Star Trek: The Next Generation’s relationship between Captain Picard and Data was warmly paternal, just without the typical immaturity that makes the good captain so uncomfortable around children. Lieutenant Commander Data, a highly advanced artificial life form, was a trusted member of the Enterprise crew, but he still struggled to grasp some of the more basic aspects of humanity, like humor and love. Captain Picard was a key figure in Data’s personal journey, and their relationship was mutually beneficial.
Quite often Captain Picard would serve as Data’s mentor in his journey to become more human, guiding him through personal crises and standing up for his rights as a sentient life form. The two shared such a strong bond that, when Data sacrificed himself to save Picard’s life in Star Trek: Nemesis, Picard spent the next two decades quietly mourning his fallen friend, living a modest, isolationist life on his family vineyard in France and retreating from his life in Starfleet.
One of the very first things audiences learned about Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation was his discomfort around children. He makes a point of mentioning to his first officer Will Riker in the very first episode of the series that he’s not a family man and resents the idea of children and families being present on the Enterprise. Picard would soften a bit over the years, especially when it came to his relationship with young Wesley Crusher, but Picard’s most paternal relationship was unquestionably with Data.
Data managed to embody the curiosity and wonder of a child without the inherent immaturity of a human child, which made Picard more comfortable in the relationship. Picard displayed great patience and affection with Data, as he attempted to guide his friend through his evolution from an automaton to a fully fledged person.
A scene from Star Trek: Picard season 1, episode 8 “Broken Pieces” reveals the depths of Picard’s feelings for Data. Soji Asha — a sort of offspring of Data created using neurons from the late android — asks Picard about Data, and she gets a perfect little portrait of why Picard felt so deeply for him. Picard also confirms what fans had always suspected but that Picard himself was always incapable of saying out loud: he loved Data. Picard goes on to lament the fact that both he and Data had trouble expressing their feelings, but it’s actually a perfect encapsulation of their relationship — it was never a love that was spoken, but one that was simply expressed through the actions of two fine men who always strived to better themselves and others. It’s impossible to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the franchise at large, without that integral relationship.