Relational Ethics on the Enterprise (S02:E15)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Pen Pals

While investigating a profound level of geological instability in a system, Data befriends a young girl whose planet is in grave danger.

The episode begins with Picard pursuing his horseback riding hobby on the holodeck. We learn that, even though he’s not generally an animal person, the connection of mutual need that a Bedouin would have with his horse, and the mythos around Arabian horses, is something that captures the captain’s heart. We also learn in this opening scene that Betazoids in general find their empathy to be an obstacle to excelling at training animals. I had some inkling how empathic I was at the time (indeed, I was frequently overwhelmed because I didn’t know how to regulate or turn off that gift), and I can still remember how satisfying it was to have a burden/limit of empathy named on the show. It’s not an accident that the episode opens with Picard and Troi both unpacking how they relate to other creatures.

I’ll mention first the secondary plot, where Wesley takes his first leadership role, heading a team doing geological surveys of the surrounding systems. The adults in charge of his development thoughtfully deliberate first if he’s ready for this momentous lesson. When they do hand it to him, they remind him that his commanding officers are available to assist, not judge, and that asking necessary questions is better than faking it. Having been given an overwhelming amount of adult responsibilities – minus any guidance – at an early age myself, I was both envious of and bolstered by the idea that someone somewhere cared this much about another person’s personal development. Wesley is understandably nervous about leading adults. Riker tells him he’s got nothing to prove, he has authority already; he tells Wes he just needs to hold on to it. This piece of advice would actually cross my mind many times over the years. The two men discuss Picard, and Wes ponders what it is that gives Picard his aura of authority. It is a question I would return to again and again myself in studying authority and power. Wesley successfully leads his team, solves the mystery assigned them, and learns a bit in the process about owning his power with other people. On this subject I was profoundly lost for most of my first thirty years, so I valued this hint, and this reflection on how difficult it is for anyone to learn.

The primary plot is considerably more complicated, and again involves grappling with the Prime Directive. Data’s curiosity leads him to make a friend that he shouldn’t strictly have had contact with. He has not fully explained to her who he is. But she is now in great danger… and helping her would “out” Data. The crew deliberates: is it more hubris to ignore or to interfere? Should we let a plan affecting others unfold as though we are outside it, or are we part of that plan? In one of her very few likeable moments, Pulaski demonstrates that she’s come around to less-than-complete objectification of Data in one exchange, and introduces relational ethics to the show:

Pulaski: Data’s friend is going to die. That means something.
Picard: To Data.
Pulaski: Does that invalidate the emotion?

The Prime Directive is an attempt by the Federation to understand the power they have, and the power over others they can easily wield. It is an attempt to minimize the wielding of that power over others. It is certainly an obstacle to Starfleet making certain capricious political decisions in the guise of helping others. But the Directive also carries the assumption that it’s wrong for any member of Starfleet to have an influence, friendship or bond with an individual whose culture lacks certain political ties to the Federation. The crew essentially grapples with what influence is appropriate to have here. They debate whether emotions should guide them, or should stay out of decision-making, and whether the cause of the danger should change their behavior. They also debate whether simple personal knowledge of those in harm’s way should affect their decision – essentially, whether acknowledging established relationship or making new connections is appropriate – and it is this element that ultimately makes the decision. When Picard hears Data’s friend’s voice, he can no longer turn away.

Picard acts reluctantly though, and both he and Riker repeatedly attempt to mitigate their involvement. It is Data that pushes them in deeper and deeper, intent on helping completely, in whatever way is necessary, even to the point of beaming down to the surface to get his friend and bringing her aboard. Is he acting from reason, free from hesitation and career worries? Is he ‘blinded’ by a relationship with a friend? Or is he simply making the ethical decision to value that friendship and his friend’s life as something worth acting to preserve?

Eventually the young girl’s family and planet are safe, and she must be returned home. It is not questioned by most that her memories of Data and the ship should be erased. Data questions whether it is right or wrong to unilaterally remove all evidence of this friendship from the girl’s awareness. Pulaski responds that she “has to be person she was born to be”… now echoing the idea that Data’s relationship with her and existence in her life is an obstacle to the unfolding of her “true” personhood. Data reluctantly agrees to the procedure, and carries the unconscious girl back to a safe place on the planet surface… but leaves a trinket with her that she liked from the ship. I would call it ‘something to remember him by’. Data later apologizes to Picard for his decisions that put the crew in a difficult position. Picard is understanding, and suggests to Data that remembrance and regrets are a common part of friendship.

There is a lot of nurturing activity (another relational value) going on in this episode. Wes’s personal development is nurtured by a whole gaggle of people. Data and other crew members nurture his young friend. The crew nurtures Data’s understanding of friendship in various ways. The wellbeing of various individuals is looked after and cared for by many others involved. As I look back on the episode, this story has a lot of content that would later shape my understanding of relationality — valuing honest knowledge of our uniquenesses as individuals, and valuing the bonds between us as being of great worth. Data himself is here a great proponent of relationality; he seeks out knowledge of others, deeply values his bonds with them and allows them to be an authority in ethical decision-making. Conversations about the Prime Directive, while always interesting, usually begin and end with the Federation defining themselves as an objective outside observer. Here, the ultimate decision is made because of personal connection — Data’s bond with his friend, and Picard’s compassion being stirred by hearing her voice. The attempts at objectivity that the Prime Directive usually engenders are thrown out the window, and that makes for a very appealing ethical decision-making process here. I can see my earliest exposures to values that profoundly shape my life today.

Published in: on October 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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