The Doctor and Data: The Most Human Trek Characters of All


I don’t recall if my father purposefully recorded episodes of Star Trek: Voyager (and Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation) to keep for a personal library before the days of DVDs, or if he was otherwise engaged during their airtime. Nonetheless, I was free to watch this scene over and over as a result:

It is a scene that has stuck with me for most of my life. The way The Doctor falls in love with Seven of Nine – an emotion that shouldn’t exist within a computerized hologram, and certainly not toward a Borg Drone – pulls at me in a way that no other romance has been able to within any series of Star Trek. But before you think that this is another post from a Doctor/Seven of Nine shipper, it is also the same feeling I get when Data asks Worf to take care of his cat, Spot, in the episode “Phantasms.”

For me, Star Trek’s capacity to tell human stories has never been more powerful than when told by the characters who are artificial. While I could see the value in having heroes like Captain Janeway and Geordi, for me it was always the Doctor and Data with whom I felt a deeper connection.

Growing up, I struggled with anxiety though I did not know it at the time. All I knew was that I felt a deep sense of not belonging, that everything I did, from the way I tied my shoes to the hobbies I preferred, was wrong. This feeling was not learned through years of middle school torment, though I certainly was not popular and I did struggle through the awkwardness of pre-teen angst. My wrongness felt innate. I felt it in my bones. I felt as perplexed and misunderstood about my own human experiences as the Doctor and Data, whose company I kept in the privacy of my own home, where I at least felt a little freer to be me.

The Doctor and Data are programmed to be above human folly, and yet throughout both Voyager and TNG we see each of them strive and long cultivate hobbies, identify emotionally, and understand their peers on a deeper level. These moments are often portrayed with humor, as when Data writes his “Ode to Spot” in the episode “Schisms.” It is a poem written in perfect iambic septameter, undeniably easy for a walking, talking computer. What is confounding for Data is how to project the feeling of love that he has for his cat, something that anyone with a beloved pet can easily communicate.

These moments are amusing, but they are also endearing. To be human is to be complex and often confusing, the journey equal parts painful and wonderful. We can relate to their awkwardness and humor because we have felt them. We have all been misunderstood and we know what it feels like to be the one in the room who feels different and separate from the rest.

More than that, their motivations to identify with human emotions and follies is so that they can be a better crew member for those around them. Data and the Doctor are both respected and accepted by their crew members and I suspect they would be even if they remained chained to their programming. But that Data and the Doctor never stopped trying to feel as emotionally capable as their peers. Even when it was unpleasant, even when they get it so wrong, it always felt uplifting.

It is why I initially wanted to relate this post back to current events and link Data’s and the Doctor’s stories to the necessity of hope. It now feels overwhelming given where we are. As a woman in my 30’s I now have a greater perspective beyond my own inner emotional turmoil. There are many reasons good to feel unpleasant lately, and to try and bring it all home by saying: “Be more like Data and the Doctor” feels insincere and overwhelmingly naïve. But I am going to softly argue it anyway.

data and spot

Data cries tears of joy for his cat

Star Trek as whole asks us to do better and to engage (literally). Data and the Doctor show use that human tendency can get us there. Both characters strive to understand humans and be more human so that they can be better friends, better listeners, and better coworkers. And their peers, who see them struggle and get it wrong, do not judge, but instead help. As the Doctor becomes a playwright they encourage the pursuit, just as Data’s peers take the time to help him understand why you can cry and be happy at the same time. And that desire and ability to help is the best quality we have as humans.

To love a cat, is to write a poem, is to sing a song, is to fall in love, is to relate to someone’s pain, is to pick up a sign and march, is to stand up to someone else’s bully, it to shelter someone from harm, is to remember that the human experience – above all else – is to try and be better.

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