Monday, May 30, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: The Offspring

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: March 12, 1990
63 of 176 produced
63 of 176 aired


Data has learned of new cybernetic techniques that will allow him to replicate his own Posotronic Brain in a new android life form. He does so, bringing his daughter Lal into existence. Unfortunately (for all of us), Starfleet has a different idea that Data as to what sort of treatment would serve Lal's best interests, and acts to remove her to a research facility. This conflict between a father and his government may spell the end of careers, and perhaps even lives.

Men want to be him. Women want to be with him. Androgynes want to go female for him. Even machines want to canoodle with him.
His name is Riker. William T. Riker.


Matthew: The setup of this story leads to some wonderful, lovely scenes. Data, of course, is the perfect foil for telling stories about humanity from an outside perspective. Telling stories about the sheer terror and wonderment of creating a new life is a worthy endeavor. It is also quite topical for my wife and me, since we are engaging in the same process now, and are expecting in September. But these themes are universal and interesting to both parents and non-parents. The scenes in this episode touch on choosing names and visages, being different from one's peers and enduring the trials that come with it, learning how to interact in complex social environments, and the general enrichment a parent gets out of experiencing these things through a child's eyes again. All of this stuff is great and well done.

Kevin: I particularly enjoyed the scene with Crusher when she relates her experiences raising Wesley. The idea of him as a bit of an outcast because of his intelligence was, I imagine, pretty relateable for the viewer, and when Crusher comments to herself that she finds it hard to believe Data is incapable of showing his daughter love, I am always moved. It was also nice to see the ensemble work on a non-Starfleet problem. It reinforces the idea they are close personally as well as professionally.

Matthew: This episode might be accused of heartstring pulling with Lal's eventual death. I do think, though, that tis is bypassed to a degree due to the consistent characterization of Data - he does not react with undue Sturm und Drang. The companion episode to this is Voyager's "Real Life," which makes the Doctor far too emotional in response to his holographic daughter's untimely death.Where that episode veered into the maudlin, this one stays true to the characters and ends up saying something important about Data in the process.

Kevin: The comedy was really well done in this episode and prevents the episode from spiraling out of control. I particularly enjoyed her peppering Data with questions and him shutting her off. And maybe it's the part of my brain that still loves the Three Stooges, but when Lal finally succeeds at drinking out the glass cleanly, but then doesn't swallow, I crack up every time. I found the death scene to touching without going overboard and the idea that Data could and would choose to retain some part of Lal was interesting and affecting. It's like the technological version of Spock's katra.

Matthew: On the idea front, I like that Data fixes the ability to ask philosophical questions (Data avers that the "heuristic associative pathways" allow Lal to process questions of "logic, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology") as an important milestone in Lal's development. I still have a problem, though, with calling this new state "sentience." Webster's first definition of the term states "responsive to or conscious of sense impressions," and the second states, simply "Aware." Philosophers of mind have used the term to indicate the ability to experience things as a subject. I think these terms describe a fair number of organisms who are either not capable or not inclined to tackle the aforementioned heuristic questions. Consciousness of my self does not necessitate second-order questioning of the nature of my self, the veracity of my senses, and so on. I think monkeys, dolphins, and elephants are "Sentient." But I don't think they engage in higher reasoning, or second-order questioning, or whatever term is better for what humans do than "sentience." It's not a completely debilitating problem, it just always nags at me when I hear the term being used in Trek. Perhaps we are to take it that 24th century philosophers have recast the term for a different use.

Kevin: I don't have much to add here. If Data had built himself a legal code, I might have more to add. I always took the word "sentience" as the blanket shorthand for what we all knew we were talking about. I like that "sentience" is viewed as something emergent, not binary. Maybe it could have been fun to have Lal around for a few episodes, and really explore it. Could she achieve "life" but not "sentience"? How would you decide? 

Matthew: My problems with this episode, qua episode, spring from two key premises contained in the story. First: that various well-informed members of Starfleet somehow think that they can order Data to relinquish his offspring (who is not a member of Starfleet) to them. Didn't we go through a whole episode about just this idea? Wasn't a legal ruling handed down prohibiting just this sort of thing? And isn't it even more unbelievable that the rationale has now shifted to a non-member of Starfleet? Some means of counteracting this could have been offered. Maybe there could be an intellectual property law that says all Starfleet members must make their inventions available to the organization. Something. Instead, we get a lame mention of the previous show, and then the episode proceeds without further explanation, based on the premise that this situation is dangerous to someone you care about, even though this precise situation has already been "asked and answered," to use some legal parlance, by a previous show. Second: I found Lal's death being caused by the emergence of emotion to be trope-ey in the extreme. This is less irritating - tropes are tropes for a reason after all. But it didn't go unnoticed. Anyhow, in the end, I am less enthusiastic about this episode than I otherwise would have been. A different source of conflict would have ameliorated this entirely. Perhaps Lal could be less (or more) than Data expected. Perhaps the death thing could have been retained, but given more development. But going back to the "Starfleet wants to enslave androids" well again made it feel unfortunately cheap.

