Tuesday, December 2, 2014

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”: Elementary, Dear Data

If “The Big Goodbye” was the archetypical holodeck malfunction story, than “Elementary, Dear Data” can only be called the archetypical “holodeck characters gain sentience” story.

The plot and basic thesis are pretty simple to explain here. The episode is straightforwardly about artificial intelligence and what constitutes consciousness and sentience. It's the same basic kind of speculative robot story Hard SF has played with since forever and that's going to be a reoccurring theme this season, and there's not a whole lot else to talk about with this brief other than that. Star Trek: The Next Generation does add a distinctive narrative elegance to the proceedings here by mirroring Professor Moriarty's personal revelation with Data's bet with Doctor Pulaski and displays its heritage by pretty overtly invoking Descartes and his “cogito ergo sum”. Data proves to Doctor Pulaski that he is capable of independent thought and deductive reasoning, and Moriarty declares to Captain Picard that if Data is to be granted full personhood status because of that than so should he. I don't really want to introduce a debate on Cartesian philosophy here, so let's just say I find the whole things pretty damn questionable and suspect and try to read this episode in a way other than the rote and obvious.

In lieu of this, “Elementary, Dear Data” is probably the pinnacle of Doctor Pulaski's character as originally conceived and this pretty much marks the point where her big character arc should have ended. She bears witness to not one, but *two* artificially created life-forms pretty incontrovertibly proving their personhood status according to both her and the show's diegetic standards (and notice how even in the beginning she refers to Data as a “he” instead of an “it”). Diana Muldaur is great, but she's always great so there's no news there. The only objection I would raise is the fact this isn't tied off quite as neatly as would really have been nice (in particular, Pulaski and Data needed a scene together in the denouement) and, of bloody course, the kidnapping. To that, all I have to say is “Come on. Really? This is 1988 and that's Diana Fucking Muldaur.”

(Data himself is, predictably, outstanding and Brent Spiner really doesn't need commenting on by this point, but do take note of how he plays Data here: The “emotionless” android very clearly bluffs, panics several times and is obviously having a hell of a lot of fun playing his fictional idol.)

Then there's the Sherlock Holmes setting, which is of course good campy fun. London (and 221b Baker Street in particular) is realised in a lovely, sumptuous manner, and indeed so much so it's one of the things that necessitated closing off the year with a clip show. Certainly with the as of this writing recent astronomical popularity of Sherlock Holmes as a franchise in pop consciousness, “Elementary, Dear Data” is probably a terrific episode to introduce people to Star Trek: The Next Generation with on that merit alone: It's a veritable Sherlockian's dream come true, from the beautifully rendered Baker Street apartment to the copious nods to the sacred “Holmes canon” to Brent Spiner's grandstanding, Jeremy Brett-inspired turn as Data-as-Holmes. This also caused the show some manner of problems due to a confusion over usage rights: Due to the differences in copyright law between the United States and the United Kingdom, Sherlock Holmes was public domain in the US but, at the time, *not* in the UK: Paramount was almost sued by Arthur Conan Doyle's estate because of that.

Professor Moriarty himself is an interesting character above and beyond the basic “What is the measure of a non-human?” plot: This being a holodeck story, by default we're looking at multiple stories interacting in a portal realm existing in the space between narratives. Star Trek: The Next Generation must, of course, acknowledge its debt to Dirty Pair here, and it dutifully does so not just through the keiyurium that shows up any time we get a holodeck story by default, but by actually invoking the Angels' names, and thus their marks: Kei and Yuri visibly appear on Moriarty's blackboard (twice!) amongst the equations that orbit his drawing of the Enterprise, alongside Ataru and Lum from Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura, a manga and anime series with it's own distinct and difficult-to-dispute Dirty Pair connection. So, perhaps because of all of this, Moriarty becomes a musing on apotheosis and ideals. This only makes sense, as the whole concept of invoking Sherlock Holmes to begin with was to further explore Data's connection to his personal fictional hero, his own divine ideal.

But where would that leave Moriarty, Holmes' equal and opposite? If Sherlock Holmes can be considered one of the first pulp superheroes, than Moriarty surely must be one of the first pulp supervillains. He's nothing more than Holmes' evil mirror twin. But here is where the story's diegetic themes come back into play because, as Moriarty stresses a number of times throughout the episode, he has changed. He is “no longer that evil character”. In making him an equal of Data rather than Holmes, the holodeck had to make Moriarty an actual *person* instead of a cardboard cut-out, and there are very few evil villains in real life. More important than simply thinking or being sentient, Moriarty can now learn, grow and explore, and *that* is the mark of an enlightened being. In giving him “life”, Star Trek: The Next Generation has redeemed and healed Moriarty, demonstrating how we can take our divine ideals into ourselves, thus becoming them and the utopian change they represent. The Angels are still looking over us.

They keystone character in all of this for me becomes not Data, not Doctor Pulaski, not Moriarty, not Captain Picard, but Geordi. Although he ends up spending the bulk of the episode basically playing a Doctor Who Companion (“What is it, Data?” “But that's impossible, Data!”), he gets a wonderful scene at the very beginning when he's explaining to Data why he built his model ship (my teeth-gnashing and grumblings about this story's glorification of the British Royal Navy aside). LeVar Burton adopts a very specific, and very immediately recognisable, tone with Data throughout the entire exchange, and this one scene singlehandedly defined how I decided to read Star Trek: The Next Generation for this project and from this point onwards. See, LeVar isn't actually playing Geordi La Forge here (compare this scene with, say, his wisecracks at Nagilum and Doctor Pulaski in “Where Silence Has Lease”), he's actually playing LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow, and I don't think people who weren't familiar with both shows would have caught that. But I caught it, and it was a moment of revelation for me.

