Yesterday I continued rewatching Season 3 of Star Trek The Next Generation by watching ‘The Offspring’. This episode was aired in 1990 and was ahead of its time in some of the current issues it explores. I found the episode covered issues relevant to today including gender identity, autism, parenting and artificial intelligence.
In this episode as described by memory-alpha.fandom.com:
“Data successfully creates a new android, which he views as his child. However, the magnitude of his accomplishment quickly attracts the scrutiny of Starfleet, who wants to separate the child from Data and the Enterprise for study. Matters are complicated further when the child begins to develop beyond Data’s abilities.”
When Data’s offspring or new android is introduced, the new android is generic looking with no personal features as well as being androgynous. This is apparent to the crew. Data allows the android to choose their gender and personal features. The new android chooses to look like a human female. This is obviously quite different to how the Enterprise crew experience gender being assigned.
Data invites Troi to assist the new android named Lal to pick an appearance and gender. Troi is happy to help and Data stresses this is a lifelong decision.
There is much controversy in 2023 regarding gender identity and how a parent and therapists should be involved. I found this episode provoked my thoughts on that. Lal is only days old in this case but has an intellect and strength of 10 men.I thought Lal having the right to choose gender as being very progressive. Some humans would envy her.
Picard is taken back that Data didn’t consult him before creating Lal. To Picard this is a new lifeform but to Data it was becoming a parent. Data’s reasoning was given that Humans don’t ask for permission to become parents then why should he. To Picard this is an extraordinary invention though he starts to understand Data’s point of view when a Starfleet Admiral wants to take Lal away and separate them.
Lal works in Ten Forward, the social centre of the Enterprise, where she serves drinks and attempts to learn socialisation from the crew. Like Data her behaviour is socially awkward but she has excellent knowledge like her father. In the Blu-ray interviews of The Next Generation Brent Spiner, who plays the character Data, said a person diagnosed with Aspergers felt he showed part of them in his performance. I feel the same as an Autistic individual.
Data initially doesn’t send Lal to school as she has full access to the sum of Human knowledge from him. Wesley suggests she could still learn a lot by being with children close to her own age. Lal’s first day at school does not go well. She doesn’t understand social nuance so is put with young children. The teacher explains to Data that she is too smart for most classes and the other children are afraid of her because she appears much older than them.
As an Autistic, Lal’s social experiences struck a chord with me. I have felt isolated for being different. As a child I preferred to be with adults. Data mentions to Lal people are afraid of difference and Lal says she doesn’t want to be different. I do feel I missed out at school, not just for being different but because I couldn’t develop innate social behaviours. These abilities cannot be learned from encyclopaedias. They probably start at a young age with a limited timeframe to develop.
Data wants to give Lal his full support with her challenges but as he reminds Dr Crusher he doesn’t experience emotions like love. The irony is Lal’s name, chosen by Data, means beloved in Hindi. Lal observes love between couples in Ten Forward and Data explains she isn’t capable of experiencing love. Lal is confused if she is just emulating humans but chooses to hold Data’s hand like a daughter. Meanwhile Admiral Haftel arrives with the intent of taking Lal away for study.
The Admiral orders Data and Picard to hand Lal over to him. Picard responds to the admiral that he acknowledges Data’s and Lal’s consciousness but ignores their liberties and freedoms. “Order a man to hand his child over to the state? Not while I’m his captain” Picard retorts. As an Autistic individual I felt similar parallels of this with Psychiatrists attitudes to me and I’m sure many parents of autistic children have felt the same.
Troi describes Lal as becoming very frightened in the prospect of being separated from Data. Data states Lal appears to be experiencing a cascade failure. Data works tirelessly to save Lal and this act appears to lead the Admiral to heartbreak. Perhaps the Admiral saw a parent trying to save their daughters life. Lal tells Data that she loves him and that even though he cannot feel it with her, she can feel it for both of them. Lal has complete neural failure and is deactivated.
Overall, this episode touches on many issues like gender identity, autism and Artificial Intelligence that could be analysed in depth. For me it personified Data’s human qualities in a new light. Particularly that behaviours that act human are characteristics that make us human. I make an effort socially to be kind but sometimes it isn’t recognised because it comes across less genuine. I continue to experience rejection as an Autistic but I take solace in Data’s strive for more.
“It is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are. It does not matter that we will not reach our ultimate goal. The effort itself yields its own reward.”Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek