Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Pinocchio Syndrome

Data (Brent Spiner) - Star Trek: The New Generation

'There is a certain kind of fiction that I unfailingly experience, in Rilke's terms, as either a cat story or a dog story. This is the category of fiction marked by an unusual choice of protagonist - sometimes literally an animal, but more often some inhuman, semihuman or hybrid figure: robot, alien, swamp creature, ape man, mutant. Or one of those strange, half-formed humans we call a child. In a cat-like story, this figure remains inscrutable, and the point of the tale is to teach us a chastening lesson about that inscrutability.


Dog-like stories are completely different. They are sentimental tales, full of pathos, aiming above all to wring tears from the reader or viewer. Their heroes are half-humans who strive desperately, yearn terribly, for the humanity which has been denied them through the circumstances of their creation. Some of the classic figures of this sort include Pinocchio, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Frankenstein's monster, No. 5 in the Short Circuit films and Edward Scissorhands.

Besides Mitsou, nothing brings tears to my eyes faster than the episodes of Star Trek: The New Generation centred on the android Data (played so well by Brent Spiner). One of the central questions driving Star Trek in all its incarnations (all the generations, in both film and TV) is: what does it mean to be fully, truly human? As in so much science fiction, the otherness of the aliens encountered by the members of the Enterprise is not often seriously explored as an issue. These very uncat-like creatures are usually deployed as symbolic mirrors to humanity, as they exemplify some ingenious, evolutionary imbalance of the basic drives, exhibiting too much libido, or placidity, or aggression, or rationality. For a long time, and as an essential ingredient of Star Trek's premise, Spock teased the limits of his comrade's comprehension with his enigmatic, unearthly mind-set - but his inexorable trajectory (whatever his gnomic protestations) was set towards becoming more and more human. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Kirk even gets to tell Spock that 'We're all human'.

As an android, Data reraises the tricky question involved in dramatically or comically defining the borders of humanity. Like Spock, he is an inscrutable figure: his face conveys little, except when he tries too hard to mimic the facial contortions involved in a human laugh or frown. Incidental details play constantly on Data's inability to understand the most sublime levels of human achievement - art, religion, philosophy - he doggedly works on his painting, his violin playing, and the reading of the pillars of wisdom which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) solemnly entrusts to him. He obviously also admires the human qualities of playfulness and cleverness, since he sometimes dons the garb of Sherlock Holmes for a spin in the imaginary worlds created by the ship's Holodeck.

The show cleverly incites our desire to read into Data's sleuth-like curiosity the stirring of a more profound sentiment: yearning. And if Data yearns, isn't that the surest sign that he is already, somehow, becoming human? Yet, while certain actions that Data performs seem to indicate the magic alchemy of such a transformation, others pull us suddenly back to ground zero. He is, after all, a machine, one that we occasionally see switched off, and (as he often reminds us himself) he has no emotions of any sort. That is a condition of his being, like his autonomy, which gives him a passionless, twilight aura of existential solitude: as the only one of his kind, Data can have no sense of community or belonging.

Yet the ultimate nature of Data as a sentient being is kept alive as an open question in Star Trek: The New Generation, and many of the best episodes dramatise the ambiguity that compellingly surrounds him. In one story, a coldhearted, hyperrational scientist arrives on the Enterprise with the mission of disassembling Data, so that he can be reproduced and improved (due to a handy trick of intergalactic history, his exact technological make-up remains a mystery). When Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is able to prove the presence - inexplicable as it is - of attributes in Data that at least resemble conventional emotions, Picard formally rules that henceforth, Data is to be considered neither android nor human, but a hybrid that inaugurates a new evolutionary species.

In another, extremely moving episode, Data takes the question of his reproduction into his own hands. He builds a daughter who, like her father, shows through her inability to adapt to human manners the gulf between these two species. But then she develops powerful surges of emotion that deranges her circuitry. Like man classically transgressive heroines of melodrama, she is far too much trouble for the show to keep alive; but as she dies, she assures Data that, although he cannot honestly express proper parental love, she has enough love for the both of them.

An explicit line of reference in the show compares Data to both Pinocchio and the Tin Man - casting him as that perfectly sentimental figure who lacks a heart or soul, and whose only wish is to obtain them. 'The Tin Man', however, casts a somewhat more sympathetic and accepting light on Data's hybrid nature. The plot concerns Data's relation to two unusual creatures, both of them singular beings fitted uneasily into the cosmic scheme of things. The first is a brilliant but difficult man with supreme powers of empathy and intuition. He is so open to feelings and thoughts that any interaction is a torment to him. The second is the Tin Man - a pile of discarded machinery out in space that has evolved into a sentient being with completely unknowable values and drives. Data, silently, identifies with both of them. When it comes to pass that the destiny of these two beings is to merge into one - thereby extinguishing each other's yearning - Data returns to the Enterprise and reflects that he too, at last, feels some sense of belonging.

The most intensely ambiguous of all the Data stories to date has been 'The Most Toys'. In this episode, Data is kidnapped by a sadistic, selfish collector for his museum of unique objects. Counterpointed to Data's typically cool and methodical exploration of means to escape captivity are the varied reactions of grief from his comrades back on the Enterprise, who believe he is dead. Data has explained to his captor early on that, as an android with a built-in check, he cannot murder; this is later used to taunt him, as others around him under the collector's rule are cruelly exterminated. Finally, Data faces the villain with an especially lethal gun in hand, and is told: 'If only you could feel rage . . . if only you could feel a need for revenge, then you could fire. But you're just an android. You can't feel anything, can you?'

The collector interprets Data's dilemma here - the question of whether to kill or not - as 'just another interesting intellectual puzzle for you, another of life's curiosities'; meanwhile the familiar flickerings in that passive android face seem to bear out the truth of that description. 'I cannot permit this to continue', says Data - ever the rationalist - and raises his gun to fire. At this precise moment, a transporter beam envelops Data and returns him to the Enterprise. The ship's controls indicate an energy discharge has occurred. Data - in an unreadable moment that may indicate canniness - denies that any such thing happened. Finally, he faces his captor, now in turn captured. 'It must give you great pleasure', whines the fallen megalomaniac. Data replies, 'No, sir, it does not. I do not feel pleasure.' And as the camera tracks in for dramatic underlining, he blankly parrots back the words, 'I am only an android'.'

From Dear Data by Adrian Martin.