WARNING: This article little "spoiler" varmints for TNG's recent offering, "A Fistful of Datas". If you don't want to see 'em, vamoose.
Well, that was certainly...different.
It's been a while since we've had an episode intended to be comic relief from start to finish, and this one seemed to have it about half right. More details will follow, of course, after this synopsis:
With the Enterprise crew having some free time on their hands, Worf and Alexander visit a holodeck simulation of the "ancient" American West at Alexander's request. Worf assumes the role of sheriff, with Alexander as deputy, and begins the process of apprehending killer Eli Hollander. Alexander increases the difficulty of the program after Worf achieves success too easily, but Worf nevertheless arrests and imprisons Hollander with some timely assistance from Counselor Troi, entering the fray as a "mysterious stranger."
However, an attempt to use Data as a backup for the Enterprise computer encounters some difficulties, with strange results. Much of the recreational database is replaced with items from Data's personal files, thus converting Dr. Crusher's play into some of Data's poetry, and so forth. This interference appears on the holodeck by the early arrival of Eli's father Frank Hollander, who abducts Alexander -- and who has Data's face.
Frank quickly makes himself known to Worf, who is puzzled by the resemblance to Data, and informs Worf that he has Alexander. He proposes a trade, Alexander for Eli, but is quickly rejected. Worf attempts to freeze the program, only to find that he cannot. Instead, he flees the saloon, being shot in the arm in the process. When he arrives back at the sheriff's office, he and Troi are surprised to find that Eli Hollander now *also* appears to have Data's face.
With no way to escape the program "outside the rules", Troi suggests that they simply must proceed to the expected end of the storyline and that the program should end itself. Worf agrees, and begins searching for Alexander. However, two more complications set in: Data himself shows signs of many Old West mannerisms, and Troi notices that Eli appears to have Data's abilities as well as his appearance. While Geordi tries to solve both ends of the shipwide problem, Worf decides based on Eli's and Frank's abilities to agree to the Alexander/Eli trade. He and Frank reach an agreement, but Troi hastily warns Worf that Frank, like most Western villains, undoubtedly cannot be trusted. Frank will try to kill him in two hours, and has Data's strength and skill.
Using what materials he can, Worf uses his communicator and a telegraph machine to create a short-lived personal shield. The trade-off occurs as planned, but Frank attempts to kill Worf just afterwards. Worf's shield protects him from the initial attempts, and Worf manages to shoot Frank's second gun out of his hand while Troi keeps Frank's men (now all Data-clones as well) at bay. Given the opportunity to shoot Frank, Worf instead orders them out of town. After a brief ending with Miss Annie, the saloonkeeper (who now also has Data's appearance), Worf and company are relieved to see the program end. The damage caused by Data's malfunction is repaired, and Worf pledges to Alexander that at some point, they will go back to Deadwood under better circumstances.
That's it, in a nutshell. Now, on with the show:
As I said earlier, it's rare these days to see a TNG episode designed purely as comic relief; in fact, the last one that comes to mind is "Qpid", though I may be forgetting one. Given their somewhat spotty track record with purely comedic shows ("The Naked Now" and "Manhunt" were good, for instance, as was "Deja Q", but "Menage a Troi", "Qpid", and "The Royale", for instance, were abominable), this is understandable. This time, bits of it worked, but not enough to really justify to me the idea of Yet Another Holodeck Period Piece [tm].
First, let's look at some of the things that did work. One was a significant portion of the dialogue, which we have the combination of Robert Hewitt-Wolfe (who also wrote the story) and Brannon Braga to thank for. I don't believe Hewitt-Wolfe has done any prior work for TNG, but Braga has quite frequently established himself as one of the better dialogue writers the show has (even if his plots, such as in "Imaginary Friend" or "Schisms", sometimes don't do much for me). Let's face it -- how many other writers would be likely to not only invent Data's ode to Spot a few weeks back, but then *re-use* it in a case like this? It was one of the more inspired choices in a set of lunatic scenes, and went over quite well.
The second, which is essential in episodes like this, is that every single person involved seemed to realize "hey, guys, it's just a show, and it's comic relief. Lighten up," and act accordingly. The infamous "ode" scene mentioned about is again a good example, given that Frakes's mugging actually *worked* for once this season, but in almost any scene you could name, I could almost see thought balloons above characters' heads (or directors' heads, for that matter) saying "Aaaaah, what the hell..." Given the mood I was in at the time, 'twas a good pairing. :-)
Third would have to be the music. Shows that spend as much time in a period setting as this one did need to keep that certain "feel" alive with the music, and Chattaway managed it. Not being a connoisseur of Westerns as a rule, I couldn't tell you what exactly worked or how, but it felt appropriate (and, also rare of late, somewhat engaging) at the time, and that's what counts.
Smaller things that worked would include things like the final shot of the Enterprise literally riding off into the sunset. Yes, it was hokey, and yes, one could see it coming, but the whole *show* was designed to be hokey and at least somewhat predictable. It was a departure from the norm; and in a season that so far has managed most of the time to feel like it rarely if ever gets far *enough* away from the status quo, that was refreshing.
