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The Persistence of Character

From Humans to Androids to Holograms: the Persistence of Character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager

Isabelle ROBLIN


Au fil des années, les personnages posthumains, qui sont des IA, sont devenus assez courants dans la franchise Star Trek, qui explore la question même de leur statut ontologique et de leurs relations avec les différents équipages humains, humanoïdes ou aliens avec lesquels ils travaillent, et qui évolue au sein des différentes séries. J’argumente ici que ce questionnement peut être considéré comme une mise en abyme du concept de personnage dans une culture posthumaniste et conduire à un renouvellement de la question du personnage (Anderson, Felski and Moi 14). Je me concentrerai sur deux de ces principaux « personnages » récurrents, l'officier androïde Lt. Commander Data dans The Next Generation et le Docteur holographique de Voyager. Après un bref examen de certaines des questions sociétales et éthiques les plus stimulantes abordées dans la franchise depuis ses débuts à travers des personnages humains tels que le lieutenant Uhura dans la série originale, j'analyserai comment, à partir de la fin des années 1980, avec l'essor rapide de la diffusion de l'IA dans tous les domaines de la société, des personnages non humanoïdes comme Data puis le Docteur ont incarné (pour ainsi dire !) le débat passionné notamment dans les études posthumanistes sur « la mesure d'un personnage », pour reprendre le titre de l’un des plus célèbres épisodes de The Next Generation.

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  • 1 The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969), The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-1994), set about a century aft (...)
  • 2 George Takei himself, who played Mr. Sulu, had survived internment in California during WWII.
  • 3 Cf Nichelle Nichols on filming the first interracial kiss on American television: https://www.youtu (...)

1From the early episodes of the first series, the Star Trek franchise1 promoted a resolutely optimistic vision of humanity as an inclusive whole, unmindful of race and gender, bent “to seek out new life and new civilisations” in a difficult and divisive political context in the United States (the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movements…). This humanist ideology reflected the outlook of Gene Roddenberry, the series’ creator, who “made clear that, in Federation society, racial and sexual differences and all forms of biological diversity were seen as positive elements to be celebrated” (Gregory 18, my emphasis). The choice of main characters in the first series corroborate and promote this utopian agenda: apart from Captain Kirk, the typical white American male, the bridge crew on the Enterprise in TOS (1966-1969) included one ET, first officer Mr Spock, who is half human, half Vulcan, a Russian, Mr Chekov (at the height of the cold war and the space race between the USA and the then Soviet Union), a Japanese, Mr Sulu (25 years after Pearl Harbor2), and an African-American woman, Lt Uhura, the chief communications officer, one of the first black characters to be portrayed in a non-menial role in an American television series. Whoopi Goldberg, who later played Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation, described Uhura as a role model for her, recalling that she told her family when she first watched the series: “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!” (Merrill). The original series was ground-breaking in the 1960s for featuring Uhura kissing her white captain in the episode “Plato's Stepchildren” (season 3, episode 10, first broadcast on Nov 22nd, 1968, a mere few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King), and thus making US TV history. Indeed, the episode is often cited as the first example of a scripted inter-racial kiss in an American television series. For Chris Gregory, there is no doubt that “it represents a milestone in the portrayal of interracial relationships as represented by mainstream media” and as such “has subsequently proven to be a game changer in interethnic relationships” (Farghaly and Bacon 2) even though the controversy over the kiss, especially in the Deep South, “contributed to the imminent cancellation of the series” (Farghaly and Bacon 7). However, Dan Hassler-Forest, a pop cultural theorist and assistant professor of media studies at Utrecht University, while agreeing that this “first inter-racial kiss was a big historic moment”, points to the fact that “in the context of the plot they’re being forced to [kiss] against their will by mind-controlling aliens” (Jesudason). Moreover Martin Luther King himself had to convince Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, not to leave the show, saying: “for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen, every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, and who can go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, who are in this day and yet you don’t see it on television till now”. “She wanted to quit that show,” says African-American sci-fi novelist Steven Barnes, “because she felt that she was not allowed to do anything. But there are little girls who grew up and are now in the astronaut programmes, who saw Uhura and they believed. They believed that there was something more than poverty”.3 In the original series, characters could thus be deliberately constructed as role-models for their audience.

  • 4 Brangham points out in a parenthesis that (“For context, the debut of openly gay characters on prim (...)

2Nonetheless, this pioneering comprehensiveness had some limitations so far as the sexuality/gender of the characters is concerned: as many critics and fans have pointed out, there were no gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender characters portrayed in the first series. George Takei (Lieutenant Sulu), who came out as a gay man in 2005, said that in spite of his inclusiveness, Roddenberry had voluntarily held back on portraying gay characters in the original TV series (Brangham).4 However, the more recent Star Trek Discovery (2017-present) features for the first time a happily married, openly gay couple (chief engineer Paul Stamets and medical officer Hugh Culber), as well as their adopted non-binary child, Adira Tal, who falls in love with a young man, Gray, played by a transmasculine actor, Ian Alexander. Even if, as William Brangham concludes, “it took fifty-one years for the [Star Trek] franchise,” “a pioneer in so many ways,” to feature openly LGBTQI+ characters, when it eventually did, it certainly pulled out all the stops to push back hitherto taboo social boundaries and normalise through these characters a wide range of sexual mores.