LeVar Burton is playing Geordi as a “children's educator” and he's having him treat Data like the kids he reads to on Reading Rainbow: As a close friend, certainly, and not at all patronizing or condescending, but still as someone who needs support and guidance to make their way in the world and realise their full potential. The clincher for me is “I've just shown you one of my dreams, now let's go and share in one of yours”, which first of all could have come *straight off of* Reading Rainbow, but also finally crystallized for me what Star Trek: The Next Generation should actually be about. The starship Enterprise is, as we have established, a place people go to learn and grow. It's a place that, while conflict is few and far between, is not somewhere where we're supposed to forget what the outside world is like. It's a place that doesn't pretend conflict doesn't exist, but shows us how we can deal with conflict, confusion and negative emotions in a safe, healthy and constructive way.

Don't you see? Star Trek: The Next Generation is children's television for adults. Star Trek: The Next Generation is Mister Rogers' Neighborhood In Space. *That's* why it's so different from every other television show ever made and why you can't simply apply the same rules to it you can to every other scripted drama on the planet. And that's why Geordi La Forge is now the chief engineer of the Enterprise, because LeVar Burton is Star Trek: The Next Generation's heart and soul. Nobody understands this better than he does.


  1. "Children's television for adults."

    Holy shit, it IS. *brain explody*

    1. Grumble. And there goes the central thesis of my ongoing blog-essay about why Captain Power is a better Star Trek-for-the-80s than TNG.

      (Not that I really mind all that much since, let's face it, any attempt to argue that thesis is going to end up relying on massive amounts of farce and kayfaybe)

      One of the things I love the most about this episode as an adult is that the reason Moriarty becomes a Real Boy is just as simple as "Because they asked the ship to make him one." It's a deliciously mad concept to just casually drop "Oh, and the ship can manufacture sentient beings at will if you just ask it to, only this never occurred to anyone until now," as a MINOR point in the episode. It feels very much part of the whole "Space is a magical and slightly insane place where anything can happen and probably will" mentality that gave us Abraham Lincoln in Space or Catspaw or Where None Have Gone Before, but which modern-era Trek seemed to spend most of the 90s trying really hard to forget about.

  2. Although the key phrase in the episode is cogito ergo sum, and this is the central phrase from the popular heritage of Descartes, which is rightly considered the focal point of a serious problem in Western culture and philosophy. In particular, Descartes' overall philosophy and scientific conception of non-humans is a huge problem with Star Trek's explicit vision. For Descartes, the human (which turned out to be restricted to the specifically Western) model of reason is the minimal standard of thinking at all, to the point where non-humans were considered automatons.

    Yet this episode would seem to be a subversion of Cartesian visions of reason and thought into a species-pluralistic world of Star Trek. Reasoning – thinking generally – is here conceived as something that any creature can do. More than this, Moriarty begins to think in response to a request from Geordi. Geordi calls to the Enterprise computer, and the ship/holodeck answers his call with a constitution of intelligence and a complete personality.

    In the works of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas (a concept that has a strong influence in Jewish thought), subjectivity arises as a response to a call, and that responsiveness to our call grounds a fundamental ethical obligation to the one who answers us. Levinas himself developed this conception of the foundation of person-to-person ethical obligation given his experiences in the Second World War, confronting the horror of the Holocaust and the post-war refugee crisis. Levinas was a Lithuanian-French Jew who barely avoided the Holocaust because he was an Air Force POW, and the Luftwaffe protected its prisoners from death camp deportation. Almost his entire family in France and Lithuania was wiped out. As well, after the war, he worked for the French government processing refugees, and was additionally traumatized and affected by having to listen to so many personal cases and pleas of displaced persons for help, and turn them away. His philosophy of the ethical call and response emerged from the wretchedness of having to judge and deny aid to some war refugees and grant them to others based on abstract, objective criteria. The response to the call renders abstract principles and criteria obsolete.

    So Moriarty is a response to Geordi's call, and in responding he constitutes the ability to think and reason. Cartesian reasoning and abstraction is subordinated to the call-response foundation of ethical obligation. Picard ultimately recognizes that when he ends the episode making the promise to Moriarty to find a way for him to be free. And Moriarty later calls him on having let that promise slide a few seasons later.

  3. It's interesting to see Geordi this way, because Chief Engineer jobs give an actor and character a lot of power in presenting the concepts being explored - his literal job on the ship is the same as his metatextual one - to ride along with us and explain things, and he's never better used than when he's doing just that (the same way as Pulaski metatextually being both a character's surgeon, and a character-surgeon ... the overt narrative is becoming one with the subtext more and more with every episode.

    Of course I feel like this sort of culminates by Season 4 and the show sort of runs on its own artificial framework in later seasons, but that doesn't stop the standout episodes from still being able to tap into that diagetic edge here and there - particularly when we're dealing with characters who AREN'T our core cast but are rather supporting players, showing our family of core cast in a new light.

    It's interesting to me after Pulaski talk in the previous episode discussion to see that Moriarty's transition from "one-note character" to "fully rounded personage" doesn't just reflect Data, but Pulaski's rapid evolution as well, whether on fitting in, on the subject of Data, or whatever else. "Welcome to the Enterprise, you can be a fully realized person now."

    With a message like that, you absolutely need a guide like LeVar Burton to ride along with you and to be nowhere near patronizing.

  4. "Froborr: "Children's television for adults."

    Holy shit, it IS. *brain explody*"

    My brain just exploded too. What an utterly obvious and beautifully made point. To be honest I would never have see it without reading this blog, as I had never heard of Reading Rainbow before coming here and also knew nothing of LeVar Burton's previous work.

    When I go back and re-watch I will be certain that I'll see the show differently. One of my favourite episodes this.