Someone once said “the night is darkest just before the dawn”. And the dawn has broken.
“Data’s Day” is not the episode I would consider the true beginning of what we might call Star Trek: The Next Generation Mark II (Mark I having destroyed itself in the chaos of “The Best of Both Worlds” and the past ten weeks or so having been a largely directionless interregnum trying to come to terms with its loss). But it could be called the new show’s pilot, and it’s a thing of absolute beauty. This is without question one of my absolute favourite episodes in the entire series, if not the franchise, one I always made a point to watch whenever it would come on and a story that has defined a huge portion of how I imagine the universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s not absolutely perfect and there are some nitpicks I’ve always had with it, but even so it’s nothing short of a masterpiece and a godsend after half a year of aimlessly puttering about throwing things at the wall and only occasionally tossing out an execrable disaster of a script.
It’s an understated stroke of genius to do a “day in the life” story chronicling an ordinary 24 hours aboard the starship Enterprise. Life, after all, is not lived in those grand and momentous events that become transcribed onto your memory forever, but in hours, months and years we spend in the humdrum, day-to-day routine in between. Which is why, of course, it’s so very important that we all make sure to live our lives as truthfully, sincerely and fully as we can each and every day. And Data serves as an excellent role model in this respect because, as he shows us over the course of this episode, Data chooses to spend his day trying to learn from others and improve himself. Over the course of what’s apparently an ordinary, uneventful and unremarkable day, Data learns to dance, strives to improve his social skills, looks after each and every one of his friends, ruminates on the meaning of love and commitment and, incidentally, uncovers a covert Romulan espionage ring. We’ll, uh, talk more about that a little later on.
As I’ve chosen to read “Data’s Day” as a pilot of sorts, it’s also lovely to see how Data uses his perspective to articulate his relationship with the rest of the Enterprise crew and how he sees them. In a sense, this serves as our reintroduction to them, and across the board the crew is as compelling and likable as they’ve ever been. There’s Commander Riker, who seems to know and get along with everybody, as charming and easygoing with Data as he is chatting up tactical officer Ensign Kellogg. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who stands firm for his people and his values even in the face of Starfleet Command’s accepted decorum. Geordi La Forge, Data’s best friend and closest confidant brought memorably to life by LeVar Burton. Unassuming chief petty officer Miles O’Brien, who comes to Data for help and support on his wedding day. Deanna Troi, ship’s counselor and a natural empath whom Data assumes must find it difficult to relate to because of his lack of emotions, but who fairly obviously, at least to us, harbours more affection for him than he grants her.
And then there’s Doctor Beverly Crusher, the Enterprise‘s chief medical officer who bears many hidden talents. As Data tells us, she’s an exemplary people person, and thus embodies traits he himself would like to emulate. But she’s also a skilled dancer, though she’d like it kept on the down low, and Data seeks her out when he wants to learn how to dance for Chief O’Brien’s wedding. What follows is one of the primary reasons this episode is so memorable: An absolutely delightful and instantly iconic act where Doctor Crusher tries to teach Data some basic dance steps done as a comedy skit. And there’s no better testament to the raw talent on display here than the revelation that the whole thing was written, choreographed and blocked by Gates McFadden and Brent Spiner themselves. Really, there was no way it couldn’t have been: Gates is of course a renowned and in-demand Hollywood choreographer above and beyond her stint on the starship Enterprise, and Spiner’s a supremely capable dancer as well.
Spiner and McFadden are also both unparalleled comic performers, and their contribution shows their genuine knack for not just comedy, but their deep understanding of their characters and how Star Trek: The Next Generation works. They effortlessly and seamlessly blend their sense of humour with a tone very befitting the series (or rather what the series should be actively shooting for on a daily and weekly basis) and the positionalities Data and Doctor Crusher would be operating from. It’s a formidable CV for both actors, Gates especially, a stark reminder that the people who probably know this show better than anyone else aren’t in the position to be actively involved in shaping it anywhere near often enough and a decisive proof of concept for an approach this new Star Trek: The Next Generation can use going forward. Sometimes, you just have to accept you may be overthinking things and let the characters and the setting speak for themselves.
(This scene also gives us a quite striking example of wardrobe work and casting: After Doctor Crusher has to bail on Data, he calls up a holographic dance partner to help him practice. She doesn’t say much, but she leaves a mighty impression: Her dress is the best work I’ve seen from Bob Blackman in probably two years, and her actor, whose name sadly went unrecorded by history, exudes a formidably sensual and dominant presence.)
On top of all that, we even get introduced to two actual new characters: The first and most noteworthy is of course Spot, Data’s pet cat, who will go on to have one of the most memorable and storied tenures on the series. In my mind you just can’t have Data without Spot, so this is a pretty major event in the history of the show. Spot is portrayed here by the first of a succession of different cats who, like Data’s dance partner, sadly goes unknown and uncredited. The second is naturally Keiko O’Brien, née Ishikawa, ship’s botanist, played by Rosalind Chao. Keiko is definitely an important character who marks another turning point for Star Trek, my unease about a Hollywood production casting a Chinese actor to play a Japanese character notwithstanding. Her relationship with Miles, which begins with this episode, will go on to be one of the most defining story arcs going forward and is rightly hailed as one of the best, most realistic examples of long-term romance in the franchise, and possibly TV in general (though in my personal opinion not *the* best).