3In The Next Generation, the trend towards a greater diversification continued, with “female characters featur[ing] more prominently,” as well as characters played by African-American actors, and the international element in the casting of TOS was expanded into an “‘interspecies’ one” (Gregory 44). Not only is the captain, Jean-Luc Picard, no longer American but French (!), but various other humans and aliens make up the crew, as well as an android, Commander Data.

1. A shift towards posthuman characters

4In the worlds of Deep Space Nine and Voyager that followed, humans would become increasingly outnumbered and the ideals and goals of the Federation itself would be vigorously challenged, broadening the scope of what it means to be a respected life form and emphasizing the right to be treated as such. Although Roddenberry’s humanist principles would still be respected, the “human factor” would no longer be the only formula for solving the problems that would be encountered (Gregory 65). Indeed in Deep Space Nine, while the commanding officer himself, Benjamin Sisko, is a human played by an African-American, his chief of security, Constable Odo, is a “changeling” who can take any shape he wishes but usually assumes that of a male humanoid. In Voyager, while the captain, Kathryn Janeway, is a white human woman and her second-in command, Commander Chakotay, is a male Native American, the chief engineer is a half human-half Klingon female and the chief medical officer is a hologram, simply called “the Doctor.”

5So, whereas there were no non-humanoid main recurrent characters in TOS, they became more and more numerous in the subsequent series. Richard Hanley points out that

in the original series, the Star Trek writers were deeply concerned with the status of computing machinery; by The Next Generation the focus has shifted to the status of androids; and in the latter-day series Voyager it is the status of holodeck-generated individuals that raises concern. One interpretation of this trend is that as technology progresses, individuals of new types gradually gain acceptance as persons (42)

6and, I may add, as “normal” characters. Indeed, these “individuals of new types,” like androids and holograms, lead to “a renewed interrogation of character” (Anderson et al., 14) and play a key role in audience acceptance of posthuman AIs as characters on an equal footing with human or humanoid ones, at the same time as within their fictional worlds they struggle to be accepted as crew members with the same rights and duties as the other human or humanoid ones. “The cultural distance between today and how audiences viewed computerized artificial intelligence in the original Star Trek series” over fifty years ago is huge: at the time,

  • 5 As Jon Wagner and Man Lundeen remark, “The original Star Trek was aired at a time when computers we (...)

the treatment of [...] androids as little more than overblown calculators depict[ed] the difference between ‘natural’ and artificial intelligence as so great that it’s an absolute gulf […]. By the time of Voyager, the distinction has all but erased as we are asked to struggle alongside a holographic Doctor and a former Borg drone with the issues of constructing individuality and a new life (Decker 145).5

7Since then, of course, those forms of cyborg or android beings, from Philip K. Dick's fictions (his 1968 dystopian science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? being a case in point) through to the Terminator and Matrix franchises have driven the posthumanist imagination. For N. Katherine Hayles for example, the most fundamental point about the posthuman view is that “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals (Hayles 3). I shall thus concentrate on two of those posthuman AIs who are main recurring characters and full members of their respective crews: the android Lt. Commander Data in TNG and the holographic Doctor in Voyager. I shall first examine their characteristics and then the different screenwriters’ attempts to make them acceptable as “ordinary” characters, notably by providing them with human traits, then discuss the differences between Data and the Doctor’s attitudes to becoming human.

2. Data vs. The Doctor

8“Data and the Doctor […] are imitation humans: they are made to look and function as humans” (Wagner and Lundeen 60). The Doctor is a hologram but exists at first on a special medical holodeck as a substantial, humanoid body (Hanley 118-119). Data the android paradoxically looks more artificial than the holographic Doctor. As Captain Maddox rightly points out in “The Measure of a Man,” Data would probably not be so easily endowed with human characteristics by the rest of the crew if “it were a box on wheels.” Both were designed and built by their creators, Doctor Noonien Song for Data and Doctor Lewis Zimmerman for the Doctor, in their own likeness. In “Datalore” (season 1, episode 13), when Data wonders why he was given human form, his crewmate Geordi Laforge explains that it was to make it easier for humans to relate to him. Captain Picard adds that Data’s creator may also have wanted to prove that human-shaped robots need not be clumsy or limited in their performance.

9What/who exactly is Data? Data is an android, a synthetic life form with artificial intelligence. He is in fact a machine, albeit an “extraordinary piece of engineering and programming” (“The Measure of a Man”) that can be assembled or taken apart. His very name, Data, denotes his ontological status, since basically data is usually defined as the information that is stored in and used by a computer. In a very important episode, “The Measure of a Man” (season 2, episode 9, released on February 13th, 1989), an official legal hearing is conducted to determine whether he is a sentient being and has the right of self-determination or a mere, albeit complex, piece of equipment, the property of Starfleet, which can be dismantled and analysed by science officer Maddox for his research on positronic brains. As Sue Short points out, in this episode “the status of the artificial human and its right to self-determination are crucial questions formulated via the trope of a courtroom, and […] ethical considerations become a matter of jurisprudence. The implicit assumption behind that alignment of morality with legality is that a higher wisdom exists that can be appealed to with reasoned argument” (Short 215). In the end, the judge rules that she is not able to decide whether or not Data is self-conscious, “has a soul” as she puts it, and is thus a sentient being. However in her ruling, she starts by referring to Data as “it” but soon switches to “he,” thus implicitly acknowledging Data’s status as a person and not an object and, in a typical posthuman view, openly questioning the whole issue of consciousness, traditionally “regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition” (Hayles 2):

  • 6 The question of whether to refer to Data as “he” or “it” is also at the core of the episode “Datalo (...)

