The Poetry of Data

A deeper look at Star Trek’s android expressions.

Cat Webling
Jan 22 · 4 min read

In an episode of the sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “Schisms,” Lieutenant Commander Data shows off his understanding of the human practice of poetic composition by reciting some of his own.

It’s interesting to hear Data’s Seussian tone when reading his works out loud.

As a poet myself, this absolutely fascinates me. What does an android value enough to express poetically? How does he compose his works? Where does he draw inspiration and take liberties? The concept of an artificial intelligence expressing himself in the very human form of art draws up lots of philosophical questions, and as a seasoned poetic analyst, I thought I would take a look at his work and see what I find.

Because there’s already quite a lot of analytical work for “An Ode to Spot,” I decided to focus in on his first piece, unnamed in the episode but apparently called “A Sunset Bloom.”

“Then we sat on the sand for some time and observed
How the oceans that cover the world were perturbed
By the tides from the orbiting moon overhead
‘How relaxing the sound of the waves is,’ you said

I began to expound upon tidal effects
When you asked me to stop, looking somewhat perplexed
So I did not explain why the sunset turns red
And we watched the occurrence in silence instead.”
-Data, ST:TNG S6E5 “Schisms”

Before I get into the line-by-line, I want to talk about the structure. Data arranged his poem classically, in two stanzas with an AABB CCDD rhyme scheme. It’s the kind of poetry you’d expect to hear in a high school English class when the teacher assigns a “write it yourself” project at the start of the poetry unit.

That doesn’t make it bad, though! It makes it easy to understand; it’s an elementary format, meaning that the words themselves can hold the meaning of the poem rather than the structure. It’s also a perfect reflection of Data; simple, clear, following the rules, but full of richer, deeper meaning.

Title

First Stanza

“Then we sat on the sand for some time and observed

How the oceans that cover the world were perturbed

By the tides from the orbiting moon overhead

‘How relaxing the sound of the waves is,’ you said”

This first stanza drops us in the middle of a scene. Data and his companion, who could be anyone on the crew, are sitting on a beach watching the sunset over the ocean.

His awe for the tide is immediately obvious in his inherent analysis of the way tidal movement works and how it’s related to the moon (“the oceans that cover the world were perturbed/By the tides from the orbiting moon overhead”). Data loves learning new things, he loves understanding how things work and where they come from, and the why of it all on top of the how.

Second Stanza Part One

“I began to expound upon tidal effects

When you asked me to stop, looking somewhat perplexed”

Data’s companion expresses interest in the sound of the waves, so Data tries to relate in the only way he can. He starts explaining the how of it, doing exactly what he was built to do (as far as we know, since he was technically found not purpose-built by the ‘fleet).

But he’s interrupted and stopped because his companion is “perplexed.” Data doesn’t fully understand humans, so can’t pick up on the social cues that mean someone isn’t interested in a topic without them telling him directly. He wants to share something he loves, but they don’t want to share it his way, so he’s left being shut up and shut down even when his human companions mean well.

Second Stanza Part Two

“So I did not explain why the sunset turns red

And we watched the occurrence in silence instead.”

At least here it seems that Data is able to enjoy the sunset with his friend, despite not being able to explain why it’s happening. And I think he finds that somewhat fulfilling, actually; he’s still so filled with awe by the event, and in taking a moment to appreciate it without an explanation, he takes a step toward the humanity he’s desperate to achieve.

It’s a sad moment, but he seems to recognize that this is how they enjoy things, so he’s trying to sympathize and enjoy it this way, too. I want to consider this a hopeful ending, one of compromise rather than sadness. Yes, he’s been shut down, but they didn’t tell him to go away. They enjoyed it with him still.

Now, this is just my personal interpretation of the poem, but the wonderful thing about poetry is that it’s open to interpretation! I’m also not the most knowledgeable about Star Trek, so I may have some of Data’s nuance a little off, but I definitely think that whichever writer was behind this poem absolutely nailed it when it comes to how Data thinks.

A close up image of Star Trek character Data.
A close up image of Star Trek character Data.
What a surprisingly soulful response from an artificial being. Image from startrek.com.

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Cat Webling

Written by

Hello! I’m Cat, author and amateur fandom historian based out of Georgia. I write about literature, theater, gaming, and fandom. Personal work: catwebling.com.

FanFare

FanFare

pop culture conversations

Cat Webling

Written by

Hello! I’m Cat, author and amateur fandom historian based out of Georgia. I write about literature, theater, gaming, and fandom. Personal work: catwebling.com.

FanFare

FanFare

pop culture conversations

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