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The Trek Nation - The Offspring

The Offspring

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at August 1, 2008 - 9:42 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Offspring' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: On his return from a cybernetics conference discussing breakthroughs in transference technology, Data creates an android named Lal by transferring his own neural relays into the new positronic brain. He allows Lal to select an appearance and gender from projections on the holodeck and is able to give Lal a more realistic human visage than his own. But Lal has difficulty fitting in with children at school, who are alternately afraid of her and mocking, and Data decides that she may learn human social behavior better with Guinan mentoring her in Ten Forward. Picard is deeply concerned about the implications both of Data deciding to become a parent and of Starfleet learning that there is another sentient android on the Enterprise. When Starfleet's Admiral Haftel is briefed about the creation of Lal, he wants to transfer the new android to the Daystrom Institute where he believes a team of human scientists will do a better job of educating her. Data invokes his parental rights and Lal expresses the desire to remain on the Enterprise, but the admiral insists that working in a bar is no place for an android. Picard is prepared to fight for the rights he helped to outline along with Starfleet Judge Advocate General Philippa Louvois, but before any further decisions can be made, Lal suffers a system breakdown while explaining to Troi that she is experiencing the emotion of fear. Data and Haftel try to repair the malfunctions, but Lal's new feelings have overwhelmed her neural pathways and Data tells Lal that he is unable to stop the breakdown. Lal tells Data that she loves him, and that since he cannot share the feeling with her, she will feel it for both of them. She thanks him for her brief life and the things he taught her. Once his daughter has suffered complete system failure - the android equivalent of death - Data transfers her memories to his own brain so that he may continue to experience the ways she enriched his life.


Analysis: Like "The Measure of a Man", to which it is a direct sequel, "The Offspring" is one of the finest hours not only of The Next Generation but in the 40+ years of Star Trek. Again we see the themes that are at the core of the sequel series - not only seeking out new life and new civilizations, but defining what it means to be human and how broadly those rights and responsibilities must be extended to other races, cultures and states of being. The people of the original Star Trek often defined their humanity in opposition to machines - the problem with Nomad, the M-5, Landru and the like was that while they might have achieved a form of sentience, they lacked the human feelings and connections that are presumed by many Earth cultures to underlie our values and ideals. Kirk always held up those human values as the cause he was defending, not only against Romulans and Klingons, but also against attempts by well-meaning scientists to "better" the human condition by creating machines that could do everything a human could do. No matter how carefully they were programmed, the machines were never the equivalent of humans - even the exceptional ones from "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" didn't have fully human feelings, they didn't form human bonds, and they certainly didn't have families, which have been fundamental to human society since before civilization.

"The Offspring" moves beyond the question posed by "The Measure of a Man" - should a manufactured sentient being be accorded the same rights as a born one? - to the even more complicated problem of the reproduction of such a being. Picard shocks Data by suggesting that Data should have consulted with him before making the choice to produce a child, since none of the other crewmembers are required to obtain the captain's permission to have a baby; Picard is in turn astonished that Data can't see why it's different for an artificial being to create another artificial being than for a humanoid person or persons to conceive in the "natural" way (I presume that the birth technologies of the 24th century, which allow fetuses to gestate in artificial wombs, have vastly increased the possibilities for individuals, couples and groups who wish to produce offspring together). If it sounds as though Picard is trying to discourage Data personally, it soon becomes clear that Picard is anticipating another intervention by Starfleet, where many officers still think of Data as property rather than a person. The android whom Data was hoping to raise as a child to enter the Academy will be whisked away for experiments and training at a robotics facility where Data may never see her again.