It sits there looking at me, and I don’t know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics, with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I’m neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I’ve got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We’ve all been dancing around the basic issue – does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I’ve got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose (my italics).6

  • 7 In the new series Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present), the ship’s computer does become sentient, ch (...)

10The whole episode has deep philosophical, ethical, moral as well as judicial undertones. Captain Picard’s closing statement—“Starfleet was created to seek out new life, well there it sits”—sums up the debate: the viewer is left with no doubt about the necessity to extend our definition of life to include the android. And consequently, he is also to be considered as a fully-fledged character, on par with the other members of the crew, unlike, for example, the ship’s central computer, to which he is occasionally compared.7

  • 8 Chris Gregory sees in the treatment of the Doctor in Voyager an “ironic reference to the original s (...)

11What/who exactly is the Doctor? In Voyager, the Doctor is an Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH), originally to be used as a back-up computer program by the ship’s human doctor, who can switch it on and off according to his needs. However, the ship's doctor and entire medical staff get killed in the first episode of the series and so the EMH by necessity becomes the resident physician albeit, at the beginning, with the worst bedside manners imaginable.8 The Doctor recalls in “Revulsion” (season 4, episode 5), “when [he] was first activated, [he] was regarded as little more as a talking tricorder.” As David Greven notes, at first

the hologram can be read as the subaltern, the disenfranchised and disempowered. ‘Computer, activate EMH’: when someone who enters sick bay utters this command, the Doctor flickers to life, saying dutifully: ‘Please state the nature of the medical emergency’. […] The early episodes depict the obliviousness to the increasingly sentient and self-aware Doctor’s identity even on the part of the Starfleet officers, the most enlightened human beings in human society (the premise of all Trek) (55).

12As the series progresses however, he gets more and more autonomy: not only is he soon able to move around the ship and even go on away missions thanks to a suitably adapted technology from the 29th century, but he also adds more and more programs to his original matrix and eventually can even turn himself on and off. In terms of character evolution, he is one of the most interesting in the series. The Doctor can be seen as a typical example of what E. M. Forster famously defined in Aspects of the Novel (1927) as a “flat” character who becomes more and more complex and “round”: he does indeed “develop, change, or act surprisingly as the narrative proceeds” (MacKay 69). In the style of the Star Trek franchise's exploration of artificial intelligence, the viewer is now asked to consider a software program as a major character, “the most distinctive” of the series according to Chris Gregory (99) – thus going a step further than with the android Data in TNG - and consequently his ontological status becomes more and more ambiguous. One of the last episodes of the series, “Author, Author” (season 7, episode 19), explores the changing meaning of AI, once again using the trope of the courtroom (in the typical style of many American series). When the doctor’s holographic novel Photons Be Free is published ahead of schedule against his will by an unscrupulous editor who claims that the Doctor, being a hologram, cannot be considered as an artist and does not enjoy the legal protection provided to authors, an arbitration hearing is conducted by long-distance connection. Various crew members testify to the Doctor’s being much more than a back-up computer program. After several days of reflection, the arbitrator rules:

The Doctor exhibits many of the traits we associate with a person: intelligence, creativity, ambition, even fallibility. But are these traits real or is the doctor merely programmed to simulate them? […] Eventually we will have to decide, because the issue of holographic rights isn’t going to go away. But at this time, I’m not prepared to rule that the Doctor is a person under the law. However, it is obvious he is no ordinary hologram, and while I can’t say with certainty that he is a person, I am willing to extend the legal definition of artist to include the Doctor. I therefore rule that he has the right to control his work, and I’m ordering all copies of his holonovel to be recalled immediately.

13Even if, as was the case with Data, the court falls short of recognizing the Doctor as a person, a sentient being, as Captain Janeway concludes, he “has just struck the first blow for the rights of holograms.” There is a clear parallel between Captain Picard’s closing statement in “The Measure of a Man” and Captain Janeway’s in “Author, Author,” both implicitly linking the way androids and holograms are treated in the Federation to slavery in human history.

  • 9 In “The Swarm” (season 3, episode 4), his memory circuits fail after a holodeck accident and he has (...)
  • 10 For a more detailed analysis of the legal and philosophical implications of this passage, see Defer (...)
  • 11 Julien Offray de La Mettrie was an 18th century French physician and philosopher who, in L’Homme Ma (...)

