I recently caught up with the newest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. I’m still a bit cranky about certain creative decisions, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. The show delves into many big questions about the nature of life and what makes it valuable, but it gets rather muddled. Star Trek has always been willing to ask difficult questions and explore deep philosophical ideas. But there is some confusion about life and death in Star Trek: Picard, especially when examined through a Christian lens. I’ll put a mild spoiler tag warning here, but I wouldn’t be too worried about them.
The Measure of a Man
We need to first go back to 1989. One of the greatest episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show which Star Trek: Picard is something of a sequel to, is called “The Measure of a Man.” In that story, Data, the android Starfleet officer, is put on trial to determine if he is sentient or simply a machine. In the climax, Captain Picard gives one of his greatest speeches in the 7-year run of the show.
Star Trek: Picard based a great deal of its story on this episode, and the exploration of synthetic life. Data’s legacy resulted in androids even more advanced than him.
What is Sentient Life?
The question of what makes something life was critical to the 1989 episode. Now in 2020, the question is largely ignored, unfortunately. We see a few different kinds of androids. Some are so advanced they are mistaken for human. Others are seemingly little more than automatons, with no self-awareness. The less intelligent androids are never discussed as if they are alive, even though those are the ones that end up being used to kill thousands of people. What is the precise difference that gives one rights and the other enslavement? The They never really ask the question but jump into racism allegories. Unfortunately, even that message gets confused, as the show’s message seemed to be don’t be racist or the oppressed will retaliate with genocide.
Watching Measure of a Man, I can’t help but think of abortion arguments. The case is made that Data is merely a machine, not sentient life with rights. Picard asks what qualifies as sentient life. The answers given are primarily self-awareness and consciousness. Both shows, however, demonstrate how difficult of a standard this is to uphold. The conclusion in the episode is “Does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.”
I wonder if they would have granted that same grace to the unborn? Is the stage of life less important to a person’s human rights than the kind of life they are?
Better Off Dead
One conversation stood out to me in Star Trek: Picard. It’s completely unrelated to the android storyline, but it makes a more interesting point about the value of life. The xBs are a group of people that were rescued from an alien hive. However, they are now left physically and mentally damaged. Two characters discuss them like this.
“Would the xBs be better off dead? Everyone hates them. They have no home. They don’t belong anywhere.”
“Am I better off dead? I’m an xB. I have no home. I don’t belong anywhere. Why don’t I just put a phaser to my head and get it over with?”
“Because…I’d miss you.”
I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that that last line is just meant to be cute. I’m hoping they don’t actually believe that unloved people should kill themselves. But the exchange makes a point which should be familiar to pro-life advocates. To say that someone would be better off dead is not our judgment to make. How often do we hear that a child would be better off dead than living in poverty, or with a major handicap? We do not know where their life will go. Should every poor and disabled person end it now? Obviously not, because life is valuable regardless of pleasure and pain.
Lovingly and Deliberately Created
There are a few other points in the show that could be discussed, even delving into issues like euthanasia and souls. For now, I want to finish with the one time I would say that this show actually gave a nugget of truth. A woman has just discovered that she is an android. Her immediate reaction is one of fear and shame, proclaiming herself as a freak. Instead, Picard tries to show her how special she is. He asks, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you are something lovingly and deliberately created?”
In this case, she was the life’s work and passion project of a brilliant scientist. Picard recognizes how special she is. This scene gives the one glimpse of truth, as we recognize that it is not about who she is, what she has done, or how much Picard cares about her that gives her value. It is the inherent dignity that comes from who made her that makes her special. The only missing piece is that this applies to each and every one of us. We are made in the image of God, and as long as that is true, there are no freaks or less valuable people.
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