I have to say though, and now we’re treading into the comparatively negligible issues I do have with “Data’s Day”, I’ve always had mixed feelings about how Keiko is handled, both here and in her numerous other appearances throughout Star Trek. None of this is due to Rosalind Chao, I should stress, who is a brilliant actor all stop and someone who in fact was already a member of the extended Enterprise family: She was actually one of the frontrunners for the role of Macha Hernandez during Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s early casting and preproduction phase before ultimately losing out to Marina Sirtis. No, I love Chao, but my issue with Keiko is that she tends to be written uncomfortably close to a kind of stock, sitcom wife archetype with alarming regularity: A lot of episodes featuring her have her complaining about something, usually Miles’ job, and will, especially during the Dominion War, portray Miles’ relationship with her as being often more strained than the ones he shares with his male buddies. And that’s a thread that begins here, with Keiko being defined pretty much exclusively as a kind of stock, sexist, panicky, emotional bride archetype. As good as the rest of the episode is, it’s a pretty poor first impression of such a venerable and important character and it speaks rather poorly of the current production team, especially coming off of some of the episodes we’ve just seen.
Keiko’s the episode’s biggest letdown, but there are a few other things about “Data’s Day” I could nitpick. Like, why does Data have to be sending a message to Commander Bruce Maddox from “The Measure of a Man”? I know Data has an infinite capacity for forgiveness and he frames it in terms of a teachable moment, but I don’t really see the need to keep in touch with someone like that. Especially considering how this episode could have looked without that conceit: Why couldn’t, for example, Data just be recording a diary? Imagine if he was, and the show had kept that same tone of narration-Data would have been talking directly to us, diegetically reaffirming that this really is a reintroduction to the Enterprise crew as viewed through Data’s perception of himself as a kind of outsider.
(There’s even something to be said about the very choice of Data as a viewpoint character: Obviously he makes sense because he doesn’t need to sleep and thus can observe the comings and goings of the crew around the clock, but before settling on Data the creative team considered other characters, including, most interestingly, the Enterprise herself. And as much as I love “Data’s Day” as is, I can’t help but be immediately drawn to any story that posits the Enterprise as an actual character and would have absolutely *loved* to see a pitch like that played out.)
Then there’s the Romulan spy sublot, which feels every bit as tacked on as it was. Rick Berman and Michael Piller weren’t comfortable doing a true day-in-the-life episode, and requested there be some element of drama thrown in because they felt viewers wouldn’t be interested in the episode without some action sci-fi element to keep them invested. So the Romulans get wheeled in for another boring Neutral Zone runaround that is quite thankfully their last story as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s primary antagonists. The hackneyed nature of the plot aside, it does sort of obviously grate against and stick out from the rest of what the episode is trying to do, kind of calling into question whether this really is a “typical day” for the Enterprise crew.
There is, of course, a defense to be made here. In the past I’ve argued that action sci-fi cannot truly do a story where “nothing happens” so to speak because, by its very definition, it’s got to have some manner of action spectacle. And while I think that’s true, it’s worth asking ourselves whether or not Star Trek: The Next Generation really is action sci-fi or if it just occasionally wears the trappings of it to trick a specific subset of its fanbase into remaining invested. I, for one, am not convinced it is, and it’s the very success of episodes like “Data’s Day” that leads me to feel this way: Even from the very beginning, Star Trek: The Next Generation has always positioned itself as a very slow-paced and heady show that’s far more interested in people’s thoughts, feelings and life experiences than complex sci-fi worldbuilding or exciting ray-gun space battle action. Indeed, I think the show has pretty unmistakably lost its way whenever it has thought it was those things.
You might take this one step even further and say that, well, maybe getting caught up in Romulan espionage nets along the Neutral Zone actually is all in a day’s work for the starship Enterprise. I think if that were the case though it would lead to an ultimately very boring and unimaginative sort of Star Trek, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, through the kinds of charming moments and vignettes we see here, time and time again proves itself to be far better and far more inspiring than that. It’s in our quest to understand and sublimate our own mundane existences where the real magick is done, and it’s in studying that where we learn the most about ourselves and our place in the universe. That’s what the “human condition” that Star Trek creative types love to throw around really means, and that Data understands this says a lot about who he is as a character and as a person.
This episode has my vote for possibly the greatest Data story ever, even among the glut of Data stories we’ve seen so far and that the show is going to keep throwing at us. It’s also our first true glimpse at the bright new future that promises to rise from the ashes of this troubled production season: It’s not always going to be smooth sailing going forward from here and there are most certainly going to be rough patches ahead, but at least we can wake up today a little more confidant, kind and hopeful than we were when we turned the lights out last night.