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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Datalore (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

If you absolutely, positively, positronically have to do an evil twin story, then I guess that Data is the best character to use. Datalore is hardly the finest or strongest episode of the first season. It’s riddled with plot holes, it feels overly contrived, it punishes the viewer for actually paying attention to the set-ups and plot devices, and it is awkwardly paced and sluggishly delivered. That said, it does offer some real stakes and an opportunity for Brent Spiner to ham it up a notch. So, while we’re not in “classic” (or even “good”) territory here, it’s certainly more watchable than a lot of the episodes around it.

That is not saying much.

The threat is crystal clear...

The threat is crystal clear…

It’s interesting how many of the ideas proposed here are far more interesting than the plot we ultimately get. Data returns home, to discover that his father was working in secret on his home planet to help protect the inhabitants from an evil space monster that came to devour them. We discover that Data has been programmed with the knowledge and records of every member of the lost colony, meaning that an entire world must live on inside him in some way.

We find that it’s possible that Data was mass-produced. Examining the abandoned laboratory, Riker legitimately inquires, “How many more Datas are there?” The notion of countless Datas would be an interesting one to explore for our own Data – what does his individuality mean if there are countless others produced to the same specification. We also have the crystalline entity, an alien creature that must consume life in order to survive, and which is so alien that it is almost beyond our ability to relate to or communicate with.

What are little androids made of?

What are little androids made of?

And, despite all those interesting ideas suggested and hinted at, we end up with the classic “evil twin” story for Data, right down to the point where the character’s psychotic doppelgänger impersonates our beloved main character in order to place his colleagues in harm’s way. Of course, this isn’t a fatal flaw. Data is, after all, an android. As such, it’s easy enough to accept that there might be a malfunctioning version of him out there somewhere. And, from Lore’s point of view, impersonating Data is the best way to kill the crew. I’m not sure why he couldn’t just let them drop him off at a Starbase or something, but he’s obviously a bit messed up.

The problems stem from the execution. Like so many of these early episodes, the show requires us to treat our cast like idiots. The Bridge crew are completely oblivious to Lore’s paper-thin disguise, despite numerous tell-tale signs. Indeed, Data even reminded them that he cannot use contractions, so it seems odd that only Wesley notices Lore’s use of those words. Mind you, Data himself says “I’m” immediately after they beam Lore into space, so who knows, right?

Oh, brother, where art thou?

Oh, brother, where art thou?

Of course, an interesting short story (I Am Become Death) suggests that Lore was destroyed here and that all future appearances of Lore were a time-displaced version of Data. I don’t know why I mention it, but it seems to fit with the episode’s unconscious implication that the crew might have somehow accidentally killed the wrong Soong-type android here, and that there’s really more that Data and Lore have in common after all.

Still, confusion over use of contractions aside, Lore is a bit of a dick, acting incredibly pettily towards the rest of the crew. Given that Data is a high-functioning android, you’d imagine that Riker should have been more suspicious when Lore called him “Riker” instead of “Commander.” They ignore Wesley’s (valid) concerns about “Data”, even after Picard explicitly ordered the teenager to keep an eye on the android. Should Picard have added “… but only report back what I want to hear!” to the order?

Best not think too hard about it, Mr. Stewart...

Best not think too hard about it, Mr. Stewart…

Of course, it’s a narrative short cut to make Wesley look smart, another of the awful crutches of the first season. I don’t dislike Wesley as much as most, mainly because I ignore his first-season characterisation, but making your experienced command officers look borderline incompetent to make a teenager seem smart is just bad writing. It’s hard not to think that Lore has a point when he asks his unconscious brother, “And you want to be as stupid as them, dear brother?” If Data were trying to demonstrate the efficiency of his colleagues to Lore, Datalore hardly makes the males the most convincing case.

That said, I do like the idea that Data is the first to cotton-on that Lore is up to no good. One of the things I like about Data as a character is that he’s even more objective than Spock, and that emotion doesn’t colour his perception at all. (Spock would occasionally find himself blinkered, but unable to reconcile it.) As such, Lore is able to initially fool the Enterprise crew into thinking that he means no harm by playing off their affection for Data. Geordi, Data’s best friend, is positively delighted to meet Lore. “‘My brother’. That has a nice sound to it, Data.”

Brother from another iteration of the same basic idea...

Brother from another iteration of the same basic idea…

Lore is able to exploit that emotional weakness in the crew, and so it makes it almost tragic that Data sees through him pretty much straight away. There’s no familial loyalty to Lore. After one conversation, he hastens to point out, “And do you realize, Lore, that I am obligated to report all this to our ship’s Captain?” Data can’t physically want to believe in his brother, so he has no investment in Lore’s deceit. While it allows him to understand Lore’s treachery faster than his colleagues, it’s also a little sad. And it’s a little more sad because Data can’t understand that it’s sad.

Datalore is also interesting because it continues something of a trend from The Last Outpost, albeit one that feels more subconscious than anything else. The Next Generation has always been about tolerance of other races and cultures. That’s why the way the show treats the Ferengi is so surreal. Datalore offers another blindspot for this supposedly tolerant and accepting Federation. It’s immediately quite clear that Picard does not like androids.

Hm. Never noticed Beverly's giant hands before...

Hm. Never noticed Beverly’s giant hands before…

Picard is uncomfortable with the discovery of Lore. In conversation with Data, he broaches the topic, “Which requires that I now ask a very serious question. Since the two of you are so closely related to each other…” Data cuts in, affirming that the Captain has nothing to worry about, “The answer, sir, is that my loyalty is to you. And Starfleet. Completely.” One wonders if he would ask the same thing if Riker found a long-lost brother. And it seems especially suspect since anybody with any faith in Data should understand that he can’t be blinded by emotion, and should be the last person you’d worry about.

You could almost forgive the initial question, but Picard’s discomfort comes up again. Wearing her Chief of Security hat for once, Yar asks, “Speaking strictly as Security Chief, how much can you trust Data now?” Again, it seems to betray a lack of knowledge about Data, but it is the most prudent Yar has been all year, so I’ll allow it. Picard answers, “I trust him completely.” However, he hastens to add, “But everyone should realize that that was a legitimate security question.” (He might as well have added, “Tasha Yar – and anyone who thinks like her – is totally, completely, 100% not a racist” to the end of it. And I hate Denise Crosby’s vindicated smile as Picard validates her paranoia.)

Turns out you can go home again...

Turns out you can go home again…

To be fair, Data would call Picard on his android prejudice in The Offspring a few years later, retroactively lending a bit of validity to the portrayal here. However, it doesn’t seem like any of the writers picked up on how racist it makes Picard seem. Apparently tolerance and respect only really exist if you look and act like regular people. They are, as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country brilliantly points out, “human” rights.

Brent Spiner has a great time as Lore and – despite my scepticism here – I actually like the character of Lore. In theory. I think the only time that he was really used well was during Brothers, but he always had a great deal of potential. And it allows Spiner to ham it up several notches, which is highly enjoyable. It’s hard to imagine too man fans objecting to the scene where he threatens to set Wesley on fire.

Let's see what's on the slab...

Let’s see what’s on the slab…

As an aside, it’s also nice to get confirmation that Argoyle is still the Chief Engineer of the ship. That wouldn’t last for too long, though. In one of the rather sad behind the scenes stories about this era of the show, it seems that the actor playing Argoyle (or somebody acting on his behalf) sabotaged his chance to become a recurring character. According to Will Wheaton:

I don’t know if it’s entirely true (and this is recalled over twenty years, through the memory of a 14 year-old) but I remember hearing that Biff was under consideration to become a permanent Chief Engineer, until the producers found out that he (or someone acting on his behalf) had encouraged Trekkies to write letters asking to have him on the ship full time. There’s nothing wrong with a letter-writing campaign, but it helps if the letters come in after your episode has aired. Yeah, apparently the letters came in before this show went out, and some Trekkies complained that they were spammed via mail (this was well before e-mail was widely used) and those two factors sent Chief Engineer Argyle — and Biff — to the Cornfield.

