*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD FOR TOS, TNG, PICARD, DISCOVERY*****
With apologies to both Walt Whitman and Ray Bradbury, Star Trek’s attitudes on ‘the body electric’ have undergone a paradigm shift from 1966 to 2021. The season one finale of Star Trek: Picard, S1.10: “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2″ saw Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) awakening within the artificial body of an advanced, Soong-class android prototype, after Dr. Altan Soong (Brent Spiner)–the son of Data’s creator, Dr. Noonian Soong–successfully transferred the admiral’s consciousness from his failing human body. From Picard’s perspective, he simply lost consciousness and awakened inside a new body–a new body with the exact sensations, emotions, and even tastebuds of his old one. He would even live the remainder of a typical 24th century human lifespan. That first season of Star Trek: Picard (PIC) dealt primarily with androids and artificial intelligences, which was fitting, since Picard has always been a passionate advocate for the rights of his android operations officer, Commander Data (Spiner) during the course of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.
Now, in a fitting twist of fate, the admiral finds himself part of the same artificial ‘species’ as his late android friend. Picard encountered much resistance in his defense of androids during that first season of PIC, especially after the android revolt at Mars (Short Treks 2.6: “Children of Mars”), which killed many people, temporarily crippled Starfleet’s shipyards and left a still-burning fire on the red planet. The android revolt at the Utopia Planitia shipyards was Starfleet’s 9/11, and synthetic life-forms became the scapegoats, though they were eventually cleared by Picard, when it was discovered the android workers at Mars were tampered with by external forces. Season two of PIC, tentatively debuting later this year, will see Picard living within his new android body, but will there be any differences? That remains to be seen.
In Star Trek’s optimistic future, will transferring into an artificial body be–to paraphrase the character of Dr. Roger Korby–easier than setting a broken finger?
Note: Production on PIC Season Two was recently halted due to a COVID infection among the production crew, though star Patrick Stewart is reportedly okay, thank goodness. It’s unclear if this delay will affect the season 2 premiere date, which was originally set for sometime in February.
Androids in Star Trek: The Original Series.
The Original Series Star Trek (TOS) episode, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, written by “Psycho” author Robert Bloch, the formerly missing Dr. Roger Korby (Michael Strong), onetime fiancé of the Enterprise’s Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), discovers a means of transferring a human mind into an android body. With the assistance of android aides Ruk (Ted Cassidy) and Andrea (Sherry Jackson), Korby performed this procedure both on himself and his assistant Dr. Brown (Harry Basch), after their bodies had succumbed to the freezing temperatures of planet Exo III. Dr. Korby hid his android nature from Christine, fearful that she might have the very reaction that she eventually did– shock and horror at the exposed circuitry in Korby’s hand after a scuffle with Captain Kirk (William Shatner). In the episode, it’s made clear the android-Korby isn’t the man Christine loved. He sacrificed his humanity when he uploaded his memories into his android body, thus becoming cold, calculating and less concerned with harming living beings. The power-mad ‘mandroid’ scientist had plans to send an android duplicate of Captain Kirk back to the USS Enterprise in an effort to seed his androids throughout the galaxy. Android-Korby thought if his creations were well-established within Federation communities before their nature was revealed, it would help ease public acceptance.
It was Korby’s hope that humans could achieve “a practical immortality, a new paradise” in android form, as synthetic bodies would last far longer than our biological ones (Ruk was many centuries old). Korby’s idea wasn’t necessarily a bad one. However, it was clear by the end of the episode that android-Korby himself was thinking more like a machine than a human. “Ask me to solve any… equate…transmit!” he stammers, as he clumsily makes the case for his own humanity. Perhaps the methods used in the doctor’s mind-transfer procedure (developed by the Exo III’s long lost “Old Ones”) weren’t sophisticated enough to capture the more subtle nuances of his personality. Another strike against android-Korby was his plan to infiltrate Federation colonies with his androids clandestinely, instead of simply coming clean with his remarkable discoveries.
Android-Korby could’ve made a far more sympathetic case if he’d simply told Kirk and Chapel the truth from the very beginning. Yes, there may have been much initial shock and dismay on Kirk and Chapel’s parts, but if android-Korby had openly presented himself as a prototype (and if Ruk hadn’t murdered two of Kirk’s redshirts), the fear and distrust of androids that we see in Kirk’s 23rd century might have been lessened significantly. Even if android-Korby hadn’t fully convinced Kirk and Christine that he was ‘really’ himself, he was certainly an impressive proof-of-concept. Perhaps Korby’s android bodies could someday save biological human brains from terminally-ill human bodies (an idea revisited in “I, Mudd”). Unfortunately, the episode stacks the deck against android-Korby, as he reveals his mad dream of replacing people with androids without consent (as demonstrated when he makes an android-Kirk). If android-Korby simply presented his mechanical body idea as a medical alternative instead of a necessary next-step, he might have been remembered as ahead of his time, instead of just another Star Trek mad scientist (like Dr. Tristin Adams, Dr. Richard Daystrom, et al).
