We all have that moment when the right fandom property at the right time changes our course, and we go on to dedicate our life to something. The Catalyst to My Fandom is a place for all of us to share those life-altering moments in fandom. For me, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Roy Batty from Blade Runner gave me a new perspective on robots and AI.
I spent a lot of time watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents during my formative years. Star Trek: First Contact came out when I was nine years old, and I remember being fascinated with the relationship between the Borg Queen and Data. I had always appreciated the android, but now I began to understand his desire to be human on a deeper level. Around this time, my dad began introducing me to other science fiction. He waited until I was thirteen to show me Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Blade Runner changed everything. Not only did it forever change the way I viewed science fiction, but Roy Batty cemented my growing appreciation for artificial intelligence.
Before Star Trek and Blade Runner
Prior to Star Trek and my introduction to Data, I only thought of robots in the most basic terms. Robots were like Rosie on The Jetsons – created to serve a purpose, sometimes with personality programmed in, and they looked like complicated toasters. I wasn’t entirely ignorant about robots or artificial intelligence because I was one of those weird kids who watched a lot of Discovery Channel before it was all about swamp people. If a robot acted like it had feelings, it was either programmed to do so or it was so far into the realm of science fiction that I could only think of those characters as somehow magical. Robots with feelings were about equal to dragons and hobbits by my young reckoning. I had a hard time connecting science fiction with the real world, unable to understand the allegories and philosophy at play.
The Catalyst for my Fandom
Data’s desire to be human was something I hadn’t thought about with regards to A.I.. The idea of a robot questioning “why am I here?” in the same way a human might was eye-opening. Data was almost willing to give up his friends and crew in order to become human, or a closer facsimile. In the end, his loyalty wins, which beggars the question of whether he’s been too deeply programmed to truly make his own choices or if he truly “chose” his friends. It’s a robotic existential crisis, and it started making me think about much bigger ideas than I had previously.
By the time I saw Blade Runner, I had inklings of my own ideas about religion and science. I could grasp the deeper theological and moral themes beneath the film noir story of Blade Runner. I remember asking my dad why the replicants were so insistent on finding their maker, and he responded with “wouldn’t you?” The idea of man as God to the androids made me think of them in a new light. (It also made me question God, but I think that’s a prerequisite for teenagers in suburbia.)
Blade Runner made me empathize with these android characters and I questioned Deckard’s role as the hero. Deckard was Harrison Ford, he was Han Solo and Indiana Jones. He was also probably a replicant, unaware of the fact that he was trained to kill his own kind. True AI like the kind Data, Pris, Roy Batty, and Deckard had was the closest thing to a soul that I could (and can) think of. All of this questioning and doubt made me love stories and movies about androids. It also made me more likely to root for them, even against humans in many films.
Why Data and Roy Batty are so Special
Data and Roy are pretty much polar opposites. They’re both androids with advanced artificial intelligence, but that’s where the similarities end. Their desires to change, to be closer to human in some way, are based in different needs. Data wants to be more like the people he has developed affection for. He respects his crewmates and wants to experience the same things they do. His need to be like them often makes him do things to a comic effect – his emotions are turned up too high because he wants them so badly. Even then, he remains mostly rational and knows when to choose his crew over “being human”, as evidenced in one of my all-time favorite Trek moments:
Roy, on the other hand, is pissed about his set lifespan and treatment as a slave. He is “more human than human” already, and what he wants is answers. Why create something as advanced as replicants if they’re only to be treated like cogs in the machine? Why give them the ability to care about their own existence if it’s only going to be misery? He doesn’t get his answers from his maker but instead comes to his own conclusion, that we all fade away “like tears in rain”. Human lifespans are a blink compared to the age of the universe, and there’s something about Roy’s speech that’s so deeply relatable that it changed me.
Spiner and Hauer both do great work as androids – Spiner’s is a little hammier but it works in the context of Star Trek. Both androids have features that remind the viewer that they’re not flesh and blood, most notably in their movements and actions. Data moves with a stiffness and jerkiness that belies his robotic framework, while Roy is inhumanly strong, quick, and graceful. When Roy reaches into the freezing chemical vat full of robo-eyes, it’s a scary reminder of his durability. (Anyone who needs a refresher on why robots can also be terrifying should check out The Matrix, Short Circuit, and The Terminator.)
I’m a sucker for robots. Throw a character with AI into any franchise and I’m automatically a little more interested. Stories with AI that explore real-world themes using metaphor and allegory are even better. These two (very different) androids made me appreciate science fiction in a new light and made me question science and religion. Star Trek: First Contact and Blade Runner really made me think. I had to work to really understand, to wrap my young brain around foreign concepts. I still love exploring new ideas and trying to grasp things that are slightly challenging, though I confess that I will never understand the time travel paradoxes in Primer. I don’t even think androids could figure that out.
Fandom is built on a foundation of passionate people with deep and unshakable knowledge spread across the entire pop culture landscape. The only way for that to manifest is timing: the right fan with the right property at the right time. Luminaries of film, music, television, games, and comics have all had that watershed moment where something infected them, and the impulse was too strong to ignore. We have shared some of those moments, and hopefully, you will join us in doing so as well.