Sunday, March 23, 2014

TNG Flashback: Data's Day

Although Star Trek: The Next Generation had a rather entrenched format, the writers would occasionally bend the rules a bit to try to do something different. "Data's Day" is one such episode.

In a letter to Bruce Maddox, Data recounts his activities throughout one particular day aboard the Enterprise. He is serving as honorary "father of the bride" in a wedding between Miles O'Brien and his fiancée Keiko -- while also having to negotiate her last minute doubts. The ship's current mission is to transport a Vulcan dignitary to a summit with the Romulans. And throughout it all, he comments on everyday social interactions with his friends.

The idea for a "day in the life" episode was something the writers had been kicking around since an outside pitch of the concept was made during the third season. They'd considered using Picard as the point of view, and for a while even the Enterprise itself. Ultimately, they decided they did need a character at the core, and Data was the most logical one -- the only character awake 24/7. Brent Spiner is given a lot of voice-over narration for the episode, far more than the traditional "captain's log" entries, but carries the hour well.

The writers had also been planning for a while to feature a wedding on the show. Those plans, believe or not, also had centered on Picard for a time. I couldn't find any interviews explaining how they settled on O'Brien, though I suspect the writers simply wanted to keep all the romantic options open for the main cast.

There are quite a few "firsts" in this episode. Keiko makes her first appearance. Although it would have been nice to meet O'Brien's bride before the big event (for instance, the detail that Data introduced them is a fun one), at least the writers didn't then abandon the character. Keiko would show up many more times, both on this series and Deep Space Nine. Data's pet cat Spot also appears for the first time. And so does the ship's Bolian barber -- though he's named V'Sal in the script, not Mot. (Neither name is given on screen.)

Data interacts with nearly every character at one point or another, and many of the scenes are very thoughtfully constructed. There are the expected (but good) scenes in which Data mediates the pre-wedding jitters between Miles and Keiko. There's a lovely moment between Worf and Data, in which the latter comments on their being "kindred spirits" aboard the Enterprise. There's an especially strong scene with Counselor Troi.

And, memorably, there's the dance sequence with Beverly Crusher. Gates McFadden is an accomplished dancer outside the show, whose credits include all the choreography of the movie Labyrinth. The show finally found a way to use that skill here. The producers reportedly handed off this entire scene to her and Brent Spiner. McFadden choreographed everything and did all her own dancing. (Spiner occasionally, but obviously, relied on a double.) The two even suggested most of their characters' dialogue for the scene -- practically unheard of on a show that typically called the writers from the set just to change a word or two during filming. And what the two did with this freedom was wonderful. The dance scene is light and fun, and the comedy plays well.

What doesn't work so well is the episode's "A plot." Producer Rick Berman and head writer Michael Piller reportedly both insisted there had to be some big plot to carry through the episode; character vignettes weren't enough, nor was the wedding storyline. And no surprise, the story of a Romulan infiltrator returning home to her people feels tacked on and shallow. The big moment of the infiltrator's faked death is dealt with awkwardly in dialogue, taking place off screen. It also doesn't help that the actress playing her gives an obnoxiously wooden performance, not remotely excused for the fact that she's posing as a Vulcan. The actor playing Romulan leader Mendak is almost as stilted. Composer Ron Jones really has to amp up the music on these Romulan sequences to inject tension that simply isn't there.

Other observations:
  • The dialogue in the wedding ceremony is deliberately similar to that from a wedding depicted in the original series, in the episode "Balance of Terror." (Also with a heavy Romulan storyline.)
  • Let's just drop the pretense that Picard isn't comfortable around children. The moment where he goes to the newborn baby and says "welcome aboard" is surprisingly poignant.
Despite the unnecessary Romulan elements, most of the episode is good. It's particularly fun to watch Data repeatedly display an understanding social nuances he claims not to fathom. He catches himself subconsciously manifesting a nervous tick. He says he has no "gut feelings" or intuition -- in precisely a moment where he's displaying just those qualities. It's fun writing, and a too-rare opportunity to just see characters interact. I give the episode a B.

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