We see androids again in TOS’ 2nd season, with “I, Mudd”, written by Stephen Kandel (“Mudd’s Women”). The story sees galactic conman/liar/thief/swindler/space-pimp Harcourt “Harry” Fenton Mudd (Roger Carmel) hijacking the USS Enterprise with the aid of an android named Norman (Richard Tatro), who infiltrates the Enterprise crew as a new crewman. Implausibly, Norman somehow (?) got himself posted to the Federation flagship without so much as a routine physical examination. Norman takes the ship to class-K planet “Mudd”, which has a race of powerful, intelligent androids all inexplicably loyal to Mudd. Long story short, the androids are simply using Mudd to acquire a starship so that they may seek out new masters–since they recognize Mudd as an obviously flawed example of our species. While the android plan to take over our galaxy seems sinister, their ultimate aim is merely to “please” humanity by controlling it–curbing our own dangerous impulses for self-destruction. These androids of the planet “Mudd” are absolutely logical; thus, the Enterprise officers are able to eventually defeat them by overloading their linear mental circuits with pantomimed acts of pure insanity. The defunct androids are eventually rebooted and reprogrammed to keep Mudd imprisoned on their planet… a small repayment for his hijacking the Enterprise.
Note: The Mudd episodes (“Mudd’s Women,” “I, Mudd”) are among my least favorite of TOS Star Trek, to be honest. However, “I, Mudd” has some comedic moments that work very well, particularly the wild acts of illogic performed by Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura and Mudd to overload the androids’ minds. While Star Trek ‘comedy’ is usually hit-or-miss, “I, Mudd” is not too bad.
One of the most future-foreshadowing moments of the episode is when Mudd shows Kirk (William Shatner) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) some of the other android models on the planet (played by sets of identical twins, and cheated with split-screen FX). Mudd attempts to appeal to Uhura’s vanity by telling her the android bodies can be modified to house a humanoid brain–thus giving a human being virtual immortality and eternal beauty; pretty much the same offer made by ‘mad’ scientist android-Korby. Uhura feigns interest in Mudd’s offer in order to deceive him and the androids, but one has to wonder; is this idea really so objectionable?
As we see in Star Trek’s later centuries, the notion of android bodies as new vessels for the brains of ailing human beings is almost no different than a person today receiving a prosthetic arm or leg following an amputation. Even more seamless, in fact, since the android body is virtually identical to the person’s shed mortal coil. The big difference, and perhaps the one that makes biological humans jealous and mistrustful, is the notion of an android-bodied human achieving immortality. We’re fine with humans having mechanical limbs, hearts or other body parts, but the idea of a fully mechanical body living centuries beyond the rest of us seems to be a dealbreaker for some. But is such rejection based on a lack of faith in the idea, or on humanity’s own ugly jealousy? To put it in more antiquated terms, is it too blasphemous to transfer a ‘soul’ into a mechanical vessel? Is such a thought too perverse or ‘unnatural’ for humans to be fully comfortable with? What exactly is the root cause for such fear?
Another TOS season two episode, “Return to Tomorrow”, written by John T. Dugan, sees the Enterprise arriving at a long-dead planet with a subterranean chamber containing three glowing spheres. These spheres contain the disembodied consciousnesses of the planet’s three remaining survivors; leader Sargon, his wife Thalassa, and their former rival, Henoch. The three ‘spirits’ require several Enterprise officers–Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. Anne Mulhall (Diana Muldaur)–to temporarily house their minds so that they may construct permanent android bodies in which to transfer afterward. In return, the aliens promise a wealth of scientific treasures centuries beyond 23rd century means.
Note: As any Trek fan worth their salt (vampire) knows, Diana Muldaur would return to TOS as another character, Dr. Miranda Jones in “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” 20 years later, Muldaur would return to Star Trek: TNG as the Enterprise-D’s replacement chief medical officer Dr. Kate Pulaski. Sadly, Pulaski would only see one tour of duty on TNG for its 2nd season. Speaking for myself, I loved the character of Dr. Pulaski, and at the risk of some nasty comments below, I wish she’d stayed on for the remainder of the series.
