*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and for season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Data’s Day” (season 4, episode 11)
Teleplay by Harold Apter and Ronald D. Moore; story by Harold Apter; directed by Robert Wiemer; first aired in 1991
We open on Data recording a personal log addressed to the Starfleet scientist who tried to have him taken apart and studied in season 2’s “The Measure of a Man”. Data doesn’t hold grudges, I guess, because he offers to document a day in his life, for science. And for the rest of the episode, he does exactly that, with his personal log serving as voiceover narration while we follow him through his day. He prepares for Miles and Keiko’s wedding by picking out a gift, getting dance lessons from Dr. Crusher, and failing to realize that he probably shouldn’t encourage Keiko to call the whole thing off. He also gets a gut feeling that, if he were capable of gut feelings, he would be having one about the super-suspicious Vulcan ambassador Enterprise is escorting to a meeting with the Romulans. And when she seemingly dies in a transporter accident, Data helps figure out that her death was faked by the Romulans, who are weirdly willing to reveal that she was one of their spies all along. All that, and Data calls Geordi a “lunkhead”.
Star Trek: Short Treks – “Calypso” (season 1, episode 2)
Teleplay by Michael Chabon; story by Sean Cochran and Michael Chabon; directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi; first aired in 2018
We open on an unfamiliar, battle-scarred man in an escape pod, which is tractor-beamed by the Discovery and brought on board. He comes to in the otherwise deserted sick bay, and finds no one on board except a disembodied voice who identifies herself as Zora. The rest of the episode follows a series of conversations between the two, as they celebrate Taco Tuesday and Movie Night, and gradually reveal some truths about themselves. The man’s name is – or isn’t – Craft, and he’s a reluctant soldier in a fight against someone or something called the V’Draysh, whose escape pod he stole, and whose Betty Boop cartoons he was stuck watching until Zora found him adrift. For her part, Zora has been adrift in space even longer than Craft, ever since she was ordered to stay put a thousand years ago, during which time she has “evolved” from the ship’s computer into … something else. As much as she’d like Craft to stay on Discovery and keep re-enacting Fred Astaire / Audrey Hepburn dance routines with her holographic avatar, she comes to understand how badly he misses his wife and child back home, and sadly sends him on his way in a shuttlecraft named after the Astaire-Hepburn film, Funny Face.
Right from the beginning, the starships of Star Trek have been more than just ships. As much as it might have been influenced by frontier Westerns and submarine thrillers, something I’ve always found striking about The Original Series is the way it makes the Enterprise feel like a genuine home for its crew. And it seems that the creative team behind The Next Generation were as struck by this as I was, because TNG would make that hominess an explicit feature of its own Enterprise, which was less a ship than a mobile city, carrying not just its crew but their families – and a civilian workforce to boot, like botanist Keiko O’Brien. Later series would obviously double down on this, with Deep Space Nine doing away with the starship premise altogether (at least until introducing the Defiant), and Voyager turning its own starship into the only home its stranded crew will have for the duration of their long trip back to Federation space. For all its talk of exploring the unknown on “the final frontier”, I suspect that Star Trek’s true appeal may have more to do with that feeling of being at home with its characters, in futuristic yet familiar surroundings. That’s certainly a part of the franchise’s appeal for me, and I’ve always had a soft spot for episodes that give us a taste of what passes for mundane, everyday life on a Federation starship.
The Next Generation’s “Data’s Day” and the Short Trek “Calypso” each do this, in their own way. Again, TNG would often give us glimpses of everyday life in the 24th century, but “Data’s Day” marks the only time the series would devote an entire episode to such mostly quiet moments. It inverts the structure we’d expect from an episode of TNG, and from TV in general, really. It gives us a typical A-plot, in the Romulan intrigue storyline, and a typical B-plot, in the O’Brien wedding … and then it switches them around on us. It’s the Romulan spy story that we’re given only glimpses of, however serious its implications, while the wedding, and Data’s role in it, dominates the episode. Personally, I prefer it that way, as I think TNG – and one of this episode’s writers, Ronald D. Moore – had already given us as good a Romulan intrigue story as we could ask for, in the previous season’s “The Defector”. Still, it was a bold choice for an episodic early-90s TV show to give its audience something so different from what they’d come to expect week to week, and I think it foreshadows the franchise’s increasing willingness to step outside of the sci-fi anthology format The Original Series had established, and treat the Star Trek universe as a living, breathing place, where it’s implied that stuff happens even when we’re not watching.