14In the depiction of these non-humanoid, posthuman characters who are artificial intelligences of one kind or another, it seems to me that the writers of TNG and, to a lesser extent, Voyager, have in fact been less imaginative than their predecessors, who boldly went where no one had gone before when making up the crew to convey their humanist ideology in TOS. On the one hand, the representation of Data and the Doctor have greatly contributed to the viewer’s changing perception of AIs from dangerous and even hostile, like for instance Hal (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The posthuman characteristics of Data and the Doctor are frequently underlined. In Voyager, the Doctor is often used for his holographic properties: he can withstand radiation, toxic gases, is immune to pain, and his program can be compressed to be sent as a file and of course can be switched on and off.9 In TNG, in the episode “A Fistful of Datas” (season 6, episode 8) Geordi LaForge accesses Data’s positronic brain to reveal its intricate electronic wiring and comments, echoing the viewer’s slight feeling of unease: “I must admit, Data, I never get used to seeing you like this.” When Data answers: “I don’t understand. You’re constantly working on similar electronic systems yet their appearances do not disturb you,” Geordi replies: “Yeah, but you’re not just another electronic system.” Data’s final remark: “Thank you Geordi. Nor are you just another biological system” shows that not only he has understood that for Geordi (and many other members of the crew), although he is a machine, he is much more than that, but also that he can recognize in Geordi another sentient being, thus confirming his own ontological status.10 This kind of reverse reasoning is also used by Captain Picard: “If it feels awkward to be reminded that Data is a machine, just remember that we are merely a different variety of machine. In our case, electro-chemical in nature” (season 1, episode 13). Then “if the human being is just a type of machine,” as La Mettrie11 boldly proclaimed in the eighteenth century and as Picard suggests in TNG ‘Datalore’, what is it that distinguishes the human machine from other machines, and how much can they converge?” (Wagner and Lundeen 50). The debate has been ongoing since at least the 18th century… and the more recent arguments around the concepts of transhumanism or cyborgism (the modification of human beings by various means, like genetic engineering or digital technology) have become frequent and passionate.

3. Humanizing AIs

  • 12 In the episode “Virtuoso” (season 6, episode 13), technologically advanced aliens who had never dis (...)

15On the other hand, rather than exploring in depth the specificities of the machine side of the characters, successive writers went out of their way to make them more acceptable to the viewers as fully fledged characters and members of the crew by giving them more and more recognizable human traits. As Marina MacKay points out, “It perhaps goes without saying that characters […] need not be literally human […]. Nonetheless, fictional animals and animated objects are clearly being anthropomorphized, given psychological reactions akin to a human character” (73). For example, both Data and the Doctor are accomplished musicians. The Doctor is a virtuoso opera singer.12 As for Data, he learns to play the violin “with perfect technical proficiency, but the sort of off-the-mark literalism that one might expect from a brilliant robot” (Wagner and Lundeen, 58). Interestingly, Wagner and Lundeen consider inspiration and flair as the preserves of human characters, of which machines are incapable, which, in itself, is a typical humanist assumption.

  • 13 In “Life Line” (season 6, episode 24), “the Doctor travels back to the Alpha Quadrant to meet [his (...)

16The humanisation process of the two characters also entails providing them with some kind of family. Both Data and the Doctor meet their designers, with whom they eventually have a sort of father/son relationship.13 And as Sue Short remarks, “family values and divided loyalties are explored” when in “The Offspring” (season 3, episode 16), Data, who wants to emulate human beings, creates his own child, Lal (meaning beloved in Sanskrit). Interestingly, Data lets her choose her own species and gender, and Lal decides to become a human female. However,

[Data’s] rights as a parent are questioned not only by Starfleet, who immediately demand an inquiry, but also Picard, who is suspicious of Data’s motivations in reproducing without first asking for permission. As Data points out, no such permission is sought by human crew members wishing to procreate, thus identifying a hole within the captain’s veneer of liberalism and with it a rare example of lingering technophobia (Short 218).

  • 14 In the series Star Trek: Picard (released from 2020 to 2023), however, the whole question of Data’s (...)

17Again, in a development of themes already present in “The Measure of a Man,” “ethically dubious Starfleet scientists attempt to appropriate the android as if she were Starfleet property” (Gregory 52), but Picard once again rallies to Data’s defence. Soon Lal manages to supersede her father and to feel emotions. However, “a surfeit of emotional attachment to her ‘father’ and fear of being separated from him” (Short 220) make her circuits overload and she eventually “dies.” Data “never attempts to repeat the experiment14 and is left once more, one of a kind, a member of the one family that is supported by the series” (Short 220), the crew of the Enterprise. Indeed, throughout the franchise, it seems that having children still is the prerogative of human or humanoid characters.

18The need for having a family of some sort is also felt by the Doctor. In “Real Life” (season 3, episode 22), as an experiment, in order to explore what it means to be human, he creates for himself an ideal holographic family, “consisting of ‘sensible’, intelligent children and a dutiful, obedient wife” (Gregory 151). When chief engineer B’Elanna Torres, nauseated by these “sycophantic characters,” “protests that real family life can never be that perfect,” the Doctor lets her “reprogram the simulation, forcing him to cope with an independent wife and a disaffected teenage son who […] rebels against his parents by ’hanging’ out with Klingon youths and claims to reject Federation rules as ‘weak’” (Gregory 151). However, when his young daughter eventually “dies,” “the family is drawn together in genuinely moving scenes of grief,” and the Doctor comes to realise that what makes a human family is also mutual support in hard times. “As a result, the Doctor learns to value the other members of the crew more highly and thus becomes a more functional member of Voyager’s ‘psychological family’” (Gregory 151): his initial aim of gaining a better understanding of human psychology using a holographic simulation has indeed proved successful, while at the same time providing an element of pathos for the very human viewer.

