And this would be the perfect counterpoint to that argument. It’s one of my absolute favourite episodes in a season mostly made up of favourite episodes.
I used to get “Hero Worship” mixed up with “The Bonding” a lot because they both deal with helping children cope with a traumatic loss and move forward with their lives. They’re also both fucking brilliant and textbook example of what Star Trek: The Next Generation is all about. It would be understandable to make the assumption “Hero Worship” is a ripoff or rehash of “The Bonding” in this respect, and I even thought that myself for awhile. But it’s actually not: Both episodes approach loss from different angles, and Jeremy from that episode and Timothy in this one deal with their confusion and sadness in two very different ways: Jeremy tries to cling to a past he can’t go back to, while Timothy shuts down and doesn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. Also, and this is just me I’m sure, but I almost think “Hero Worship” is maybe a little more nuanced and sophisticated than “The Bonding” in some areas.
Firstly though, the title is very apt. Timothy doesn’t pretend to be an android just because they don’t have emotions and he doesn’t want to feel pain and guilt anymore: As Deanna Troi points out, Timothy also sees a strength in Data that he wants to emulate. It’s pretty much the first diegetic acknowledgment in the entire history of the series of how Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually supposed to work, and if there’s a better place to put an episode like this than in the 25th Anniversary year as part of a season of growing strength and confidence, I don’t know where that is. There’s also the very nice touch early on of Data turning to Geordi for help in understanding childhood trauma so he can better help Timothy, to which Geordi naturally responds with a story.
He’s not the one directly interacting with Timothy, but Geordi helps Data who then helps him. Reading Data, as we do, as filling the kind of role that might otherwise go to a child character, this results in a very sweet and elegant chain of empathy showcasing how role models work: One person is inspired by another, they then take those lessons into their own being and, through living their lives in accordance with them, can then go on to inspire a third person. Role models are important not only because we see in them the sort of person we’d like to be ourselves, but because they can sometimes provide example of solutions to confusing and painful situations. We trust their judgment not necessarily because they think like us, but because they think the way we would like to think, and that can be profoundly helpful on many different levels.
(In fact Deanna gets a very telling quote early in the story: “His world is gone, Data. We’re going to have to help him build a new one.” It helps that she’s exceedingly good across the board this week, especially considering therapy is such a central theme of this story. Actually, it’s almost a surprise to see her like this, as it’s been so long since the last time we’ve properly seen her in this capacity-Since “Night Terrors”, by my count. Maybe even since “Tin Man”. She’s so good I can *almost* forgive teleplay scribe Joe Menosky grousing in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 about how much he hates Deanna Troi as a character and thinks her position as a therapist dates the show horribly.)
There’s another level at which Timothy’s android persona resonates, though. It’s not just a coping mechanism, though it certainly is partially that, but it’s also another instance of something Star Trek: The Next Generation has done since the beginning: Role-playing as a means of working through emotions in a constructive and beneficial way. One of the things the holodeck is very good at is improvosational role-play with the crew (“We’ll Always Have Paris”, “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Booby Trap” being the three examples that most immediately spring to mind), and this is another variation on that. But there’s an added layer of meaning at a textual level insomuch as Timothy is a child, and imaginative play and make-believe have always been ways children make sense of the world. You can extrapolate this thread even further given the way this show operates, and indeed the very story it did not ten weeks ago: Timothy’s android persona, and the crew’s engagement with him about it, is essentially collaborative storytelling as an allegory for real-world experiences and emotions.
It helps considerably, of course, that Timothy works as well as he does. By this point Star Trek: The Next Generation has finally more or less solidified its approach towards handling conflict and conflict resolution: In spite of Michael Piller’s decree from the third season that every episode have to be about a specific main character in one respect or another, the show really does work best when the guest stars handle the brunt of the plot. Star Trek: The Next Generation is, essentially, a show where the main characters are more like supporting cast: This isn’t a “Data Story” in the traditional sense, it’s really Timothy’s story, but Data’s positionality and perspective is still key to that. And Data (and Geordi and Deanna and Captain Picard) are not flawless automatons of awesomeness, they still have real human emotions (or in Data’s case real android experiences) and still feel like people, no matter how idealized they may be and how much Timothy diegetically looks up to them.
But that’s fine because the supporting characters are always the coolest ones anyway. And you’ll note that this is the same thing Michael Jan Friedman had figured out in like 1988: It’s taken the TV team four seasons to get to the same point the comic book started at ( Well OK, three: We understood in the first season to an extent, but promptly forgot immediately thereafter).
While re-watching this episode this go-around I also couldn’t help but think about some of my own experiences in the context of what the story is saying. Though it was nothing on anywhere remotely near the scale of what Timothy went through and I was a great deal younger than I think he’s supposed to be, I myself had some amount of tragic loss in my childhood, and even into my older years. And while it wasn’t always the case, I didn’t tend to get very emotional about it either…Perhaps it was because they were people I wasn’t particularly close with (as we know, “We feel a loss more intensely when it’s a friend”), but I seem to remember always sort of being aware that death was a natural part of life and never really having a hard time accepting that. I have to wonder now though if maybe I was just unconsciously doing the same kind of thing Timothy tries to do here: Suppress his feelings so he doesn’t have to deal with them. I hope that wasn’t the case.
I suppose some would say it’s sometimes easy to become desensitized to bereavement, especially if one experiences a great deal of it on a regular basis. But perhaps the best way to come to grips with any loss, no matter how large or how small, is to remember and be thankful for whatever time you spent in another’s presence and how your lives enriched each other from sharing that time with them. And from this, continue living, and continue searching for more opportunities like these to treasure.