Is it fair for Picard at least to ask the questions that take Data aback? The only other "parent" to an android with whom we are familiar is Soong, whom Lore considered to be his father. This becomes the basis for Data's acceptance of Lore as his brother, a situation that has already caused critical problems for the crew. There are several exchanges in the episode about who has the right to judge a parent. When Picard complains to Troi that Data speaks of Lal as a child, Troi replies that Lal is a new life out of Data's own being, which suggests a child to her. Because of her experience giving birth to the alien Ian, Troi is probably in the best position among the crew to understand that one may feel a parental bond regardless of the circumstances under which one becomes a parent, and, as she points out to Picard, the captain has never had a child, so he lacks a frame of reference. Later, after presenting to Picard his own background research on parenting - far more than any human parents could do in a similar time frame - Data wonders how much experience Admiral Haftel had when his first child was born, and why the expectation of competence should be different for humans and androids.

It's too bad that Haftel is such an obvious bad guy, because some of these issues could have been used shed light on Data's circumstances. Does he receive any sort of salary or credits with which to support offspring, as humanoids with children presumably must? Did he have to requisition from Starfleet the materials that he used to make Lal? The balance of private and social responsibility in the decision to have a child can't really be explored in this storyline, but there are lots of questions left hanging: Who would be responsible for Lal in the event that something should happen to Data? Presuming that Lal has specific needs (not food and water, but mechanical parts and laboratory tests), what sort of obligation does the crew have to meet those needs? What would Picard's responsibility become if he found Data to be not an empathetic parent but a tyrannical or incompetent one? The captain is right that there are enormous implications stemming from Data's decision to create another positronic brain. Perhaps this wouldn't be the appropriate place to examine those, anyway - it's of critical importance that we see and respond emotionally to the bond forming between Data and Lal, so that takes up most of the story, and the admiral trying to interfere with it must be positioned firmly as the villain for the drama to work within its scant time frame. But as with "The Measure of a Man," there are hundreds of tantalizing problems hinted at beyond the obvious ones.

For most of the episode, Haftel is a bit heavy-handed, lacking the sophisticated characterization afforded Maddox, the scientist who wanted to disassemble Data in the name of Starfleet progress. (In both cases, why on earth didn't Starfleet send a team?) Haftel's abrupt sympathy for Data as a parent at the end seems artificial considering that just minutes earlier, he is arguing that Data had no such personal rights. I rather wish the episode had not decided to echo its predecessors so closely, but had left Haftel's prejudices and sense of righteousness intact; he might just as easily have concluded that he'd been correct all along, that Data wasn't qualified to improve upon his own model and create an offspring, and that Lal's breakdown might have been prevented had she been whisked off to the Daystrom Institute just after her creation. Emotionally, I think that would have been more honest, and it wouldn't have interfered with an already devastating ending, when Data watches childlike as Lal dies, unable to mourn as she does the laughter, friendship, painting, family she is losing. It's a gut-wrenching scene, perfectly underplayed by both actors, since part of the tragedy of Data is that he can't love his daughter the way she loves him.

Many lovely moments for the other characters make this episode particularly enjoyable. Data chooses LaForge, Troi and Wesley Crusher as the first three people he wants Lal to meet and vice versa; Riker is away, but I think it's interesting that he includes the counselor and the two people he treats as closest friends while he does not include the doctor or the captain. Later, however, he goes to Beverly Crusher to ask her advice "as a successful parent," which both flatters and amuses her; her suggestions come straight out of baby books of the Next Generation era (nurturing and listening, not discipline or structure), and she is unconvinced that Data can't feel love. When Riker finally arrives, he meets Lal and promptly becomes the target of her decision to see what kissing is like; it's a hilarious scene for poor befuddled Riker, who is set back on his feet only to be faced with Data demanding to know his intentions toward a daughter Riker didn't even know Data had. Because Data cannot express delight or concern, Troi gets to do it for him ("Congratulations...it's a girl"), and Guinan - who rarely backs off from anything - declines to explain sex to Lal, insisting that her father will have to do that when he thinks she's ready. But it falls to Picard to announce that he will never ask a man to hand his child over to the state, and it falls to Picard to express the mourning that Data cannot.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.