Wednesday, June 22, 2016

ST: TNG - Data, AI and the Holodeck

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 1.13

Smarmometer detects severe infestation of Wesleyitis! Proceed at your own risk!
Actually, as this episode is rather representative of, among other things, Wesley Crusher's negative influence, I'll have to address its Weaselier side when I get around to that topic. Suffice it to say that while the entire rest of the crew are somehow taken in by the impersonation of Data by his evil twin brother, only Wesley, wonderful, magical Wesley, can see through the (very flimsy) ruse.
I'll also have to address the evil twin angle when he shows up again. Which I seem to remember he will. For my purposes here I'd just like to draw everyone's attention to the episode number. Thirteen. We're only thirteen episodes into the series, during which, aside from a few scenes here and there, Data had done precious little to nothing.

Data was basically Spock 2.0, his character being defined by his inhuman nature and not individual personality traits. Now, Spock also acquired an evil twin in the infamous Mirror Mirror episode (remember the one with the inexplicable goatee?) However, this was about halfway through the series, and the original series' smaller cast had lent us ample time to delight in Spock qua Spock before such a cheesy gimmick had to be dredged up to throw the character in a new light. Data, on the other hand, was still largely an unknown quantity by this early point in TNG, diluted by the larger cast. Not only had his Pinocchio schtick not been introduced yet but even his abilities as an android had not been explored much.

I don't think I'd have noticed it without watching the series in order but this issue ran rampant during the first thirty or so episodes. The main characters are thrown into new situations causing personal trauma and altering their worldview... before we'd ever seen that worldview, before they had been properly introduced to the audience, before we had a good look at the status quo which such gimmickry challenges. Troi, Data, Picard, Riker, Worf, pretty much every character suffered from this tendency, which I assume must've been inserted into the show by someone very high in the creative hierarchy.

How the hell TNG ever made it past its first season, I have no idea.


Seriesdate: 2.03
Elementary Dear Data

I've never much liked holodeck episodes. They're a cop-out. TNG's producers certainly seem to have loved them, probably because they got to re-use sets, props and costumes from other shows without investing in SF-ish gadgetry. So far, the production values in holodeck scenes, whether Victorian England, mobster 1940s, what-have-you, certainly seem much higher than TNG's own flavor of decor. More lavishly primped up, more extras, etc.
Still, they're a cop-out, having nothing to do with the Enterprise boldly going and all that jazz; a way of avoiding SciFi settings in a SciFi show. But hey, the cast certainly sank their teeth into the cheesy half-assed period acting and costumes, so aside from my ideological opposition, I must admit this turned out rather entertaining.
Lookin' dapper, chappers.
Data likes playing Sherlock.
Actually, wasn't this part of what made the characters on TNG so lovable? Militaristic jargon aside, they are all such giant freakin' nerds! Seriously, they spend half their free time in mathematical simulations and the other half roleplaying.
But anyway, Data's a total munchkin. Instead of playing the modules fresh, he's memorized all the Sherlock stories so he always has the winning ticket. In order to challenge him, Geordi orders the computer to create a worthy opponent. The computer programs a sentient Dr. Moriarty program, who takes control of the holodeck and kidnaps Dr. Pulaski but by the end of the episode has grown past the limitations of his villainous origins, prompting a lovely scene in which Picard respectfully preserves the life of this novel sentient being.
Get it "sentient novel" eh? Oh, I slay me.

But wait, what did I just say? The Enterprise's computer just created a new sentience on command? Just like that? All that claptrap about the brilliant, inimitable work of the singular genius Dr. Noonien Soong in creating Data, and it turns out the Enterprise's computer can "make it so" in all of three seconds?

Kinda fizzles Data's uniqueness, doesn't it?
What's worse, this seems to happen nearly every other time they flip on the holodeck.
Hey, it's a recreational device with a one in three-ish episodes' chance of spawning a hideous self-aware cybernetic abomination. Fun!


Seriesdate: 2.04
The Outrageous Okona

Woo, back-to-back holodeck goodness. Someone saved a bundle on sets and props by switching to 20th century.
Anyhoo, meet Captain Kirk's illegitimate grandson... and his totally legit ponytail.

Okay fine, so Okona's not really related to the honorable James T. Crotchgrab, but he might as well have been. Aside from being played by a better actor than Shatner was back during the original series, Okona's largely the same daring, adventurous, young but rich and/or in charge, capable and independent ladies' choice of male archetypes. And he's wearing a motorcycle jacket in space! Oh well, at least it's not a turtleneck this time. Before long, Picard's stuck trying to mediate between two different planets where Okona's made free with the crown jewels or made even free-er with his family jewels, if you catch my nine months' drift. Then of course you're treated to a TV-quality twist ending that'll have you yawning with suspense.
Whatever. Not what I came here for. I'm here for the jokes. See, Okona tells jokes. Data doesn't get said jokes. Data tries to learn jokes, hilarity ensues (not really) thus winds up once again, for no particular reason, in the holodeck.

This is basically the first episode to feature Data's quest for the human condition and I must say they kicked it off in a really weird way. Aside from Guinan delivering a classic SF one-liner ("you're a droid and I'm a-noid") Data spends most of his half of the episode being mentored in human humor by a hologram. Once again, instead of taking full advantage of Data's alien mindset to play him off against normal human counterparts, the show's writers mistakenly double down on their two main computerized elements.

Admittedly, the pathos of Data's moment of realization before the 1980s comedy club audience he simulated for himself came off quite well, but I can't help questioning this choice of venue. How much more poignant would Data's failures have been if he's been trying 24th century jokes on 24th century Enterprise crew members instead of simulating an audience which would have meant nothing to him or to anyone else. After all, those of us learning how to tell jokes these days don't ask ourselves "boy, I wonder how this one about the finger and bellybutton would play in a tavern in pre-Enlightenment Rotterdam?"

Though obviously intended as a major character on the show from the start, the Data role was very awkwardly handled for the first season and a half. Instead of being "the android" in the same way Spock was "the Vulcan" Data repeatedly gets tossed into plots involving other robots, computers, mining equipment, sentient holograms, anything and everything mechanical which diluted his persona. Even when playing up his uncanny valley lack of humor, it's before a simulated audience. Only starting with this episode does his Pinocchio meta-plot begin to lend him some more defined features.

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