Thursday, September 05, 2019

Star Trek Week 2019: "Datalore"

Stardate 41242.4

The Enterprise visits the planet Omicron Theta, the locale where Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) was discovered by the starship Tripoli twenty-six years earlier.

The planet is largely sterile, at this point, but for reasons unknown. Now, the Enterprise is hoping to solve many of the mysteries from Data’s background, including the planet’s unusual fate.

Upon exploring the planet, Data and an away team discover the secret laboratory of Dr. Noonien Soong, Data’s “father.” The team also finds the pieces of a disassembled second android. That android is brought to the Enterprise, re-assembled, and activated.

A physical duplicate of Data, Lore is a wily individual, one with ulterior motives. In fact, he plans to seamlessly replace Data, and then summon the alien that destroyed Omicron Theta -- The Silicon Entity -- to kill the Enterprise crew.

Apparently “Datalore” is not a well-regarded series entry by fans today, and so I’ll just go out on a limb to state that I loved it when it first aired, and still enjoy the episode tremendously. 

I understand there are reasons to dislike the story, and I’ll cover those first.

To start with, there’s the whole “Data can’t use contractions” problem. This limitation is reiterated in “Datalore,” but then, at the very end of the episode, he uses a contraction effortlessly (“I’m fine.”) 

So, either Data was trolling us and his shipmates all along, or he has suddenly learned to use contractions, and is -- again -- trolling his friends.  Either way, his sudden ability to use contractions goes unexplained and unexplored. In truth, this is simply sloppy editing or storytelling.  

Also, obviously, the premise of “the evil twin” is incredibly hackneyed. We have seen it so many times, on series from Knight Rider to Alias, to the original Star Trek. I would argue, however, that the trope is more plausible in this case, given that Lore and Data are in essence, the same model of android (with some interesting differences).  Basically, it doesn’t stretch credibility that they look identical.

And, of course, this episode once more has Wesley saving the day, while the adults -- all Starfleet graduates -- are too dense to notice that Lore has replaced Data.

But hear me out, please.

Sometimes, a work of art can, via expert execution, escape the particular failings of a narrative.  Sometimes, visual style carries the day.

I therefore submit that “Datalore” is one of the most stylish and well-directed of the early TNG episodes, thanks to Rob Bowman.  The entire episode feels cinematic, from Brent Spiner’s tour-de-force double performance, to the creepy and atmospheric discovery of the laboratory on a dead world.  The action in the finale is well-choreographed, and all the characters -- even the Crystalline Entity -- are underscored by the expressive, even pulse-pounding music of Ron Jones.  

As montage, as film art, “Datalore” works brilliantly.

The final scene in the transporter room is an example of this effective style. It showcases the kind of brutal, fast-paced action that the series has, heretofore, shied away from. Lore threatens to “torch” Wesley with a phaser! He then shoots Dr. Crusher in the arm, and her lab coat actually catches fire as she flees. Finally, Data and Lore engage in hand-to-hand combat, and -- at the last minute -- Data literally pitches Lore onto the transporter platform.

Why do I love this sequence, and this episode so much? 

Up until now, the Enterprise-D crew has not faced a powerful, truly malicious enemy. “Q” is playful, and not really out to destroy the crew. The Ferengi are humorous, but largely inept. The Jarada -- never seen -- are easily appeased. The aliens of “Code of Honor” are played as primitives. The virus of “The Naked Now” is played for laughs. The dueling supplicants headed to Parliament in “Lonely Among Us” are seen as both primitive and funny.

So for all intents and purposes, Lore is the first villain in the series who feels like a genuine challenge for the crew.  

He is an operatic nemesis who nearly carries the day, and relishes his own evil. He is Loki to Data’s Thor, and his sadism, at points, is actually terrifying.  There is one moment in the episode when he viciously kicks an unconscious Data, and another in which he threatens Wesley, “the troublesome little man-child” with a fate worse than death.  “Are you prepared for the kind of death of you’ve earned?” he asks.

After so many episodes in which aliens are impressed by humanity’s nobility, this episode showcases a villain who doesn’t care for humans at all, let alone children. 

I have read some reviews complaining about the photo/stunt double for Brent Spiner, but I’ll just make an opposite point. At the time that it aired, “Datalore” featured the best, most complex split screen shots ever filmed for television. These scenes are beautifully-composed and acted. Brent Spiner’s performance “against” himself is riveting. This is likely the first episode of the series that reveals fully how Spiner is a brilliant technical actor.  Lore comes across as a wholly separate and unique individual in this story.

I understand that “Datalore” has its problems. For one thing, Worf -- the great warrior -- gets beat-up in hand-to-hand combat once more (he is also defeated in “Hide and Q” and “Conspiracy.”)  But by the same token, “Datalore” is one of the few early first season episodes, beyond “The Big Goodbye” that is confident enough to have fun with its premise and just really go for broke.

“Datalore” features that big, bold score, fun action scenes, and introduces Lore to the same series, at the same time that it provides much-needed information about Data’s history. Even the Silicon Entity proves to be a great addition to canon (and an addition that returns in “Silicon Avatar.”)  

Yes, so many of the dramatic flaws that we see abundantly in the series’ first season are present here, and yet “Datalore” glides effortlessly from moment to moment, audaciously making the most of each opportunity to wow.

In a way, the episode is even intriguing as an homage to “The Enemy Within,” the Star Trek episode that concerned an evil duplicate of Captain Kirk. There, the “impostor” of the captain had to hide the scratches on his face. Here, Lore uses a device to wipe out a facial tic.  The moment is derivative, and yet fascinating in another way. In the 23rd century, Kirk had to contend with an expression of his Id; his dark side. The Next Generation suggests that androids can have an Id too; as “Lore” represent the dark side of artificial intelligence. 

This duality is even spelled out in the character names. “Data” means “things assumed as fact based on reason and calculations.”  “Lore” means “mythology,” a story of possibly hyperbolic origin.  You can trust a person of reason, like Data. You can’t trust “Lore,” because his stories are only half-true interpretations of historical events.

This episode is pretty hyperbolic itself. It’s over-the-top and energetic.  

“Datalore” is also, frankly, one of the few first season episodes that is at all entertaining on multiple re-watches..

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