Or The One Where Picard Goes Home
Nothing much happens in "Family." It's a direct continuation of "The Best of Both Worlds," but the Borg remain defeated. There's no new alien threat to handle, no strange crisis to unravel, no political infighting or diplomatic negotiations. There are three stories but no real plots. People talk, there's some fighting, a bit of hugging, and then it's over. This is the closest to straight drama that TNG has ever gotten, and two seasons ago, the idea of that would've scared the crap out of me. Good drama requires a certain amount of subtlety and nuance; it requires characters who are consistent, not necessarily in action but in their drives and core selves; and, God help us all, it requires subtext. That means sometimes people have to say things and mean something else entirely, and, apart from the occasional villain, that's not really something TNG used to do very well.
This isn't the first two seasons, though, and while it lacks the Earth-threatening stakes of the episode which precedes it, "Family" is one of the best hours TNG has ever done. Heartfelt, intimate, and wise, it's the sort of grace note that the epic maneuverings of "Both Worlds" required. The Borg's assimilation of Picard had a happy ending. Jean-Luc was restored to his humanity and his captaincy and even provided the key piece of information required to take down his attackers. And yet, the humiliation—the betrayal—lingered. What happened to Picard was a form of rape, and rape isn't something anyone gets over by working too much and drinking tea. Picard needs some time away from the Enterprise, with the loved ones he left behind to go traipsing across the galaxy. He needs to find some way to deal with whatever is breaking his heart.
The Picard segments of "Family" are the best parts of the episode, but what makes this one work as well as it does is that, by and large, there are no weak spots. While Picard is off in France, visiting the village where he grew up, life continues back on the ship. Worf's human parents, Helena and Sergey, come to visit—and of course they're Russian, which is just so perfect I couldn't stop grinning for most of their scenes. Worf is uncomfortable to have his parents around, which isn't surprising. If he was on a Klingon ship, there'd be no familial visits, but as Riker helpfully reminds us, the Enterprise isn't a Klingon ship. So here come Mom and Dad to nose around in everything, share embarrassing stories of Worf's youth, and maybe have a chat about that whole "shamed in front of the entire Klingon Empire" thing from last season.
The only other running story here takes up the least amount of screentime, but has the most surprisingly emotional pay-off. (Picard's story is more powerful, but the emotions there aren't quite as surprising; we know Patrick Stewart is going to deliver the goods, but Wesley isn't such a sure thing.) Beverly gets a delivery while the ship is orbiting Earth: a box full of her dead husband's things, including his old uniform, a book he sent her when he decided to propose, and a holographic recording of Jack's first—and, sadly, final—message to his son, made just after Wesley's birth. Beverly isn't sure at first if she should pass the recording along, but she decides to with a minimal amount of drama, and near the end of the episode, Wesley plays it in the holodeck. It works very well, tying together with the episode's loose theme about the importance of our ties to the people closest to us and how these connections are stronger than we realize, stronger even than death.
Worf's experiences are also moving, though not nearly as tragic. His parents aren't bad people; they aren't even really annoying people. That's to be expected, because TNG isn't a show about toxic families or complex psychological problems that can't be fixed through a simple application of honesty. Here, all the main characters are fundamentally decent people, and when conflict arises, it's nearly always about different conceptions of what's best for everyone. Greed or stupidity or malice are things that happen elsewhere. It's maybe a little naive, but there's something refreshing about it as well. The drama between Worf and his mom and dad comes from personality and insecurity, and all it really needs is a good heart-to-heart to fix everything. And it works, because we like Worf, and his parents seem very nice, and because it's satisfying to see characters we care about living through the minor crises that make up most of life. I'll admit it: Worf's smile near the end really got to me. Because, dammit, he sullied his honor for the sake of the Klingon Empire, and he deserves a little support for that.
It's also nice (or some other, less ridiculous word than "nice") to see characters we care about plowing through the major catastrophes, and that's what Picard's visit to Labarre is about, although he doesn't really understand this at first. Picard is running from his duties. His track-record is so unimpeachable that I doubt anyone (beyond the perpetually nosy Troi) would look askance on him asking for some time off, especially with what he's been through recently. And it's important that he leaves for a little while, but it's even more important that he decides to come back, and there's some time here where he doesn't seem to realize this. We meet Picard's family, most importantly his brother Robert (Jeremy Kemp), who is the only openly hostile relative in the entire episode. (And, so far as I can remember, the only one in the series proper, outside of Lore, whom we will be dealing with shortly.) Picard chats with his nephew, praises Robert's wife's cooking, and talks with an old friend about a potential job planet-side. He finds himself considering that last very seriously, which doesn't seem in character at all.
