You Talking Trek to Me? – “The Offspring”

“The Offspring”
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 3, Episode 16

One of the core themes of Star Trek is its exploration of humanity and all its countless nooks and crannies. Its usage of aliens and artificial beings are ultimately (and ironically) thematic vehicles to understand the unique qualities of being human. The Next Generation used Data as an avatar of this credo in his various pursuits and hobbies throughout the series. Whether it was studying the works of Arthur Conan Doyle or Shakespeare, learning how to act, making art, etc. – Data’s quest to understand what it means to be human powered many episode plots and covered a range of themes and emotions. In “The Offpsring,” Data delves into one of the most profound and all-consuming qualities of being human – producing a child – and all the complexities and difficulties that entails.

It’s a fascinating premise that is rife with dramatic possibilities, and the episode manages to include so many without feeling overstuffed. It helps to fill out the golden middle period of Next Generation as one of its best and most affecting episodes – an intriguing, funny, and monumentally tragic hour of sci-fi television.

After attending a cybernetics conference, Data has practically sealed himself in his laboratory for weeks until finally inviting Troi, Geordi, and Wesley to see what he’s been working on. An entire android being, as it turns out. The story immediately hits the ground running and in a surprisingly progressive way (especially for the 90’s). Essentially, Data creates a nonbinary child and then allows them to choose their own entire identity – gender and species. Nice!

“Don’t hate me just because you have enby envy.”

Named Lal (Hindi for “Beloved”), their initial appearance is that of a nude, blocky, humanoid. Data reasons that his own appearance and outward gender identity were locked in by his creator (Soong, who made Data in his own image – no trace of any god complex whatsoever /s). Instead of doing that, he wants his child to be able to choose for themselves. It’s a wonderfully enlightened notion that a lot of real world parents (and legislators) could certainly learn from. Data really shines throughout the episode, and I love that although he assumes a parental/protective role over Lal, he also takes care to acknowledge and support their autonomy as an individual. Again, these are just basic things that so many parents (even well-meaning ones) can fail at.

Before their gender is chosen, Lal strides through the corridors without shame from Data (among the sideways glances from the crew). Of course, Data is incapable of shame, but it’s nice to see a parent unconcerned with how much their child sticks out from the crowd. Because of Data’s lack of emotion, it would be easy to assume that he wouldn’t make a good parent. But as it turns out, his robotic adherence to moral principles proves him to be an impossibly dutiful and infinitely patient one.

“Hey pal, what are you packing down under? I’m just gathering inspiration for my Pinterest species/gender board.”

Unfortunately, Lal’s life cannot unfold without incident in a perfect progressive bubble. The first bit of pushback against her existence comes from Captain Picard – who privately expresses to Data shock and dismay that he built a sentient artificial life form without a word to anyone else. As awesome as Picard normally is, he doesn’t come off great here, and it’s a prelude to the much more insurmountable difficulties Data and Lal will face for simply existing. He clearly has some prejudices against Data’s artificial nature that colors his reaction. Conversely, Data is wonderful in the scene in that plucky, guilelessly sincere way he has. Data wonders aloud why he should have to obtain permission from Picard to reproduce when no one else on the ship is held to that standard. A fine question! Picard seems unable to impress upon Data his reservations with what he has done, and (in a moment that has entered immortal meme-itude) buries his head in his hands (Spiner’s puzzled reaction is hilarious). But as it turns out, Data seems to completely understand the vast responsibility he has decided to take on. He professes the desire to continue his creator’s dream, as well as to preserve his own existence should he be destroyed or become otherwise nonfunctional.

“You OK, dad?”

In the holodeck, Data, Lal, and Troi pore over several thousand identity choices (lol at Troi’s horrified reaction to the number of options they’ll be scrolling through). Eventually Lal narrows it down to a handful of choices – a human male, human female, male Klingon, and an Andorian woman. Lal chooses the human female and becomes the woman she was always meant to be! Hallie Todd does a great job in the role and gives a great portrayal of a clumsy and awkward child in adult form. She’s completely new to the world, speaking and moving in a performance that occupies the uncanny valley in an adorable way.

Data narrates the middle section of the episode through log entries which document Lal’s progress. It’s mostly played for laughs, but the humor works and accurately references the absurd silliness rearing a child can often bring (her not-quite-up-to-par reflexes when trying to catch a ball is a perfectly staged visual gag, as well as Data’s supportive half smile). Data recalls how teaching Lal to be more human is also a (re-)learning experience for him, which is a wonderful detail. In a wordless sequence, he teaches her how to blink her eyes and there’s something oddly touching about it.

“You are getting there, slugger.”
“As you can see by the bright pink stickiness, this is a particularly potent strain known as Warp Eleven Heaven. Commander Riker is very fond of it.”

Wesley Crusher gives Data the bright idea of sending her to children’s’ school so that she can learn some socialization, and it goes fairly disastrously. Put off by her adult appearance (and odd mannerisms, no doubt), the children completely avoid her. Despite neither her or Data possessing emotions, the moment of isolation elicits some genuine pathos. Data explains the classic adage of people being wary of those who are different, and Lal expresses that she doesn’t want to be different. Dr. Crusher advises Data to share with Lal his own awkward experiences at fitting in to try and help her.

“As you can see, she has them right where she wants them.”

MEANWHILE, Starfleet Admiral Asshole – oops, Haftel – has been in touch with Picard and is overbearingly curious about this artificial being that Data has created. He’s a pretty one-dimensional character and fulfills the story’s purpose of antagonist (as many Starfleet admirals do). The actor does a great job of being a gruff and unlikable dick, but he seems wildly out of place in the generally humane, sensitive, and intelligent ranks of Starfleet. Jesus, who hurt you, pal? Picard attempts to stymie Haftel’s badgering about Lal’s progress and development, but it isn’t long before he decides to visit the Enterprise and appraise the situation personally. If he isn’t satisfied, he’s going to take Lal with him. Awesome.

Is this something that any Starfleet Admiral can just do? Take an interest in something some crewmember is doing, warp his gruff ass over there, unilaterally “I am the law” his weight around, and snatch up people? It just happens at such a breakneck pace and the shoehorned conflict is a sour spot in an otherwise stupendous episode.

But what I do appreciate about this aspect of the plot is how it turns the episode into a spiritual sequel to “The Measure of a Man,” one of the series’ highlights from Season 2. In that classic story, Picard labored to legally defend and define the rights of Data as an individual and not the property of Starfleet. It’s realistic that the conflict wouldn’t end there, and just because a marginalized person or group wins a single legal victory doesn’t mean that the forces against them just give up, sadly.

So Data is an individual with the same (supposed) rights as anyone else, but does he have the same and equal reproductive rights? That ends up being the (sadly prescient) question that the latter half of “Offspring” struggles with. Picard meets with Data to discuss the situation with Asshole – sorry, Haftel. The Admiral wants to spirit Lal away into a more suitable environment, whatever that means. Data flatly refuses that course of action, but realizes he may not have a choice. At this point Picard is softly batting for Haftel (again, not a great look), but Data wonders if Haftel was totally prepared for parenthood when he first had children of his own. Indeed, Data is being held to a standard of perfection no biological being is, which is objectively unfair and illogical. It mirrors the unfair social and legal scrutiny marginalized people experience when they seek to do the same things any privileged people are allowed to as a matter of cause.

Now hanging out with Guinan in Ten Forward, Lal keenly observes adult human behavior, in particular romance. And of course because this is Star Trek, the episode immediately nosedives into embarrassing territory with a gag of Lal hauling Riker over the bar for a forced kiss. The writers went out of their way to put Riker out on some mission just as a means of setting up this one dumb joke. And Data wanders in at this moment and questions Will about his intentions with his daughter. [LAUGH TRACK] Ha ha, yeah. Delete this.