Kevin: I agree completely on your identifying the two main problems of the episode. On the same vein, I saw Picard's initial overt hostility to weird. He championed Data's right a year ago and now seems shocked he is exercising them. He should be thrilled from the get go. And while I am cataloging my issues, apparently in the Ten Forward scene where Guinan explains human relationships, Whoopi Goldberg suggested one of the background couples should to be two guys, and the producers said no So it's Whoopi Goldberg 1, Producers  0 on that one. Oh...and the contraction thing. It's stupid at the outset, but I suppose I like that they remembered it to have Lal be different.


Matthew: Obviously, Brent Spiner is the star here. He gives us what might be his finest performance on the show - it is controlled and nuanced, and never goes too far. Some of his other (generally later) performances might be accused of breaking these boundaries (I'm thinking "Descent," "Unification," and all of the TNG movies). But all of his acting choices here are beyond reproach.

Kevin: Agreed. Leonard Nimoy and Brent Spiner should open a school for actors trying to display no emotion while simultaneously inspiring profound emotion in others. The schmaltziness of the idea of the death scene itself aside, Spiner's acting was perfect.

Matthew: Hallie Todd does a tremendous job of mimicking Spiner's Data to a certain degree, but making the Lal character feel individual and real. She nails the physical mannerisms, and has a perfect tone to her voice. She reads as "android" even without all the extra makeup. Whatever the problems I have with the writing are, she delivers maximum emotional impact with her budding feelings and her death scene. Really good stuff. One of the best guest acting jobs on the series, for sure.

Kevin: There's an interview with Jonathan Frakes talking about trying to find body doubles for Data for episodes like Datalore or to use as a stand-in when the camera is on someone else, and he said you don't realize how good Brent Spiner is until you see a lot of people try to imitate him badly. If Lal comes off too little or too much like an android, it derails the episode. Happily, not only did she play nascent android to the hilt, she did in a way that makes me think she's related to Data.

Matthew: The rest of the cast is a lot of fun to watch reacting to Lal. Gates McFadden in particular is nice as an experienced parent giving Data advice gleaned from raising Wesley. Marina Sirtis gets some nice scenes counseling Picard on how to react to Lal's creation. There are no real false notes. Frakes, who directed this episode, doesn't get much beyond comedy to do. But he does get a laugh in his scene.

Kevin: I'm really glad they remembered that Dr. Crusher is the only parent in the main cast, and it was lovely to see her get to be maternal and empathetic. I liked Guinan getting to be a little more light-hearted than in other outings. No forebodings of doom or ancient galactic grudges, just some charming, thoroughly enjoyable scenes.

Production Values

Matthew: Shows don't get much more "bottle" than this. I can only recall one optical effect, the "mirror" on the holodeck. The other "major" effects we get are in make-up - an Andorian, a Klingon, and the Lal-neuter state. All are fine. We also get to see your basic "android brains" stuff under Lal's wig. But it should suffice to say that this episode was no effects extravaganza. Nor did it really need to be.

Kevin: I don't have much to add here. I liked the lab set, though I always wondered where that elevator went and what it was for? Why not just leave Lal in the lab? It's an elevator that exists only for dramatic reveals.

Matthew: There were some really nice music cues in this episode. There was a sort of "cosmic mystery" cue to the teaser that is really cool, which utilizes some of the standard "TNG mystery" music, but goes into neat territory. There is a lot of love theme style music throughout with Data and Lal's interactions. There is also a nice, triumphal conclusion on the "warp-out." The music really stood out in this episode, perhaps because of its relative lack of sound effects and loud bits.


Matthew: This episode could have been great. But the "Measure of a Man" retread angle it takes cheapens it for me, bringing it down to just "very good." It's emotionally involving, to be sure. I think it qualifies as pretty good sci-fi. It's not boring. It just fails to really innovate. So it whiffs on the 5 and settles into a 4 for me.

Kevin: I agree. The strawman of a conflict holds an otherwise top-tier episode back. Still, there's enough here to make this a fan favorite and understandably so. Whatever plot issues there are, the emotions always hit perfectly. This gets a 4 from me too for a total of 8.

1 comment:

  1. I think Picard's irritation at the start is somewhat justifiable. If we assume that Picard recognizes that he is in the minority within the upper echelon of Starfleet regarding his acceptance of Data as a being with all the rights of any other, perhaps he sees the conflict coming - not necessarily in the form in which it does, but at least in the form that Starfleet might be very interested in getting Data and his progeny to continue to replicate themselves. Hell, he might even recognize that Starfleet could perceive a race of Android's replicating themselves as a threat. I feel like Picard's annoyance was less a frustration with or denial of Data's personage and associated rights as it was an annoyance that Data did not consider the long term repercussions of his procreation. Whereas humans on the Enterprise just have to consider if they want to be a parent, and humans in our time have to consider the quality of life they can provide a child, it is inescapable that Data having a child invokes massive implications that should be considered before following through. Of course, that would be an easy enough perspective for Picard to explain in dialogue, but that's how it felt to me.