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Friday, September 16, 2016

My Top 14 Minor Star Trek Characters

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I would like to present my favorite 14 minor Star Trek characters:

Pakleds. Image source.
1. The Pakleds (ie "we look for things to make us go")

In the Next Generation episode "Samaritan Snare", the Enterprise receives a distress call from the Pakleds, who say their ship is broken and they need help. They come across as completely clueless and they keep saying "we look for things to make us go" as if they have no knowledge about any of the technology on their ship. When Geordi beams over to help them, they kidnap him. Turns out they weren't so clueless after all. (Or rather, they believe Geordi can make them go.)

The Borg queen talks with Data, who is in restraints. Image source.
2. The Borg queen

In the movie "Star Trek: First Contact," the Enterprise is invaded by the Borg. Data is captured, and the Borg queen tries to turn him. She gives him human skin implants on his arm and face, and he is able to feel new sensations he never could before. (Also they kissed and maybe more?)

The interaction between the Borg queen and Data is interesting because she is able to tempt him in a way that no one else can, and he really did struggle with the idea of betraying the Enterprise and staying with her:
Data: "And for a time, I was tempted by her offer."

Picard: "How long a time?"

Data: "0.68 seconds sir. For an android, that is nearly an eternity."
T'Ping stops her and Spock's marriage ceremony. Image source.
3. T'Ping (a very logical Vulcan girl)

In the Original Series episode "Amok Time," Spock experiences pon farr (the Vulcan drive to mate once every seven years) and the Enterprise goes back to Vulcan to find Spock's betrothed wife, T'Ping. However, instead of going through with the marriage, T'Ping exercises her right to choose a challenger and have him fight Spock. She picks Kirk, who is then informed that it's going to be a fight to the death.

Kirk and Spock fight (watch the video here) (or this video of cats) while everyone watches. Finally, Spock strangles Kirk and everyone thinks Kirk is dead (spoiler: he's not). T'Ping then explains that she actually wanted to marry her Vulcan boyfriend Stonn, but chose Kirk to challenge Spock because, regardless of which of them won, they wouldn't end up marrying her anyway- indeed, we see that Spock felt terrible after "killing" Kirk and was no longer interested in marriage. Highly logical.

Spock's huge smile when he sees Kirk. Image source.
Also Spock totally smiles when he gets back the the Enterprise and sees Kirk alive.

Picard and the captain of the Tamarians. Image source.
4. The Tamarians (ie "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra")

In the Next Generation episode "Darmok," the Enterprise meets a group of people who communicate exclusively in references to stories that are well-known in their culture. They keep saying things like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell" and obviously the Enterprise crew has NO IDEA what they're talking about. The Tamarians beam Picard and their own captain down to a planet. Basically the idea is they have to learn to help each other survive, and by doing so they will learn how to communicate. You know, just like Darmok and Jalad did at Tanagra. Obviously.

This episode raises some interesting questions about language. First of all, fans have pointed out that it doesn't make any sense for a language like that to actually exist- how can they even tell the stories in the first place if they only speak in allusions? How can a language like that be used to describe very very specific things? Seems like you need an entire sentence just to communicate one word or general concept. BUT at the same time, it shows the concept of a universal translator (which is what Star Trek uses) is absurd. The Tamarian language is a pretty extreme example, but there are ALWAYS cases where some phrase just DOES NOT TRANSLATE because it is connected to culture, and people unfamilar with that culture absolutely will not be able to understand. Lolololol "universal translator", yeah, sure. (Source: I speak Chinese.)

Dr. Soong. Image source.
5. Dr. Noonien Soong

Dr. Soong is the cyberneticist who created Data. And that is just the coolest thing ever. (Did I mention I work in robotics?) I would say Data's most important feature is that he's able to learn. This means he has a personality that changes and grows over time, he can get to know people, he develops habits, etc. Seriously, that's all you need for the best robot ever: the ability to try various behaviors, analyze sensor data indicating the results of those behaviors, and use the feedback to modify future behavior. A robot like that, damn. That robot is going to be intelligent and human-like; it's going to take on a life of its own. It's all in the sensors and the feedback, that's what makes an awesome robot. (I may be sort of biased- I basically just work with sensors.)

Data and Maddox. Image source.
6. Bruce Maddox

In the Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man," Commander Bruce Maddox wants to take Data apart to do research on him. This leads to a very offficial hearing where Data's rights are debated- is he the property of Starfleet, or does he have the right to make his own choice about this? Does he count as a life form worthy of respect, or just a machine to be used? Is Data the first of a race of disposable slaves?

