When a rendezvous with a supply ship is delayed for 48 hours, the Enterprise crew suddenly find themselves with free time to kill. Worf's son Alexander takes him to the holodeck to play sheriff and deputy in the "Ancient West" town of Deadwood -- joined by Counselor Troi. But the game turns deadly when an experiment by LaForge and Data unknowingly infects their scenario. The holodeck safeties are disengaged, the controls are locked, and the characters are replaced one by one with facsimiles of Data -- complete with the android's physical abilities.
The pitch for this episode came from an outside writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The idea was so well received that it earned him a staff writer position on the new Deep Space Nine series. Still, every outside script gets a polish from an in-house writer, and Brannon Braga did the honors here. He reportedly lobbied to swap scripts with Ronald Moore (giving Moore "Relics") to work on this. I've heard two conflicting versions of the tale -- that Braga was a lifelong Western fan itching to work on this; and that he knew little or nothing of Westerns, but still thought this sounded like fun.
The original plot would have pitted "Sheriff Worf" against some sort of robber land baron, but Ira Steven Behr over on Deep Space Nine heard about this episode coming up on The Next Generation and suggested a more specific Western homage, to the film Rio Bravo. It was a win all around, letting the episode feature more fun Western conventions -- complete with the Enterprise riding off into the sunset at the episode's end. It also gave a welcome upgrade to Counselor Troi's originally envisioned role as a saloon dancing girl; the cross-type, gender-blind placement of her as "the mysterious stranger" is a vast improvement.
The "Spaghetti Westerns" which this episode lovingly references were, of course, directed primarily by Italian filmmakers. So, fittingly enough, there wasn't an American directing this episode either. Patrick Stewart drew this assignment, and reportedly watched one or two Westerns every night in the run-up to filming it. From his "studies," he incorporated several shots that were specific homages to films like Rio Bravo and Shane.
The episode actually filmed on location for a single day, on the "Western street" backlot at a rival studio. Stewart made the most of that day. There are lots of wonderful, wide angle shots that show off the dusty streets of Deadwood and evoke still more classic films.
The episode gives a lot of actors a chance to shine. Michael Dorn again proves himself a skilled comedian throughout the episode, from lines like "I'm beginning to see the appeal of this program!" to the wicked grin that accompanies his finger-gun in the final scene. Marina Sirtis really sinks her teeth into her unexpected role here, adopting a fun drawl and getting several laughs of her own. (In a scene where she attempted to blow smoke rings, Dorn reportedly joked that she needed to stop being so funny in "his" episode.)
There are even good moments for the characters that don't get to join in on the holodeck fun. Patrick Stewart bristles with irritation in an opening scene that hints to us why Picard never studied an instrument before his experience in "The Inner Light" -- he gets no uninterrupted free time. Jonathan Frakes bullies his way through Riker's loud rehearsal as Beverly Crusher's newest actor (complete with a callback to Data's fantastic poetry).
Of course, its Brent Spiner who really gets to cut loose this episode. This isn't simply Data imitating human behavior to varying effectiveness; this is Spiner getting to play multiple other characters. They're mostly a great success (even if his take on Eli Hollander doesn't really match much with the guest star who plays the character before the holodeck glitch). Spiner is perhaps a bit over the top outside the holodeck -- for example, when he walks bowlegged over to the plant and spits in it. But his menace as Frank Hollander is fantastic.
Joining in on the fun is composer Jay Chattaway, who underscores the episode with plenty of authentic Hollywood Western style music. In fact, to record this score, he hired Tommy Morgan to play harmonica -- the same performer who played on most of those classic Western soundtracks.
- This episode was first meant to be called "The Good, the Bad, and the Klingon" before the far better title "A Fistful of Datas" was dreamed up. The new title was so well-liked that for the rest of the series' run, the writers would joke about doing a follow-up episode called "For a Few Datas More."
- This was another episode where the series won a technical Emmy; it won for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Drama Series.
- I love Picard's demure "I'm not much of an actor," for the sheer irony of it coming from Patrick Stewart's mouth.
- Having the characters refer to this time period as the "Ancient West" seems like a fun detail... but when you really think about it, would we today call the 1400s "ancient?"
- Can you imagine how big a cowboy hat has to be to fit a Klingon?
- No holodeck episode would be complete without a reference to Reginald Barclay; Worf's disapproval of the prostitute in the program is quite funny.
- Brent Spiner has spoken often of how difficult it was to work with the various "cat actors" who played Spot over the years. Given that, I have to wonder how long it took to get the footage in this episode, where the cat actually does exactly what it's supposed to in two rather long, unbroken takes.
- When Frank Hollander comes to visit his son Eli in jail, then proceeds to threaten Worf, Eli appears to be "played" by a very fake looking mannequin posed behind Brent Spiner.
- Worf has some serious heretofore unknown engineering skills; rigging up that communicator-powered force field seems like no small feat. (Still, the writers had to do a sci-fi take on the classic "steel plate bullet-proof vest" gag.)
- There's an unfortunate touch of homophobia in the final act, when Worf is unable to conceal his alarm and disgust at seeing Data-as-Annie. Worf just survived a shootout, and it's receiving a quite chaste hug from a man that he can't face?