It’s not controversial to say that lieutenant commander Data is one of the best Star Trek characters to appear in any of the Star Trek series and Star Trek movies. Played to perfection by Brent Spiner throughout all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the pale android is a character that the audience was able to connect with on an emotional level despite his own total lack of emotion.
Like Pinocchio, Data’s story throughout TNG focuses on his journey to become more ‘human’ despite being destined to fail because of his inherent nature. It doesn’t stop him from learning when the chance arises, though, and he is always deepening his knowledge of why humans behave the way they do as a curious outsider.
This regularly makes for heart-warming humour as Captain Picard, Counselor Troi, or most commonly, his best friend Geordi LaForge, educate him and explain humanity’s many quirks, often to his bemusement.
Beyond the superficial, Data’s story is also read as an allegory for neurodivergence. Many Star Trek fans have spoken openly about the links they’ve seen between the character and their own experience of autism or other neurodevelopmental conditions. This all creates a picture of why Data is so beloved: but while acknowledging the extent of this love for Data and the reasons behind it, the truth is he isn’t the best artificial Starfleet officer.
That crown belongs to the EMH – Voyager’s holographic chief medical officer. Even within a sci-fi series that is widely considered to be inferior to both TNG and Deep Space Nine, the EMH shines as one of the franchise’s brightest stars. Up against genre-defining performances from Leonard Nimoy as Spock, Patrick Stewart as Picard, or Andrew Robinson as Garak, Robert Picardo’s turn as the EMH is never anything other than pitch-perfect.
Like Data, the EMH is an artificial Starfleet officer (this time a hologram) who yearns to be more like his peers and exceed his own nature. Unlike Data, however, the EMH can feel emotion. Like any holographic creation in a holodeck, the EMH can experience anger, sadness, and contentedness.
His introduction to the USS Voyager also stands in stark contrast to Data’s introduction to the Enterprise-D. Data was willingly recruited as the third in command of the Star Trek starship, with a reputation for competence and professional excellence that was known across Starfleet.
On the other hand, the EMH was unceremoniously summoned from the ether when the USS Voyager’s assigned chief medical officer was killed in an accident, leaving him as the most senior medical practitioner for the rest of Voyager’s voyage through the Delta Quadrant.
While Data always had the respect of his crew – they actively wanted him to be there – the EMH was simply all that Voyager had, and something that they had to make do with. This points to the main crux of the EMH’s own journey: the quest for respect and dignity.
To begin with, the EMH is regularly turned off without choice, and can’t even leave sickbay. As he grows, he eventually gets his mobile emitter, slowly earning his crew’s respect and picking up hobbies along the way. This all happens while he leads some of the very best Star Trek episodes the franchise has to offer, like Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy or Someone to Watch Over Me.
His growth is difficult, never straight forward, and therefore earnt. Data’s character growth meanwhile is always capped by his fundamental inability to feel emotions. The Data we see in TNG season 7 is much the same Data we were introduced to back in season 1. That isn’t a bad thing – he’s still one of Star Trek’s best characters after all – but it does make his arc much less satisfying and enthralling than the EMH’s own journey.
What also makes the EMH a stronger character than Data is his depth. Data is always likeable, and easy to root for. The EMH, on the other hand, is a deeply flawed character with an ever-simmering narcissism, arrogance, and prickly sense of snark. These character traits are what causes him to be so disliked by his crew for so long; and that dislike only entrenches his flaws.
But ever so slowly the character eschews his cold nature. The EMH evolves into someone who has become at ease with himself and those around him, and who has earnt respect (and legal rights) along the way.
That sense of progression and evolution, amid all the humour and light-hearted fun, is what cements the EMH as the most underrated Star Trek character (and, arguably, the best) of all time. The EMH’s story is an inspiring search for dignity and respect, with a believable and steady progression that Data’s own story never quite matches.
For more on Star Trek, check out our ranking of the Star Trek captains.