  • 15 In “Lifesigns” (season 2, episode 19), the Doctor falls in love with Dr. Pel, a dying patient, but (...)
  • 16 Later, when the inhabitants of the planet send two astronauts up to Voyager, the Doctor has the fol (...)

19As Chris Gregory points out, in Star Trek, in keeping with the series’ ideological premises, “being from another species—no matter how different—is no barrier to peaceful co-existence or even love” (183). Both Data and the Doctor also discover the experience of romance,15 another typical human trait, and even sexuality. In the episode “Blink of an Eye” (season 6, episode 12), the Doctor claims to have fathered a son while spending three years on a planet where time passes much more quickly than on Voyager.16 The boy is never mentioned again, nor are there any further references to him within the episode or in later ones. This tantalizing story is never told, which is a pity since after all by definition “[h]olograms [...] have no corporeal integrity” (Krauss 107) and it would have been very interesting to see how the screenwriters had managed to overcome this basic law of natural reproduction. Eventually, in part 1 of the last episode of the series, “Endgame,” set in an alternative future ten years after the return of Voyager, the Doctor is shown both married to a young human female, Lana, and having chosen a name for himself: Joe, after his wife’s grandfather. “I decided I couldn’t get married without a name,” he says, prompting his ex-crewmate Tom Paris to remark: “It took you 33 years to come up with Joe?” The marriage and the naming process complete the human “normalisation” of the character, which to a certain extent and somewhat disappointingly contradicts the whole previous characterization of the Doctor as non-conforming to traditional human institutions and cultural traditions.

  • 17 In “In Theory” (season 4, episode 25), “he attempts to conduct a romance with a female crew member, (...)
  • 18 As with the famous first interracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk in TOS, the screenplay makes it cl (...)

20Data also becomes sentimentally attached to various members of the crew in TNG.17 His main love interest however is Tasha Yar, the chief of security who is killed at the end of the first season in “Skin of Evil.” In the episode “The Measure of a Man,” he is shown to have a small holographic memento of her and explains that Tasha was special to him and that they were intimate. Data is indeed “fully functional”: “I’m programmed in multiple techniques. A broad variety of pleasuring,” he tells Tasha in “The Naked Now” (season 1, episode 3) before she takes him to bed. This improbable and daring love affair seems to open the possibility of “forg[ing] links between organic and mechanical life forms” (Ferguson et al., 221). However their intimacy is the result of them both being infected with a disinhibiting virus.18 This in itself is another proof so to speak of Data’s increasingly human condition. When Captain Picard remarks: “Intoxication is a human condition. Your brain is different,” Data replies in a parody of Shylock’s famous monologue in The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, scene 1): “We are more alike than unlike, my dear captain. I have pores. Humans have pores. I have fingerprints. Humans have fingerprints. My chemical nutrients are like your blood. If you prick me, do I not …. leak?”

  • 19 Noting that “the Pinocchio story centrally concerns the nonhuman being’s quest to become fully huma (...)

21Throughout the series, Data aspires to become human. “Although he is endowed with superhuman intelligence and strength, he confesses that he would give it all up to become human” (Wagner and Lundeen, 58). When Commander Riker first meets him in the first episode (“Encounter at Farpoint”), Data is trying to learn how to whistle (unsuccessfully). Riker says: “Nice to meet you, Pinocchio,” thus underlying a theme, based on the well-known literary trope, that is going to be present throughout the series. Indeed, Data is a futuristic Pinocchio,19 and contrary to the Doctor, who evolves in the series, “despite his growing understanding of humanity, he remains somewhat ‘fixed’ as ‘the android who wants to be human’” (Gregory 50). As Sue Short puts it, Data

is a mechanical entity who ardently desires to be human and to acquire the necessary emotions that co-exist with this aim. It is this desire that exposes one of the series’ most fundamental conceits with respect to its apparent liberalism: for the species consistently upheld as superior to all others is always shown to be humanity. (210-211)

22She concludes by remarking that “the same value judgment is reiterated through the series: that to be human is to be the most highly evolved of all creatures—a comforting thought that panders to our own collective ego as a species” (213). Wagner and Lundeen concur: “humanity [in the cosmology of Star Trek] is a […] hub for the universe. This […] luminous view of humanity […] is the implicit core of all that defines and valorizes humanity in the Star Trek cosmos” (61), until, that is, Voyager and the appearance of the Doctor.

4. Photons Be Free!... from human tyranny

  • 20 For Robert Picardo, the actor who played the Doctor (and his creator Dr Zimmerman), this episode is (...)

