Tuesday, April 14, 2015
“Heir Apparent”: Brothers
Well, that's the obvious reading, is it not? “Brothers” is the limit case for Brent Spiner's incredible versatility as an actor, playing three completely different characters all of whom interact with each other during the same scenes. And there's no two ways around it, Spiner is simply masterful, effortlessly shifting between Data, Lore and the surprisingly alive (temporarily) Doctor Noonian Soong. It's the latter of those roles that's worth speaking the most of here, as it provides the first genuine challenge Star Trek: The Next Generation has thrown at Spiner since he joined the show. It's not that Spiner's talents were ever not self-evident: He's great as Data, obviously, and the way he works his penchant for impersonations into the android's inherent mutability and impressionable nature is a stroke of genius. And his love of playing unreconstructed psychopaths is on record, as is his profoundly chilling skill at it: That's pretty much who Lore is here again, and there's another episode coming up next year that gives Spiner even more room to play in this regard.
But it's the brilliant, eccentric and aged Doctor Soong that's of the most interest, because it's a role manifestly different from the sort of thing Spiner's played on Star Trek: The Next Generation to date. In fact, Spiner even says he was uncertain how to play the part until he saw himself in the old age makeup, and then it immediately came to him. So, he credits the character of Doctor Soong as much to Michael Westmore as to himself, if not more so, a touching reminder of how much of television is really a group effort. And let's not forget, of course, the herculean efforts the camera crew and director Rob Bowman had to go through to get Brent Spiner to appear on camera in three different places at once. And Spiner's performance itself is predictably wonderful: We definitely get the sense that this is a person who's possessed of great confidence and ambition who, while old age has caught up with him and slowed him down, is as sharp and wry as ever. It's instantly memorable and one of Spiner's most iconic performances, really removing whatever upper limit might have been arbitrarily placed on his acting range.
I'll talk a little bit about Lore as well, because it's really this episode that sets in motion all the cool stuff the show does with his character from here on out that I particularly like. It's also the episode that sort of codifies the version of Lore's personality that sticks and that I associate most with him (not to mention a good deal of Data's subsequent character arc, particularly in terms of his relationship to Soong). Lore's not merely a generic evil twin or a violent, thuggish backstabber as Gene Roddenberry wrote him in “Datalore” this time. Here, he's a clearly twisted and genuinely wicked character who manages to be truly chilling, singing random stanzas from old folk songs, perhaps befitting his name (the song is the frequently-quoted, and just as frequently misquoted, “Abdul Abuldul Amir”. And yes, perhaps also befitting his name, Lore gets his quotes wrong and out of context). If nothing else, “Brothers” is required set-up, both extradiegetically and in terms of continuity, for Brent Spiner's scene-stealing performance in “Descent”.
But what's also interesting to note here is that as psychotically warped as Lore and his sense of ego might be, there's also the inkling that this was always a part of Noonian Soong too: Just look at how he remarks to Data “I have always loved that face”, or indeed the fact he built two androids in his own idealized likeness. This then is the ultimate redemption of the Data/Lore binary Roddenberry set up in, well, “Datalore”: Not only are both of the androids' personalities derived in some way from those of their creator (both positive and negative), but it's the union of seeming opposites, such as data and lore, through which a holistically formed being arises. Recall that the example Soong gives to Data in explaining why he made him the emotion chip is that it might help him better understand people. People like Lore and the perspective they come from. Soong is talking about empathy, which is one of the most powerful and beneficial emotions we can channel.
That all said, this also dovetails into problems I had and always have had with “Brothers”. As intellectually interesting as all this is, I have a hard time buying this as a completely satisfying or enjoyable piece of television. Now make no mistake, the stuff with Brent Spiner is positively gripping to be sure, but the rest of what the episode is doing elsewhere leaves me cold a bit. I detest the whole “homing beacon” thing that overwrites Data's programming and has him violate orders and put lives in jeopardy to take the Enterprise to Terlina III: It's crass, vapid “shocking betrayal” conflict-for-conflict's sake garbage. I also have somewhat serious issues with the Potts brothers B-plot, which is of course transparently a metaphor for the Data/Lore A-plot. That's not my problem with it though-My problem is Doctor Crusher's line “They're brothers, Data. Brothers forgive”.
