Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Offspring”

The Offspring“The Offspring”
Written by René Echevarria
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Season 3, Episode 16
Original air date: March 12, 1990
Star date: 43657.0

Mission summary

Data summons Wesley, La Forge, and Troi to his lab for some Really Big News. After a drumroll, he unveils… a thing! They’re not really sure what it is–it seems to be a Soong-type android in beta–until it calls Data “father” and Data explains that this is his child, Lal.

The trio are stunned as Lal greets them. Data explains that he discovered some new kind of tech to tech his own positronic brain. Right now it looks a bit robo-Maria from Metropolis, but this lets his child customize its character. His three friends are excited by this development, but when the news reaches Picard it creates a miniature shitstorm. He’s furious that Data would so lightly take it upon himself to create a new life, completely unsupervised. But Data rightly points out that he has as much a right to reproduce as anyone else onboard, if not more so:

PICARD: Data, you are seeking to achieve what only your own creator has been able to achieve. To make another functioning, sentient, android. To make another Data.
DATA: That is why I must attempt this, sir. I have observed that in most species, there is a primal instinct to perpetuate themselves. Until now, I have been the last of my kind. If I were to be damaged or destroyed, I would be lost forever. But if I am successful with the creation of Lal, my continuance is assured. I understand the risk, sir. and I am prepared to accept the responsibility.

Troi is on his side, too, and tries to talk Picard out of his petty narrowmindedness and point out with utmost sensitivity that he’s never been a father, which serves more to remind us that she’s been a mother and now we’re all upset again because why did that ever happen. Lal, meanwhile, has sorted through her Barbie playhouse and decided on the human female outfit. It’s a girl!

As with all new babies onscreen, we get a montage of her growing up: learning to swallow, catching a ball, smelling things, recognizing terrible taste in art… She develops rapidly and Data takes pleasure (or at least, whatever the android equivalent is) in experiencing these things with her, made new again through her eyes. She slowly begins to become sentient, questioning her world and her purpose in it (to which Data artfully responds that their function “is to contribute in a positive way to the world in which we live”). He also decides to send her to school, so that she can better emulate human reactions and more easily integrate with the rest of the crew.

Her first day of school, like most children’s, isn’t much fun. Lal’s classmates tease and laugh at her, and she recognizes, even if she does not understand, her isolation:

LAL: Why would they wish to be unkind?
DATA: Because you are different. Differences sometimes scare people. I have learned that some of them use humor to hide their fear.
LAL: I do not want to be different.

Data goes to the only other visible parent onboard, Dr. Crusher, for advice. Her kid was a freak, too, so she understands! She suggests that Data relate his own difficulties assimilating, to show her that she is not alone and that he is there for her. He will, but in the meantime, he sends her to Guinan to observe people on Ten Forward. She offers herself as a waitress in exchange, and stuns everyone by saying “I’ve”–a contraction. She has exceeded Data’s programming! So precocious, she’s definitely destined for the gifted and talented program. Lal gets started as a bartender and, wanting to imitate what she sees, winds up kissing Riker when he sets foot in the bar.

The laughs are short-lived, however, because Picard urgently needs to talk to Data about Starfleet’s “interest” in Lal. Admiral Haftel, douchehat of the week, thinks that Lal is better off being studied in a lab–without Data’s influence. He’s rendezvoused with the Enterprise and if he doesn’t like Lal’s “progress” is empowered to take her back to a science station (and away from her father). Haftel interviews Picard, then Data, and then finally Lal, who he tries to persuade to come back with him of her own will. But she thinks he’s he’s an ass:

HAFTEL: Yes. Don’t misunderstand me, I have great respect for your father.
LAL: You do not speak with respect.
HAFTEL: She seems very adversarial.
LAL: I’m merely stating a fact, Admiral.

Damn right.  Picard asks her what SHE wants to do, and she says she wants to stay aboard the Enterprise. Haftel dismisses her, but Lal leaves the ready room in disarray. She heads for Troi’s quarters, where she’s in obvious distress at the idea of being separated from Data. She can feel the fear. That’s… not right.

Haftel, on the other hand, has made up his mind. He asks, and then finally commands Data to hand her over to Starfleet. Data refuses absolutely and threatens to resign his commission, and Picard stands by him with a line ready about refusing to just follow orders. But before a real fight can erupt Troi calls them all to the lab to help Lal, who is suffering some kind of malfunction. Data discovers that the emotional awareness has caused (or is perhaps a symptom of) a cascade failure–a terminal malfunction. Though he and Haftel, who feels suuuuuper guilty about this, try everything they can to keep her going, she is dying.