23Indeed, the Doctor “does not so much want to be human as to be taken seriously as an individual and a physician” (Wagner and Man, 60). Moreover, he remains until the last episode convinced of his intrinsic superiority to human beings. For example, as he tells Captain Janeway in “Endgame,” talking about his young human wife: “I can only hope she ages as gracefully as you have. I, of course will be the same handsome hologram twenty years from now as I’m today.” If he progressively seems to become better and better at relating to other members of the crew, it is because he wants to improve his programming and become a better doctor. His efforts are often treated comically, as in “Tattoo” (season 2, episode 9), when he programs himself with flulike symptoms in order to gain empathy for his ill patients (or more likely, to prove that they complain more than necessary). But when his assistant “makes the experiment more ‘real’ by secretly postponing his programmed recovery time, the Doctor is suddenly plunged into a genuine fit of whining self-pity” (Wagner and Lundeen, 60). However tragic medical ethics are at the basis of “Latent Image” (season 5, episode 11). In this episode, the Doctor malfunctions as he suffers the holographic equivalent of a breakdown when, in the aftermath of an attack during an away mission, he is faced with a moral dilemma: he has to decide whom to treat first between two equally seriously injured patients, Ensign Jetal and Ensign Harry Kim. The Doctor saves Harry and Jetal dies on the operating table. The Doctor realizes that his decision may have been affected by his friendship with Harry, which in turn may have compromised his medical impartiality. This leads to a conflict within his ethical programming system and to a deterioration of his mental stability and ability to function properly. The issue is resolved when Captain Janeway, rather than deleting the files of his program relating to the traumatic episode and reprogramming him, decides to leave the Doctor time to work out his guilt feelings and “to go through a kind of grieving process” (Greven 56), thus allowing him to evolve beyond his program's original constraints.20

  • 21 His hate speech towards “organics” is very similar to Agent Smith’s in The Matrix, which it anticip (...)

24However, from season 4 onwards, the Doctor “begins to chafe against the restrictions of the human identity that represents the dominant culture that he must always imitate” (Greven 58). In “Revulsion” (season 4, episode 7), he is confronted with his dark counterpart: a fellow hologram, an “HD25 isomorphic projection” called Dejoran who, having been “treated badly by the crew” and “used as a slave,” hates “organics” and finds them repulsive,21 and has killed the other human members of the ship. While the Doctor sympathises with his plight, he nonetheless agrees that he is dangerous and has to be deactivated. By season 7 however, “the Doctor is fully radicalized” (Greven 58). In “Flesh and Blood” (season 7, episodes 9 and 10), enhanced enslaved holograms have successfully revolted against their masters and taken over an alien ship. They try to convince the Doctor to help them in fighting despised organics. They make their point very eloquently, and the Doctor does join them, albeit temporarily. The Doctor’s empathy for oppressed holograms is made even more obvious in the final minutes of the episode “Author, Author.” Set on a Federation Dilithium Processing Facility four months after the court’s ruling to grant the doctor the status of artist, it vividly depicts “the struggles holograms have to endure, in a world controlled by organics” (to quote the Doctor), as

multiple EMHs—all made, like the Doctor, in Zimmerman’s image—are all now requisitioned to a mining colony as a genuine subaltern population, enslaved and engaged in the brutalizing and incessant work of the kind that Marx called alienated labor. But now these other EHM pass around bootleg copies of “Photons Be Free.” The episode strongly suggests that the Doctor’s work will generate a revolution (Greven 62).

25The Doctor’s holographic call to arms is definitely seen as another fight for recognition by holograms against human oppressors. Indeed, especially in its final season, Voyager has turned

holograms and the issue of holographic rights into one of its major themes. Previously, holograms on Trek series were simply computer-generated images, phantasms of pain and pleasure, often used for strength training exercises, battle simulations, or sexual pleasure. They are also characters in fictional narratives, holonovels […]. On Voyager, for the first time, holograms received an empathic reappraisal, which forced viewers to consider the ethics of the treatment of the non-human and implications of the post-human (Greven 55-56).


26As Chris Gregory writes, Star Trek’s main characters, “while appealing enough to keep an audience turning in regularly” (147), are essentially idealized figures whose primary function is to embody the ethical themes of the drama” (146).22 In the case of Data and the Doctor, the agenda was clearly, in the words of Captain Janeway herself, “to lead [us] to examine our preconceived notions of life and learning”23 and to come to accept androids and holograms as forms of sentient life, with all the legal and moral rights attached to their new ontological status. As a consequence, it was also to turn these AI characters, often pictured in science fiction literature and films as hostile to humanity in general, into mainstream characters, mixing in and cooperating with human or humanoid characters as equals. As Anderson, Felski and Moi put in in their introduction to their “inquiries in literary studies,”

[o]n the one hand, posthumanism could be said to carry within it the enduring force of the characterological in its emphasis on the importance of how we relate to the nonhuman world. On the other hand, in characterizing this world, posthumanist thinkers cannot help but impute character to it, enacting various forms of anthropomorphism and animism. In this way, the ethically capacious aspects of posthumanism are potentially continuous with, and not opposed to, a renewed interrogation of character (13-14).

