Friday, December 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Inheritance

At the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation, if you'd looked at the array of main characters, you probably wouldn't have guessed that the one who eventually would have the biggest family would be Data. But that's exactly what happened. After meeting his brother, grandfather, daughter, and father, "Inheritance" introduced us to his mother.

The Enterprise is trying to help the people of Atrea IV stabilize the rapidly cooling core of their planet, with the help of two of its foremost scientists: Pran and Juliana Tainer. Juliana is human, and as it happens, the former wife of Data's creator, Dr. Noonien Soong. As everyone works on the problem of the planet, Data wrestles with the discovery of an early "childhood" and a mother -- all of which was erased from his memory. Plus, Juliana is hiding a surprising secret.

The original pitch for this episode came from outside writer Dan Koeppel, but it was ultimately heading to the scrap pile when staff writer René Echevarria made it something of a personal mission to save the idea. Feeling that there was interesting material to explore here, he undertook a rewrite that greatly increased the emotional heft and drama in the story. His efforts yielded a workable script.

Still, there's a fair amount of impersonal material even in the finished episode. Right from the teaser, you're hit with the very technobabbly problems of Atrea IV, and the very technobabbly means proposed for saving the planet. And though the teaser ends with the more dramatic revelation of Data's mother, most of the first act isn't getting to the emotional meat of that idea either. Instead, a lot of time is devoted to explaining how Data could have had a mother (and Soong a wife) without any of us (characters or audience) ever knowing it. So really, about half of "Inheritance" is technobabble or retconning, and the pace suffers for it.

That said, the other half of the episode -- the stuff Echevarria focused on in his rewrite -- is generally pretty good. First, there's a lot deft and fitting fan service. We get multiple mentions of Data's daughter Lal. Brent Spiner once again gets to play Dr. Soong (this time aged somewhere between his appearance in "Birthright, Part I" and his appearance in "Brothers"). There are also fun moments playing stereotypical mother/son scenes using the creator/creation relationship -- mom telling embarrassing stories about the kid running around naked as a child, son thinking his mother is exaggerating his accomplishments, and so on.

But the best moment, the scene that truly saves the episode, is the choice that Data must ultimately make. The revelation that Juliana Tainer is actually an android seems like it's going to be purely for shock value, until Data discusses his options with Picard, Troi, and Crusher. The very poignant resolution is that Data chooses to carry on alone in the universe, so that his mother can keep living the life he's always wanted for himself -- life as a human. Once again, the series uses its emotionless character to stir grand emotions in the audience.

Other observations:
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven has a number of deleted scenes (and lines within scenes) from this episode. Juliana has a fun anecdote that speaks to Noonien Soong's quirky nature: he was determined to perfect an algorithm for giving Data hiccups. The episode's scene outside Troi's quarters is followed by the logical scene with Troi you would have expected. And, fleshing out the slim plot thread of Juliana's husband Pran expressing a distrust of androids, he actually welcomes Data to his "family" after attending the concert in Ten Forward.
  • Speaking of Pran's initial anti-android prejudice, he expresses it in a rather odd way early in the episode, asking Riker if someone should double-check Data's calculations. Doubting a computer's ability to compute? Would you ask for a slide rule to double-check the results of a calculator?
  • Data behaves a bit oddly in this episode too. Having decided that his mother is probably an android, he's uncertain enough to seek verification from Dr. Crusher. Yet when she refutes his theory by declaring Tainer to be a normal human being, he somehow becomes more certain, and a short time later shoves his mother off a 30-foot cliff.
"Inheritance" is an uneven episode, with a lot of dead weight in an uninteresting science plot. But it has enough other good scenes -- particularly a very touching decision for Data -- to be worthwhile overall. I give it a B-.

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