Credit to Star Trek: The Next Generation | Season 4 Episode 25: In Theory
(Written by Joe Menosky & Ronald D. Moore).
In Theory is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which has been relatively panned by critics. To be fair, it’s an episode of Star Trek with zero exploration. Not only that, but it’s a romantic episode, without any romance. Despite these flaws, however, I continue to cherish this awkward, penultimate filler episode of Season 4.
The premise of the episode is that Data, the unfeeling android, decides to pursue a relationship with a junior officer who fancies him. The relationship is played for laughs, with Data desperately trying to understand the intricacies of courtship, while the unfortunate Jenna D’Sora tries to convince herself that a relationship with a cold, unflinching, anthropomorphic machine can somehow succeed.
I’ll try to briefly summarise the general problems people have with the relationship arc in this episode. Data seems to typify, at best, every man who is confounded by not picking up social clues left by a lady; at worst, he typifies someone emotionally stunted, who desperately wants to understand love and romance. D’Sora, on the other hand, is written to be a little unstable. She offloads her relationship baggage onto her superior officer while on duty, is deeply insecure about herself, and isn’t a clear communicator. Both Data and D’Sora are played as negative romantic stereotypes, which can certainly be irk an audience, especially in a show about how much better the future can be.
Why the issues don’t matter
While I can’t defend the degrading stereotypes that both characters portray, I’d like to share my personal reading of In Theory, and how I think this episode has something powerful to teach us about relationships and desire.
Bennett & Royle (2009) in their landmark book An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, weave together several theories on what it means to desire another person (or in this case, machine). From their work, I would like to highlight three arguments that they cite, and how In Theory exemplifies and models these theories of how humans desire each other.
What we can learn from Star Trek…
Firstly, Data and D’Sora exemplify what René Girard describes as a “triangular relation of rivalry” (cited in Bennett & Royle, 2009). While D’Sora may desire Data, her relationship with him is forged by her grief at ending a relationship with her long-term partner, Jeff. In a sense, the romantic attraction that forms between Data and D’Sora would not be possible without this other, fringe lover. In fact, their entire relationship is clouded by the unseen ex-boyfriend. The feelings that D’Sora once had for Jeff colours her entire relationship with Data.
D’Sora only starts to desire Data after she bumps into Jeff off-screen, and it is this brief moment reconnecting with her past lover that D’Sora looks for a new lover in Data. Simultaneously, Data reveals that he began to research romantic historical figures because he saw D’Sora and Jeff’s relationship dissolving, “…I saw an excellent opportunity to study that aspect of human intimacy” (Stewart, 1991). Often, we assume that we desire someone because they are simply desirable. What this episode depicts, and what some social and literary critics argue, is that desire is forged only after witnessing and wishing to compete with the desire of another.
In fact, as their relationship hits the rocks, D’Sora confides in Data that “sometimes people blindly make the same mistake again and again…I got out of a relationship with an unemotional man, and fell right back into another with a man who is absolutely incapable of feeling emotion” (Stewart, 1991). In the eyes of D’Sora, she wished to outperform her previous relationship with a man who is more caring. Similarly, Data is using the experience to better understand why D’Sora and Jeff fell apart and to improve his own understanding of love.
Girard’s theory of the triangular relation of rivalry is used to argue that all men enter relationships to outperform other men. While I would argue that this isn’t exactly what is occurring here, as Data is incapable of feeling jealousy, it is helpful for us to ensure that we don’t enter relationships purely out of a desire to outperform another. In high school, I witnessed several couples get together shortly after one of them had left a relationship. Inevitably, these rebound relationships never lasted. They were built on the desire to outdo oneself, to quickly leap from one sinking ship to another, instead of waiting to check how stable the next relationship could be.
Desire as Imitation
Another theory outlined by Bennett & Royle (2009) is that desire seeks to imitate the desire that we have witnessed. Data is unique from us as the audience, in that his imitation of love is conscious. Before Data begins dating D’Sora, he interviews all of the senior officers to ask them whether he should begin a relationship with Lieutenant D’Sora. Data seems incapable, or unwilling, to determine for himself whether this relationship is feasible. Instead, he agonises over whether it is the right decision, and seeks the guidance of many, instead of the sage wisdom of a few. Inevitably, much of the advice Data receives is in stark conflict. While Commander Riker tells Data to throw himself into the relationship for the sake of pleasure, Counsellor Troi warns Data that he should be very cautious to avoid hurting D’Sora. Data’s relationship with D’Sora is an amalgamation of all of the advice he has received, and of all the research he conducted of historical lovers, with disastrous consequences.
For D’Sora, her feelings towards Data are ignited further while she and Data have dinner with Mr and Mrs O’Brien. During the conversation, D’Sora is visibly affected by the warmth and companionship between the other couple. She quickly moves her body to mimic the body language of Mrs Keiko O’Brien: by hugging Data’s arm.
This scene isn’t necessary for the story of In Theory, but I believe it was included for good reason. As an audience, we don’t simply see D’Sora desiring Data for who he is. We see her desiring Data in order to be more like the O’Briens. Dr Madeleine Fugére (Psychology Today) argues that “mate-choice copying” occurs when a person views a happy couple, and begins to desire similar qualities in a partner that they observe.
When presented with the opportunity of beginning a relationship, we should consider whether the person we are attracted to is genuinely a good fit for us, or whether we are simply trying to find someone for the sake of a relationship. If you’ve ever wondered why that friend changes their personality with each new boyfriend, or why that guy is with someone who is completely wrong for them, then this scene is perhaps enlightening for us. The change in D’Sora is subtle, in her mind it is unconscious, but for everyone else present it is strange and artificial. We would do well to question and test our own desires.
Desire as Temporary
Lastly, desire in fiction is described as fluid and mobile (Bennett & Royle, 2009). In Shakespeare’s comedies, desire acts almost like a character unto itself. For instance, the unstable and mobile nature of desire is very apparent in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his introduction to the play, Greenblatt (1997) describes desire as “radical fickleness”, which leaps upon unsuspecting characters, and causes them to abandon all reason in the hope of chasing that which they desire, and then leaves again just as quickly.
That last point about desire: that it can leave us just as quickly as it appears, is worth remembering. The human heart cannot continue to pine and thirst indefinitely. When D’Sora ends her relationship with Data, he mechanically does what our brains do automatically: Data forces himself to forget so that he can move on. Data deletes an entire subroutine and everything he has learnt about love. We as humans delete memories, feelings, smells, and desires out of necessity. No matter how terrible the end of a relationship is, our bodies, minds, and hearts will recover in time. The brain is designed to be malleable and to recover from grief.
No desire, no matter how seemingly powerful or confusing, will last in its current state. It must either end, or be metamorphosed into a genuine connection with another human that is stable, comfortable, and long-lasting.
Bennett, A. & Royle, N. (2009). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (4th edn). United Kingdom: Pearson Education Ltd.
Fugére, M. A. (2016, July 4). Why the least available men may seem the most attractive. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/dating-and-mating/201607/why-the-least-available-men-may-seem-the-most-attractive
Shakespeare, W., Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Gossett, S., Howard, J. E., Maus, K. E. & McMullan, G. (1997). Introduction, The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.
Menosky, J. (Writer), Moore, R. (Writer) & Stewart, P. (Director). (1991). In Theory [Television series episode]. In Roddenberry, G & Berman, R. (Executive Producers), Star Trek: The Next Generation.