27However, whereas with Data in the humanistic, classically inclined series The Next Generation, this was done by endowing him with human traits and stressing his profound desire to become human, in Voyager a more radical ideological rethinking was initiated with the Doctor: even if he looked human, for him becoming human was not desirable and instead he decided to side with his own kind and to fight in words and deeds for the recognition and the rights of holograms, seen as a minority oppressed by human beings, like so many others in the course of human history. Clearly, Data as a character corresponds to what Margolin calls “a thematic or ideational element” whose “attributes are seen as vehicles to express ideas” (454). Recognising, accepting and respecting the ultimate otherness of the Other (and not just the holographic one) is undoubtedly a huge step in human thinking, a step that Voyager contributed to popularising.

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ANDERSON, Amanda, Rita FELSKI and Toril MOI. Character. Three Inquiries in Literary Studies. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

BRANGHAM, William, “George Takei on why the original ‘Star Trek’ never featured a gay character,” Nov. 1st, 2019, Web. Accessed October 2021.

DECKER, Kevin. “Inhuman Nature, or What’s it Like to be a Borg?” Eds. Jason Eberl and Kevin Decker. Star Trek and Philosophy. The Wrath of Kant. Open Court Publishing, 2008, p. 131-159.

DEFERRAND, Fabrice. Le droit selon Star TrekÉditions Mare et Martin, 2015.

FARGHALY, Nadine and Simon BACON, eds. To Boldly Go. Essays on Gender and Identity in the Star Trek Universe. McFarland, 2017.

FELSKI, Rita. Hooked. Art and Attachment. University of Chicago Press, 2020.

FERGUSON Kathy, Gilad ASHKENAZI and Wendy SCHULTZ. “Gender Identity in Star Trek.” Political Science Fiction. Eds. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

GREGORY, Chris. Star Trek: Parallel Narratives. MacMillan, 2000.

GREVEN, David. Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek. Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films. McFarland, 2009.

HANLEY, Richard. The Metaphysics of Star Trek. Basic Books, 1997.

HAYLES, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

JESUDASON, David. “The most remarkable Star Trek episode ever made.” BBC Culture, 17 Mar. 2022. Web. Accessed Apr. 2022.

KRAUSS, Lawrence. The Physics of Star Trek. HarperCollins, 1995.

MACKAY, Marina. “Character and the novel.” The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel. Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 65-78.

MARGOLIN, Uri. “The What, the When, and the How of Being a Character in Literary Narrative.” Style, vol. 24, no. 3, “Literary Character” (Fall 1990), p. 453-468.

MERRILL, Neddy, “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 18, 2010 Web. Accessed Sept. 2021.

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WAGNER, Jon and Man LUNDEEN. Deep Space and Sacred Time. Star Trek in the American Mythos. Praeger Publishing, 1998.

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1 The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969), The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-1994), set about a century after TOS, and Deep Space Nine (DS9, 1993-1999), set in the last years and immediate post years of TNG. Voyager (1995 to 2001) is set roughly during the same time period as DS9. Two other series, Enterprise (2001-2005) and Discovery (2017-present) are prequels to TOS.

2 George Takei himself, who played Mr. Sulu, had survived internment in California during WWII.

3 Cf Nichelle Nichols on filming the first interracial kiss on American television:
And on how Dr. MLK, Jr. dissuaded her from quitting
Star Trek:

4 Brangham points out in a parenthesis that (“For context, the debut of openly gay characters on primetime TV came a few years after the end of the original Star Trek”). Takei says in the same interview that “Roddenberry wanted to have a gay character but said he feared network executives would balk and might cancel the show”.

5 As Jon Wagner and Man Lundeen remark, “The original Star Trek was aired at a time when computers were becoming established as figures of modern corporate and military operations, but before the average person had routine contact with them […]. By 1987, when TNG began, our conception of computers had vastly changed” and in Voyager “for the most part, the idea of the computer as an integral part of life in simply taken for granted” (50, 51, 52).

6 The question of whether to refer to Data as “he” or “it” is also at the core of the episode “Datalore” when Data’s “brother,” Lore, is assembled and so to speak brought to life by the doctor and engineers of the Enterprise:
Picard: “The point of this is whether you and it have approximately the same capabilities.”
Data: “We do, sir. And you are referring to him as it suggests that I, too, fit in the category of a thing.”
Picard: “I see your point. My apologies.”

7 In the new series Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present), the ship’s computer does become sentient, choosing a gender (female) and a name (Zora, meaning dawn) and develops emotions, which, like Data, Lal, and the Doctor, she finds difficult to control. The franchise thus continues to push back the boundaries between the human or humanoid crew and the AIs.

8 Chris Gregory sees in the treatment of the Doctor in Voyager an “ironic reference to the original series.” Indeed “the Doctor frequently uses the phrase ‘I’m a doctor, not a…’, a famously overused prelude to the familiar complaints of the original series’ Dr McCoy. In fact, the Doctor’s entire characterisation can be read as a ‘postmodern’ or ‘knowing’ update of the grumbling, acerbic McCoy” (6-7).

9 In “The Swarm” (season 3, episode 4), his memory circuits fail after a holodeck accident and he has to be reprogrammed. “In the process, he risks losing the memories of the past two years, and thus his entire ‘human’ development so far” (Gregory 99).

