Have you ever had a friend who tried to kill you?
Captain Kirk did.
That friend is also arguably Star Trek’s most popular character of all time, First Officer Spock. While exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations, Star Trek has always made sure to have a strange new lifeform or two on the crew manifest. From its earliest conception, there was Spock. Captain Pike, Dr. Boyce and Majel Barret as Number Two came and went with no one but the most die hard of fans even knowing they were ever here. The entire show turned from black and white to Technicolor, as the Enterprise was refitted with a new crew for Star Trek’s second pilot, but still Spock remained.
No one expected him to become Star Trek’s most popular character and a pop culture icon, certainly not the network that wanted him gone because his Satanic appearance might perturb rural viewers. And since then Spock\Data characters have gone on to become the pivots of the Star Trek spin-offs. As their respective ships navigated deep space and faced the unknown, their human crews shared the bridge with strange creatures of their own who have become friends and comrades throughout their adventures. But throughout those adventures they had no way of knowing when those same friends would suddenly pose a dangerous threat. Because despite all the friendships and the banter, Spock\Data characters are strange and unknown creatures and so they serve as conduits for the strange and unknown to come through from the other side.
A Spock\Data character may fit in for a while and become familiar but there’s always the possibility that he can unexpectedly be struck by a mating urge, a lurking program, a link to their own species’ mass mind or a personality subroutine that causes them to turn on you without warning. And in that way Spock\Data characters enjoy a freedom that the plain vanilla human characters do not. A human can’t take over the ship, attempt murder or go on a rampage without consequences. Even if the writers could overlook the problem, the audience would never accept it. But we do accept Spock\Data characters going berserk on the slimmest of pretexts.
Indeed we accept it so often that all of the TNG movies so far have featured Data becoming unstable or unreliable as a plot point. Data’s emotion chip prevented him from stopping Soran thereby eventually leading to the death of Kirk in Generations, the Borg Queen’s temptation of Data created the climax of Star Trek First Contact which hinged on Data’s loyalty or lack thereof and Star Trek Insurrection began with an Insurrection by Data. But if the Spock\Data character type is so dangerous and unreliable, then why are they welcomed as crewmembers? And through the repeated use of this plot is Star Trek really sending the message that ‘Different is Dangerous’?
System Error #129E
Mechanical Spock\Data characters, like all Star Trek technology, still remain the most error prone. It’s well known that your average holodeck or transporter malfunctions more often than Voyager runs into spatial anomalies. Data’s programming caused problems throughout the Next Generation, most memorably when he attempted to cut a piece of Troi cake in the turbolift or when the holodeck produced a Data look-a-like brothel madam to serenade Worf. On Voyager the EMH produced more than his share of technical difficulties even turning into his own evil twin and kidnapping Kes for a Thelma and Louise style getaway over a cliff. Seven of Nine’s Borg technology then brought a whole new kind of havoc to the ship, even merging with the EMH’s own technology to produce a 29th century drone; the Worst of Both Worlds.
Since the early days of the Original Series, fans have made the argument that no technology that breaks down so often would be considered acceptable on a military vessel. But the logical conclusion of such an argument is that characters who break down so often, producing threats to their ship and crew, shouldn’t be considered acceptable either. Some of Star Trek’s mechanical and holographic men may be sentient beings with legitimate rights, but they seem to cause as many problems as they solve. They have special skills and abilities that we don’t, but those abilities seem to backfire more often that not. And sometimes you just have to wonder if their positions couldn’t be filled by some boring middle aged human professional with a wife and three kids back on Terra, who doesn’t dream of being a human or produce shipwide conflicts and technical havoc because of yet another aberration in his program
Spock, Phone Home
While the Data characters fail because of the underlying flaws of all technology, alien characters are simply dangerous because they’re strange and unpredictable. No one anticipated Pon Farr or that the Enterprise’s security officer would end the debates over the leadership of the Klingon High Council with one blow from a Baht’leth or that the station’s security officer’s telepathic connection with a Founder might erode his loyalty to his own friends and resistance to the occupation of Deep Space Nine. Aliens have unique biologies and social codes, which like computer programming errors, come into play at the most inconvenient and unexpected times.
The Spock character like the Data characters holds mysteries that make appealing plotlines. The central trilogy and most popular films of the Original Series films focused on Spock’s death and resurrection. The messy complications that follow resulted in the death of Kirk’s son, the destruction of the original Enterprise, Dr McCoy’s descent into insanity, the original crew being forced to turn and renegade and then being court-martialed and demoted. Viewers might have rejoiced at Spock’s return but by the time he was really ready to rejoin the crew, the state of the crew had changed dramatically.
So the alien produces at least as many complications as the machine. Life aboard a starship might even be almost simple without them.
Shy Aliens and Outgoing Machines
With Spock, Star Trek created TV’s most popular alien introvert. The Next Generation followed this up with a mechanical extrovert and so Data was born. Since that time
Star Trek’s aliens have tended to revolve around these two poles.
The alien introvert is brooding and isolated. He is a misfit in his own culture or for whatever reason is cut off from his culture. He doesn’t fit on his own planet or on ours. He keeps to himself when he can and focuses on a world we don’t see, a strange world that he calls into being in our imaginations by his very existence. He is a loner and he is the Other. The one who is not like anyone else.
