A-to-Z Challenge Day Four: Data and The Doctor
As I look out the window of this suburban run-of-the-mill house in Michigan, I take note of the sullen, overcast sky. Rain is drizzling and the wind is whipping the droplets against the glass. I can hear a police siren over Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” coming from some cheap Dell speakers.
I like to lose myself in my favorite science fiction television shows on days like today. So my friends, sit back, pop open a soda, and get ready to sing the “Life Forms” song. I’m going to go through a few of my favorite characters from a few of the best science fiction shows.
Sci-Fi character one: Data
Lieutenant Commander Data is a positronic android modeled after those of Isaac Asimov. Throughout most of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data’s mission is to become as close to human as possible. This is actually the brilliance of Data as a character. He’s essentially a way for us to explore our own humanity through extrapolation of his observations, his challenges, and his successes.
Characters like data are why I think that science fiction is probably the greatest kind of fiction we’ve ever created. By being somewhat alien, and almost wholly detached from the human condition (emotions like fear, needs like sex and hunger) we get to see sides of ourselves through his eyes and learn something about who we are and what drives us.
As the series progressed, and Data started having dreams, we get a view of our own subconscious. And I have to admit, the idea that an android should have a subconscious didn’t really hit me until the episode with the aliens feeding on the crew and the dream with Freud. It’s brilliant, when you think about it. Could Data be sentient and a real intelligent life-form without one? There’s a lot of speculation about artificial intelligence and synthetic life-forms needing a subconscious before they can be true AIs, and based on human intelligence that makes a lot of sense.
I really see Data as the progenitor for any of the AIs in modern television science fiction because he established a lot of the foundations for androids. And, as an aside, let’s never talk about the androids from Almost Human. I am not a fan of that show, and I think that they have a lot of contradictions to work out (does Dorian have free will or not?) and they have other serious issues to address, like the slavery issue.
Sci-Fi character two: The Doctor
What can I say about The Doctor that hasn’t already been said by the army of his fans? I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until about a few years ago, when I first heard of it. You may be asking, “were you hiding under a rock?” Well, no. I just didn’t have BBC America until then, and even though some of my friends had mentioned it, I didn’t really have any friends who were rabid about the show.
Well, I really like Doctor Who now. What’s funny is that a lot of the things I said previously about Data could also apply to The Doctor. He’s alien, and as is sometimes shown in episodes like “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” where he marvels at happy crying (before he experiences it), he is detached from the human condition.
What does The Doctor give us that Data can’t? Like Data, The Doctor is is one-of-a-kind with an evil counterpart (Lore and The Master). The Doctor also experiences humanity vicariously through his companions, as Data does through his crew mates and friends. As the happy crying bit demonstrates, he uses the emotions of his friends as cues for how to behave, or what it means to be human.
Though I wouldn’t call Doctor Who science fiction (but instead fantasy with science fiction elements), I think that I can include it in this list because of how closely The Doctor fits in to the science fiction world of characters. If the TV show is fantasy, the character of The Doctor is science fiction, and I think that it is important to recognize that.
The Doctor is a weird kind of hero. Strictly speaking, within official canon, we don’t really know much about his past or who he really is. There’s all kinds of speculation about his motivations. We know he’s responsible for the destruction of his entire race, and at one point or another the genocide of other races (like the Daleks). In a way, The Doctor is an atypical hero in that he recognizes the moral grey area of killing. For a very long time he wouldn’t pick up a gun and he did his best to avoid the use of violence.
But he does kill. And sometimes he has snappy one-liners about it, like “Another Ood I failed to save.” In a way, he’s a hero because he does what he has to do and he has to make the hard decisions that most people wouldn’t be able to make. In the season one finale, the ninth incarnation of The Doctor is faced with a choice: destroy all of the Daleks who survived the Time War and with them all of the humans living on Earth or allow them to destroy the station and not be responsible for the genocide of two races.
In a way, the Daleks are right: The Doctor is a bit of a coward. That makes him more realistic. We applaud his decision to not exterminate the human race with the Daleks, but the consequences of that action would have been the inevitable destruction of humanity as well as many other races as the Daleks marched across the galaxy.
The Doctor was, of course, saved by a deus ex machina at the end so he didn’t have to deal with the full consequences of his decision, but let’s not forget what the consequences would have been. He already sacrificed his race to destroy the Daleks (who had somehow survived) and he wasn’t willing to have all of that death on his hands again.
So let’s get back to Data. Data has also been responsible for deaths, like in the episode “Cause and Effect.” In this episode, his suggestion to avoid an incoming ship lead to the destruction of the Enterprise and the loss of all lives on board. Thanks to a time paradox, he was able to make the right decision by the end of the episode and avoid the loss of life.
This brings us back to a major difference between Data and Asimov’s robots: the laws of robotics. Data doesn’t abide by them. He can take lives, he can act on bad information that results in the loss of lives. He doesn’t have to obey all of the orders from a human (though he does have to follow proper orders per the chain of command on the Enterprise).
This lack of three laws is vital. In I, Robot Asimov outlines a few scenarios which cause the robots some problems because of conflicts with the three laws that, in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, would render Data a pile of catatonic bloatware. Data needs the freedom to make life-and-death decisions to protect himself (he is unique) and his crew. This is all the more important because he is the second officer of the Enterprise and could be called upon to take command at any moment.
But more than that, it gives Data free will, such as it is. Data can make his own decisions, based on programming that he appears to have the freedom to modify. Putting aside the debate about whether Data is life-form or property (he’s not property, capisce?), this makes him responsible for all of the decisions he makes.
The key difference between Data and The Doctor is that Data, for most of the series, does not have emotions (and when he does get them he experiences his own run-in with cowardice). The Doctor is probably just as logical and analytical as Data is (under the silly exterior), but his emotions make a huge difference. Data relies more on logic trees and feedback loops (many of which he ascribes priorities too) to determine his sense of right and wrong, whereas The Doctor has a more human, emotional sense of morality.
It makes one wonder what kind of decision Data would have made if faced with the same situation of the ninth incarnation of The Doctor. Would he have stopped the Daleks at the expense of humanity, those he has tried to emulate his entire life? Or would he had declared himself coward, like The Doctor?
I’d like to think that Data would have made the same decision as The Doctor did, but the reasons would have been different. I imagine it would have been more of a trolley problem for Data, and not emotional like The Doctor. Would you doom the human race on the off chance all of the Daleks would be destroyed? I think Data’s own sense of morality would not allow him to destroy the human race, even if it could save other races.
So what’s the point of all of this? Well, I just really wanted to wrote about Data and The Doctor. Maybe I’ll write a longer piece comparing them and make it a bit more coherent in the future.