels here. I looked it up, and this is the first episode directed by Jonathan Frakes, better known as the actor playing Riker. That explains why the captain’s log at this start feels the need to tell us that Riker is away on personal leave. Frakes js still directing episodes of Discovery and Picard, and clearly has a knack for sci-fi given this panache with corridors.

Since the last episode in my list, there’s been a makeover of the Enterprise wardrobe. Uniforms now have collars, are more formal and less like gym-wear, and seem to zip up at the back. I wonder if that means the crew need assistance putting them on, and imagine them having to pair-up before breakfast, the pairings carefully coordinated around their rostered shifts.

Anyway, Wes, Troi and Georgi are the three people Data trusts enough to confide what he’s been up to: making himself a child. This he presents as a fair accompli rather than at 12 weeks, directing our attention to an odd-looking small person in a machine. The being has neither clothes nor gender, but Data is clear that this is, “my child” and calls the process “procreation”. Apparently, this new project - and progeny - is the result of Data having just been at a cybernetics conference where a “new submicron matrix transfer technology” was introduced that Data “discovered could be used to lay down complex neural net pathways … I realised for the first time it was possible to continue Doctor Soong's work.” No one else has been able to make this leap because it needed Data to transfer stuff from his own brain into the child. For reasons we’re not given yet, and which no one asks at the time, Data has named his child “Lal”.

Our heroes report the matter upwards to Picard, who is not does not delight in the news. Yet, as Data tells his captain, no one else on board is required to ask permission to procreate. There’s an implicit, insidious question over Data’s right or worthiness to have children, a moral judgement based solely on the fact that for him procreation is more complex than a fuck. It brought back the cruel interrogations the Dr and I went through during IVF and adoption. Anyway, Picard’s response is in stark contrast to the position he took in 2.9 The Measure of Man - just note his use of pronouns:
“I insist we do whatever we can to discourage the perception of this new android as a child. It is not a child. It is an invention, albeit an extraordinary one … I fail to understand how a five foot android with heuristic learning systems and the strength of a ten men can be called a child.”
Data is, understandably, surprised by this denial of personhood but Picard goes on to explain that a “real” child is not just for Christmas and can’t be deactivated simply. Given Picard’s previous empathic management style, this is massively tone deaf is not outright offensive. I suppose there’s a case that Picard is just wary of the consequences of this “stupendous undertaking” and knows the trouble it will bring; his reaction comes of trying to help and protect his friend. But it’s a fundamental right that he’s daring to question.

Meanwhile, Lal can identify crewmembers as male and female, and says, “I am gender neutral [which is] inadequate.” Data, meaning well, responds, “you must choose a gender, Lal, to complete your appearance.” He has always tried to emulate humanity but this conversation sounds a lot like it’s making a moral judgement: that it is wrong to be different. Data also tells Lal to, “Access your data bank on sexuality, level two. That will define the parameters.” But gender and sexuality are not the same thing. When Troi says that whatever Lal chooses will last for Lal’s lifetime, that clearly isn’t true either - even if Star Trek fails to acknowledge transitioning, Lal can evidently choose once so why not choose again? “This is a big decision,” says Data - and it is, which is why it’s so alarming Lal is so badly advised.

They narrow the options down from several thousand composites to four physical specimens, which Lal then seems to be expected to choose from based on visual appearance. Yes, it’s Naked Attraction but with clothes on, which doesn’t seem the most brilliant idea. There are three different species represented by the four specimens on show and it’s meant to be Lal’s free choice. Yet Troi can’t chipping in that she finds the human male attractive and likes the human female. We’re told that Lal taking the form of an Andorian female would make her the only one on the Enterprise, while as a Klingon she’d be one of just two (“a friend for Worf,” says Troi, dictating how Lal should behave and bond). It’s concerning these made the final four given that the point of the exercise is to help Lal better integrate with the rest of the crew. How much less suitable were the other composites?

What Lal has decided to be a human female, Data attempts to home-school her. This is (he says, staring wearily away into space) not easy, but getting Lal to define the meaning of “home” is uncomfortably like the students groomed by Thomas Gradgrind to define a horse. Victorians reading Hard Times were horrified by such crude, old-school education. As well as learning the facts by which to judge the artistry of a painting, Lal is taught to blink so that she can better fit in with the flesh lot onboard. That’s stepped up when she goes to the school on the Enterprise, where things are handled in what Offsted would surely deem inadequate. The other, fleshy children are wary of this much new student who looks so much older than them but is so far behind them. They are mean and laugh at her. But the schools of the future don’t seem prepared for students with special educational needs, and when Data is called in to discuss what has happened, the teacher - Ballard - clearly feels that Lal is the one at fault. The new girl excelled academically but, “Lal couldn't understand the nuances of how [the flesh kids] related to each other.” For this first offence, in a crime so heinous as social etiquette, she is invited to leave full-time education.

The emotionless Data fails to be outraged by this. Unlike his tribunal, there are no fleshy friends to defend him or be angry on his behalf. There’s no sense that perhaps the “normal” children need educating in etiquette, and the adults, too. Lal doesn’t even get a formal warning. There’s no tribunal, no sense of the dangerous precedent being set, and that’s traumatic for Lal. This tyranny of normalisation is especially concerning given that the next episode on my list is all about the horror of assimilation. We can’t all be individuals if we must all be the same.

