The inspiration behind the title of this article will be transparent to any science fiction fan out there: Philip K. Dick’s classic science fiction novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which holds up a mirror to humanity in the form of human-looking robots and delves with dark intensity into one of the genre’s biggest questions – what actually makes us human? The answer, of course, is emotion and empathy.
Robots are a celebrated staple of science fiction, and as such, they play a substantial part in the two greatest sci-fi film and TV franchises: “Star Wars” has droids, and “Star Trek” has androids. This article, however, does not intend to pit one against the other and formulate the technological superiority of either franchise. This will not be about whether or not Data is smarter than C-3PO, but about how emotion plays into the way in which these two sci-fi giants envisage their robots, and about how this reflects on the very different natures of “Wars” and “Trek”.
We could begin by asking if droids and androids are even capable of dreaming, and in turn if they are capable of experiencing emotion.
“Star Wars” does not even pose that question. Droids such as C-3PO and R2-D2 exhibit emotion as a given. They act human even though they make no conscious effort to emulate human behavior. Moreover, there is no explanation offered or sought after as to why and how these utilitarian, mechanical beings appear to have such well-defined personalities. That is because “Star Wars” focuses more on the adventures that these characters are part of, and less on their scientific identity.
In the world of “Star Wars”, droids are there to perform certain practical functions. C-3PO is a protocol droid programmed to interact with sentient organics in matters of etiquette and relations, while R2-D2 is an astromech droid, basically a mechanical repairman for star ships. In the case of C-3PO, perhaps having emotions is justified by his programming to interact with organic beings, but R2-D2’s emotional component seems entirely non-utilitarian. However, from a storytelling point of view, it makes a lot of sense for C-3PO and R2-D2 to display emotions. They become instantly endearing for the audience and they often function as comic relief for the more dramatic parts of the story.
In “Star Wars” it is more important for the audience to identify with the droids than to think about what separates them as humans from robots. And droids are certainly easy to relate to because even though they look like robots, their behavior is instantly recognizable as human. C-3PO has an amusing propensity to whine and worry, and even more amusingly to hurl all sorts of colorful insults whenever he is under stress. Many times, the target of his insults is R2-D2, who often counters with his own impulsive reactions. R2-D2 also displays a rich variety of emotions: he gets anxious when in danger of being left behind, he is embarrassed when not in his best shape, he is brave and deeply devoted to Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, and even retaliates against Yoda when he goes rummaging through Luke’s things, surely in an attempt to defend his human master. Moreover, like many of us, C-3PO and R2-D2 share a deep friendship in spite of the fact that they bicker a lot. Their reunions are always happy ones, and C-3PO even goes against his fears in following R2-D2 into dangerous places, such as Jabba the Hutt’s lair.
C-3PO and R2-D2 are the best known of the “Star Wars” droids, but they are not the only ones who display or elicit emotion from the audience. When the two are captured by the Jawas after their crash landing on Tatooine in “The Empire Strikes Back,” we see them in a room full of broken or abandoned droids. The image is a desolating one and we actually feel that we are witnessing a room full of abandoned children. In “Return of the Jedi” we meet EV-9D9, a female droid supervising Jabba the Hutt’s droid collection who is a full-on sadistic slave master that actually enjoys torturing and dismembering other droids.
“Star Wars” presents its droids as more than machines to begin with and the other characters treat them as such. This makes it easy for viewers to ascribe human attributes to them. Droids have hearts inside their metal frames and we respond to that without needing to know how or why they have them.
On the other hand, “Star Trek” does things a little differently, although the end result is similar in that it elicits a strong emotional response on the part of the viewer. After all, one of the best-loved characters in the entire franchise is the android Data, who appeared in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series.
The different approach lies in the fact that “Star Trek” actually explores the question of whether or not androids can feel. It even sets time aside to examine android dreams. In the season 6 episode “Birthright,” Data has a dream-like vision caused by an energy discharge from an alien device. What he sees in this vision is not electric sheep, but his human creator, Dr. Noonian Soong, whom he thinks of as a father and who tells him that he is proud of him. A later episode called “Phantasms” even shows Data dealing with nightmares when his dream program malfunctions, and we learn that android nightmares are really strange. But aren’t ours as well?
Data’s status as an artificial life form is always at the forefront of his existence. In the words of the legendary Doctor McCoy, he is a “synthetic commander”. Yet, Data is in constant and conscious search of his humanity, and he is even helped by his crewmates in this endeavor as well as encouraged by his commanding officers to make this search a part of his time off duty. Data’s avenues towards exploring his humanity are multiple. First of all, he is a crucial member of the USS Enterprise crew, and as such he cultivates relationships with his colleagues. He is best friends with Chief Engineer La Forge, he has a rapport of mutual respect with First Officer Riker and Captain Picard, he experiences intimacy with Security Officer Tasha Yar, learns dancing from Doctor Crusher and gives away the bride at the wedding of Keiko and Miles O’Brien. He even expands on his relationships by keeping a pet cat. Data also tries his hand at artistic activities such as painting and playing the violin, and even attempts to understand humor. Yet, through all this, real human emotion is always out of Data’s reach.
For Trek androids, emotions are not an ineffable, effortless quality as they are for humans, sentient aliens or “Star Wars” droids. They are a programmable function of their positronic brain, contained on a chip.
Additionally, Trek androids and human emotions do not really get along. Data himself malfunctions when he activates his emotion chip, ending up unable to perform his duties when he is overwhelmed by fear during a firefight. His brother Lore is twisted by emotional instability. He is malevolent, arrogant and even murderous, and he considers himself superior to humans. Eventually, Data’s offspring, Lal is destroyed by emotions. Lal exceeds Data’s abilities and develops real emotions when Starfleet orders Data to give her up for research. For Lal this means a separation from her father and a curtailing of her hopes to be an equal of her human counterparts. Eventually, her emotions overwhelm her and cause a fatal failure in her system. She essentially dies of a broken heart. In what is one of “Star Trek”’s most powerfully emotional scenes, we see Data and Lal sharing their last moments together and although we know they are both androids, we cannot help feeling that we are witnessing a father and a daughter saying goodbye. For Lal, the feeling is real. She really is Data’s daughter and it kills her. As for Data, we are never sure if he really feels what a father would feel in a moment like this. He does not display sadness and he appears calm before this tragedy, but as he announces her death to the crew with the comforting knowledge that Lal will always be with him because he transferred her memories into his own brain, there is a sense that Data has been deeply affected by this experience.
In conclusion, “Star Trek” offers a darker view of robots and emotions. A robot’s attempt to become fully human is often riddled with negative consequences or even fatal. “Star Trek” androids either aspire to be human or reject humanity as an inferior condition, but they are always ‘the other’.
Both “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” bring lovable robots to our attention, as mirrors of our own humanity, but what we get from each experience is different. “Star Wars” celebrates the comedic effect of endowing a robot with human emotions and makes us connect with our own humanity by having us easily overcome the fact that robots are, well, robots. “Star Trek”, on the other hand, shines a glaring spotlight on the fact that robots are not us, but in so doing it calls on us to reflect on what it is that makes us human.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.