New Star Trek series Picard features an awful lot of familiar faces from the franchise, most notably Patrick Stewart’s titular former Enterprise captain but also the likes of Marina Sirtis’ Deanna Troi, Jonathan Frakes’ Will Riker and Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine.
Since we last saw them all these characters have changed a lot, aged and grown – but one returning figure’s physical change might surprise a few fans, with Brent Spiner’s Commander Data also appearing as a visibly older figure in the new series despite being a synthetic, man-made android who (presumably) wouldn’t actually need to age.
So what gives? Well, it’s complicated. Star Trek: The Next Generation was sometimes a little inconsistent when it came to Data’s ageing or lack thereof, with early appearances suggesting that he genuinely would live on in the same form forever only for this idea to be gently retconned in later episodes.
While it’s never stated outright, in one episode LeVar Burton’s engineer Geordi LaForge suggests that a new android discovered by the crew shares an ability with Data to visibly age.
“It's part of her ageing programme,” he says. “Not only does she age in appearance like Data, her vital signs change too.”
Presumably, this (literal and metaphorical) wrinkle to canon was added to allow real-life actor Brent Spiner to continue playing Data even after his first few years in the role – however, Spiner himself reportedly didn’t like the idea of an old Data, which led in a roundabout way to the character’s death in 2002 Star Trek film Nemesis.
Of course, this raises further questions about how Data can be in Picard when he’s dead. Given that the series' episode hasn’t been released everywhere yet we won’t go into too much detail, but it’s fair to say that no-one is retconning the events of Nemesis, and the character is still dead.
"It was definitely important that we didn’t do anything that would undermine anything that had been done before,” Spiner told SyFy Wire.
“But I think, when you see the whole season… I can’t say anything else.”
Once you’ve seen the episode, you’ll understand that Data’s older appearance may be as much in the mind and imaginings of the beholder as it is a point of fact. Data died younger than he appears in Picard – that’s just history – so some of how he appears in this sequel series may not necessarily need to be taken literally.
So there’s your answer: Data ages because he always could, except for when he couldn’t, and when he might not have. As simple as three-dimensional chess.
Star Trek: Picard is streaming on Amazon Prime from Friday 24th January