That’s right, we’re talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation!
Specifically, the season 3 episode that first introduced me to the show and Trek at large, “The Offspring.” It’s a poignant hour that focuses on one of the most fundamental relationships in history–that of a parent and a child–from the most outside perspective possible.
Why did I decide to talk about this episode? Well, in honor of William Shatner’s 82nd birthday last week, Hulu made every episode of every Star Trek series available on their website –a promotion that expires today, so go get on that. As I said, this was the first episode of TNG I had ever seen; I saw the 2009 film of course, but this was the first Trek TV episode I ever saw and it was getting into TNG that turned me into a Trekkie. However, I had only seen the second half of this episode, so this was a treat to see it all the way through.
The episode opens with Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), an android for the unfamiliar, summoning Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Ensign/Insufferable Know-It-All Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) to his personal laboratory. He reveals to them that he created a Soong-type android (the same type of android as him, named after his creator Dr. Noonian Soong) and has named it Lal; looking like, well, like the picture below, Lal refers to Data as “Father” which confuses the others, but Data tells them that yes, Lal is his child.
Data explains that, with a new piece of technology introduced at a cybernetics conference he recently attended, he was able to program a positronic brain (something which hasn’t been done since Data’s creation) by essentially transferring his programming into it.
Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) meets with Data and tells him that he would have appreciated being consulted on this decision. He informs Data that what he has done will have enormous ramifications, especially when Starfleet finds out. Data asks whether he should switch Lal off; Picard replies that he shouldn’t because, by creating life, he has assumed a major set of responsibilities and can’t just ignore them. Picard says that those responsibilities have nothing to do with being a parent, but Data wonders if in fact that does not describe becoming a parent. He tells Picard, “I have observed that in most species there is a primal instinct to perpetuate themselves. Until now I have been the last of my kind. If I would be damaged or destroyed, I will be lost forever. But if I am successful with the creation of Lal, my continuance is assured. I understand the risk, sir. And I am prepared to accept the responsibility.”
Troi asks why Lal looks so androgynous; Data says that he wishes for Lal to choose its own sex and appearance; after looking through several thousand virtual bodies on the holodeck (as Data says, “This is a big decision. “), Lal chooses the form of a human female (Hallie Todd) and Data is able to give her more realistic skin than his own.
Lal begins learning slowly and, as Data slowly transfers more and more of his knowledge, she begins asking questions incessantly. Data simply turns her off mid-sentence and decides that she will be enrolled in school on the Enterprise-D. Because of her limited social skills, she is placed with the younger children, but they are frightened of her. Meanwhile, Picard hears from Starfleet Admiral Haftel (Nicolas Coster) who informs him that because she is the only other Soong-type android in existence, she needs to be observed by Starfleet scientists, but Picard refuses on Data’s behalf. But what ultimately happens with Lal is something no one sees coming…
Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is barely in this episode and the reason for that is, well, Jonathan Frakes actually directed this episode! It was the first episode of Trek he ever directed, going on to direct several more as well as two films, Insurrection and First Contact; he’s gone on since then to become a rather prominent director and this episode shows why. The bulk of the episode is just one-on-one conversations, but his camera makes things seem intimate and natural, rather than stilted and uninteresting.
Interaction is also key, which makes sense, given that the whole episode is an examination of the parent-child relationship. Since discovering The Next Generation, I’ve always felt Spiner should have won an Emmy Award for playing Data, and this episode shows why: he may be an android, but he comes off as the most human of anyone in the room. The way Spiner and Todd interact is remarkable and moving, with their last scene together being especially poignant.
The rest of the cast is great too; Stewart is his usual spectacular self as Picard, showing real care for Data’s situation even though he himself is not a parent. Sirtis is Troi’s usual compassionate, caring self. As Haftel, Coster could have been a one-note villain, but he manages a complete turnaround within a few short minutes of screentime. Whoopi Goldberg’s recurring character, the mysterious Guinan, is also present here, and Goldberg is just as appealing as ever in the role.
Rene Echevarria’s script is warm and inviting, really speaking, one imagines, from the hearts of parents everywhere. Recommended without a doubt.