Ah well, Geordi would fill the role quite well eventually.

Beaming a beam...

Beaming a beam…

All that said, the episode looks great remastered. In particular, the underground sets look fabulous, and the Crystalline Entity is lovingly remastered. (Apparently one of the show’s original CGI effects.) I’ve noted before (and I’ll note again) that I am actually a pretty big fan of Ron Jones’ work on The Next Generation. His score during the exploration of the abandoned laboratory is very eighties, evoking the science-fiction films of the era in a charming way. Then again, I always had a soft spot for synthesisers. (Indeed, I was imagining the episode going a very different way when Jones’ music seemed to affectionately reference Aliens.)

Still, I am a little disappointed that the remaster didn’t fix the rather obvious and painful goof when the medics are operating on Data and Lore. You can see the androids’ nipples, so they are obviously meant to be to scale, but the hands of the medics and engineers appear quite giant. I know that the crew working behind the scenes on the remaster are reluctant to make unnecessary updates, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

This is Worf's typical contribution to a first season episode of The Next Generation...

This is Worf’s typical contribution to a first season episode of The Next Generation…

There’s not really too much to Datalore, despite the promise of the premise. It’s not a standout episode of the first year, but – then again – there aren’t too many of those. It’s occasionally silly, awkward and entirely predictable. It relies on the crew acting like morons in order to make Wesley look good. Still, it’s not the worst of the season. Not that that counts for a lot.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

8 Responses

  1. This is the last Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry wrote.

    • I had heard that. At the risk of being controversial, I always figured Roddenberry was a better “grand strokes” man than a “finer details” show runner. Sort of the “bring the right people together and get out of their way” approach. When Roddenberry directly meddled, the results were frequently underwhelming.

      For what it’s worse, I think Rick Berman was a phenomenal “bring the right crew together” producer, and worked best managing upwards. The writing staff change at the start of the third season of The Next Generation, and supporting Behr on Deep Space Nine even when he disagreed are two examples of Berman’s stronger managerial style. Ditto letting Manny Coto take over the fourth season of Enterprise.

      Like Roddenberry, Berman’s “hands-on” work felt too sterile and too conventional and too clean for good drama. Like Voyager, or the first two years of Enterprise.

      I think Star Trek owes an immeasurable debt to both, but both Roddenberry and Berman have considerable flaws when it comes to on-the-ground management, a lot of which is down to conservatism. Roddenberry wanted TNG to be TOS II, while Berman wanted VOY and ENT to be TNG II and TNG III.

      • Great insights. I felt the same way about Roddenberry, but didn’t have the words to explain it. I also admit to not having the full Star Trek picture – being mostly ignorant of DS9 and Enterprise.

      • DS9 is great. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Enterprise got a lot better in its third and fourth years.

  2. This was much better than most of the episodes of TNG that preceded it, but I thought that “The Enemy Within” from TOS was a much better Evil Twin episode, because THAT episode suggests that we actually need our negative side, whereas this one doesn’t get anywhere near that philosophical.

    Glad someone has figured out that Brent Spinner can act. Now if only they’ll figure out that Jonathan Frakes can’t… 🙂

    • I don’t know. I think Frakes has a certain charm to him. He’s not a great actor, but the show reaches a point where it’s incredibly charming to spend time with him.

  3. Ah! The synthesizer heard throughout the series as a whole, including this episode, is a Roland D-50. The synth was brand new at the time and has a “spacy” quality that’s unique even today. That quality made it perfect for TNG’s score. It’s also a giant kitsch machine, which combines very well with early TNG in particular.

    In one of the early episodes (I can’t remember which one, I should rewatch) the D-50 actually shows up in the background, being played by the keyboardist of a band. The thing isn’t actually being played: you hear a piano, which is one of the few things the D-50 doesn’t do well, and on top of that it isn’t plugged in. But it’s unmistakenly a D-50.

    I have one of them myself and enjoy playing “Spot the Patch” when watching TNG.

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