Friday, February 3, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 6: A Fistful of Datas

The Next Generation, Season 6
"A Fistful of Datas"
Airdate: November 9, 1992
133 of 176 produced
133 of 176 aired

While the Enterprise awaits a rendezvous with a cargo vessel, the crew has a chance to unwind. Alexander, Worf, and Troi run into trouble, however, when their holodeck program of the Ancient American West is disrupted by the unannounced presence of numerous bizarre facsimiles of Commander Data.

Oh, that wacky Brent Spiner. He can do no wrong... right?


Matthew: I'm just going to say it straight out, Trek Fan Orthodoxy be damned. I dislike this episode, kind of intensely in fact, and it clearly marks the point at which the Data character "Jumps the Shark" for me. I'm not saying there will never be a good Data story again after this. But I am saying that after this, my suspicious hackles get raised whenever Data is the focus of the episode, and I'm on the lookout for artificiality, stupidity, and groan-worthy humor, all of which I think this episode has in spades. I'll start with artificiality - there is no reason in the universe for this story to exist. The later Data story "Birthright" at least develops his character in an interesting way. This does not. This smacks of a writer or producer kicking back and saying "We need to create a showcase for Brent Spiner. Go!" So what ways do they choose to bring this about? That most trite of Trek cliches, the holodeck malfunction. Yarg. And not only do we get a malfunction, but naturally the safeties also fail, adding completely artificial "drama" to the proceedings. Memo to Trek writers: if no one ever dies because the safeties fail, then it will always remain a stupid writing crutch and will never be a source of drama. And no, Whelan doesn't count. Habeas Corpus, people.

Kevin: I certainly agree with the general thesis that this is the tipping point for over-relying on Spiner's acting skills to carry an otherwise weakly plotted episode, though somehow, I just can't be mad at this episode. It always ends up enjoyable enough to watch if its on, though I don't necessarily seek it out. I always thought it odd that the episode order went Schisms, True Q, Rascals, Fistful of Datas, as I remember thinking even as a kid it seemed weird to group the serious and non serious episodes together. But, particularly in the later seasons, I could appreciate a lighter episode as an attempt to keep the show from taking itself too seriously. I will completely agree on the overuse of the holodeck as the source of tension. At some point, why would anyone even use the holodeck anymore? It's a damn deathtrap.

Matthew: As far as stupid elements, why does the Data in the real world start walking and talking like a Western character? The mechanism for the malfunction was supposed to be some sort of cross pollination between his positronic net and the ship's recreational database. So why didn't he start reciting the Doctor's play, or start playing Picard's Mozart, or show the signs on any of the other bazillion files that must be in such a database? Ah, yes, because the story dictates that we are supposed to experience Brent Spiner's hilarious Western antics. Which brings me to the decidedly non-hilarious outcomes of many of the Data-centric jokes. I'm sorry, but though it may be mildly amusing to see a facsimile of Data acting like a lout on the holodeck, it is just unfunny, and really sort of denigrating to the character, to see the "real" Data pantomime spitting into a spittoon, twirling his tricorder, or calling people "pardner." It was mildly (very mildly) amusing when Data affected Sherlock Holmes mannerism, because it said something about the earnestness of his character. This has nothing of the kind to say. It's just a malady that afflicts him with "hilarious consequences," which means that laughing at this sort of feels like laughing at a stroke victim.

Kevin: Yeah, I could just barely accept the holodeck taking on Data, but why would Data start adopting the western mannerisms. I mean, thank God no one was indulging their fisting fetish or anything on the holodeck when they ran this experiment. If nothing else, it smacks of one of the more grievous sins in a script, the "because we said so" effect. Both Data and the holodeck behaved as they did because the script said they should, not because it made internal sense.

Matthew: OK, criticisms aside, there were a number of very funny and cute scenes between the Worfs and Counselor Troi. The "Counselor Durango" bit was very funny. It was nice to get another mention of Data's "Ode to Spot." The routine in the teaser of crew members interrupting Captain Picard was amusing and well written. I honestly would have enjoyed that episode quite a bit more - how many events can conspire to ruin Captain Picard's flute solo?

