Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: Data's Day

The Next Generation, Season 4
"Data's Day"
Airdate: January 7, 1991
84 of 176 produced
84 of 176 aired


Commander Data is a busy man. He has to help his friends get married, learn to dance at their wedding, and handle a possible Romulan threat to Federation security. It's all in all a pretty routine day for everyone's favorite android.

Try to make your smile read less "molester," Data... 

Kevin: I always enjoy it when Star Trek consciously goes for a different tone or story telling style. The slice-of-life story is a pretty good one, and I think it's mined pretty well here. There isn't exactly a strong science fiction core, aside from the generic "android explores humanity" arc, but in its place, we get some awesome narrative and character development. By even just mentioning the myriad activities on the ship, it adds verisimilitude to the idea of it as a real place. I also loved the mention of Maddox's name. It's little touches like that that make me love this particular writing staff. Is it necessary for the plot? Nope. Do I need to have watched Measure of a Man to watch this episode? Nope. It's just the zenith of continuity-conscious writing. It enhances the episode for the longtime viewer while not troubling the casual viewer in the slightest. The implication that Data actually kept his word about working with Maddox, and hopefully Maddox being less of a dick, is awesome.

Matthew: Yeah, just the fact that Data is willing to correspond with Maddox in this manner indicates that either Data holds no grudges, or Maddox has grown as a person, or both. If you're a fan of the series, these lines really satisfy your natural desire for follow-up and growth.  More great continuity nods, by the way, were Picard's words when he marries O'Brien and Keiko, borrowed from "Balance of Terror;" and Worf's mention of the Murasaki Quasar from "The Galileo Seven." RDM knows how to service the fans. The tonal shift is similar to "Lower Decks," just with a greater focus on one peripheral character, and one principal.

Kevin: The comedy in the episode is wonderful, probably because it so restrained. Human bonding rituals do involve a great deal of TALKING and DANCING and CRYING. The dancing scene is nothing short of genius. A lot of it I think is the acting, and I'll get to that, but the dialogue was pretty organic and never overextended itself reaching for a gag, so it lets the actors breathe and do their jobs. We also haven't reached "A Fistful of Datas" Spiner-saturation yet, so this doesn't feel like the crutch that Spiner's comedic abilities seem to be in the later seasons.

Matthew: I am of the opinion that Data is at his funniest as a straight man. I mean, come on - he is the ultimate straight man. The writers nail it here. His observations, from his limited perspective on human emotions, are wry commentaries on humanity. His comedic reactions with Crusher ("look up," "smile," "this is a very complex set of variables") during the dancing scene are wonderful. It's when writers try to "make Data funny" that things go awry. Data is such a finely drawn character, played with such restraint, that when he starts acting like a dipshit in "Generations," it is jarring and awful.

"No ma'am, no dipshit."

Kevin: The wedding plot was sweet, and it went a lot better than the last time a couple tried to get married on the Enterprise during a Romulan episode. I like that they chose to expand Chief O'Brien's character rather than introduce another character we'll never see again. We also get introduced to Keiko, one of my favorite secondary characters. We don't get to see them really interact in this episode, but over the series, they're one of my favorite couples, if only for the fact they always feel and appear as an actual married couple. The plot also led to some nice moments for Data. I like his scenes with Miles and Keiko, and particularly his scene with Troi. There's something about the line "I must be as big a mystery to her as she is to me," that I always found compelling. An episode focusing on the two might have been awesome for both, to watch them reconcile the different ways they view the world.

Matthew: Finally, finally, finally, a female supporting cast member is introduced and stuck with for two series. Keiko is a great character. Granted, she starts out as a love interest for a man. But over time, she gets a backstory, a set of skills, hopes and dreams, all of that. Showing us a civilian with that much intimacy really helps the franchise, in my estimation.

Kevin: The Romulan plot was pretty good overall, I think. It's not quite fully cooked. It's a little incredible that she could pass for that long. I would have almost preferred an outright defection. That would have had startling implications, and maybe could have been a quiet seeding for Unification. Whether or not Romulans and Vulcans are identical or really, really different varies depending on the needs of the episode and it bothers me that someone could pass for decades. That being said, the tension, even before the reveal was well done, the mini-mystery was well and quickly developed, and the fact the Enterprise straight up lost this time is sobering and interesting. I also loved Data's narration questioning if Picard is bluffing, and the reference to a poker game. I'm actually happy they did not include a poker game this time. The connection is known to the audience without beating them over the head to death with it.

Matthew: Yeah, the notion that T'Pel was one of the "Federation's most decorated diplomats" was really pushing the boundaries of believability. We know that Federation science can discriminate between the two races, for one thing. If she has been a diplomat long enough to be decorated, she'd have to have had a doctor's appointment, at least once. Not only that, but Crusher herself uses a transporter trace log to READ HER DNA. This has to have happened once in the past ten or twenty years. I was also irritated by the notion that the Romulan ship could use their own transporter in a way not immediately detectable by the Enterprise.

