Star Trek Picard Dahj
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Credit: CBS All Access

Could you create a synthetic sleeper agent like Star Trek: Picard's Dahj?

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Jan 29, 2020, 12:45 PM EST

It's been more than 25 years since the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and nearly two decades since the final appearance of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis. Even in this world of reboots, it seemed that the story that defined Star Trek was over — until the announcement of Star Trek: Picard.

Now, every Thursday is a cause for Trekkie celebration — and scientific contemplation.

**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Star Trek: Picard to follow.**

When Jean-Luc Picard's (Patrick Stewart) story ended, he — and we the viewers — were promised a quiet retirement in France, growing grapes and kicking back for a well-deserved rest. As the premiere episode of Picard begins, it seems that he pretty much did exactly that, even as events continued to unfold. We get glimpses of events that have transpired since the credits previously rolled, including the banning of synthetic life forms and a less-than-amicable parting with Starfleet. But, rather than relaxing in style, Picard seems to be battling some demons.

Those demons come calling, and they're tailing a mysterious woman called Dahj (Isa Briones).

We're introduced to her in the episode's opening sequence. She seems to be a totally ordinary citizen of Earth; she's spending time with her boyfriend, a mostly humanoid alien, and preparing to continue her education at the Daystrom Institute, a school specializing in AI and robotics. Then everything goes sideways. A group of masked assassins enter, murder Dahj's boyfriend in front of her, and ask a lot of loaded questions, all of which imply she might not be who she thinks she is.

See, Dahj is synthetic, and she appears to be a sleeper agent of sorts, wonderfully illustrated by the absolutely violent whooping she delivers to her would-be assassins after she is "activated."

After her near encounter with death, Dahj seeks out Jean-Luc, embroiling him in a mystery that promises to rock the very foundations of the galaxy.

So much for a peaceful retirement.


The episode has a lot to unpack, setting the stage for what will surely be a season-long mystery involving the re-emergence of synthetics. But to what end?

Whoever has recreated androids in Picard has done so in a fashion heretofore unseen. Dahj is entirely human to the naked eye. Not only would a passerby not know she was artificially crafted, but she doesn't even know herself.

Moreover, buried beneath the life she's been given — all of the memories and experiences that make up a person — is the ability to maim and kill in spectacular ways when and if the need arises. And the need does arise.

It's a trope that has become a science fiction staple. An otherwise unassuming individual, just living out an ordinary life, discovers they aren't who they believed themselves to be. They've been brainwashed, usually by some nefarious entity bent on using them to carry out malicious acts.

Credit: MGM/UA

Like many great fictional ideas, this one has some roots in our own history. Also, like many great fictional ideas, this one dates back to the Red Scare.

During the middle of the 20th century, the people of the United States desired to build anew after the horrors of World War II, but hadn't yet unshackled themselves from the fear of totalitarian governments. The specter of Communism loomed large and served as inspiration for a whole host of new nightmares. One of the most prevalent was that of mind control.

The seeds of that fear would go on to sprout in the minds of storytellers into tales of zombies and body snatchers. These stories would play out on the screen and between the pages of novels. But another story was taking root in our minds.

Reports that American POWs in prison camps throughout Korea and China were being brainwashed into committing crimes and defecting made headlines. And while the numbers were small — especially compared to the vast numbers of soldiers involved — the notion that a person's mind could be altered against their will was a powerful one.

In the decades since, plenty of research has been done into whether a person can actually be brainwashed. Let's get something right on front street: Brainwashing as you've seen it portrayed in the movies isn't real. You can't plant ideas inside a person's head — whether it be through the use of hypnotism, magic, or technology — that they aren't aware of. And you can't activate those thoughts through a series of actions or code words in order for them to enact behaviors outside of their control.

By all accounts, those POWs may have been coerced into confessing to crimes they didn't commit, or even believing things entirely at odds with who they once were. But that was possible only because of the extreme conditions to which they were subjected.

Brainwashing of that kind requires an extreme level of control over a subject, which usually comes to fruition by way of isolation and torture. Changing a person's internal thought processes to that degree involves a long and complex process of breaking them down, suggesting new ways of thinking, and building them back up. It's not something most of us ever encounter, nor is it something that can be replicated and tested in a laboratory setting. At least not by any scientist outside the pages of a comic book.

But whether or not your thoughts can be influenced in subtler ways, well …


Each of us is constantly at the mercy of forces outside of ourselves. Friends and family, advertising, social movements, and the stories we willingly consume are all small parts of the aggregate of experiences. Each of these enters our consciousness and slowly, over time, changes the way we think.

It's likely you've encountered an old acquaintance, after years apart, and later remarked that they had changed. It probably wasn't something they or the people in their lives noticed. Like the slow growth of your hair or the pernicious gathering of a midsection, it happens too slowly to see in real time. But, given enough time, the changes can be radical.

These changes can be negative, such as an otherwise respectable person falling under the influence of a hate group, or they can be positive, such as the slow change of social norms to be more inclusive.

In either case, it's clear that we're all, both individually and at a societal level, having our thoughts changed all the time. That's part of being alive. If it weren't, if we all stayed the same, all the time, we'd be ... well, robots.

Star Trek: Picard is streaming now on CBS All Access.