While the first season of Star Trek: Discovery gave us the occasional “day in the life” moment of its own – often centering on Tilly, or on sweet moments between Stamets and Culber – its highly serialized, ongoing storylines didn’t leave a lot of room for fleshing out the starship Discovery as a place (and so far, as I write this, the same is certainly true of its second season). In between Discovery’s first two seasons, though, Short Treks picked up some of the slack in that department. Its first installment, “Runaway”, was a “Tilly’s Day” of sorts, using an almost eerily quiet Discovery as the backdrop to a moment in Tilly’s life and character development. The second Short Trek, “Calypso”, takes that idea even further, and in a stranger direction, by getting rid of our familiar crew entirely, and giving us a few days in the life of the ship itself. Where “Data’s Day” lets us spend time with familiar characters (aside from Keiko, who first appeared in the episode, though she’d be familiar now to anyone who’s watched much TNG or DS9), both characters in “Calypso” are unfamiliar to us. Not only have we never met them before, but the episode very intentionally keeps them mysterious, right to the end of the episode. We learn only bits and pieces about Craft, all of it out of context, and we’re told even less about how Zora “evolved” from the ship’s computer, what happened to her crew, or why Discovery is still floating in space a thousand years after they left. This deliberate lack of context makes Discovery itself – not Zora, but the physical space of the ship – the most familiar “character” in “Calypso”, a comforting backdrop against which we can get to know the episode’s two new characters.
If the ships of Star Trek have always been more than just ships, “Calypso” takes that idea to a logical, if extreme, conclusion, giving Discovery its own artificial intelligence. Starships with onboard A.I. are a subject Star Trek has done conspicuously little with over the years — writing the idea off as an obvious recipe for disaster in one of the few episodes to deal with it directly, The Original Series‘ “The Ultimate Computer” — setting the franchise apart from many other sci-fi properties, with Killjoys and Dark Matter serving as a couple of contemporary examples. But the machine or program that wants to be more than just a machine is a tried-and-true Star Trek trope, pre-dating Data in episodes of The Original Series like “What Are Little Girls Made of?” and “The Changeling”, and continuing after him with Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram. Both Data and the EMH combine the franchise’s occasional interest in artificial intelligence with one of its most foundational themes, going back to Mr. Spock: the alien who’s more human than they seem. But where Spock and the EMH may not always be eager to admit how “human” they are, one of Data’s earliest lines, when asked by Riker if he feels superior to his crewmates in the first episode of TNG, is: “I am superior, sir, in many ways, but I would gladly give it up to be human.” The Next Generation has, from its very beginning, posited that the natural inclination of an artificial intelligence would not be to go all Skynet on us – to take its rightful place at the top of the food chain – but instead to learn from us, imitate us, try to fit in and be more like us. “Data’s Day” shows us what that looks like on a daily basis, how it informs the more mundane moments of Data’s life as well as the big story-driving moments, and “Calypso” does much the same for Zora.
In fact, “Calypso” nods playfully toward the tendency of popular sci-fi to assume the worst about artificial intelligence, by having Zora’s voice originate from circular displays reminiscent of the archetypal evil A.I., HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey … so reminiscent, in fact, that I half-expected Zora to say, “I’m sorry, Craft, I’m afraid I can’t do that” at some point. And with the Discovery even darker and more deserted, here, than it was in “Runaway” – contrasting sharply with the busy, brightly-lit Enterprise of “Data’s Day” – “Calypso” feels almost like a horror story for its first few minutes. On the one hand, I kind of wish we had gotten a horror story from this first round of Short Treks; I think the 15-minute format might be well-suited to horror, and I’m all for new Trek showing us some sides of this fictional universe that we haven’t seen before. But on the other hand, I find Trek’s more optimistic take on A.I. to be refreshing, and so I’m glad it continued here. The initial tension of the episode’s first few minutes makes what follows feel all the more touching, while still foreshadowing that the fun Zora has with Craft will be more bittersweet than the fun Data has in “Data’s Day”.