Robert doesn't like his brother that much. He calls him an "arrogant son of a bitch" behind his back, and the conversations between the two men are at icily polite at best, cutting and dismissive at worst. There are all kinds of old wounds here just below the surface, and impressively, those wounds don't immediately reveal their cause. Robert doesn't like technology, and considers Picard vain, but it's not till the two get drunk on wine that his jealousy of his younger brother becomes clear. This is a beautifully shot sequence, too, with Picard walking as fast as he can while Robert stalks him just behind, repeatedly assaulting him with accusations of ego and selfishness. The verbal assault finally provokes Picard into lashing out physically, and the two wrestle for a few minutes before collapsing in laughter. And that's when the real reason for all of this becomes plain.
It's funny—Picard is the noblest character on a ship full of noble characters (only Data can match him for moral grace, and that's mostly because Data doesn't have a choice in what he is), but Robert's accusations of arrogance aren't entirely off the mark. Picard's ego isn't that he's selfish, though; it comes from a deep conviction that he has to be the best, the most perfect, the most ideal in all situations. He can't ever let himself be weak or foolish or cowardly, because that would mean failure, and that's not something this guy does. Which makes him a terrific role model and a wonderful lead, but it's also a lie, because no one can be that perfect. Picard is, after all, just a man under everything else, and there is something egotistical about his occasional refusal to admit this. (Which reminds me a little of Nicole Kidman in Dogville, which is not a comparison I ever thought I'd be making.) It takes his brother to bring him back down to earth long enough to admit that the Borg defeated him for a time, and he failed. Sure, it wasn't the kind of failure he should be ashamed of—the assimilation didn't leave him with many options—but that doesn't make his guilt and his self-loathing and despair any less real.
This confession, of all Stewart's amazing acting moments on the show so far, may be my favorite. There's none of the operatic intensity of "Sarek" here; it's just a man sobbing under the weight of his temporary damnation. "Family" is a necessary episode, as we all needed a breather after last week. It's also a remarkable episode, thoughtful, a little sad, but in the end full of hope. The final shot shows Picard's nephew dreaming under the stars. Like much of this episode, it could've been corny. And like all of this episode, it isn't.
- Guinan to Worf's parents: "He's not looking towards the Klingon Empire. He's looking towards you." Awwww.
Or The One Where Data Goes Home
Hey, remember Lore? Last time we saw him was back in season one, which surprised me when I looked it up, because I thought he was on the show more often than that. Looking online, Lore only appears in four episodes of the series, which seems low to me. But hey, good to see him again, and since Brent Spiner was probably bored with the whole "two roles in one scene" gag, we meet a new character who's crucially important to Data and Lore: the cybernetics genius Dr. Noonien Soong, who created both androids and, last we heard, was dead. But this is a genre show, and on genre shows, unless we see the corpsification going down, the dead aren't exactly dead. (And even if we do see bodies hitting the floor, the collapse isn't always permanent.)
After easily the show's best premiere so far, and a second episode that managed to ease us into the rest of the season without losing the intensity or emotional realism, "Brothers" continues TNG's win streak with a gratifyingly complex look at Data's past. It doesn't have quite the depth of "Family" or the scope of "Worlds," but both of those were series defining episodes. "Brothers" is more conventional, returning us to the standard mystery followed by confrontation followed by conclusion structure that most of the show operates on. The mystery here being: What the hell is going on with Data? In the space of about 10 minutes in show-time, he takes control of the Enterprise, forces the crew off the bridge, changes course for a new destination, and then beams himself down to an unknown planet, without help of any weapon beyond the ship's security tech and his own ability to perfectly mimic Picard's voice. So, clearly, something's going on.
Most of the big moments in this episode come from the second half in Soong's lab, but Data's assault on the ship is crackerjack (random confession: I get a ridiculous kick out of using that word) material, because it demonstrates what anyone who's been paying attention realized long ago: If Data didn't have those ethical subroutines in his positronic matrix, he would be a well-nigh unstoppable threat. Lore is dangerous because he has many of Data's abilities and none of Data's compunctions about harming innocents, but Lore is also tremendously unstable, and that makes him imperfect. Data, on the other hand, has real Skynet/Colossus potential, if he ever decided to give up on the full Pinocchio and get into business for himself. His ruthlessly pragmatic approach, combined with four years' worth of established trust, means that when the switch flips in his head, nobody is prepared to deal with it. Hell, they don't even realize Data is doing anything until he's already forced the bridge crew into Engineering. Geordi and O'Brien eventually manage a work-around to circumvent some of Data's installed protocols, but he's already in Soong's lab, mission accomplished, and the Enterprise is still basically useless to them without Data to provide the necessary access code. Imagine if he'd done this with actual harmful intent?