In one of his best speeches ever, Kirk reiterates to a very doubtful Dr. McCoy that “risk…risk is our business.” That speech wins the argument. Using their vastly superior alien technology, Sargon (Shatner), Henoch (Nimoy) and Thalassa (Muldaur) work with Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) to build their new mechanical bodies, which Thalassa begins to resent. Thalassa has lingering doubts–doubts seeded by Henoch–that an android body will fully reproduce full physical sensations–touching, kissing, etc. The devious Henoch plans to keep Spock’s body for his own, and almost persuades Thalassa to do the same, until the noble Sargon ultimately convinces her otherwise. Tricking Henoch into believing he’s been poisoned, the alien mind flees Spock’s body and is destroyed (with Spock’s own consciousness returned, of course). With Henoch gone, Sargon and Thalassa share a final kiss in Kirk and Mulhall’s bodies before voluntarily departing into oblivion together.
Once again, TOS Star Trek presents the possibility of housing human consciousness in android form, only to reject the idea as ultimately unworkable; in this case, Thalassa is unconvinced that her new body will be able to fully share physical intimacy with her husband. Ultimately, the two remaining entities reject their earlier plan to inhabit mechanical bodies and choose death instead. The mechanical bodies already built are never seen again; I’ve always wondered what became of those bodies–was the technology ever declassified? Perhaps the discarded bodies eventually became the basis of Dr. Noonien Soong’s work in the 24th century?
Androids in the 24th Century.
Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place roughly a century after Kirk’s era, and as we see in progressive societies, old attitudes and taboos are eventually relaxed…a little bit. Like the Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn) now serving in Starfleet, we also see the emotionless android Data (Brent Spiner) serving as Operations Officer of Captain Picard’s Enterprise-D. In Kirk’s time, androids were dangerous things that always seemed prime to take over the universe. Now, they serve humanity, and even more, they want to emulate us, faults and all. Data summates the life’s work of Dr. Noonien Soong (also Spiner), perfected after several prototypes had failed, or gone bad (Data’s ‘evil twin,’ Lore). Data also incorporates sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s dream of a ‘positronic brain’.
Note: The ‘positronic brain’, introduced in Asimov’s short story “The Bicentennial Man”, later expanded into novel length for “The Positronic Man” (1992), which was eventually adapted into the Robin Williams’ feature film “Bicentennial Man” (1999). The positronic brain has no legitimate basis in real science, other than it sounds really cool. Perhaps in the far future, there may be some reason positrons become integral to artificial intelligence, but for now, it was just word dressing used by a classic sci-fi author. Then again, scientists at Caltech were similarly inspired by TOS Star Trek’s ‘ion drive’ (“Spock’s Brain”) when they created the Deep Space missions using same-named technology.
We learn in the standout TNG episode “Measure of a Man,” written by Melinda Snodgrass, that Data’s road to Starfleet service wasn’t always a smooth one, and that his application to Starfleet Command was rejected by one Commander Maddox (Brian Brophy), a prominent Starfleet cyberneticist, only to be overruled by committee. In that story, Data is ordered by Maddox to undergo a procedure that seeks to reverse-engineer his technology in order to create more androids of his class for future Starfleet service. However, the procedure for downloading the contents of Data’s brain into a mainframe computer is lacking in specificity, giving Data concern that the ‘ineffable quality’ of his mind and memory may not survive the process. On that basis, Data refuses to comply. Maddox then takes legal action to force Data, a sworn Starfleet officer, to comply with his order. Acting as Data’s defense counsel, Captain Picard supports the android’s rejection of the procedure, arguing that he has the same right to life as any other Federation citizen. Maddox counters that Data is “property” of Starfleet, not a member of the Federation. A hearing is called, with First Officer Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) involuntarily compelled to act as Maddox’s advocate.
