Data, Spock, and Star Trek Emotions

“Unlike Data, for example, [Spock] at least has feelings.” -Richard Raben, Boldly Live as You’ve Never Lived Before: Unauthorized and Unexpected Life Lessons from Star Trek

I posted this quote (from a book I read for another post) on my Facebook a while back, with the simple caption “#NERDRAGE.” It generated an excellent conversation about Data, Spock, emotions, neurodivergence, and Star Trek’s unstated values. I wanted to share some of those thoughts here because they’re really, really important. Instead of just spouting off about it myself, I’m pleased to present it in conversation form with two brilliant Facebook participants, fellow Comparative Geeks contributor Rose B. Fischer and super duper college buddy Lani. Edited slightly for readability.

Hannah: So, my irritation with the above quote is twofold: The statement that Data doesn’t have emotions, and the implication that having/expressing emotions is intrinsically better. They sound contradictory but they’re not, given the two characters being portrayed and especially the connection with autism.

Firstly, the definition of emotion. I have this conversation every time I watch the movie Equilibrium, where “emotions are suppressed/removed” but things like loyalty, ambition, and disgust (ironically, disgust for emotions!) all remain. Data’s kind of the same, he “doesn’t have emotions” but actually he has desire (for knowledge/curiosity, desire to please), happiness and sadness when good or bad things happen, affection (for Spot), loyalty to Picard/his friends/Starfleet, etc. Where does emotion end and an intellectual position begin?

Lani: If we are are argue that Data has no emotion, we have to argue that the desire to experience emotion is, in and of itself, not an emotional experience. Beyond that, his friendship with Geordi, his affection of Spot, and his desire for a family unit all suggest emotional response.

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“Phantasms”

Rose: The issue that’s consistently played up with Data is lack of emotional awareness, compounded by incomplete cultural/social understanding. He can analyze human culture norms but isn’t invested in them and doesn’t have a bunch of conditioned responses based on observed behavior since infancy. There are several instances of other characters recognizing emotion in Data and commenting on it. Data usually “corrects” them, but context makes it pretty clear that the audience is meant to infer that Data has more emotional capacity than he realizes.

Hannah: Yeah, a lot of people tease about this, as in “Oh, they’re trying to write an emotionless character but they keep accidentally giving him emotions anyway, haha,” but I think it’s a more foundational concept that there IS no distinct line between emotions and thoughts/opinions/beliefs. The issue here is with comprehension and expression, not existence. Data doesn’t understand other people’s emotions or the way humans act because of them, and because others tell him he doesn’t have emotions, he believes them and continually uses that as a defense, reminding others that he’s responding in his own way and isn’t capable of doing what they’re doing.

The Enterprise crew tends to be more understanding than the rest of the universe in all things and all situations, and they generally provide a supportive environment in which for him to experiment and learn, but it still would’ve helped him out enormously if there was ANYONE there who could go “Oh, me too, I also find this difficult and this is what my emotions are like,” etc. Data’s emotion chip basically gives him overwhelming emotional reactions, and cues the matching physical action (laughter, etc.) but he gets little or no help learning how to deal with them the way a (neurotypical) child usually learns.

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“The Outrageous Okona”

Lani: Data’s ability to process emotions coincides closely with the disorder alexithymia, which is the inability to understand, identify, and process one’s own emotions and, no surprise, research shows that 85% of autistic adults have it. So yes, Data’s experiences are highly analogous with autistic experiences.

Also, speaking as an autistic adult, one thing I have learned over the years is that if someone tells you that you have no feeling, your instinct is to believe them. Especially if you are alexithymic and can’t identify those emotions, it is very easy to take the words of someone else regarding your own emotional experiences as gospel.

The flip side of that is Spock’s experience with emotions, which is also analogous with an autism spectrum experience: your emotions are Big. They are Big and they are Violent and they don’t fit right inside you and you don’t know what they are or what to do with them. You’ve been told that your emotions–not other people’s, but yours–are odd or unnatural or too Big, too Violent, and you learn to push them aside because no one has time to understand your emotions, which are big and violent and angry and confused. And so you learn to dislike them and to feel ashamed of them because they are difficult to deal with and People Like You shouldn’t have or need emotions, anyways.

