Being that I can't justfiy paying for cable or satellite television, can't get around the nagging idea that they should be paying me to watch all the adverstisements, not the other way around, I put up an HDTV antenna to get free over-the-air broadcasts, and I get something like ten channels, all in pristine 720p clarity. Limited to the major networks and the subchannels they broadcast, I've gotten reaquainted with some wonderful older shows that run in syndication, such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series that is the impetus for this piece.
All the love I had for Star Trek went on hiatus the day I saw the horrible film Star Trek: Nemesis. I stormed out of the theatre disgusted that the cast of TNG didn't get the final film it deserved. Last year my brother-in-law dragged me to the rebooted Star Trek film, which confirmed what I already knew: Star Trek, as it is, has forgotten its roots, what made it so interesting and important in the first place. The rebooted Star Trek was a slap in the face to that tradition, an awful, terrible joke. In place of insight about what it means to be a human being, we got explosions, and lots of them.
But enough time had passed that I was open to Star Trek once again, and I sat down to watch the TNG episode "The Offspring" about android Data, ever questing to become more human, decides to create progeny. His "daughter" Lal, played expertly by Hallie Todd, has all the cognitive abilities of her "father", but she somehow has the ability to feel emotions, something that Data, to that point, had been unable to do. And we are treated to the wonderful complexity of emotion, the awful feeling of not fitting in (Lal is treated to the cruelty of the playground as she is placed in school with children half her size), of the growing pains of growing up, of being frustrated, frightened, and lonely. But most of all, we are treated to love, sweet, painful love in all its sublime complexity. We see Lal looking up to her old man, trying to make him proud. Loving him.
But something goes wrong, and Lal is unable to process the flood of emotions; her "positronic net" undergoes "cascade failure", and despite frenzied efforts to save her, Lal's life cannot be saved, giving Data only moments to tell her goodbye. Probably because I have a daughter of my own, and that losing her is my greatest fear (a fear I hope I never have to face), and I understand the love a parent has for a child, this scene literally reduced me to tears. Far from being the melodrama we've come to expect from such scenes, we see Lal express love for her father, the love that has literally killed her, and from Data, nothing. Unable to feel emotion, unable to reciprocate that love, Data is just there, blank and hollow. In that scene, more than any other I've ever seen, we see the power of love, recognize that Data has missed what should have been the most gut-wrenching experience a person can have. We recognize that as horrible as it must be to lose a child, being unable to fully feel that pain would be even worse. Through Data's emptiness, the importance of love, of feeling, of being human, are on full display on the small screen.
It was world-class television, a wonderful example of the potential of a medium that far-too-often goes unrealized in lieu of explosions and formulaic crime dramas and empty "reality" shows that treat us to awful singing. At it's best, Star Trek: The Next Generation towers, making the awful reboot all the more awful. We see that Gene Roddenbury understood that science fiction, at its best, teaches us, via androids and aliens, what it means to be human.