Data claims not to be affected, and says he’s incapable of love - but Beverly Crusher doesn’t believe him and there’s evidence that she’s right. The name he’s given his daughter is, we’re told, a Hindi word meaning “beloved”. But unlike her father, Lal is affected by emotions - and the difference between her and Data is underlined by the fact that she can use contractions. I mentioned my misgivings about this cliché of sci-fi last time, but now wonder what else Data can’t do: does he insist on pronouncing the “h” in herb, too, and is it “a” or “an” before “hotel”? But it’s a shame to be distracted from the point of this difference between them, which is profoundly sad: Data was unique and alone so built himself a daughter, but she is alone, too.

Since they’ve been failed by the educational establishment, Data instead enrols Lal in work that might teach her something, in the bar on the Enterprise where she can observe the behaviour of humans and other flesh-based life forms. This meets with surprise and resistance from Data’s friends, and he asks if they're questioning his ability as a parent - and, in effect, his rights as a sentient life form. That there are concerns at all made me wonder what kind of den of iniquity they think Ten Forward is. That line of thinking isn’t helped Riker’s makes a cameo appearance and cops off with this child. It’s fun to see Frakes direct a scene at his own expense, but blimey. As a general rule, don’t do light comedy about grown men hitting on children.

Then Data and Lal talk together, and Lal takes her father’s hands, trying to copy the behaviour of those round them - and, in doing so, to please him. We’re told that Data has already, “Mastered human behavioural norms.” Has he? So often the joke is that Data hasn’t understood an idiom or behaviour, that he isn’t normal. It’s still an issue decades later in the series Picard, questioning Data’s ability to love.

Just as in 2.9 The Measure of a Man, an admiral turning up on the Enterprise can only mean bad news. This one, in rather fetching gold braid to show he’s either someone important or on his way to a disco, underlines the puritanical view hinted at before, that it’s really not suitable for a young woman to be work in a bar, even the corporate-feeling one on the Federation’s flagship? I hanker for Guinan’s reaction to this slander. But I don’t think Admiral Haftel is one for considering the views of woman. When Lal tells him he’s not very respectful, Haftel ignores it to talk about her - while she stands there - with Picard. He then tells Lal that Data hasn’t taught her enough selective judgment, and when she responds he starts to say that he hadn’t meant to ask her opinion. Picard now cuts in: “In all these discussions, no one has ever mentioned her wishes. She's a free, sentient being. What are your wishes, Lal?” It’s about time someone asked.

This is, then, a return to the moral debate in 2.9 The Measure of Man, which was clearly not settled in the finding of the tribunal. In that episode, the discomfort was felt by Data’s crewmates while Data - for all he protested his rights - was unaffected emotionally. Here, though, Lal is a victim, made so anxious by her predicament that she seeks help from the ship’s counsellor. “I feel it,” she tells Troi. Troi, I think, she be the one to defend Lal to the authorities, reminding the admiral that feelings matter in this version of the Enterprise. Sadly, she doesn’t get a chance.

Meanwhile, the boys are still arguing about Lal’s best interests - without her. There’s another curious argument when Haftel says it is dangerous for Data and Lal to remain on the same starship together. The implication is that the Enterprise is a precarious place forever facing the risk of destruction. True, 26 weeks of the year it does seem to have some crisis going on, but it’s weird to hear that acknowledged - especially when there’s a school with young children on board. Again, I find myself wondering about Star Fleet’s duty of care. (Note, too that Haftel says Data and Lal are the “only two Soong-type androids in existence,” meaning everyone assumes Lore is dead and gone.)

Really, Haftel wants Lal for himself to study, just as Maddox did with Data. All this philosophical footwork is about depersonalising her, making her an it, a thing. Data argues against this persuasively, expressing his and Lal’s wishes clearly but politely. Picard backs him, and will go over Haftel’s head if need be. “You are jeopardising your command and your career,” Haftel tells him, which seems odd given the precedent of the tribunal. But Picard holds his ground:
“There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience but you ignore their personal liberties and freedom. Order a man to hand his child over to the state? Not while I am his captain.”
Surely, surely, Haftel doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and I wonder what his superiors would make of his predatory interest in this child. As before, Data is willing to work with Starfleet on research into the workings of his own brain, if only they’d proceed in less unseemly haste.

But it’s not to be. Troi calls Data and the others to an emergency. Lal’s anxiety - exacerbated by the admiral but as much the result of the Enterprise crew - has caused her to malfunction and break down. Haftel has literally broken a child and realises his mistake, offer to help Data try and fix the problem. He’s the one who tells us that Data’s hands move too quickly to see in his efforts to save his daughter. Haftel is clearly devastated by the loss of Lal but his words - “It just wasn’t meant to be!” - hardly acknowledge his own role or culpability. I wonder if the death of Lal will jeopardise his command and career. (I checked, he’s not seen again in the series.)

Everyone is upset except Data, who absorbs his daughter’s memories and goes straight back to his job on the bridge of the Enterprise. It’s a really affecting ending, but I think because it’s so wrong. Star Fleet has (again) badly served Data. It failed him. The most haunting thing is that emotionless android expects nothing else.

Next episode: 3.26 The Best of Both Worlds

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