What follows makes for one of the finest episodes in Star Trek canon as ship’s philosopher/bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) inspires Picard to look at Data’s predicament from another angle–is Data being used to create a race of slave beings? Even if Maddox succeeds, what becomes of Data’s “race”? Will they be (despite their superior abilities) a mechanical subclass forced to serve organic beings with no rights of their own? Using Data’s own experiences aboard the Enterprise-D as examples, Picard proves that Data is far more than a device–he is capable of appreciating art/literature, forming friendships, and even sharing physical intimacy. Maddox’s procedure could kill a sentient being in order to create a servant class. Picard’s words hit Star Trek at its very core when he states, “Starfleet was founded to seek out new life, well there it sits…waiting.“ A contrite Maddox cancels his transfer order and Data is allowed to continue serving in Starfleet. Unfortunately, as we learn several decades later, Starfleet does eventually create a race of android servants, and Picard’s impassioned arguments ultimately fell on deaf ears (Star Trek: Picard, S1.1: “Remembrance”). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
Another TNG episode, “The Offspring”, written by Rene Echevarria, pushes the limits of android rights when Data decides to become a single parent with the creation of his daughter Lal (Hallie Todd). Lal, Hindi for “beloved,” is given more natural skin pigmentation and eye color than Data’s own gold/white skin and yellow eyes. It’s Data’s hope that a more ‘natural’ human appearance will help her socialization with humans (once again, riffing on android-Korby’s ‘mad’ idea). The episode reaches a climax when Starfleet admiral Haftel (Nicholas Coster) comes aboard the ship with the intention of taking the ‘new android’ for study at a Starfleet research center. Data objects at the notion of “the state” forcing him to give up his (newborn) daughter for research. What follows is somewhat similar to “Measure of a Man,” save for a critical difference; Lal becomes emotionally distressed at the prospect of being separated from her ‘father’ and panics. This newfound emotion overwhelms her, and causes a ‘cascade failure’ within her positronic brain. In a painful, heart-wrenching moment, she dies telling her android father that she will love him enough for both of them, and thanks him for her life. Haftel himself is visibly moved by Data’s efforts to save his daughter, noting that “his hands were moving faster than I could see.” In this episode, the proven-sentient Data meets yet another criteria for qualifying as a living organism–the ability/desire to procreate.
Note: While it’s repeatedly stated that Data is ‘incapable’ of emotions, I don’t believe it. It’s clear that Data understands emotions, but he simply lacks the ability to properly express or interpret them. It’s for that reason that the character is often seen as a champion for neuroatypical or neurodiverse persons, years before such terminology took root in popular culture. Also of note, Hallie Todd gives a truly amazing performance as Lal, going from comical to heartbreaking within the 40-or-so minutes we get to know her.
Cut to 30 years later in Star Trek chronology. PIC begins in the year 2399; the very end of the 24th century. Data is presumed dead following the events of “Star Trek: Nemesis” (2002) and Picard has resigned from Starfleet in protest over its abandonment of Romulan refugees following the destruction of their home world, as well as the ban on androids following a brief but devastating revolt by android maintenance workers on Mars. The first season of PIC shows how the events were, in fact, related. But rather than dwell on Romulan distrust of androids, I’d rather focus on the final two-part finale of PIC, wherein a dying Picard finds an entire colony of Soong-type androids living on the hidden world of Coppelius. The colony is led by Altan Soong, a previously unknown son of Data’s creator Dr. Noonien Soong. Long story short, the Romulans crash the party, and things go to hell. In the melee, Picard makes one last great speech that helps set things right (not to mention a fleet of Starfleet ships for backup, led by an out-of-retirement Captain Riker). Sadly, Picard succumbs to his illness and dies. However, Soong has a prototype android body handy for just such an occasion, and Picard’s neural engrams are meticulously transferred into the body of this new android.
Note: Don’t get me started on the various ancestors and relatives of Dr. Soong (Arik, Altan, etc) who all happen to look exactly like actor Brent Spiner. And why did Data know nothing of his late creator’s son? Where was this son while his ‘childless’ father was living with his wife Juliana on Omicron Theta? While these nits bugged me a bit at first, PIC season 1 still offers a nice ‘full-circle’ arc to Jean-Luc Picard’s story, since Picard’s always been such a passionate defender of android rights.
During his limbo state between death and re-awakening in android form, Picard has one last scene with the consciousness of his old friend Data, who still exists within a backup drive created by a single positron from his neural network (don’t ask). Data, not wanting to continue as a backup drive, asks Picard to pull the plug after he awakens. Picard does so, granting his friend’s last wish–to finally exit his own limbo state. One more goal achieved in Data’s desire to be more human–mortality. While Data’s own life ends, Picard’s newfound existence in his android body begins. Apparently the transfer of his memory and emotions to their new form were so exact that even his sense of taste is intact, as he discovers over a morning breakfast. Picard’s synthetic body can eat, taste, smell, feel heat, cold, and even die. To Jean-Luc Picard, death was little more than going under anesthetic for surgery and then awakening a few hours later. Fortunately for him, and just in time, the Federation lifts its bans and travel restrictions for androids at the end of the final episode, and we see Picard–as human-looking as ever–aboard the La Sirena with his friends.