Ah, but none of this was Data's fault, of course. Our Data wouldn't dream of such things. Blame it on Soong, who, after years spent hiding, has finally decided to make contact with his greatest creation. Data has a "simple" homing device installed in his skull, which, once activated, creates an unignorable imperative to meet his maker. Interestingly enough, Soong doesn't seem like that bad a guy. We don't get to know much about him, beyond him being old and nearly dead, and that Brent Spiner looks odd under all that old age make-up. But he's proud of Data, and while his actions indicate a clear lack of consideration for others, it's not his fault that some stupid kid ate some stupid plant-life and will die if the Enterprise doesn't get back to a certain Starbase in time. (Here's a thought: maybe you should make the cure for eating a planet's flora available somewhere near the planet itself?) Soong is just another one of those nutty scientists who doesn't really think much for consequences. That's why he risks the stupid kid's life when he orders Data to hijack the ship, and that's why he's shocked when Lore walks in the front door.
In his defense, Lore was disassembled the last time Soong saw him, but after the Enterprise put him back together and after the poor psycho floated around in space for a couple of years following the conclusion of "Datalore," he's fully functional. (The Pakleds saved him, and he's even dressed in Pakled-esque garb.) He's also not too happy at what he considers his mistreatment at the hands of Soong and his brother. There are a couple ways the episode could've played this. Most obviously, it could've made Lore an outright villain. He was a bad one in "Datalore," partners with a crystalline entity that nearly devoured the Enterprise, so it only stands to reason he should be a bad one here. The best guess would be, he finds someway to betray Data again and beats up on Soong for leaving him behind.
This is what happens, but if that was all that happened, "Brothers" would be fine, but not much more than that. What makes this episode work well is that Lore is actually sympathetic. I'm not sure if Brent Spiner became a better actor since the first season, or if it's because the direction and writing have become that much stronger since the character's first appearance; I'm betting it's a little of both. Spiner does triple duty for a number of scenes in "Brothers," and he's credible in all three roles, but it's his work as Lore that's the most impressive. The character has gone from being an explosion of crazy, all creepy grins and mustache-twirling-worthy inneundo, into something more haunting and sad. He's more contained here than he ever was, and its easier to connect with his emotional state, partly because of Spiner's performance, and partly because he's given understandable motivations. He's upset and hurt because he believes Soong mistreated him, and more importantly, he's right. It's not perfect—once Lore steals Data's uniform and gets the drop on Soong, the old one-note antics start to pop up again, although there's still enough justifiable rage behind them to make them mostly land. But the earlier scenes hold up very well and even achieve something I didn't think possible: They make you identify, if only for a moment, with Lore over Data.
"Brothers" is a generally tight piece of work, but like Lore's newfound complexity, it has some missteps. There's a transition in Soong's lab that feels like we're missing a scene. We don't need to see Lore knocking Data out and stealing his uniform, but we do need a few more beats of that set-up than what we get. I'm not sure I buy that Data would be that easy to beat, especially now that he's on his guard, and I don't really understand why Soong would just go straight to installing the chip without checking to see where his other robot was hiding. Less damning but still flawed is the subplot involving the two brothers. Its symbolic meaning—forgiveness and so forth—has a place, but the plot itself, like the scenes with Beverly trying to cheer up the sick boy, isn't necessary or all that entertaining. (It's also another reminder why having children on a ship like this is tricky business at best.)
Still, I do like that final scene, as Data considers what it means to have a brother and what he might do the next time he sees Lore. Throughout the episode, Soong repeatedly encourages Data to have sympathy for Lore, and while this could be dismissed as the scientist's hopeless naiveté—Lore does throw him across the room after stealing his latest invention, after all—the episode's conclusion seems to give the urge towards reconciliation a certain legitimacy. Lore is a monster, but it is literally the fault of his design. Like Frankenstein's creation, he was feared by those around him, and then dismissed by his creator as hopelessly flawed. He's imperfect, dangerous, and surely doomed. But he's the only brother Data will ever have, and maybe that means something.
- I wonder how long it took Geordi to scan Data for any other secret surprises once they got back to the Enterprise?
- They still have toy dinosaurs in the future that look about the same as the toy dinosaurs I had growing up. This pleases me.
- Next week, we lift up our head, wipe off our mascara, and take a look at "Suddenly Human" and "Remember Me."