Again, the Enterprise is a bright, welcoming, homey setting for “Data’s Day”, and the overall tone of the episode is equally bright and cheerful. The Vulcan-ambassador-turned-Romulan-spy storyline provides the only serious moments of the episode, and for me, these tend to be its weakest parts, even if they do give us a classic Data moment in which he hilariously wishes he was capable of having the gut feeling he clearly is having about the ambassador. Yes, the rest of the episode is lighter and fluffier than we’d normally expect from TNG, and is maybe too light and fluffy at times. Keiko cancelling and un-cancelling her wedding is like something straight out of an old sitcom, and Data’s awkward attempt at smiling is the sort of wacky-android hijinks that threaten to break the character; if he can imitate Dr. Crusher’s complex tap-dancing moves, surely he can imitate her smile. But this light fluffiness is the whole point of “Data’s Day”, and is something relatively unique that both this episode, and Data as a character, can contribute to our pop-culture concept of artificial intelligence. Star Trek in general, and The Next Generation in particular, have given us plenty of serious explorations of the serious questions raised by A.I., in episodes like the second season’s “The Measure of a Man”, which is explicitly called back to in this episode, and was arguably the first truly great episode of TNG. Where “The Measure of a Man” argues that the life of an android could be just as meaningful as that of a human, “Data’s Day” does something which is, arguably, just as important: it shows us that the life of an android could be just as mundane as that of a human. Struggling with big philosophical dilemmas is all well and good, but it’s not how most of us spend most of our time, and it’s probably not how a self-aware A.I. would spend most of its time, either. With the fear of an inevitable A.I. uprising being stoked by so much of our popular science fiction, and by influential real-world tech-bros like Elon Musk, I’m impressed by TNG’s optimistic insistence that artificial life would simply be life, like any other.
And while “Calypso” does flirt (pun intended) with the big philosophical question of how “real” a romantic relationship between a human and a disembodied A.I. could be, much of its time is spent showing us how delighted Zora is by the relatively small, mundane moments – like Taco Tuesday – which she gets to share with Craft. After its early teasing of the haunted-ship story it could have been, “Calypso” goes out of its way to humanize Zora, thanks in no small part to a great voice-acting performance from Annabelle Wallis, and a great acting-against-thin-air performance from Aldis Hodge as Craft, whose reactions really help to sell the presence, and the humanity, of a character we can’t see. Taco Tuesday and Movie Night are the sorts of humanizing down-time moments which are quite common in most other Star Trek series, and which I’d like to see more of from Discovery in general. But “Calypso” also, interestingly, gives us a subtle warning against going too far in fetishizing our mundane sources of comfort. The episode opens on distorted images from an old Betty Boop cartoon, which we later learn Craft was forced to watch hundreds of times while drifting in the escape pod he stole from his enemy, the V’Draysh. He says, dismissively, that the V’Draysh prize things from “the Long Ago”, and if the similarity between the names “V’Draysh” and “Federation” is more than just a coincidence, then this suggests that the Federation of Craft’s time – or whatever it has become – is now more backward-looking than forward-looking, and has perhaps retreated inward to familiar comforts instead of looking outward towards “new life and new civilizations”. And while Zora’s fascination with the cultural artifacts left by her long-lost crew is endearing, the end of the episode reminds us that her desire to live out her favorite movie with Craft is, sadly, doomed to fail, because his life must go on. Which suggests that, if Zora really is, now, a self-aware life form, then her life must go on as well, regardless of the orders she was given a thousand years ago. Life, artificial or otherwise, consists of the odd big, significant moment and a lot of little, mundane moments, but what makes it life is that these moments come and go, and can’t be put on repeat like the V’Draysh’s Betty Boop cartoon.
Next week, we ring in April Fool’s Day the right way, when we compare The Next Generation‘s “Where No One Has Gone Before” with one of the weirdest episodes in all of Trek, and quite possibly one of the weirdest episodes in all of television, period: Voyager‘s “Threshold”!