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Commander Data was a terrific character and Star Trek: The Next Generation would not have been the same show without him. I know that. But, in-universe, wasn't Data's potential and overall capabilities somewhat wasted steering the ship? I realize he had room to grow - and I don't mean he had to "grow up" in order to be an effective member of the crew.

My question is, why was he made to serve with humans at all when he could have more effectively and productively worked and explored alone (even in a vacuum), or been left in charge of steering the entirety of the fleet (more like Ender in Ender's Game)? Wasn't Data sort of wasted feeding a cat and telling the crew the answer to simple calculations? He could have orchestrated all of Starfleet, it seems. No?

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    Seeing just the title on the Hot Network Questions list my first thought was, "Yeah, sorta, that one time in The Naked Now..." – user11521 Dec 4 '15 at 20:15
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    Data did far more than steer the ship while in his usual bridge role. Members of the bridge crew regularly held conversations with Data while examining the main viewer and encountering new things or difficult situations. Recall every time Data stated sentences like "Captain, it appears that ____ may be causing ____ resulting in ___ fluctuations in the ___." To me, Data's role was critical in rapidly interpreting complex situations in the midst of accurate and rapidly accessible archive data. – y3sh Dec 4 '15 at 21:27
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    Data doesn't exactly "steer" the ship. That's the job of the (usually) low-ranking officer on the other side of the bridge. Data's job is that of the operations officer, which is quite a bit more complex than just "steering the ship". – O. R. Mapper Dec 4 '15 at 21:42
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    @y3sh - Data is like one-man... errr one-android generator of technobabblenoncense – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 4 '15 at 21:44
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    I think this is a trap with Star Trek and many multi-season episodic TV series in general. Why wasn't Picard promoted to admiral? Or Riker to captain? or Data to first officer? There are full episodes devoted to each of those questions and (obviously out-of-universe) I feel they just pay lip service to the obvious question the viewers are left asking. – djechlin Dec 5 '15 at 2:08
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I agree that Data was a great character. But not that he could have orchestrated all of Starfleet. Data went through Starfleet Academy like every other cadet, and was stationed according to his actual capabilities.

Data had several obvious advantages over human beings, but also some notable shortcomings. His difficulties in understanding human beings were a recurring theme in Star Trek TNG. Could he, taking such difficulties into consideration, was prepared to run the kind of mind games that the Starfleet High Command was required to play against the Romulans and such?

A better appreciation of the issues involved can be gained by comparing Data with a partly similar character from the original Star Trek - Mr. Spock. While the Vulcan Spock wasn't an android, he was also a cold, unemotional character, and also had superior calculating skills. Yet, except for a few special cases, Star Trek usually portrayed the advantages of Captain Kirk's intuitive, creative, and occasionally emotional approach over Spock's hard logic. In fact, a typical Star Trek episode would begin like this:

(Something strange is appearing on Main Viewer)
Kirk: Spock, what is this?
Spock: Unknown, captain.
Kirk: Theorize.
Spock: Insufficient data.
Kirk: Open hail frequencies / Initiate evasive maneuvers / ...

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    Point taken, but your example is mistaken. As science officer, it's not Spock's job to tell the Captain to take evasive maneuvers etc. It's his role to inform Kirk if there is additional info that can be gleaned. Spock's intellect can handle the fairly basic procedure of "open hailing frequences ... initiate evasive maneuvers..." every time they run into something strange, and I would have thought this was fairly obvious to the average viewer. – Chan-Ho Suh Dec 6 '15 at 21:59
  • @Chan-HoSuh I meant this specific example to be taken symbolically, not literally. In most Star Trek Original episodes, science, and the science officer, are not in the center. – Ram Tobolski Dec 7 '15 at 0:12
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Data was doing exactly what he wanted to do.

It was his desire to be treated as a human. He wanted to be a Starfleet officer, serving with humans on a team. He did not want to be used as a tool.

There were those in Starfleet that wanted Data for other things, arguing, just as you are, that Data's potential was wasted as a simple Starfleet officer. (See The Measure Of A Man.) However, Data did not agree, and Starfleet ultimately came to the decision that Data should have the same right of self-determination as any other Starfleet officer.

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    There was even an episode where Data's freedom was tried in a legal forum. +1 – Escoce Dec 4 '15 at 19:11
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    @Escoce That's the "The Measure Of A Man" episode he mentioned. – Mwr247 Dec 4 '15 at 19:13
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    To boil it down: Data was on the Enterprise because Commander Maddox wasn't in a position to disassemble Data prior to the start of TNG and none of Data's previous CO's had the notion to use him in any other capacity. If someone in Starfleet wanted Data in another capacity prior to The Measure of a Man it either would have been brought up in that episode, or Data never would have been on the Enterprise. – Xantec Dec 4 '15 at 19:27
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    @Escoce The conversation between Data and Picard about Geordi's eyes is one of the most moving and powerful parts of the entire series. I would go so far as to say it helped shape me as a father, in all honesty. – corsiKa Dec 4 '15 at 21:34
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He was in many ways 'wasted' by not being promoted to captaincy for so many years, to the point of even pointing out his years of service and the inability of Picard to even consider him for command in Redemption, Part II

Data remains for a moment and asks Picard why he wasn't assigned a command. Picard tells him that he thought he would need Data still on the Enterprise. Data comments on how Picard has mentioned a lack of senior officers that are available for this assignment. At first, Data thinks that Picard may not consider it time for an android to command a starship, despite his 26 years of service in Starfleet so as he plans on setting out ways to improve himself, Picard interrupts him and tells him that the Sutherland is in need of a captain and he can't think of anyone better for the job.

http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Redemption_II_(episode)

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    Maybe Picard was hesitant because of the time when Data took over the Enterprise by impersonating officers and made them chase after him until they found him, useless, in Soong's office. Not a very captainy thing to do - what's stopping something similar from happening again? – Kalamane Dec 4 '15 at 23:22
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    @Kalamane that's true - but as evidenced by that episode - the risk of that occurring is unrelated to his rank. He is as capable of taking over if he is an ensign as if he were an admiral (although I don't think we want to see Data become a 'badmiral' ;) ). – NKCampbell Dec 4 '15 at 23:25
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    Right, and given the number of times that Picard himself was taken over by some sort of meme-virus or external mind-control alien or the like, can he really hold Data to a different standard? – fluffy Dec 5 '15 at 0:37
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His father seemed to think so:

SOONG: Oh, well. All right, that's enough. Sit down. (he inspects a plant) Beautiful, beautiful. You know, I've been able to keep track of you from time to time. You've become something of a celebrity in cybernetic circles. Data, why Starfleet?
DATA: Sir?
SOONG: I gave you the ability to choose whatever you wanted. To do whatever you wanted. Why Starfleet?
DATA: It was Starfleet officers who rescued me.
SOONG: Ah. So you decided to emulate your emancipators, huh? How disappointing.
DATA: What choice of vocation would have met with your approval, sir?
SOONG: Well, I often hoped you might become a scientist. Perhaps even a cyberneticist.
DATA: To follow in your footsteps, as it were?
SOONG: I see nothing wrong with that.

(TNG: "Brothers" 4x03)

The two of them then get into a brief philosophical discussion about why Soong feels this way (TL;DR: He wanted Data to carry on his legacy). Given the context, I'm not certain Soong would call it "wasted potential," precisely, but it seems he would have preferred Data to take a different path.

(And let's be fair, Data does have a thorough grasp of cybernetics: see "The Offspring", "The Best of Both Worlds", Nemesis, etc.)

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