Wednesday, June 17, 2015

TNG Flashback: Birthright, Part I

Perhaps spurred on by the success of "Chain of Command," the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation attempted another two-part episode in season six, "Birthright."

During a visit to Deep Space Nine, Worf is approached by a shady alien with information to sell. Jaglom Shrek claims that Worf's father Mogh survived the Khitomer massacre, and has been living for decades in a Romulan prison camp. Though first in denial that a Klingon would be taken alive in such dishonor, Worf soon decides to attempt a rescue. Meanwhile, Julian Bashir tests an alien device aboard the Enterprise, which triggers strange hallucinations for Data.

Michael Piller was overseeing the writers of Deep Space Nine by this point, but still involved himself as much as he could with The Next Generation. When word of this Worf storyline came along, he was convinced there was enough material for another two parter. But in developing the story, the writers concluded that the best place to break the story in half was on a cliffhanger, with Worf being captured. That exposed that there truly wasn't enough material to fill the first hour, so they went searching for a "B-plot" to pad out the episode.

The writers bandied about ideas for Data. Ronald Moore suggested that the android have some sort of religious experience. Brannon Braga suggested a near-death experience instead, though René Echevarria pointed out that idea had just been covered in "Tapestry". In the end, they landed on the idea of Data having his first dreams.

Neither plot line works completely. There will be more to say about Worf in part two. The main thing that's wrong here is the character of Jaglom Shrek. He's played by a heavily made-up James Cromwell (who would later portray Zefram Cochrane in the movie First Contact). Cromwell is a great actor, but can't save a nonsensical character. For a man who prides himself on knowing things, Shrek apparently knows nothing about Klingons -- particularly, how one is likely to react to an attempt at extortion. Shrek approaches Worf all wrong, and rather than making money or hightailing it out of there, he winds up deferring payment and agreeing to transport Worf into Romulan space!

The Data half of the episode is conceived somewhat better, though it too has its flaws. The dream sequences aren't really that unusual or special. Director Winrich Kolbe had hoped to use an array of wild photography tricks to present a true dreamscape, or at least an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The producers shot it all down, leaving him little more than a fisheye lens and a body double for Brent Spiner that's painfully obvious in most shots. In an apparent attempt to compensate and keep things dream-like, Spiner amps up his performance as the younger Dr. Soong to a rather wild-eyed and strange level.

Even if the presentation of Data's dreams had lived up to the tantalizing idea of them, the road getting there is fairly clumsy. Doctor Bashir crosses over from Deep Space Nine, bringing a mysterious alien artifact whose purpose is never actually revealed. (It's as pure a Macguffin as you can get.) Worse, Bashir kind of spoils the ending of the episode immediately after Data's first "vision." He correctly speculates that Data has had a dream, taking most of the tension from Data's exploration of what has happened to him.

If Bashir seems unusually worldly and insightful in leaping to this conclusion (given the naivete of his character, circa season one Deep Space Nine), it's because the episode wasn't originally written for him. The writers had planned for Jadzia Dax to be the character crossing over, bringing the wisdom of many lifetimes with her in advising Data. But the Deep Space Nine episode being filmed at the time was "Move Along Home," where Sisko, Kira, and Dax are all trapped inside a game in which Bashir is "killed off" early on. Simply put, Terry Farrell wasn't available for filming, while Siddig el Fadil was.

Ironically, Bashir's behavior here in this episode does end up making a tremendous amount of sense later down the road. No one knew it at the time, but years later, the writers would decide that Bashir was secretly a genetically-engineered human who had been concealing his enhanced abilities. It's a happy accident, but it perfectly explains why here, Bashir is so curious about Data's respiration, his pulse, his growing hair. Bashir is naturally drawn to the things that allow Data -- a clearly artificial "human" -- to pass as "normal!"

Despite weak plot lines, the episode does serve up several good scenes. There's a great Troi-Worf scene early on, in which she's able to give him a solid mocking that actually calms him rather than enraging him. (It's a fine example of why the writers decided to try a romance between the characters in the final season.) Data's attempts to get advice from friends also play well. Worf is clearly the most spiritual character on the show, so it's natural that he seek the Klingon's advice on "visions." (Even if the scene also hamfistedly tries to connect the two subplots by theme.) Picard's advice to Data seems to draw on the captain's archaeology hobby, as he tries to help Data understand that he is a "culture of one."

Other observations:
  • The scenes aboard Deep Space Nine are fun. It's strange to see Dr. Crusher and Geordi there.
  • Composer Jay Chattaway treats us to a couple bars of the Deep Space Nine theme (by Dennis McCarthy) to open the episode.
  • While several writers and producers acknowledge that the second part of this episode came off a bit weak, they don't seem to have their eyes similarly open looking at this first half. Executive producer Rick Berman somehow thought both storylines were given equal weight, and claimed "I loved every element of it and so did my son, Tommy." (Oh... well... if his kid liked it.) Writer Brannon Braga said "I don't have a single complaint."
In truth, this isn't so bad an episode. But it feels like exactly what it is: one storyline choked for time when it deserved an episode of its own, and another storyline stretched too long when it could have been compressed into a single hour. I give "Birthright, Part I" a C.

No comments: