Star Trek: Synthetic Lifeforms Past & Present

Life, But Not as We Know it . . .

Background: In many ways since its arrival into culture, Star Trek has led the way in discussing and dealing with the themes and ideas about life created in the human guise; it’s questioned why and what the implications may be – and crucially accounted for those which may not be known until it’s too late. By no means does the following offer anything to be considered definitive in nature, just a brief glimpse at some of the many ideas surrounding this idea/plot device, in the various shows, over the years. It seems that the latest show, Picard, will continue this foray.

TOS: What Are Little Girls Made Of?

This early offering in the first series of the original series is a good foray into the idea of humans and androids living in harmony (or not, as things pan out). Whilst some of the effects used may now look laughable, compared to the modern-day (but innovative for the time, on limited budgets and with so fewer resources), the writing still holds up, and does a great job of asking pertinent questions about playing God. That’s the real thing to judge and makes this episode worth either re-exploring for the hundredth time if you’re a seasoned Trekkie, or viewing for the first time if your Star Trek journey only started with Picard and the others, in The Next Generation.

Roger Korby, a renowned scientist (and husband of ship Nurse Christine Chapel), who has been missing for some years apparently sends out a distress signal, which Captain Kirk and co. dutifully answer. The Captain is requested to beam down alone, which is the first warning that screams out all is probably not as it seems. It’s not long before Kirk is threatened, and discovers that some of the beings on the planet are actually androids. What this episode does is outline that the idea of an android is very different than a robot. The beings in this are made to take on human traits and characteristics. They are more than physical manifestations of the human body. They are given nuanced details, like eye colour, hair and skin tone. There is something else that they have, which ends up being the defining feature of their downfall. Emotions. The very thing that makes these beings behave in human ways is what ends up being too much to handle for them.

At the end of the episode, many themes have been explored, including individuality, the basic survival instinct and even the inherent need to evolve as a species. The earliest of the androids, Ruk, is notably non-human, whilst the later incarnations are visibly identical to the person they are modeled on (the replacement of Kirk is suspected by Spock because of its behavior). Always, the human race is what is being commented upon, via a device that allows for scrutiny. This has to include the flaws as well as the aspects which make us the dominant species on the planet. The android replica of Korby, which supposedly contains his original essence eventually reveals that replacing humans is the end goal, as the androids would be superior, and apparently perfect.

Kirk defends the flaws as the things that make us who we are, and even reels off a list of those who have attempted to delete them much earlier in history, naming Ghengis Kahn, Julius Caesar, Hitler and two other fictional despots. This isn’t the only example of humanity that shines through, as Chapel begins to slowly realise that if the android was indeed her husband, he wouldn’t be plotting to harm others. Ultimately, the overarching theme is that people are so valued because of the unique nature of their individuality. This is to be a recurring theme and an important benchmark of what makes humans so powerful a force.

As a central character, Picard perhaps embodies this idea more than most, and what’s clear is he’s never more human than when he’s faced with others in danger; episode one of the new series proves this. It is after all from him that Data learned the most about being human; the sad irony is that in many ways the loss of Data is what has made Picard even more human, and the show seems to be making his dealing with that one of the key elements of his journey and arc in it. This nicely connects us to the next episode being discussed.


TNG: The Offspring

In terms of the first installment of Picard airing, this seems the most obvious choice of TNG episode’s to revisit. The episode is in some ways a direct sequel to “Measure of a Man” in series two, which is discussed in a recent article, highlighting Captain Picard and Data’s shared history. It is hugely significant in the development of Data’s character; (that) Commander Bruce plays a big part in this furthering of Data’s status (he is mentioned in Picard episode one). The desire for him to create another of his species is the primary focus, in terms of the plot. Yet, it’s the nuances surrounding this that make the episode so interesting and captivating. It is not as much the creation of the android Lal (which we learn translates to beloved in Hindi), but Data’s desire to be the progenitor. That is a deeply human trait, and when he is challenged about his reasons for making Lal he is somewhat surprised. He states that others have no expectation to seek permission in having children. This is a brilliant observation of the fundamental difficulties in others that many people struggle to accept difference, and a wonderful example of subtle ways that institutional prejudice can take hold, something that’s much harder to expose and rid society of, than direct bigotry.

Captain Picard also has a pivotal role in this episode. He himself had an expectation to be consulted, and must have a good hard look in the mirror of morality; once he has there are then shades of him beginning to have doubts about Starfleet’s self-righteousness and propensity to demand their will is carried out. He even goes as far as referring to them as a metaphorical “State”, that is demanding a parent parts with their child. He shows that he is willing to risk his position and not scared to take a moral stand if he deems it the right thing to do. As well as the moral question, Picard again takes on the role of Data’s protector. Though never stated, the overtones of him being a father figure shine through and are a testament to some inspired scripting. This connects to his own fears of his name not living on (his brother and nephew are tragically killed in a fire – they appear in TNG “Family”, (again, discussed in our recent article about essential TNG Picard episodes), as stated in Star Trek: Generations (1994). The fears of mortality are rife, and its limitations (Data is given a set life span, but one far longer than humans); androids need not be concerned with such things; well, they aren’t usually . . .

