Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was my favorite show in the world when I was a kid. These days, honestly, it’s not even in my top five. A host of awful and mediocre episodes (especially in the early and late seasons), a near-total lack of continuity, an oddly sterile view of the future, an over-reliance on technobabble: these flaws, which hid in my child self’s blind spot, are painfully apparent to me as an adult.
Yet TNG will always hold a hallowed place in my heart, and not just because I loved it as a child. Because when TNG is bad, it can be really, really bad; but when it’s good, it can be really, really good. It deserves its reputation as one of the greatest sci fi shows ever made.
That reputation rests, in large part, on episodes like “The Offspring” (3.16).
Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, builds another android – similar to himself, more advanced, less experienced – a daughter named Lal. Most of the episode is about Data learning to be a father, and Lal learning to be human (ish). The whole story is beautiful, and I had to resist the strong temptation to re-watch it all the way through as I was writing this post.
But the fame of “The Offspring” as an emotional wrecking ball comes from its final scenes, when Lal unexpectedly experiences her first emotion, and her positronic brain spirals into a cascading system failure. Data works beside Admiral Haftel (a one-off character) in the lab, trying to save her.
Finally, Haftel emerges and tells Data’s friends the result of their efforts. Throughout the episode, Haftel has been a pompous, seemingly heartless antagonist, trying to wrest Lal from Data’s care so that Starfleet can study her. It isn’t until his final lines that you realize he has a heart after all.
I wasn’t able to find a good video clip of his lines, so audio will have to suffice.
She won’t survive much longer. There was nothing anyone could have done. We’d…repolarize one pathway, and another would collapse. And then another. His hands…were moving faster than I could see, trying to stay ahead of each breakdown. He refused to give up. He was remarkable. It just…wasn’t meant to be.
Out of context, the lines may seem melodramatic. I’m not sure; I’ve never heard them out of context. As for me, I’m not going to lie, I cried just now as I watched the scene to record the audio.
It’s the part about the hands that gets me.
Data, of course, can’t feel emotion. Many people take that to mean that Data can’t love; in fact, the episode itself says precisely that. I disagree. Love has an emotional component, of course. But love is not, itself, primarily an emotion. It is a state of being, a connection, a way of relating. It is even, at times, a decision. It is the cord that binds parent to child, husband to wife, sister to brother, heedless of joy or anger or boredom or grief. It is deeper than feeling and infinitely stronger.
This is the love that Data has for his daughter, which she feels and he cannot. Like all profound forces, it lies hidden most of the time, behind the android’s polite mannerisms and bland exterior. It isn’t until something happens – something like the death of his daughter – that the mask falls away, and we glimpse the full magnitude of Data’s superhuman skill and power. His love manifests in ways that no human could hope to match. His hands move faster than the eye can see.
In typical TNG fashion, Lal is barely mentioned again after this episode. The fans, however, remember.