DATA: Lal? I am unable to correct the system failure.
LAL: I know.
DATA: We must say goodbye now.
LAL: I feel.
DATA: What do you feel, Lal?
LAL: I love you, Father.
DATA: I wish I could feel it with you.
LAL: I will feel it for both of us. Thank you for my life. Flirting. Laughter. Painting. Family. Female. Human.

He deactivates her, but transfers her memories over to his programming so that she will live on.

The Offspring


I’m not usually the schmaltzy type. If someone described this episode to me and I hadn’t seen it I would probably roll my eyes or sigh. But I absolutely cannot be cynical about it because it is just so beautiful. Every time Lal says goodbye and tells Data “thank you for my life,” I can’t help but cry, as I am flooded with the memories of all those afternoons reading The Giving Tree with my mother and feeling, even then, that connection and love, and all of its pain and confusion. It’s absolutely the most moving, poignant, and bittersweet episode of the series.

Having a child is a natural and reasonable desire on Data’s part. Children are a huge part of being human (or even humanoid), and it makes sense that at a certain point in his development Data would want to experience that as well. But with Data, creating a child allows him to learn about himself in new and interesting ways. Not only does he get to experience things for the first time all over again (which is a lovely scene and a lovely little voiceover), but what Lal learns with his brain will help him grow, adapt, and develop, too. She quickly exceeds his programming, and the direction she and her development take is absolutely crucial to his own self-exploration. This new data–ahem–can provide the answer to where he came from and why he is the person he is. If they have the same brain, will they have the same personality? The same interests? I don’t think we knew until now that Data is truly a unique person, formed as much by his experiences as his programming. It especially makes me wonder what Data would have been like if he had grown up with Soong, or even with another Data. He had to navigate the world alone.

Until they “answered” this with the stupid godawful emotion chip, this episode also represented to me exactly why Data had to be limited the way he was. I had always assumed that he was denied emotions because he could never survive with them–they’re irrational and just not reconcilable with his programming. Were he to have them, his life would be cut short just as quickly as Lal’s. As such, I liked to imagine that it was in a way Soong’s own fatherly gesture, to spare him not only deactivation but the pain and sadness of that existence. Thanks, TNG, for dashing my hopes with that awful movie I guess I’ll have to see again.

In any case, Lal challenges a second crucial and compelling idea: the Federation’s much-venerated autonomy principles. Why does Picard think that Data should have cleared this with him? Does he truly have all the rights of a sentient being, including the ability to continue his own existence? And I think it’s important to show that Picard’s first victory in “Measure of a Man” is meaningless unless the Federation is really willing to stand by it and enforce it against those who would take those rights away. Rights don’t mean much if others don’t respect them, which was highlighted expertly when Lal told Admiral Haftel that no matter what he said, he did not speak with respect about her father. It rightly points to the fact that Data is always and forever going to have to fight back against oppression and assert his freedoms against others who would take them, and that’s the cost of doing business with humanity.

The only part of this episode I cringe at is when Data and Beverly have their heart-to-heart, and she says that she helped Wesley get through puberty by telling her how lonely and miserable she was as a teenager, and thus They Bonded. Yeah, right! Parents never understand…

Now excuse me while I go re-read my Shel Silverstein and call my mom.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread AlertThread Alert: I actually like Lal’s little peasant dress, so I’m going to pick on Picard, who apparently sleeps posed like a painter’s model and wears his robe to bed. Unless it’s just a shirt with a really deep V-cut? Either way, the best part is that he answers the videophone looking like that. Don’t change for anyone, Picard.

Best Line: PICARD: Data, I would like to have been consulted.
DATA: I have not observed anyone else on board consulting you about their procreation, Captain.

Trivia/Other Notes: This was Jonathan Frake’s first directing effort. To prepare, he spent over 300 hours editing, dubbing, taking seminars, and reading textbooks. A pretty good first effort, if I do say so myself.

“The Offspring” began as a spec script by emerging writer René Echevarria. He was hired as a writer, and will go on to pen 17 more TNG episodes and 23 DS9 ones.

A former research consultant says that Whoopi Goldberg changed one of the lines on-set. She was supposed to be telling Lal about when “a man and a woman are in love,” and changed it to a gender-neutral version. They were going to throw in a same-sex couple into the background, too, but one call to production nixed the whole scene. The future, ladies and gentlemen!

Hallie Todd, who plays Lal, has an interesting Trek connection: she’s the stepdaughter of Guy Raymond, who was the human bartender in “The Trouble with Tribbles.” She is notable for two long-running series: the 1980s Showtime hit Brothers, and as the mom on Disney’s Lizzie McGuire.

Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 15 – “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 17 – “Sins of the Father.”

About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.