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The Trek Nation - In Theory

In Theory

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 2, 2009 - 12:22 AM GMT

See Also: 'In Theory' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While the Enterprise explores a mysterious nebula, Data enjoys working with Jenna D'Sora, an ensign who has enlisted him to help her keep her promise to herself not to return to a previous boyfriend also aboard the ship. Data's literalism and rationality appeal to her, as does his earnest praise of her skills as a musician when the two perform in a group together. When D'Sora wonders aloud why she can't fall for someone more like Data and kisses him, Data seeks out advice first from Guinan - who encourages him to open himself up to the possibility of love - then LaForge, Worf, Troi, and Riker, all of whom tell him that even failed romances are experiences worth seeking. They also remind Data that while he has no feelings to hurt, D'Sora obviously does. Data devises an elaborate dating program, but his artificially constructed solicitation and forced lover's quarrel backfire, since D'Sora finds these contrivances to be arbitrary and artificial. The two are distracted by a developing engineering crisis: what seem at first to be minor incidents, like Spot escaping from Data's quarters and Picard's desk collapsing in the ready room, escalate until bulkheads begin to disappear and a crewmember is killed. Data finds that the nebula is tearing the fabric of space, making matter phase out of existence. Because the Enterprise is too large to navigate past all the pockets of warped space, so Picard takes a shuttlecraft to guide the starship through. Once the ship is safe, D'Sora tells Data that she thinks she has made a mistake, replacing an emotionally unavailable past boyfriend with a man who has no emotions at all. Data tells her that he will delete the subroutine he wrote for her and spends the evening with Spot instead.


Analysis: "In Theory" is a charming episode, though it suffers from a problem common with many, many other television shows (and not nearly so badly here as most): namely, that the romantic heroine's motivations either don't make a lot of sense or don't reflect all that well upon her, depending on how one interprets her epiphany at the end. This isn't an episode-wrecking problem; indeed, Jenna D'Sora is more interesting and sympathetic than Jenice Manheim, Leah Brahms, and most other one-shot love interests for the male crewmembers. But it makes it more odd that Data would choose her (and that his friends would advise him to choose her) for his first attempt at emulating human romance. When it was Tasha Yar under the influence of "The Naked Now" and she just wanted sex, it made perfect sense that Data would want to try out that aspect of human relations with that particular woman - in fact, I'd have bought it even without the influence of an alien disease, and might have found it preferable, had it not occurred too early in the series. D'Sora, though, seems immature, insecure, uncertain of what she wants, on the rebound, afraid of being taken for granted...girlish, and while I don't want to use that term with the pejorative implication it too often has, it doesn't seem like what would appeal to Data even on a purely analytical, intellectual level. Sure, she's pretty and apparently popular, but why would those things register with an android?

The episode keeps the romance witty and light, which is what makes it all work. We're not supposed to care deeply about this romance because it's a fun experiment for the people involved, not anything more. D'Sora doesn't expect Data to be any sort of soulmate or savior, and Data doesn't have any expectations at all; he just wants a deeper understanding of this aspect of human behavior. Superficially, Data does make a good boyfriend - he's never obnoxious, he's not egotistical, he doesn't get bored during conversations about feelings, he's content hanging out with her friends, he never gets fed up about having to help clean up, he takes criticism beautifully - and though the episode dances around the subject of sexual intimacy, he presumably will never pressure and can keep going for as long as his partner wishes. But he can't fall in love, so his entire frame of reference for love is based on performance - assumptions about how people are supposed to act from literature and art without any understanding of why. Watching this is quite amusing because D'Sora clearly isn't heartbroken. She's flattered at the attention, perhaps a bit smug about getting to be Data's "first." If she does a bit of pouting about things that should be expected - that parts of his romantic programming seem generic, that his behavior seems forced - it's forgivable, because she doesn't act out any stereotypes of clinginess or desperation that we see so often on other shows.

The ostensible science fiction plot, meanwhile, is so thin that Picard takes on the ridiculous risk of piloting a shuttlecraft through a cosmic minefield, just so the captain has something to do. (His response when Data comes seeking romantic advice, after Data has already asked the rest of the command crew, is hilarious: "When I have some, I'll let you know.") There's no substantive scientific explanation for why this nebula is filled with pockets of matter-eating space, and the explanation of how a shuttle could chart and navigate around it was too full of technobabble for me to follow, though the graphic representation thereof looked simple enough that the Enterprise itself should have been able to manage it without putting the captain or any other shuttle pilot in jeopardy. If there's a logical person to fly through the anomalies, it's Data, and that might have added an interesting angle to his relationship with D'Sora, realizing how deeply his loss would upset a romantic partner, but the drama isn't ever allowed to become so serious.

As a result, this is a pleasant episode, but never approaches greatness. I can't decide whether I'm sorry or not that the writers didn't take a bigger risk; they've generally done a rotten job with romantic love on Star Trek, and the female characters have suffered more than the male characters as a result. Yet as Guinan says when Data first contemplates dating Jenna, love is worth experiencing no matter the pitfalls; it's too bad that neither the android nor his romantic interest seem to be looking for true intimacy, the sort of messy trust and betrayal that Data experienced to some extent with Ishara Yar. I don't believe that Data can't be hurt emotionally, but he's more invested in his cat than he ever seems to be in Jenna D'Sora.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.