The episode’s climax is the death of Lal, as she begins to experience emotions and cannot continue to run. The ship’s crew, Data’s friends, express their condolences and whilst Data cannot respond in a way that sees him grieve, he does show that the entire experience has enriched him. He then declares that he has downloaded all of Lal’s memories and experiences into his own positronic network (his brain), and she shall, therefore, live on. This might be seen as a metaphor for the soul of one being becoming something that’s carried around in that of another. It’s what’s not said that’s seemingly pertinent to the future events, that seem at least to be connected to Picard. Nothing is spoken of what ultimately becomes of Lal, or more crucially what becomes of Data’s brief foray into parenthood; his hopes and dreams, aspirations are only touched upon. Their being mined is a brilliant move, sure to please those of us who crave continuity within canon series of the Star Trek Universe.

Looking forward to the rest of the series and indeed the second (already confirmed – a rare occurrence) all elements discussed in the episode may have many implications and tie-ins for Picard. There is the clear resemblance of the two androids that are supposedly Data’s children, to that of Lal. Then, there is the question of duality: why two? No doubt that will be explored. The fact that Data and his brother Lore both exist may have some significance to this. Both went on to lead very different lives – more focus on the pivotal concept of individuality, that arguably defines what being human is. This sort of sensitively considered (if indeed that’s why) detail is to be applauded; even if such a reference is reading too much into things, just wishful thinking, then choosing two over one makes for more fun. There is always the possibility for imitation and for viewers to never quite know who is who (used before in Star Trek: The Next Generation between Data and Lore). Talking of scams and plots involving android subterfuge and manipulation by falsifying appearances . . .


Short Treks: Escape Artist

“The Escape Artist” — Episode SF-004– Pictured: Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: SHORT TREKS. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS © 2018 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

It might seem odd to be mentioning the impish Harcourt Fenton Mudd in the same breath of Picard. Certainly, the two characters are set years apart, and are unlikely to meet (of course, not impossible; few things are in Star Trek and sci-fi generally. Yet, the connection between this episode and the implications of synthetic life forms in the new show are there. If nothing else, just as with the TOS episode discussed, viewers can see how far things have moved on, with technology. Here, Mudd uses androids to gain monetary rewards. They are passive and somewhat primitive. That’s far from the case in Picard. The episode is another example of how much fun it is to use androids. Though a throwaway bit of fun, there are things said here that might indirectly link to events in Picard.

The Federation is jokingly referred to as an organization that wants to take over everything and everyone. This is at a time when it’s largely presented as a perfect manifestation of an ideal. That’s a far cry from what is being shown in Picard. This poses interesting questions about things. During the events of TNG, there are many examples that show The Federation is far from perfect. Their attitude towards synthetic life may well have contributed towards events on Mars.


Picard: Remembrance

Pictured: Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It seems silly not to at least mention the synthetic lifeforms seen (and those not seen yet) in the Star Trek franchise’s latest incarnation. Whilst we didn’t see much of Dhaj, we did see what she was capable of. Androids have certainly evolved. It’s not too difficult to plausibly accept that they could be at an exponentially more developed state than Data was. His first child, Lal surpassed his own programming. Yes, he was unsuccessful in creating something that could remain alive, but there’s nothing to say that in the future he didn’t overcome whatever issues meant that Lal’s life was so short.

Another synthetic life form seen was the disassembled B-4, a more primitive prototype of Data. Before (no pun intended!) he sacrificed himself in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) data attempted to upload his memories and working memory (his soul, essentially). That was unsuccessful, but perhaps B-4 will have a part to play after all; the fact he’s seen means there’s at least potential for that.

There are those who are not seen, too; not yet, anyway. They are likely to show up at some point. They seem to be some sort of android version of the Maquis (like them cast as enemies of Starfleet and depicted as terrorists). The early implications are that they are fighting for the right to exist. That their race has been banned is a tantalizing take on things, pitching them as possible freedom fighters. They are certainly capable of some serious ass-kicking now, and pose a sizable threat, as well as making potentially brilliant antagonist for the show.

So there you have it. As stated, there are of course many more examples to be found through the many hours of the different shows, and other ideas only teased. Whatever else they are, Androids are cool and fun to have on television series. They act as a mirror for society and give us a way to judge how we really value liberty and freedom. It seems that Picard is set to do its own take on those concepts. Scifipulse will be hot on the heels of the show, so stay tuned, and get commenting with your thoughts, suggestions of parts of Trek’s past to revisit, on the topic) and whatever else you’d like to add! Anything else would be wholly illogical . . . More from us coming very soon. In the meantime be good to one another, steer clear of any grumpy Nausicaans and, as always, live long and prosper!

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