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Spiner Explores the Nuances of an Android Called Data

June 24, 1989|SUE MARTIN

He is not Mr. Spock, either.

But unlike Leonard Nimoy, his counterpart on the original "Star Trek" series who sought in his book "I Am Not Spock" to disassociate himself from his character, Brent Spiner has no qualms about being identified with a superior alien.

He plays Lt. Cmdr. Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the pale android with the unsettling yellow-green eyes who is a font of information--scientific and otherwise--on the bridge of the Enterprise.

"It's fine right now," Spiner said of the association. "I'm not rejecting the identification of being Data, because I've never had an identification before. I feel I've finally arrived because of it!"

In any case, he thinks Data is "completely different" from Spock, "other than (that) I give information and that's what he did."

But like Nimoy's Spock, Spiner's Data is one of the most popular and salient characters of the new show. Speaking up after two years of silence on his role, Spiner, now on hiatus, recently sat down to discuss Data and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"I think Data's appeal is, No. 1: He's an accessible character, he doesn't possess any real negative human qualities, he's innocent, he's not egotistical, never mean or unpleasant. He's a very pure character," the actor said. "As the show goes on, he'll become less innocent as he becomes more sophisticated. He'll have more human traits, but he'll never really be human. That's another reason people identify with him: He's the outsider and wants to be a part of everything that's going on. He's sort of the Greek chorus and watches humanity and comments on it. I think that's his real function in the show."

Spiner, who grew up in Houston, spent 15 years in New York doing theater and Broadway shows, appearing in "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Big River," as well as doing "Little Shop of Horrors" here in Los Angeles. He still has a great fondness for the theater. But film work affords a steadier job.

"The charm hasn't worn off doing 'Star Trek,' even with doing the same character. You have different lines, different problems--particularly this character, which, so far, is open to limitless possibilities. Initially I thought it was going to be a trap (being) locked into a mechanical man. But it's been just the opposite. It's been the loosest character on the show in terms of what he can and cannot do."

Playing an android in gold/white make-up has other advantages, too. "I still have a degree of anonymity," he said, "though that's becoming less and less all the time. But that's also the appeal of Data. There's a mystery about the fact that he doesn't look ordinary. It's a benefit when there are eight people on a stage and one of them shines --well, that's who your eyes are going to go to!"

And as for being an object of affection to the legions of "Star Trek" fans?

"We spend 75 to 80 hours a week doing this show, and I would say a really hard-core fan spends even more time than that involved in the reality of 'Star Trek.' I think that's great. There are much worse places than 'Star Trek' to pour your life's interest into. 'Star Trek' has nothing but good things to say, and if these people are plugging into it as dramatically as they are, it reflects both their own need for something to plug into and it being something worth plugging into, and I don't have a problem with that."

One of the few problems that Spiner did acknowledge was the fact that he believes the show is virtually ignored because it is syndicated.

"Even though we're on more markets than a network, we're treated like stepchildren," he said. "The industry treats us like we're second-class citizens as well as the press--they don't tend to watch the show either. Do they ever see it? When people discuss TV--like the best show of the year, the best actors, the highlights of the last season--we're never discussed. It's as if we're not on the air!"

He also complained that the series, which follows in its predecessor's footsteps in that it is a show about ideas, doesn't go far enough into pertinent and topical subjects.

"We address a lot of issues on very subtle levels. We'll have an episode that's about something, but it's so guised in science fiction, in the character creation, the ambience, that sometimes you don't really see the issue we're dealing with! I wish we could go even further and really break some walls down."

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