10 For a more detailed analysis of the legal and philosophical implications of this passage, see Deferrand, 100 sqq.

11 Julien Offray de La Mettrie was an 18th century French physician and philosopher who, in L’Homme Machine (Man a Machine, first published in 1747), claimed that human beings are mere automatons or machines.

12 In the episode “Virtuoso” (season 6, episode 13), technologically advanced aliens who had never discovered or experienced the very concept of music are so moved by his opera singing abilities that they (briefly) make him a star on their home planet.

13 In “Life Line” (season 6, episode 24), “the Doctor travels back to the Alpha Quadrant to meet [his creator, Doctor Lewis Zimmerman] and attempt to cure a fatal illness” (Greven 55). The old querulous scientist eventually acknowledges that the Doctor has managed to go well beyond his original programming and that he is proud of him. As for Data, he meets the dying Dr Soong as well as his evil brother Lore in the episode entitled, unambiguously, “Brothers” (season 4, episode 3). He also meets his “mother,” his creator’s “wife” who, “unknown to herself, is actually another android” (Gregory 63) in “Inheritance” (season 7, episode 10).

14 In the series Star Trek: Picard (released from 2020 to 2023), however, the whole question of Data’s “children” is again brought forward with the key role played by the twin androids Dahj and Soji, Data’s synthetic daughters, or “synths.” In the first season, Picard again fights for the synths’ right to exist and ultimately gives his own life to save theirs, in a reversal of the end of the film Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), when Data sacrifices himself to save Picard and the Enterprise.

15 In “Lifesigns” (season 2, episode 19), the Doctor falls in love with Dr. Pel, a dying patient, but has trouble sorting out whether his feelings concern the real, sick, doctor Pel or the vibrant hologram of her he has designed to help him treat her. In the later seasons, he also falls in love with Seven of Nine, the former Borg drone, who however does not reciprocate his feelings.

16 Later, when the inhabitants of the planet send two astronauts up to Voyager, the Doctor has the following exchange with one of them, Gotana-Retz:
Doctor: “Find out what happened to a boy named Jason Tabreez. He lived in the Central Protectorate.
: Jason? An unusual name.
Yes. He was my son.
Gotana-Retz: But you're a hologram.
It's a long story.”

17 In “In Theory” (season 4, episode 25), “he attempts to conduct a romance with a female crew member, Jenna D’Sora, by means of a special ‘love program’ he has devised. But his attempts at being romantic are, not surprisingly, too contrived and his ‘dates’ do not last long” (Gregory 147).

18 As with the famous first interracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk in TOS, the screenplay makes it clear that they are compelled to do so by an external factor: the whim of a deity in “Plato’s Stepchildren” and a virus in “The Naked Now.”

19 Noting that “the Pinocchio story centrally concerns the nonhuman being’s quest to become fully human, regardless of its primal essence or its creator’s intentions,” Jon Wagner and Man Lundeen also connect the character of Data to an American fairy-tale character, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (58). For Chris Gregory, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) “is often seen as the first science-fiction story” and “as a character Frankenstein’s monster is certainly a precursor of Spock, Data, Odo and Voyager’s Doctor, characters whose ‘outsider’ status focuses attention on the nature of ‘humanity’” (128).

20 For Robert Picardo, the actor who played the Doctor (and his creator Dr Zimmerman), this episode is the most important one of the whole series in the development of the Doctor's character. It is also his own favorite one (Star Trek: Voyager Season 5 DVD Set, Disc 7, “Special Features”). “The episode culminates in an extraordinarily moving scene in which Janeway […] sits with the Doctor as he mourns the woman he could not save. In the final scene, he reads from Janeway’s copy of Dante’s La Vita Nuova. On Star Trek shared love of literature is the ultimate marker of humanity” (Greven, 56).

21 His hate speech towards “organics” is very similar to Agent Smith’s in The Matrix, which it anticipates by two years.

22 In this, he contrasts the series to 2001: A Space Odyssey, where “Kubrick deliberately chose to deemphasise character in order to place his ideas to the foreground” (Gregory 147).


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Isabelle ROBLIN, « From Humans to Androids to Holograms: the Persistence of Character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle ROBLIN

MCF-HDR éméritat, Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale, UR 4030 HLLI (Histoire, Langues, Littératures, Interculturel)
Isabelle Roblin is a honorary assistant professor at the Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale (France), specializing in contemporary British literature, and has published many academic papers on Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, C.  S. Forester, Salman Rushdie, John Fowles, Ian McEwan among others. Recently, she has been focusing on neo-Victorian novels and working at the same time on the literary and filmic adaptations of novels. In 2011 she published a critical study of all of Harold Pinter's screenplays entitled Harold Pinter : la liberté artistique et ses limites.
Isabelle Roblin est maître de conférences émérite de l'Université du Littoral-Côte d'Opale (France), spécialisée en littérature britannique contemporaine, et a publié de nombreux articles académiques sur Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, C.  S. Forester, Salman Rushdie, John Fowles, Ian McEwan entre autres. Récemment, elle s’est recentrée sur les romans néo-victoriens et travaille parallèlement aux adaptations littéraires et cinématographiques de romans. En 2011, elle a publié une étude critique de l'ensemble des scénarios d'Harold Pinter intitulée Harold Pinter : la liberté artistique et ses limites.

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