So yes, Spock has emotions. And Data has emotions. And they process them differently from each other, and differently from the humans around them. But to classify emotions that do not fit the typical mold as nonexistent is a dangerous place to start.

Hannah: Yes. Plus the fact that they exist doesn’t mean they need to be pushed into typical channels. Spock’s situation is almost the opposite of Data’s, he knows he has emotions but he’s always dealt with them by getting rid of them. Some fans complain that he gets “turned into Kirk” by the end of the movies, and I agree with that in part — I would’ve loved to see him remain more alien and more incomprehensible in some ways — but that also shows his journey toward accepting his emotions and factoring them into the equation, but still never allowing them to overwhelm him. (eg he has an emotional attachment to Jim, so he breaks rules and lies to save him, but he doesn’t need to indulge in an emotionalistic display about it.) He was suppressing them and suffered a lot of internal distress about his emotions, but learning to “express” or “release” them was not part of the solution at all.

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“The Devil in the Dark”

Rose: Spock can be an analogue for trauma survivors, too, though I guess not as close as the one with autism.

Spock expresses emotion by acting in supposedly “illogical” and non-Vulcan ways. His entire relationship and way of interacting with McCoy is emotional, even though neither one will admit it. What logical purpose is served by the way they banter? He didn’t need to learn to “express” emotions in the sense of becoming a passionate romantic or having big Vulcan rages, or laughing at jokes, but he was always expressing them whether he wanted to admit it or not.

I think what a lot of the fan commentary is saying is that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to express feelings. It’s codified as closer to what a stereotypical neurotypical person would do, so obviously problematic from that perspective.

Equally so for anyone dealing with trauma. Primary symptoms of trauma-related disorders involve inability to express, identify, or cope with emotions, having emotional reactions and responses that are frowned upon by society (either too much or too little) or in simply needing alternative means to express and cope with emotions because the ones society likes don’t work anymore. Star Trek has a poor track record for mental illness in general, but Spock and Data both demonstrate degrees of my experience in trauma recovery (moreso Spock, because I’m prone to rages that nobody sees and recognize emotions but don’t react or express them in commonly accepted ways. Data comes in with the aspect of needing feedback and rarely having an opportunity to get it because then I have to explain the problem…)

Plato's Stepchildren

“Plato’s Stepchildren”

Hannah: Absolutely. It’s also relevant that both characters essentially come from non-human cultures, although Data doesn’t really have a “culture” in the same way. That would be enough to say “this character is different, stop slapping them down for not expressing the same way humans do,” but the fact that actual humans are actually like this makes the whole thing that much more important. Data and Spock are VITAL crewmembers and friends, and neither of them would be improved by making them more “normal,” either more “useful” for others or more comfortable with themselves.

Both of them learned and grew as people, becoming more confident and happy and satisfied with themselves, but neither of them were “fixed” by becoming neurotypical, it’s the opposite. And for the most part, the shows/movies didn’t indicated that they should be, it’s the fan reactions/commentary that have grown up in response to them. The whole response to Data and Spock devalues intellectualism and all the things Data and Spock actually care about the most. Ties into the “right and wrong expressions” issue, plus the idea that they need to learn from humans because emotionalism is some kind of glorious thing that makes humanity special in the cosmos when it’s not.

Lani: Neurodivergence is woefully underrepresented in Star Trek. I actually can’t really think of any canonically neurodivergent characters? Worf has a very brief (one episode) bout of suicidal ideation, but that’s about it. Which is really disappointing to me because in a universe that says that differences are the things that make us great, in a rare sci-fi universe where disability isn’t treated as an evolutionary failure, it would nice to see some hint of canon neurodivergence.


Let us know what you think in the comments below! And if you’re interested in this topic, don’t miss the post on my book blog tomorrow, a review of The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek by John McCrone!

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2 responses to “Data, Spock, and Star Trek Emotions

  1. William Hohmeister

    Really interesting conversation, I’m glad you wrote it out and posted it. I always liked Spock more because he had emotional outbursts, but was mostly stoic (which I sympathize with). But Data seems more interesting with your talk. It’d be nice if they weren’t so often treated as being wrong for not only what they feel, but how they feel.

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