In Search of Fathers: “Birthright I”

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Again, I realize that I’m following one episode right after another, but I want to talk a little bit about TNG’s very real fascination with fathers. In “Tapestry,” we get a look at the Picard Patriarch, and certainly, Mogh casts a long shadow over Worf’s character, from Worf’s traditional use of his patronymic to Klingon cultural transference of blame from one generation to each succeeding generation, which is thematically important to both parts of “Birthright.” Wesley Crusher wonders about his own father in “Family,” and even Guinan seems to have had a slightly rocky relationship with her father given her comments in “Time’s Arrow.” Mothers and maternal dynamics less often serve as story focal points. The single recurring mother, Lwaxana Troi, gets played for laughs more often than not. LaForge’s mother exists more in her absence than anything else, and the less said about the episode in which Dr. Crusher explores her relationship with her grandmother, the better.

Plot, Ahoy!

Both “Birthright” episodes feature searches for parental figures and ties to a certain history. In “Birthright I,” a latex-coated James Cromwell offers Worf information that his father may have survived the Khitomer massacre, sparking a nearly violent turmoil in Worf. Meanwhile, Dr. Julian Bashir has helped himself to the Enterprise’s sickbay computer in order to analyze a mysterious device he found in the Gamma Quadrant. Data discovers Dr. Bashir and after a strangely brief exchange, Data consents to help Bashir. The device emits a plasma discharge that sends Data into a strange world in which he sees a younger version of his father forging a bird’s wing on an anvil.

Troi convinces Worf that he should seek out his father, so Worf commandeers a shuttle, grabs Yridian Jaglom Shrek, and sets off to a Romulan prison camp without even so much as requesting a by-you-leave from the Command staff. They find the prison, which happens to be on a jungle planet, and Worf sets off to discover the truth of Shrek’s words. In the meantime, he stumbles onto a young lady bathing in a spring, creeps on her, and then heads to the camp. He captures an elder who introduces him to the other elders who summon their Romulan guards to imprison Worf and prevent him from returning to the Federation.

Data, being Data, obsesses over his metaphysical experience, consulting everyone from Worf to Captain Picard about his vision. He paints every image from his vision, including a few he did not actually see, and he finally convinces both himself and LaForge he needs to blast himself into the same state. They replicate the experiment, and Data discovers that the discharge shook loose some programming Soong had left in Data’s code that would activate when he reached a certain level of development. In essence, Soong gives Data the ability to dream.

Analysis

“Birthright” feels a bit like we’re revisiting story beats with the search for fathers. There’s a touch of that in “Brothers,” in which Soong summons Data to him as he’s dying. In “Family,” Maurice Picard’s resolute adherence to tradition turns Robert Picard into a luddite and drives Jean-Luc into Starfleet, and while the episode concerns the brothers’ relationship, just as with Mogh, Maurice Picard’s shadow looms long over their dispute. “Tapestry” gives Maurice Picard a face and a voice with which to express his general disapproval. Even in “Unification,” we see Picard offering Spock the opportunity to reconcile with his father’s memories. Where the episode finds freshness is in the concept of Data’s dreaming.

The symbolism from Data’s dream sequence lacks, in true TNG fashion anything approaching subtlety. Soong forges a bird’s wing because the programming he wrote allows Data’s dreams to “take flight.” Dream-Soong even goes so far as to inform Data explicitly that he is the bird. In any other hands than Spiner’s, the sequence would have come off as maudlin. Spiner’s Data is both charmingly perplexed and frighteningly competent. His search to understand his dreams becomes a greater metaphor for understanding more about himself and his relationship with his father/creator. When he achieves a sufficient understanding—without losing some of the mystery—he gains the ability to access a new realm of experience. Spiner’s Soong, in keeping with his apparent age in the dreamscape, exhibits none of his older counterpart’s irascibility. He’s every inch the proud father as he guides his son through this stage of his development, and as a result, the episode neatly ties up the Soong/Data relationship.

For Worf, things are much, much more complicated. TNG often struggles with finding a balance between respecting cultural practices that differ from the Federation’s and with occasionally finding them stupid. Worf’s explanation that he cannot find Mogh to Troi is that had Mogh survived, three generations of his family would be saddled with Mogh’s dishonor, including Alexander. Leaving aside Worf’s lackluster parenting because that’s an entire blog post on its own, Worf’s concerns are valid within the context of Klingon culture. Troi’s response, which verges on just offering him an eye roll, feels inappropriately dismissive of those concerns, especially in a Federation that allegedly embraces IDIC. We know, of course, that Worf will leave to search for Mogh because we all saw that there’s a second part to “Birthright,” but I do feel that the tension between Worf’s Klingon heritage and his existence in Federation spaces gets short shrift here. The real-life parallels between Worf and folks who straddle cultural divides abound.

The sequence between Data and Worf, however, provides the Worf plot its heart in this episode. Data seeks out Worf’s counsel because he acknowledges Worf as a spiritual person. Data does so in a legitimately respectful way; he does not question the reality of Worf’s experience or its validity. He simply wants to know more and allows Worf not only to frame the conversation but also to decide how much to share. Worf takes the opportunity to work through his own concerns regarding Shrek’s information, and after having a conversation with himself for which Data happened to be present, he decides on a course of action. Dorn does a great job with Worf in this instance, and we begin to see the Worf we’ll get on Deep Space Nine.

Though neither character gets their respective father back in this episode, they do manage to find some sort of peace with their heritage and futures without foreclosing the interesting story “Birthright II” will tell.

Rating:

Four cups of Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts From the Couch:

  1. Yes, I do realize that Data gets a mother, of sorts, but you’ll note that he doesn’t get to keep her. I’d argue that the real Omicron Theta motherhood episode portrays motherhood in a much more disordered light, but your mileage may vary on that point.
  2. Similarly, I realize that Lwaxana gets some really great moments, but overall, TNG treats her badly.
  3. With respect to creeping, Michael Dorn does his best to keep Worf’s reaction to surprise when he comes upon a naked Klingon girl in a pool, but c’mon. There’s nothing that isn’t creepy about making that as a story choice. I don’t blame Dorn for this.
  4. I really do appreciate how quickly the episode drops even the pretense that whatever the Gamma Quadrant device might actually do could be important.
  5. This episode never fails to remind me of DS9’s early struggles to use Bashir. Here, he just helps himself to the sickbay computers, never-mind that ostensibly someone other than Data should have been there to stop him. In addition, he sways Data to his cause fairly easily. I’d almost argue that Data’s curiosity got the best of him, but as an android…

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