Kevin: The little moments on the ship were quite good. I think there was a potential here for a "Family"-style episode, where there was no threat per se, just a series of slices of life onbard ship. That could have been a lot of fun and not have felt as forced. In the end, we've done this episode before and more successfully with the noir genre in Big Goodbye, and I can't quite tell if my general apathy is a result of a less absurd story, for Big Goodbye had its own problems, or that I just am less into westerns than noir.


Matthew: Brent Spiner's performance grates on me in this episode. I didn't find him funny as Eli Hollander. I didn't find him funny as the Mexican. I most definitely didn't find him amusing as the hooker. And to top it off, I didn't find him amusing or even particularly charming as Data. So that pretty much seals it as a "miss" for me on his performance. To be fair, he did have some nice menacing notes as "Pa" Hollander. This episode would have been a lot better (though still flawed) if the malfunctioning Data had been played purely for chills.

Kevin: His performance always seemed at least OK to me. It was more the set up that was the problem. Spiner never does anything by half-measures, so that side of things never bothered me. The bit with Spot was cute, and for the record, Miss Annie ran the saloon. She was NOT a hooker.

Matthew: Michael Dorn on the other hand is yet again terrific in his "straight man" persona. His matter of fact take-out of Eli Hollander is funny, and his burgeoning enthusiasm for the violence and fisticuffs of the program is endearing. When he exasperatedly chastises Counselor Troi for not supporting him, that was my biggest laugh in the show. Brian Bonsall was also surprisingly not super-annoying in this story. I'm not saying he was good. He's still dead weight as a character. But the performance wasn't bad.

Kevin: This was really the highlight of the episode.From his attempt to be given work to do, to every scene on the holodeck, his stoicism played well both for his own character and his role in the holodeck story. It's almost a loving parody of the classic spaghetti western. Of all the modern characters that could inherit the mantle of John Wayne, Worf, Son of Mogh is number one with a bullet. I feel like Bonsall should have gotten one scene explaining his afinity for this genre, like maybe K'Eyhler read him stories like Troi's father did. It was have been a little more interesting for actor and script.

Matthew: Marina Sirtis was quite good in her scenes. She really got to chew some scenery as "Durango." So why was this funny while Data's stuff was not? It's because of what it means for the character. Troi having an affection for Old West stereotypes adds to her character. Data being forced to act silly does not add to his.

Kevin: It felt a little, a very little, tacked on that Troi liked these given the lack of any prior mention, but it's nowhere near as bad as inventing an expertise as other episodes have done, so it didn't bother me much. All that said, she was clearly game for playing dress-up and that shined through and made her scenes highly enjoyable.

Production Values

Matthew: The Western backlot set they used was nice. It had a jail, a saloon, a nice avenue for shooting, pretty much everything you need from such a set, even a rickety mine. The costumes were also good, and the image of a Klingon in cowboy gear is a good one.

Kevin: The Klingon as cowboy imagery is surprising fitting. I thought Troi looked good too in her costume.

Matthew: The only other real production values of note were the interior looks at Data's head, which were actually pretty nice. Previous attempts ended up looking rather fake, mainly because of how far they stuck out compared to his hair and the general line of his skull. These looked really nice, probably in part due to camera angles. There is nothing particularly noteworthy with respect to Patrick Stewart's direction of this episode, outside of how few parts Picard had in the story.

Kevin: I always really liked the shot of the Enterprise riding off into the sunset, or the galactic equivalent. It was a neat shot. And nothing may have been overly complicated, but according to the special features, Stewart had only one day on the Warner Bros. lot and had to shoot the final scene using artificial lights because the sun had set and WB wouldn't give them an extra day, and the transitions were pretty seemless, so kudos on that front.


Matthew: Am I an insufferable stick in the mud? I don't think I am... I like a comedy episode as much as the next guy. But this comedy was forced, arbitrary, unproductive to the characters, and most of all simply unfunny. There is no original science fiction in this story, just some well-worn cliches that have been investigated better by other stories. Some nice performances by Dorn and Sirtis keep this out of the worst dregs of TNG, but I feel I have to give this a 2. I don't like it, and it cheapens an otherwise good character for me from this point forward.

Kevin: This is admittedly not as good as Rascals, where the comedy really transcended the bad script, here the bad script and bad comedy were more interrelated. Still, the actors do enough of a job with the material and there are some genuine funny moments. To the extent it is a Worf episode, it almost succeeds, so I can't be too mad at it. This is barely, but still, a 3 for a total of 5.

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