However, what if Picard didn’t choose to settle for a body that was configured almost exactly like his original one? Soong explains to Picard that his new body is more or less identical to his biological one, but without his terminal illness. So, if a body’s frailties can be edited out, what’s to stop Picard from choosing a new body with no lifespan limit? What if Picard’s new body also had the superior abilities of Data (strength, endurance, etc)?
Self Discovery: Androids in Star Trek’s 32nd Century.
Star Trek: Discovery (DSC) leaped far into the future in its third season, with its ship and crew arriving as time-traveling refugees into the late 32nd century, some 900 years from their departure point. Most of the crew have adapted well to the 32nd century, and have delighted at the many advances made in this new millennium. Among the advances we see are new all-in-one communicators that take the place of bulky landing party gear, as well as a substance called programmable matter that can turn a desk into a bed, remake a device at the flick of one’s wrist, or repair the wrecked hull of a starship in very little time.
One major advance that apparently fell out of use sometime in the 25th century was the ‘antiquated’ technology of downloading consciousnesses into android bodies–yes, the same dream of Dr. Korby, Sargon and Dr. Altan Soong. Discovery’s own Dr. Culber does research into this practice and discovers that it was attempted many more times after the successful reintegration of Admiral Picard into his new body at the end of the 24th century, but subsequent attempts yielded lower success rates and the technology fell into disuse.
Dr. Culber tells Adira (Blu del Barrio) that he can use this 800-year old technology, combined with new 32nd century advances, to create a new synthetic body for their late Trill lover Gray (Ian Alexander), whose consciousness survives in the Trill symbiont within Adira’s body. Transferring Gray’s surviving consciousness from Adira’s symbiont into the synthetic body requires a Trill guardian’s supervision, but the synthetic body itself can now be created within the USS Discovery’s own sickbay.
Note: Trills are, of course, the same species first seen in TNG’s “The Host,” and later during the 7 year run of “Deep Space Nine”, as seen in the characters of Jadzia and later Ezri Dax, both of whom bore the Dax symbiont within their bodies, allowing each of them access to Dax’s memories and life experiences. The character of Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) was Star Trek’s first awkward attempt at a gender-fluid character, since Dax knew Deep Space Nine’s Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) when her symbiont was inside a male body. Sisko still affectionately referred to the supermodel-looking Jadzia as “Old Man.” Yes, it was a bit clumsy, but it was also 1993; there was nothing even close to a gender fluid or non-binary character on a mainstream TV show in those days. Even gay characters had trouble getting on the air in 1993, except as the subjects of cruel jokes or preachy ‘very special episodes’. “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” were still several years off.
With his disembodied consciousness speaking through Adira, Gray is allowed to fine-tune his new body to his own preferences, even keeping his blue hair and eliminating a mole he wasn’t too fond of. Gray is also told that his body will last a typical Trill lifetime, much as Jean-Luc Picard was reassured when he first woke within his synthetic body.
Note: Gray Tal’s symbiont was transferred into his human lover Adira around the time of his death, and would apparently remain within Adira even after the creation of Gray’s new synthetic body. I assume one of the few limitations of Gray’s synthetic body would be to function as a biological host for a Trill symbiont. But it seems Gray carries all his prior memories from the symbiont within his mind, since those experiences apparently survived the transfer process.
When Gray awakens within his new synthetic body, he is asked by Adira and Dr. Culber how he feels, and he tearfully replies “whole.” Such a term is often used by those who finally achieve their true gender identity through clothing, surgery, or other means of outward expression, and it’s given exceptional poignancy when delivered from trans-male actor Ian Alexander, who does a terrific job as Gray. Android bodies began as a subject of fear and disdain in TOS (“What Are Little Girls Made Of?”), became a metaphor for disenfranchised persons in TNG (“The Measure of a Man”), and are now seen as a metaphor for trans-persons achieving wholeness (“Choose to Live”).
PIC and DSC have also conclusively answered the TOS question of whether or not a ‘soul’ can survive within an artificial body–apparently it does. Very well, in fact. The “body electric” has come a long way in Star Trek.
Where To Watch.
All Star Trek series, as well as the feature films, are now available for streaming on Paramount+. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 835,000 (and nearly 5.5 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks and get vaccinated (with booster shots) as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones through the holidays. Please continue to wear masks in public venues; the N95/KN95 masks are proven more effective. With a bit of Star Trek optimism and medical science, we can persevere through this pandemic.
Live long and prosper, and best wishes for 2022.