Moving on, Brent Spiner's multi-role performance this week was actually somewhat mixed. His two key parts, namely Data himself and Frank Hollander, were good, as expected, with Data providing a lot of laughs (even if he *was* a straight android to Spot :-) ) and Frank a surprisingly effective menace. On the other hand, I was about as unimpressed with his *Eli* Hollander as I've ever been by him, and in the end everything just became overkill, particularly the awful bit with Data-in-drag as Annie. Spiner's method style seems to work best for me when the character is understated, and Eli was so over-the-top that I found Spiner's acting rather unpleasant. Ah, well.
On to the bad points. The first would have to be Brian Bonsall's lack of acting as Alexander. I don't particularly like having to make this point every time Alexander shows up on screen, but unfortunately neither the character nor the actor has gotten any *better*. And, to be blunt, if I have to hear the same two-note "FA-ther!" whenever Alexander and Worf first meet in an episode, I'm likely to consider getting violently ill. I still like the basic idea of Worf dealing with parenthood, and the idea of Alexander; but nothing in the execution in a long time has suggested to me that I'll see anything valuable in the doing of it.
A minor plot point that seems careless on the part of the characters: given that the holodecks have had problems before, and that Data's malfunction was affecting recreational systems (including the holodecks), one would think the obvious thing to do is to immediately shut down all the holodecks until the problem is fixed. Even if there's no reason to suspect danger, there's every reason to expect lots of glitches, and annoyance is a problem in itself. And unlike, say, life support, having the holodecks shut down for a few hours is not going to cause more than minor difficulties for anyone. Granted, this simply seems careless, as opposed to the option of "they thought of that, but can't shut off the holodeck", which would be dumb -- but even so, it *is* careless, and that's something I'm seeing a lot more often than I'd like.
Speaking of carelessness, I've a minor point which absolutely floored me. On at least two occasions, the "superficial" aspects of the show displayed incredibly shoddy worksmanship, which is a charge I can't believe I'm leveling at a show which has had such consistently high production values for so long. First, take a look at Frank Hollander's first meeting with Worf. Spiner's makeup is *very* clearly a face-only job at the time, and Frank Hollander is a decidedly two-tone character throughout that entire scene. Second, and far less noticeable: after Frank and Eli's conversation in Worf's office, when Frank turns away to walk to Worf, "Eli" is revealed as a stand-in mannequin -- and a small change of camera angle would have resolved that problem immediately. These may seem petty, but what it feels like to me is slovenly work; and I simply don't understand it.
Back to plot points, I'm a bit skeptical that Worf could somehow create a personal shield out of a *communicator* and 19th-century tools. Given the disbelief I've suspended in places such as "City on the Edge of Forever" and "Time's Arrow", it's not a particularly big problem, though -- and at least we didn't hear five minutes' worth of technobabble explanations for it, as has been too common of late. (Actually, "A Fistful of Datas" was pleasantly free of technobabble, and I'm pleased to see it. Maybe someone has actually gotten the message.)
The only other thing I didn't really care for was the acting of all the "Deadwood" characters, namely the pre-Data Eli, the bandito, and Annie. Perhaps this is due to my basic disinterest in Westerns as a genre, but I didn't really like the characters and found all three actors way too over-the-top. (It didn't help when we had to see one scene *twice*, thanks to Alexander's reset. Hint: Just because "Cause and Effect" repeated scenes to superb use, that doesn't mean one can repeat scenes for filler purposes!)
I'm a bit pressed for time, so a few quick short takes before I go:
--Marina Sirtis's acting, like Spiner's, was somewhat mixed. She did better than I expected as the "mysterious stranger", and certainly got into the idea as much as Troi was supposed to, but something about it just didn't quite click for me.
--The teaser was probably the best one I've seen since "Relics", and probably the funniest one I've seen in ages. Kudos to all, especially Patrick Stewart for managing to *direct* that scene.
--Hooray for Spot! The prodigal feline returns, hopefully for more frequent appearances. We all know Spot's *really* the one orchestrating the day-to-day workings of the ship, right? ;-)
--Finally, as a point that should perhaps be longer, it was nice to have a situation where the Enterprise was not in a desperate crisis for once. Granted, the "jeopardy" element wasn't gone entirely, given Worf's situation, but at least we didn't have universe-shattering consequences this time. Just good, plain, old-fashioned humor.
On the whole, I'd have to say I liked this -- certainly, it was far better than I'd have expected from the preview. I don't want to see it on a regular basis, and I think these "comic relief" shows have a way to go before they're really hilarious, but it was fun.
So, the numbers:
Plot: 6. No major plot holes, but nothing particularly striking either; another holodeck show. Plot Handling: 8. Stewart's improving with experience, and did a good job of getting across that "what the hell" feeling so important in shows like this. Characterization: 6. Good on many, mixed on some, and several terribly eak.
TOTAL: 20/3, which rounds *down* to a 6 thanks to some terrible production goofs. Much better than expected, but far from perfect.
Data must choose between his loyalty to his friends and his loyalty to another possible "living machine." Now *this* one looks meaty.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) BITNET: tlynch@citjulieINTERNET: email@example.com UUCP: ...!firstname.lastname@example.org "There wouldn't be any ... *sheepherders* in here, would there?"
-- Copyright 1992, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.