While certain actors and singers confine their repertoires to a limited range of performances, the most acclaimed entertainers stretch out their talents and tackle a wide variety of artistic styles. Primarily known for his role as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner also accepted the challenge of playing an array of divergent characters on Trek, many of whom appeared together on-screen in the very same scenes. From members of the Soong family to Data and his android brethren, Spiner infused each figure with unique attributes that set their personalities apart from one another. In an astounding feat, the only central commonality between the characters is the actor himself. He made them, otherwise, entirely their own people.
Let’s count down some of Spiner’s best Star Trek appearances and discern what he brought to the table that made each part so distinct.
7. Frank Hollander in “A Fistful of Datas,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
As the episode title suggests, a holodeck malfunction transforms holographic characters from an Ancient West program into Data lookalikes. The most prominent figure affected by the accident was Frank Hollander, the story’s menacing and mustachioed antagonist. Spiner dove right into the part, using the villain’s sharp attire, black hat, and cigarillo to portray a diabolical outlaw who would have been at home in any classic film based upon the old west. The actor brought Hollander’s ruthlessness to life with grim stares and the confident swagger of an experienced gunslinger, attributes that supplemented the character’s evil plan to ransom Alexander Rozhenko in exchange for his own son’s release from the local jail.
6. Ira Graves inhabiting Data’s body in “The Schizoid Man,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
When Data first met Doctor Ira Graves, the accomplished cyberneticist was facing the final stages of a terminal illness and preparing to elude death by transferring his knowledge into a computer. Graves claimed to have been a mentor to Data’s creator Noonian Soong and asked the android to refer to him as “Grandpa,” but the scientist took advantage of Data’s good nature and transferred his consciousness into the Starfleet officer’s positronic brain. As Graves asserted control over the android, Spiner expertly augmented his typically innocent and inquisitive portrayal of Data with the doctor’s arrogance and jealousy. The change occurred gradually, progressing from a humorous simmer during Graves’s funeral to outright hostility toward a perceived romantic connection between Captain Picard and the cyberneticist’s former assistant Kareen Brianon.
5. Arik Soong in Star Trek: Enterprise
A celebrated scientist and ancestor of the great Noonian Soong, Doctor Arik Soong landed himself in prison after he stole embryos from the Eugenics Wars and raised the Augments as his own children. Outwardly congenial, the doctor’s devotion to his research and the notion that he sought to create a better world ultimately led him to make questionable moral decisions and endanger many lives. Nevertheless, Spiner projected a turmoil within Soong that propelled the scientist to object when his “son” Malik attempted to instigate a war between Qo’noS and Earth. The doctor’s struggle over betraying his children was clear, yet the complicated scientist concealed that pain under a professional veneer as his focus transitioned from manipulating the human genome to studying cybernetics. Spiner adeptly conveyed the scientist’s conflicted conscience and seemed to relish in Soong’s roguish behavior.
4. B-4 in Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek: Picard
A less-sophisticated Soong-type prototype, B-4’s innocent demeanor and childlike wonder made him the perfect Trojan Horse for Praetor Shinzon to deploy against the U.S.S. Enterprise-E. Unaware of his true purpose, B-4 followed the modified programming provided by Shinzon and tried to access vital Starfleet intelligence for the new praetor’s benefit. B-4 received a memory upload from his younger “brother” prior to Data’s death aboard the Reman warbird Scimitar, but Doctor Agnes Jurati revealed that much of that information had been lost sometime prior to the Star Trek: Picard episode “Remembrance.” Spiner balanced B-4’s dual personality with jocularity and depth, so much so that many Star Trek fans remained hopeful that some essence of Data continued to survive within him in the aftermath of Nemesis.
3. Noonian Soong in Star Trek: The Next Generation
The legendary Doctor Noonian Soong appeared as a flesh and blood character in “Brothers,” a dream vision in “Birthright, Part I,” and a hologram in “Inheritance.” An innovator who perceived himself as a true artist, Soong displayed a knowledge of cybernetics that was rivaled only by the compassion that he felt for his android children. From the emotion chip he constructed to the dream program he developed, Soong constantly sought ways to improve Data’s life and crafted new experiences for him. The same sentimentality extended to the cyberneticist’s wife Juliana, as Soong built an android version to replace Data’s mother after her human counterpart passed away.
Spiner’s most memorable incarnation of Soong was the aged scientist who reflected on his life’s work during his final hours in “Brothers.” The actor’s performance captured a man whose vanity and pride were tempered by the reality that mortality would prevent him from achieving any further accomplishments on his own. Soong hoped to impart Data with the gift of feelings and even exhibited forgiveness for Lore’s many nefarious imperfections. Perhaps Data’s lengthy quest to be human originally stemmed from the empathy that was inherent in his maker.
2. Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation
The polar opposite to Data’s humility and occasional naiveté, Lore harbored resentment toward Noonian Soong, Data, the Omicron Theta colonists, and anyone else who doubted him or stood in his way. Lore’s cruelty emerged in his willingness to sacrifice the colonists and the U.S.S. Enterprise-D’s crew to the Crystalline Entity, as well as in the android’s sadistic need to control and experiment on the wayward Borg drones who he had “saved” from oblivion. However, Spiner imbued the synthetic lifeform with more than malevolence, as Lore held a strange obsession with his brother Data. Lore’s complex inner turmoil shone particularly bright in “Descent, Part II,” as the android’s intention to sacrifice Data swiftly morphed into a plea for Data to flee with him in the span of a few minutes. For all of the faults present in Lore, the android’s tenuous dedication to his family and Spiner’s ability to illustrate the synethic’s emotional confusion allowed the audience to feel slightly sympathetic for Data’s typically malicious older brother.
1. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Enterprise, and Star Trek: Picard
Considered by many Star Trek fans to be one of the most beloved characters in television history, there was little doubt that Data would end up at the very top of our list. The Enterprise-D’s third-in-command paired his analytical skills and curiosity with courage and loyalty, proving equally valuable as a science officer and a trusted friend. The very definition of a “renaissance android,” Data frequently expressed himself through acting, painting, writing poetry, playing musical instruments, and singing. Spiner’s own vocal talents supplied an element of realism to the occasions when Data would deliver renditions of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” or Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A British Tar.” In his search to understand emotions, the android often ended up teaching his organic crewmates about their humanity and integrity. The Enterprise-D’s mission may have been to explore the galaxy, but Spiner’s stellar depiction of Data permitted viewers to examine the human condition itself.
Jay Stobie (he/him) is a freelance science fiction writer who contributes articles to the official Star Trek website and Star Trek Magazine. Jay also acts as a part-time assistant and consultant advising many actors and creatives who work on his favorite science fiction shows and films. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @StobiesGalaxy.