Spock was half human and the ship’s only Vulcan at a time when prejudice against aliens still lingered in Starfleet. Worf was a Klingon raised by humans and the only Klingon on board a Starfleet vessel, who in addition underwent periodic bouts of being dishonored on his own world. Odo was the only shapeshifter on DS9 and the Alpha Quadrant for several years and didn’t know who his people were. And when he finally found them, he discovered that they were ruthless genocidal monsters he had to fight. Torres was a self-hating half-Klingon who left Starfleet Academy to join a terrorist organization. Psychologically speaking the alien introvert is certainly not a pretty picture.
By contrast the mechanical man is the extrovert who wants to or needs to get to know us and be like us. Data was engineered without an emotion chip and has spent a decade now trying to be more human. He is ready to talk anyone ear’s off at the drop of a hat and to do his best to socialize, no matter how ill prepared he is for the task Voyager’s EMH may have been surly but he quickly began developing hobbies and soon became as gregarious as Data, even putting on generally dreaded slide shows of his own holo-photography for the crew.
The Alien Introverts with their own culture and heritage don’t want to be like us, preferring instead to form an identity of their own on the twilight margins of dual societies. The mechanical extroverts want our identity and work to overcome the limitations of their own manufacture. The result is that Star Trek’s strange new crewmembers are less a spectrum than two poles on opposing sides of each other. All they have in common is the element of danger, the fact that we can never really know what they’re thinking or what they might do next.
Star Trek’s spinoffs have tried to deviate from the Alien Introvert \ Mechanical Extrovert formula but the results have been a mixed bag. Alien Extrovert’s like Quark or Neelix were good for the occasional punchline but never really set fire to the viewer’s imaginations. They were just a little too obvious in their motivations and drives and there wasn’t much of a journey or arc to their storylines. Alien Extroverts really couldn’t seem to grow or learn. They were useful to have around but their contributions and their crises were limited. Quark created all kinds of havoc but there was nothing mysterious or alien in his motivations, just plain old human greed. Neelix didn’t manage to have enough of an impact on Voyager for his actions to mean even that much.
The attempt at producing a Mechanical Introvert also met with limited success. Voyager’s Seven of Nine was set on the standard mechanical man humanity arc but with a personality more like Spock’s, Worf’s or Odo’s. She brooded, kept to herself, delivered sarcastic responses and walked around with a chip on her shoulder (not to mention the ones in her brain.) Every now and then the crew treated her to simplistic lessons about the nature of humanity and by series’ end she was a real live person.
Unlike the standard Mechanical Men who are creatures of technology, Seven of Nine was attempting to cast off the cybernetic shackles of Borg technology so that she could become fully human again. This is an inversion of the traditional Mechanical Man storyline of machine becoming man, in keeping with Voyager’s own arc which unlike previous starships going out to explore space was escaping from space to go back home. Seven too was trying to escape from technology and from her special and enhanced powers, so she could return to being simply human once again.
And while Seven of Nine is probably the Voyager character non-fans are most likely to recognize, arguments will continue as to whether she is being recognized as a unique character that captures the imagination or for her infamous Paramount issue catsuit.
So the choices for Star Trek’s non-human characters once again come down to the same options, mechanical extrovert or alien introvert.
Different is Dangerous
As a species we tend to fear the unknown, but we also venture out to explore it. Spock\Data characters are a measure of the unknown poured into the shapes of characters. It’s easy enough to do a show that explores outer space, but the creation of the Spock\Data character also allows us to explore inner space and what it means to be human. But exploration always comes with a price.
Different is certainly dangerous. When we stick to what we know, then we’re in a situation where we can predict the risks and the gains. But when we leave known space, the risks and the gains become an unknown quantity. As Q put it, space is wondrous with riches to satiate tastes both gross and subtle, but it’s not for the timid.
With the Mechanical Extrovert, we are faced with technology that wants to be a part of our lives and integrate with us. We fear this technology. We fear that it will change us, possibly hurt us and destroy who we are. And so sooner or later the technology turns on us, as we expect it to. The commitment of the crew to its Mechanical Extroverts and by extension to the technology it represents, shows their commitment to exploring not simply space, but technology and our interaction with it.
Throughout the series, rather than mechanizing ourselves, we have tried to humanize the technology in its personification as the Mechanical Extrovert. Data and the EMH instead of making us less human, have become more human themselves. Their evolution demonstrates our control over the effects of technology upon us. Instead of the Borg nightmare, Seven of Nine moves from drone to human being. As layer by layer of her humanity returns, the technology is peeled away to reveal that despite all our technological accoutrements, we are still human underneath.
The Alien Introvert on the other hand won’t come to us, we have to come to him. Star Trek’s theme is to seek out new life and new civilization and to paraphrase Q again, those new lives are standing on our bridge, waiting. Like all unknown things, he offers potential threats and like all unknown things, the only way to deal with those threats is to come to know him.
Ultimately the human journey which has reached a peak in Star Trek is about learning to know and tolerate the Other. Our definitions of ‘Other’ have progressed from our neighbor in the next cave, the men in the next town, in the next country. The men who don’t speak our language, who dress and behave differently and whose skin colors and religions don’t match ours. By Star Trek the ‘Other’ has become truly alien, but once all these others listed above were just as alien and the notion of cooperation with them was at least as shocking, as cooperation with aliens. Spock may have shocked network executives, but so did a multi-racial and multi-national crew.
Extending the definition of ‘Other’ to its widest possible parameters is the exploration of inner space. Learning to master technology without being afraid of it, allows for the exploration of outer space, from our home, to our planet, to our galaxy.
Together the Spock\Data characters join the exploration of inner and outer space, of ourselves and the other beings in the universe and all the knowledge that exists out there waiting for us.
The Spock\Data characters indeed are our dangerous friends and our guides to the universe and ourselves.