Sibling Rivalry: Brothers Revisited

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.

I want to assure you that I am not actually going to cover the entirety of Season Four, but I do want to revisit “Brothers,” both because the episode feels like the Data-centric follow on from “Family” and because “Brothers” represents an episode that did not quite meet the mark. In “Brothers,” not only does Lore return, but Data encounters Noonian Soong, the man whose face he wears and who serves as a de facto father. I can only imagine how exhausted Brent Spiner must have been at the end of shooting considering that he plays three characters in the episode’s major story-line.

However, I jumped a bit ahead. In “Brothers,” the episode opens with Riker wearing his Very Serious Face while lecturing the young Jake Potts on his bad behavior. Jake played a prank on his brother Willie (I’m not joking about these names) by convincing Willie that Willie had killed Jake with a phaser. Running away from the scene in terror, Willie eventually tires and taking refuge, eats a cove palm. Cove palms, for the uninitiated, are infested with parasites that result in the death of the host within just enough time to provide tension for the episode’s A story. Once Riker has finished chastising Jake for his malfeasance, he assigns Data to escort Jake to the quarantine zone to spend time with his brother. While on the way, Data suddenly stops acting like Data and proceeds to take over the ship, forcing the rest of the bridge crew into Engineering. He alters course for a planet in the middle of nowhere, orchestrates a beam down, and finds the universe’s weirdest hovel. Inside, Data discovers Noonian Soong who has summoned him using a subroutine Data never realized existed in order to give him the emotion chip that will cause him such difficulty in Star Trek: Generations. Unfortunately, Soong’s subroutine also activated in Lore, bringing Data’s Evil Twin to the party. Lore disables Data after some back and forth regarding how misunderstood he is, pretends to be Data while Soong installs the chip, attacks Soong, and escapes. Riker, Worf, and LaForge appear just in time to reactivate Data and allow him to say goodbye to Soong as Soong will likely die from his wounds. The ship rushes to a Star-base, and the medical team saves Willie.

This episode plays with Data’s nature as both a sentient being and an automaton. Soong’s subroutine renders Data a pure automaton, and as a result, the Data we know and love disappears. The subroutine effectively eliminates Data’s own agency, and that should be more terrifying than it is. When Soong wakes Data up, for lack of a better phrase, Data regains that agency, and the episode basically hand-waves just how disturbing it is that Soong built in an override that gives him complete control over another sentient being. Not only that, but the subroutine also turns Data into a very real threat to his colleagues and friends. While Data did not actually kill anyone during his “off period,” he easily commandeered Starfleet’s flagship for his own purposes. That the episode ends without any of the other members of the bridge crew commenting that Data can now pose a security risk boggles the mind.

On top of those issues, we also get Lore’s return. We already know that Lore falls into the Evil Twin archetype because he engineered the massacre of the Omicron Theta colony by the Crystalline Entity. Data, wisely, does not trust his brother, but Soong, facing his own mortality and clearly reflecting on his own life, jumps at the chance to make things right with Lore. Lore, on the other hand, seems conflicted over the issue of his father’s looming death, and all credit to Spiner, the acting in that moment is superb. Later, of course, Lore betrays both Data and Soong, even going so far as wounding his father fatally. Data, the Good Twin, assures his father that while he can neither grieve Soong’s death nor really love him, that he will remember his father, guaranteeing Soong a version of immortality.

All of this action falls within the framing story of the two Potts boys, who are rather blatantly stand-ins for Data and Lore, or rather, Lore as he could be. Jake harms his brother as Lore harms Data. Willie initially refuses to forgive his brother, but over time, the brothers come to an understanding. Part of the question the episode poses is whether Data can forgive Lore for all the harm Lore has caused. Soong himself wants a form of absolution for having failed Lore as a parent. Despite the episode ending with Troi’s assertion that “Brothers forgive,” it never answers the question as to whether Data can forgive his brother, and I have to admit, the story really misses an opportunity to explore the nature of forgiveness. The story should have grappled better with whether Lore should have been forgiven or whether his actions are so far beyond the pale, that absolution is impossible.

The other issue is that Spiner, while brilliant as both Data and Lore, can’t quite seem to nail Soong. While it’s certainly true that he’s acting from underneath what appear to be several pounds of prosthetics and makeup, Spiner still doesn’t quite manage a believable frail old man. In all honesty, I’m not certain that when Spiner himself reaches Soong’s apparent age he’ll be a frail old man, so there’s that. He’s 70 now, and judging by his Twitter feed, time has not yet slowed his wit. Regardless, meeting Soong should have been huge for Data, and it all gets wrapped up within a standard 45 minute episode. Re-watching the episode, I felt cheated, honestly, because I just needed more from that moment. There wasn’t enough time in the story to give it the pathos it required.

Interestingly, when I first saw this episode, I was closer in age to the Potts boys than I was to Data, much less Soong, but I still identified with Data because I too had a somewhat difficult relationship with a sibling. I sympathized with Data’s concern that he was the lesser of the two brothers. Now, I’m approaching the age Spiner was when the episode aired, and I find myself with a new appreciation for Soong. No matter how truly disturbing the subroutine is, he’s trying to be a good father to Data. He tries to make peace with Lore, and he wasn’t a good parent. He did fail Lore by deactivating him and neglecting to repair Lore’s programming. As a parent to identical twin boys myself, I wrestle with questions of how do I balance the needs of both twins and how do I ensure that they both know that they’re loved equally if differently. Soong failed with disastrous consequences, and while I hope that neither of my sons will engineer such a massacre, there are no guarantees. The experience of revisiting “Brothers” has brought home to me that we bring our own context and perspective to each of these stories when we watch them, and time has a funny way of changing those perspectives.

Rating: Three cups of Earl Grey Tea and a nod to Spiner’s sheer energy in the episode

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. Does anyone else find it strange that the Potts brothers have no actual guardian? I don’t exactly understand why they remained on the Enterprise while their parents gallivanted off on sabbatical, and I certainly do not understand why two young boys have no apparent guardian during this period.
  2. I find myself amused that the alert for a life support failure is a “blue alert.” I’m sure there’s a better reason for this designation than the color that one turns when one is choking.
  3. Soong’s hovel looks like a certain Jedi Master’s, if that Jedi Master happened to be a hoarder of truly weird stuff. There’s a wooden skeleton of a triceratops on a shelf there that I swear I owned and assembled as a child. Otherwise, the set seems to reflect Soong’s preoccupation with his own mortality and the concept of connection with both past and present that having children represents. It’s still strange.
  4. I get that Lore, as an android, should be able to mirror his brother perfectly in order to deceive Soong, but again, as a parent to identical twins, you know. You can tell which boy is which because there is always, always something that gives him away, and I have to say, I was a little grumpy with Soong’s inability to tell.
  5. I will never, never, ever not be disgusted when Lore removes his fingernail to activate the remote transport sequence. That’s just terrible.
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