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Finding Ourselves in the Holodeck on Halloween

How Data uses costumes as an exploration of self.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - "Elementary, Dear Data"

Halloween has long been the favorite holiday of outcasts, misfits, and ugly ducklings — the opportunity to don any mask, costume, or identity you like and be somebody else for an evening is an enticing prospect for anybody looking to come out of their shell — and the Star Trek Universe is no exception. Star Trek: The Next Generation sees the introduction of the holodeck — a form of technology that was able to run pre-programmed simulations, as well as create virtually any environment for the user’s enjoyment. This made the holodeck the perfect outlet for anything from combat training to wild west adventures, and nobody enjoyed making use of its capabilities than the Enterprise-D’s resident android/second officer, Data.

Data, more than any other TNG character (although everyone from Picard to Worf has their moments) is intrinsically tied to the holodeck; so much so that it’s the first place we meet him, whistling away as he watches the generated atmosphere while waiting to meet Commander Riker. Although he’s simply watching his surroundings in “Encounter at Farpoint”, that’s just the beginning of Data’s love affair with the holodeck, or more accurately: playing pretend. It’s no secret that Data’s arc over the course of the entire series and the TNG films is his quest to understand humanity and gain access to his emotions (perhaps one of the most famous character arcs in sci-fi television) and one way in which Data seems to unconsciously (or consciously) explore his Pinnochio-like yearning to become human is via elaborate sessions in the holosuite where he dons all sorts of costumes and enjoys going on wild adventures, often with the help of his closest friends.

Star Trek: The Next Generation -

Like so many of us, Data often finds himself struggling to relate to his colleagues and friends, and unintentionally commits faux-pas that he wasn’t even aware he was making because of his programming. He tries his best, but sometimes the way he was built limits how he can interact with other people, so it should come as no surprise that he takes solace in creating and exploring fictional worlds and identities. Although we’ll always love him just the way he is, Data is incredibly self-aware of his own personal failings, and thus, when he assumes the identity of a detective or a cowboy, he’s able to express himself and explore these new, seemingly unattainable emotions he otherwise may not have been able to access.

Data’s most famous holodeck exploit, of course, comes in “Elementary, Dear Data” where (as the title alludes) Data assumes the role of the iconic fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and accompanies Dr. Pulaski and Geordi LaForge in solving a mystery based off the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle works. Initially, Data is a little perplexed at the idea of having fun trying to solve a mystery (he did have a relatively minor role in Captain Picard’s Dixon Hill adventure in “The Big Goodbye”, but he himself didn’t do much mystery-solving), after all, he’s programmed to approach more linear, outwardly strategic puzzles like navigational and engineering problems, or chess games.

Star Trek: The Next Generation -

However, when encouraged by Geordi and goaded on by Pulaski, Data agrees to take part in the holodeck adventure, and attempts to solve a mystery himself, as opposed to just following along with one that he already knows the ending of. This immediately sparks a noticeable change in his behavior. Everything from the way he dresses to the way he stands to the way he emotes shifts as he inhabits the character of Sherlock Holmes. He even affects a goofy sort of accent, but it’s exactly the type of incredibly genuine, charming thing we’ve come to love and expect from Data. Despite the fact that he’s an emotionless android, he’s very clearly taking great pride and joy in inhabiting the role of Holmes. He disappears into the character alongside Geordi, and finds himself making quips and offhand comments just like a real detective might. At some points in the episode, it’s almost easy to forget that Data doesn’t technically experience emotion.

For Data there’s a magic in getting to play dress-up. Once he gets a taste of the holodeck he can’t help but find ways to use this new outlet to not only have fun and enjoy time with his friends, but also to explore new facets of his personality. It’s not until the Star Trek Generations that Data actually gets his emotion chip installed and is able to experience what he calls “real emotions”, but until that point he spends countless hours in the holosuite, trying new personalities and characters on the side. Like Captain Picard playing Dixon Hill before him, and Doctor Bashir playing James Bond after him, Data’s use of the holodeck exemplifies what is so attractive about Halloween — the chance to step out of one’s skin, and become whoever you want to be.

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Lauren Coates (she/her) is a Chicago-based student with a weakness for junk food, a passion for film & television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @laurenjcoates.