Ugh, anyway. Fortunately, the episode immediately recovers as a frustrated Lal complains that she can imotoot humans’ behavior exarctly, but can’t actually experience the emotions that behavior is derived from. Data, who has labored to understand the complexities of emotions, sympathizes with her plight. He impresses upon her the value of the struggle even if they don’t reach their destination, and it seems to make her feel(?) better. Having learned that humans like to hold hands to express affection, she takes Data’s hand in hers. It’s a lovely and oddly tender moment – these two emotionless beings performing an act of affection. There’s something so Star Trek about it that I love.


But the moment of douche – urm, truth has arrived, and Haftel meets with Picard. He’s quizzical about Picard’s sentimentality with Data and Lal, refusing to see separating them as breaking up a family. It’s at this moment when Picard firmly chooses a side and defends their rights as androids – rights that he helped to define. Haftel counters that the achievement Data has made (which no one else has been able to) is too valuable to go to waste on the Enterprise. You see, she’s so valuable that we have to treat her as an object with no rights! Yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s a nonsensical, argumentative sidestep that simultaneously elevates the importance of someone while stripping them of their basic autonomy. The fact that Lal is female gives the notion extra, angering punch.

“Listen Mister, if you wanna have a steel off, we’re going to have to set some ground rules.”

Haftel and Picard meet with Lal privately and the Admiral gives her his sugarcoated spiel about leaving her father. His arguments don’t really make any sense because of course they don’t, and even her childlike reasoning abilities are able to tear through them. Haftel claims to respect Data, and in a wonderful moment, Lal flatly replies he doesn’t speak with respect. GO, GIRL. Picard directly asks her what she wants, and she says she wants to remain with Data. Meeting adjourned.

But Lal leaves in a disturbed state, and visits Troi. She’s emotionally upset about being taken away, enough to where Troi can sense her feelings. She stumbles around like a scared child and a malfunctioning robot. It’s heartbreaking.

Asshole and Picard now meet with Data, and the Admiral again uses flawed reasoning and manipulative language to support what he wants to do. Data is politely resistant but firm about not surrendering Lal to Starfleet. Spiner really shines here as he protectively speaks of his duty to his child. There’s nary a trace of emotion, but his absolute commitment to her is clear and affecting to hear. Except to Haftel, who promptly orders Data to transport her to his ship. Picard belays the order, and in that wonderfully Picard way of his, poetically distills the true horror of what Haftel is doing.

There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience, but ignore their personal liberties and freedom. Order a man to turn his child over to the state? Not while I am his captain.


Picard decides to divert the Enterprise directly to Starfleet to plead their case, but Troi interrupts. Lal has returned to Data’s lab and appears to be suffering a system-wide malfunction – emotional awareness. Data surmises that he needs to quickly re-initialize her brain without wiping its contents to save her. Asshat agrees, and asks to assist. It’s a nice moment, and he at least shows some deference to Data in the situation.

“Maybe if I had been less of a dick she’d still be alive. Or maybe I should have been even more of a dick. It’s really tough to say in this topsy-turvy world. Anyway, toodles.”

But later on, Haftel exits the lab to where Troi, Geordi, and Wesley are waiting. Now visibly moved by what he’s seen, the Admiral is almost in tears as he reports that Lal doesn’t have long, and how remarkable Data’s performance was in trying to stay ahead of every failing pathway in her brain. He’s still a dick, but it’s a great performance that shows how much his mindset has changed. It also recalls Bruce Maddox’s eventual respect for Data despite his intentional efforts to dehumanize him. There is indeed an infectious quality to Data’s unassailable sincerity and innocence that not many can resist. It’s easy to make distant, unilateral decisions that affect others. But having to be up close and personal with the fallout of those inhumane decisions is much more difficult – if you have a conscience, that is. Which the Admiral apparently does, thankfully (unlike others in positions of power).

