Updated: Jul 9
As with all posts on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the tv series, but rather to document how the series relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
In the Star Trek: Picard episode Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2, the season one finale, Picard does what Picard does best—he saves the world, saves both biological and synthetic life simultaneously from extinct at the hand of the other. After ending mass geno/robocide debacle, he dramatically dies like only a Patrick Stewart character could.
After perishing, Picard finds himself in a room with Data. He believes he is dreaming, but Data corrects him, he is actually in a massively complex quantum simulation—he is in the matrix. The two talk about the experience of dying. Data doesn't remember his death, Picard explains his as feeling like a child’s sandcastle collapsing. Furthermore, Picard laments that Data sacrificed his life to save his many years ago. But Data counters, and asks if Picard regrets dying for Soji (a synthetic life form played by Isa Briones), and when Picard says no, Data goes on to ask, so why would you think I regret sacrificing mine for yours?
The scene continues with an endearing bromance. Picard tells Data he loves him, Data says that knowledge fills a small but statistically significant portion of his memory. I cry, while Picard gets ready to leave the simulation to be reborn as Picard 2.0. But not before Data can make one last request.
Picard: You wanted me to do you a favor.
Data: Yes, sir. When you leave, I would be profoundly grateful if you terminated my consciousness.
Picard: You want to die?
Data: Not exactly, sir. I want to live, however briefly, knowing that my life is finite. Mortality gives meaning to human life, Captain. Peace, love, friendship. These are precious. Because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever… is really not a butterfly at all.
Picard: Very well. I will do what you ask.
Data: Thank you, sir.
This is interesting, as it is not the first time Star Trek has investigated the meaning of life type stuff with Data. Recall the episode Star Trek: The Next Generation season 3 – The Offspring. In this episode, Data begets a child named Lal, who would go on to question her own existence, her purpose. To which Data responds, That is a complex question, Lal. I can only begin to answer by telling you that our function is to contribute in a positive way to the world in which we live.
In The Offspring, Lal succumbs to a plethora of emotional outbursts, which Data diagnoses as cascade failure, a systems failure the crew would not be able to fix. To "save" Lal, Data downloads her memories to his neural net, so that she can continue to exist in some fashion there. So as Data dies in Et in Arcadia Ego, one would assume, Lal dies as well. Crushing some hardcore Trekkie fandom hopes that Lal will return. Though some discuss other potential reasons for Lal's absence.
In some sense, the synthetic life forms found in the Picard series are all Data's children, all built from him. So the fact that Data expands upon his ideas of purpose and meaning in life is extremely profound (whether the writers intended that or not). Throughout life, those that think about the question of meaning seriously, or even those that don't, will naturally grow and change over the years. Ask a six-year-old what the meaning of life is, and the sixty-year-old version of the same person will likely have a completely different answer—will likely have gained some wisdom, either from the system beating the individual into near oblivion, or from society vacuously loving the being in an endless cycle of self-replication we know as pro-creation. Self-aware creatures creating more self-aware creatures—which in Data's world, can have meaning. With Data we see an artificially intelligent being coming to terms with his self-imposed demise. That is, Data doesn't wish to live forever, because the idea of immortality may, indeed, render life meaningless. The writers of Star Trek: Picard do an excellent job here of examining the big question of meaning on top of other big questions, e.g., that of immortality, love, and sacrifice.
As the synthetic life forms find their place in the Trekkie universe, it will be interesting to see what direction they take, what they find as meaningful. Star Trek: Picard is not the only show to examine this question. For example, the Westworld series on HBO does the same, but more in-depth and not on galactic civilization-ending scales.
If you saw the series, what did you think? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.