Kevin: The episode succeeds for me largely because of the final entry in Data's log about understanding the need to belong and the need for friendship. It elevates the episode from merely light-hearted fare to some substantial insight into Data's mind, and some genuinely touching commentary on the crew we all care about.

Matthew: I am willing to grant this episode a pass on the sci-fi question because it is an artificial intelligence appraising human intelligences from the outside. His observations end up feeling profound and insightful given his status as "other." That's sci-fi enough for me!


Kevin: The episode lives or dies on the casts ability to be funny without trying too hard, and they nail it. Michael Dorn wins the "Best Straight Man" award for the fourth season running. Brent Spiner is obviously a gifted actor and comedian, and he shines here. He has the ability to inspire the emotions he cannot feel in the crew and the viewer, and it ranges from charming to heartbreaking depending on the needs of the episode. The writers may come to over-rely on it, but that's almost a testament to how good he is at it.

Matthew: I know I've ragged on Spiner from time to time. But that all springs from later Trek. He is at his best here, and carries the episode effortlessly. His performances to this point have been so carefully modulated. It's an achievement on a par with Nimoy's Spock. It's just too bad that the writing went south on this careful modulation in later seasons and movies.

Kevin: Sierra Pecheur clearly stayed up the night before her scenes to watch Amok Time and The Search for Spock. She really nailed Imperious Vulcan Matriarch. I've made it a point in my own life to be introduced to someone and only respond with, "Leave us, please," before I die. Alan Scarfe did a good job as Mendak, and will come back as Tokath for Birthright, but I would have preferred Tomalak. It would have added salt to the wound to have a familiar face gloating over the victory.

Matthew: It was fun to watch the regular cast play off of T'Pel. Stewart played Picard as world-weary, knowing how Vulcans are and being resigned to dealing with it. Frakes played Riker as annoyed by it. Riker is jovial, and consarnit, so should everyone else be!

Kevin: The supporting cast did a great job. Colm Meany was really sympathetic when talking to Data. This wasn't Rosalind Chao's strongest outing as Keiko, but it must be hard to portray cold feet credibly with no back story. And I liked the barber. He was fun.

Matthew: Actually, I think Chao did a yeoman's job. Her very first appearance on screen gives us a close-up view of her face. In an instant, she tells us so much about the character. Her Keiko is sensitive, nervous, overwhelmed, but also warm, kind, and sad that she will be hurting someone she loves so much. It really leaped off the screen for me as "Acting." Of course I agree she'll get more to do in the future. But that one look totally sold me on Keiko, basically for good.

Production Values

Kevin: This is a bottle show, but for some shots of the warbirds. I think the arboretum may be a new set. I couldn't detect an obvious reuse. The nursery, replicating center, and barber shop are all new, and its always fun to see more stuff on the Enterprise.

Matthew: One thing I noticed was the "Starfleet barber logo," with the chevron on a field of wavy lines that looked like hair. Showing the strange alien woman having her hair electro-dyed in the background was a nice addition of texture to the scene. I loved seeing a re-use of the Ambassador Class model as the USS Zhukov. The arboretum looks new to me. It was kind of unfortunate that it did not out-strip the TOS arboretum, though. It felt a little cheap.

Kevin: Gates McFadden, as you may or may not know, is a trained dancer and choreographer, (for which is normally credited by her real name, Cheryl McFadden) and she choreographed the dance scene. Both she and Spiner did their own dancing, except for the once overhead shot where Spiner is replaced with a double. They also came up with their own dialogue which was accepted by the writers. This is awesome on like nine levels. I love it when they can use an actors' other skills credibly in the show. And the amount of faith they showed in the actors is also heartwarming. The dance scene itself was neat and inspired an as yet unrequited desire to learn to tap dance.

Matthew: This was what the "comic" scene in "The Outrageous Okona" could and should have been. Data wants to learn something, and a fellow crew member helps him learn it. McFadden is superb, not just as a dancer, but as a comic actor. The way she plays "teaching" Data and having her feet stepped on is just perfect.


Kevin: This is not a perfect episode, and it lacks any ambition at transcendental greatness, but it's a well-paced, charming piece of comedy, that still manages to engage the established characters in real, organic ways, leaving me with a warm, fuzzy feeling by the end. Throw in an abbreviated, but still competently executed spy plot, and a good old-fashioned dance break, and you've certainly entertained me for 43 minutes. This gets a 4. I think it's a testament to TNG's cast and crew that what would have easily been a throwaway fluff piece on another show still portrays some emotional depth and attention to honoring and expanding the canon.

Matthew: Yeah, this is an easy 4. There is just so much "real-world" texture to this story. Episodes like these make the world feel more real and lived in. And there are enough elements of mystery and discovery to make it still feel like Star Trek. That makes an 8 in total.

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