This is my favorite Next Generation episode, because I totally love Data. (Y'all, go and watch this scene.) But then I realized, I'm doing research in robotics- I'm really more like Maddox. Ohh, awkward. Maddox is definitely presented as the bad guy; he's really disrespectful to Data, treating him like a thing instead of a person. Not cool, man. But ... aren't all of us in the robotics industry like that? Isn't that the whole reason my job exists? We want to create better and better robots, to do jobs that are too dangerous for people to do. If you send out a robot to do search-and-rescue, or disable a bomb, or handle nuclear waste, and your robot gets destroyed, well, it's not that bad, it's not like a person died or anything. (They're basically glorified remote-control cars. They aren't people. They have no rights.)

Data isn't a normal robot though. Data really is special. He has a whole personality, goals, friendships, etc. But do his crewmates on the Enterprise treat him like a person because they're not experts in robotics, so they have some super-romanticized view of what an android is? For someone like Maddox, who better understands how Data works, maybe there is no illusion of "wow he's totally like a person instead of a machine." (Sort of like how, in popular culture, people always talk about how robots are going to take over the world, but those of us who actually work in robotics know it's really difficult to get a robot to walk on two legs and open a frickin' door. See this hilarious video.) Hmm.

Data, Geordi, and Dr. Farallon examine an exocomp. Image source.
7. The exocomps

Okay I promise this is the last one about robots. In the Next Generation episode "The Quality of Life," we meet Dr. Farallon, who has built 3 robots ("exocomps") to do repairs at her research station. Data notices that one of the exocomps seems to have behavior motivated by self-preservation, which makes him think it actually counts as a life form worthy of protection, rather than just a machine. He believes Dr. Farallon should stop using them.

Now, imagine you're Dr. Farallon. This has got to be super-annoying. You built these really useful machines, and then some dude shows up and tells you you can't use them because they are life forms and it's wrong to force them to work for you.

Anyway, the whole thing becomes a problem when there's dangerous radiation at the research station and the only way to fix it is to send one of the exocomps in to blow itself up. Data won't allow them to force an exocomp to go to its death though. I won't spoil the ending- it's really good.

And it's ADORABLE how Data takes it upon himself to stand up for the rights of these 3 robots.

Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and a lot of tribbles. Image source.
8. Tribbles

Remember the time somebody brought a cute little tribble on the Enterprise and then it started breeding like crazy and there were just SO MANY TRIBBLES? Good times.

Spock mindmelds with a humpback whale. Because of course he did. Image source.
9. Whales

In "Star Trek IV", (which, bafflingly, is not titled "Star Trek Saves the Whales") for some reason the Enterprise crew has to go back in time and get some humpback whales. I hope the reboot movies do this too. Lololol. WHALES.

Ambassador T'Pel. Image source.
10. T'Pel

In the Next Generation episode "Data's Day," T'Pel, a very well-known Vulcan ambassador, dies in a transporter accident. OR DOES SHE? Turns out she was actually a Romulan spy all along, and the Romulan ship beamed her aboard safely while beaming some fake "remains" onto the Enterprise's transporter pad.

Sneaky.

Kirk, Spock, and Captain Pike. Image source.
11. Captain Pike

In the 2-part Original Series episode "The Menagerie," we see Captain Pike, Spock's former captain. He has been badly injured, can't move at all, can't speak, and is confined to a wheelchair-like machine with a light that flashes once for "yes" and twice for "no" (this is the only way he can communicate). Anyway, Spock takes Pike against his will, takes command of the Enterprise, and is generally super-shady about the whole thing. Spock is in SO MUCH TROUBLE. But in the end, we find out that Spock's actions were totally logical.

Sulu holding a really furry dog with a unicorn horn. Image source.
12. This dog

I have no idea what's going on in this picture, but look at that ridiculous dog. Also, io9 asks the truly important question: Why aren't there more memes about Star Trek's Unicorn Dog?

Picard, Keiko, Ro, and Guinan beam back to the Enterprise and discover they have been turned into younger versions of themselves. Image source.
13. Young Picard

In the Next Generation episode "Rascals," a transporter malfunction turns Picard, Guinan, Ro, and Keiko into prepubescent versions of themselves. (Because that's TOTALLY how transporter malfunctions work.) As luck would have it, the Enterprise is hijacked by Ferengi, who take all the adults captive, and the child versions of these 4 crew members save the day. (And young Picard is SO BRITISH, it's great.)

I love the part where Picard is pretending to be Riker's son. While a Ferengi listens to their conversation, little Picard accidentally calls Riker "number one" (just like he always does) and then nervously explains to the Ferengi "he's my number one dad" and makes everything hilariously awkward. Dude, if you just hadn't said anything, it would have been fine.

And also a shoutout to young Keiko, for making her husband Miles O'Brien feel like a pervert.

Droxine. Image source.
14. Droxine

I just put her on the list because what the hell is going on with that dress?

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Those are my top 14, but I'm sure there are others I've forgotten. (Also I've only seen TOS and TNG.) So tell me, who are your favorite minor Star Trek characters?

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