The devastating climax of the episode sees Data and Lal having their final moment together. The scene is framed beautifully, with an up close shot of the two almost nose to nose that tearfully encapsulates the intimacy of the moment. Data reports in his matter-of-fact way that he’s unable to correct her system failure. They have to say goodbye. UGH. She knows, and she feels. “I love you, father.” ;___;

They’re both great in the scene, and Spiner especially so. He almost says it back reflexively, but simply says he wishes he could feel it too. Like Leonard Nimoy did with Spock, Brent Spiner imbues Data with just enough emotion to make him compelling as a character, while still maintaining the artifice of an unfeeling being. His line reading here is so great, and there’s somehow a twinge of sadness in his voice that he can’t return her feeling truthfully. She says she’ll feel it for both of them and thanks him for her life. Winding backwards through her life experiences, she finally shuts down.


Data returns to the bridge and reports Lal’s system failure/death. Picard expresses everyone’s sympathy, but Data reports that he was able to transfer the contents of her brain back to his so that she would not be totally lost. It’s a bittersweet moment, and the impact of her life has clearly moved him on the deepest, non-emotional level possible. The fact that Data can’t feel sadness thankfully softens the emotional gut punch of her death somewhat, and the episode breezily ends with the crew warping off to another adventure in that delightful TNG way it had. The Next Generation was not a very serialized show, so permanently adding another recurring character was never going to be in the cards for Lal. But still, she would have made a wonderful addition to the show. Even by the time of Deep Space Nine, the franchise was shifting to a more complex and layered approach to secondary (and tertiary) recurring characters rather than the one-and-done method seen here. Ah, well.

Much as “Measure of a Man” did, “The Offspring” raises legal and ethical questions related to androids and what their rights are. But unlike that previous entry, it gets sidetracked with unexpected tragedy before answering them. Even in the enlightened future of the Federation, there is still plenty of progress that needs to be made. The basic issue arises because the powers-that-be at Starfleet value Data’s creation on a purely technical and scientific level. But as Picard says, they give air to the value of Lal but deny her basic rights as an individual. One can extol her amazing virtues and the progress she represents, but it’s still an act of dehumanization that robs her of her autonomy and has grave consequences. Treating her – or anyone – as anything other than a sentient being is a moral crime.

Lal’s brief life is a wonderful and rich chapter in Data’s life and The Next Generation. It’s an interesting inversion of his nature in the show, and for once he finds himself in the role of teacher of humanity instead of student. Just as in his exploration of other aspects of being human, Data learns valuable lessons and has a profound experience here. Taking on the role of a parent seems to bring out the absolute best in him, and his nurturing and protective instincts seem as strong as any other person’s. Love is a feeling, but it’s also an act – things that we do for people we care deeply about. Although Data is not able to feel the emotion of love, he nonetheless acts with great love towards Lal and proves his own shining and undeniable humanity.

Stray Observations:

  • It’s seemingly small detail in the episode, but profound – at one point Lal asks Data what the meaning of existence is, and he replies “Our function is to contribute in a positive way to the world in which we live.” And honestly, if that’s not the most accurate and succinct way to sum up the meaning of life, I don’t know what is. I just love Star Trek.
  • This episode has probably the only appearance of an Andorian since The Original Series (and its films) until Star Trek: Enterprise. And for some reason, she’s green?
  • I like that Troi is able to sense androids’ emotions (here, as well as in “Descent”). It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the fact that a sufficiently complex android brain can produce whatever emanations that can be picked up by a empath in an interesting notion. And from a story perspective, supports that the emotions are “real” (even though there are biological beings who are telepathically unreadable).
  • Geordi is mysteriously absent from the middle section of the episode. He’s Data’s closest friend, and an engineer, so it’s a little conspicuous. I’m sure he would’ve been more useful in fixing Lal than Admiral Butthead.
  • Love the set of Data’s lab.