The episode is obviously about empathy and understanding the positionality of others, to be sure, and those are of course extremely Star Trek: The Next Generation themes. That's all to be commended, and if more people tried to be empathic in their everyday lives the world would be a demonstrably better place than it is now. But with a line like that, it does push the show somewhat uncomfortably close to a kind of filial piety reading that I find really distasteful: Relatives are not more deserving of forgiveness than anyone else in the world simply because they're related to you. A family is just a group of people you happen to share blood with, and forgiveness is something that is earned, not something one is entitled to. Yes, obviously we should all try to be more understanding of the perspectives others are operating from, but that doesn't mean we automatically have to condone them and look the other way if they do things that oppress or dehumanize you or add to the glut of darkness in the world. That goes for our families just as much as it does for strangers we meet on the street, if not more so. Any child disowned by their family for coming out as LGBTQ knows this better than most.
(And indeed, where do you make your family? Is it your real family just because you're related to them by blood, or is it a group of people with whom you feel you belong no matter your genealogy because it's a community you understand and relate to? We were examining these same themes just last episode, and seemed to have come to a very different conclusion in that case. And even Data himself said in “Tin Man” last year that the Enterprise is where he belongs.)
One other thing worth mentioning about “Brothers” is that, just like “Suddenly Human”, we get to see the authorial debut of a new creative figure. Surprisingly, it's Rick Berman. He's been around as long as Star Trek: The Next Generation has, of course, but this is the first time he's actually offered a story of his own, and now's as good a time as any to take a look at what his actual role on the show is. It's easy to write Berman off as a studio lackey, and indeed a lot of the criticism that's going to be levelled at him over the coming decades is going to hinge on that assumption. He was a Paramount studio executive to be sure, but in 1987 he was relatively young and inexperienced one, and the reason he tends to hang around Star Trek: The Next Generation so much is because Gene Roddenberry wanted him to. The two quickly formed a relationship ans Roddenberry saw Berman as somebody he could trust and was easy talk to because he “got” Star Trek in a way the other executives didn't always.
As a result, Rick Berman became a regular in the writers' and producers' rooms, and eventually became sort of the creative team's go-between with Paramount Corporate after scoring a producer's gig of his own: He technically worked for the studio, sure, but everyone there knew he was The Star Trek Guy and got along way better with the people making the show then the people overseeing it. Indeed, he and Michael Piller felt an instantaneous connection, and the two of them have been bonding ever since. Perhaps because of his closeness to Gene Roddenberry (although it should be said a lot of the affection was one-sided on Roddenberry's part and Berman was never quite as close to him as Maurice Hurley was) Berman began to take on more and more of his “quality control” duties, tempered by his experience in that other world in the studio boardrooms, and will in the not-too-distant future be groomed in the public eye as Roddenberry's successor, even though his day-to-day responsibilities never really actually change that much.
(This also means Rick Berman is a somewhat tragically liminal figure, neither fully staff writer nor studio exec and will take the full force of the blame from all sides when Star Trek eventually implodes in on itself. It also doesn't help Berman's reputation among Star Trek fans that he has a documented track record of not letting Star Trek fans act like Star Trek fans.)
But it's Berman's strong connection to Michael Piller that holds the most ramifications for us not just tonight, but when looking at where Star Trek will soon go. In that regard, what's the most telling about Berman's first script, “Brothers”, is how much it reads like a Michael Piller script. It has the same free-flowing, haunting lyrical style that characterizes Piller at its best, especially when Lore and Doctor Soong are talking: I especially like Soong's speech about Michelangelo and sculpting. Little surprise then that Berman and Piller got along so well, and you can see a lot of the former's influence rubbing off on the latter here. It was Piller, actually, who suggested bringing Lore back to add an extra dimension to the story, and the majority of Berman's future contributions as a writer, at least on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, will be joint efforts with Piller.
“Brothers” then is interesting: A flawed masterpiece that is nevertheless required viewing for the groundwork it lays for Star Trek's future, both in and out of universe.