Written by Rene Echevarria
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
The android Data (Brent Spiner) returns from a Starfleet cybernetics conference and immediately retreats to his lab. Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Data uses the newest breakthroughs in technology to create “Lal”, a cybernetic being whom he considers to be his child.
This is a great episode on many fronts, but particularly from the angle of questioning just who knows best when it comes to parenting.
There are some very funny moments in the beginning. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) tries to admonish Data for doing this without telling him and Data responds that no one else on the Enterprise consults him about their procreation. It’s a conversation that Picard approaches from one direction and Data from another. Data sees it all about parenting while Picard sees it as something akin to a research project. The two conversations never really meet and it’s a fun watching the scene play out.
Lal (portrayed by Hallie Todd) is allowed to choose its species and gender. It chooses to be a human female. In an attempt to have her learn some social skills, Data enrolls her in the school on the Enterprise, but she doesn’t quite fit in. Data consults with Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) on the matter and she agrees to let Lal “wok” in the 10-Forward Lounge aboard the Enterprise and guide her along.
However, once Starfleet learns that another cybernetic being like Data has been created, it is decided that she should be removed from the Enterprise and placed with “experts” who can guide her growth better.
This is where the episode really gets interesting, for it takes on a role akin to the government deciding it knows best about parenting a child. When Admiral Haftel (portrayed by Nicholas Coster) comes aboard suddenly Data is justifying and defending his parenting choices – such as allowing Lal to learn and observe human behavior in a “bar”.
Haftel takes on the role of a modern-day CPS worker who comes in knowing what is better for the child. It is a wonderful contrast that goes by many viewers because of its subtlety and because we are dealing with androids. Even though both Lal and Data are acknowledged as sentient beings, they are still expected to bow down to what Haftel – and Starfleet – think is best; turning Lal over to the so-called experts at Starfleet. Haftel believes that their knowledge as “experts” is better for Lal than remaining with the only other being like her in the universe, Data.
In this whole scenario, no one seems to take into account what Lal and Data want, except Picard. Picard defends Data’s choices and his skills as a “parent”. It is Picard who puts the question to Lal of what she wants while Haftel talks about her as if she isn’t even in the room.
What Haftel and Starfleet never take into account is the question of if removing her from her current environment is more disruptive to her than any possible flaws in Data’s parenting skills. This has dire consequences as for the first time Lal experiences an emotion – fear at being taken away from her father. Her cybernetic systems see this as a malfunction and despite Data’s efforts, she “dies”.
This episode really does a good job at hammering home the fact that when a child’s life is not in immediate danger, what right does the state – or anyone – have to question someone’s parenting skills? And can the damage be worse by interfering instead of leaving it alone?
The performances are excellent. Brent Spiner does another fantastic job as Data and shines in the role. It is performances like these that have seemed to be missing in the more recent films. Patrick Stewart gives Picard an almost grandfatherly performance here as he wavers between duty and what he believes is right. His protectiveness of both Lal and Data is evident, even though he was not happy with the situation in the beginning. Hallie Todd is excellent as Lal and I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job. A well-known actor or actress might have been distracting in the role.
The only flaw I find is that if it were so easy for Data to create another cybernetic being, why wouldn’t Starfleet just follow his model and create another at the research station rather than abducting his? During the rest of the series, I can’t recall hearing about Starfleet creating another Data-like android at all. There are also bits of overlap in the arguments about Data and Lal’s rights with the second-season episode The Measure of a Man. If at times it seems to the regular Star Trek viewer that we’ve heard these arguments before, we have.
These are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent episode. It’s a great one for a casual viewer to watch and get a feeling for what has made Star Trek: The Next Generation a great series.