During the 2016 Indiana Comic Con, I attended a panel featuring Brent Spiner, best known as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Spiner has also worked on other sci-fi projects; he’s the voice of Gall Trayvis on Star Wars Rebels, and he is reprising his role from Independence Day – Dr. Brakish Okun lives again in Independence Day: Resurgence.
Mr. Spiner has quite the sense of humor. He started the panel by saying, “Welcome to the Indiana Comic Con, I’m Brent Spiner, your moderator for today. The buses are right outside. Please do not be unruly when getting on the buses. We’re going to take you to St. Elmo’s for lunch.” [St. Elmo Steak House has been in Indianapolis since 1902.]
And the jokes continued throughout the entire panel.
The moderator hasn’t asked a question yet, but Mr. Spiner is a pro at attending cons, so he knows how to handle himself.
“This is a really nice town. I’m serious. A lot of people, when I come to their town to do a convention, they say to me, ‘How do you like our city?’ And I usually say, ‘Not so much.’ Isn’t that the most leading question? What are you supposed to say? ‘Oh, it’s just great. I love it.’ But Indianapolis really is nice. What’s the deal? I live in L.A. It’s not so nice.”
The moderator chimed in, “We have water.”
Brent replied, “You have water. Yeah, that’s true. We do not have water. We have vodka.”
He then explained why he felt his voice wasn’t 100%. “A couple of weeks ago I was doing looping. Do you know what looping is? It’s when you make a movie, after the movie has been shot, while they’re editing it, sometimes they bring the actors in later because an airplane was going over while we were saying something or they just thought you were lousy, and they have you redo dialogue to picture. They watch you listen, they give you three counts, you then come in on the fourth one and try to match your lips. And I had to scream because I was doing Independence Day 2.”
The crowd cheered. He continued, “That’s right, I’m alive. And no one can be happier about it than I. Well, perhaps you. I am the happiest. And I had to scream, and I remember later that when I actually did it on the set, I sorta prepared for it and did it properly and supported my diaphragm and did it correctly. For some reason, in the looping stage, I threw caution to the wind and just screamed. And I haven’t been able to talk for two weeks, not properly. I hope one day my voice will come back.”
Brent Spiner enters his Indiana Comic Con panel. Photo by Michelle Ealey
When asked if he thought Star Trek: The Next Generation would last as long as it did, he replied, “No. I had no idea. I thought basically I’m going to pay my rent, which I owed at that point, and it would be on for a year, and hasta la vista. That was almost thirty years ago. And it’s still going on. I’m still here, talking to you about it. People still shout the character’s name in my face. Who knew I could have that joy?”
He is happy that there will be a new Star Trek series. “But I am excited the series continuing, the show continuing, because I think Star Trek is the great American epic. It really it is. I am a Star Wars fan, I love Star Wars, it is a wonderful thing they’re doing more of it, but there have been 800 and something hours of Star Trek. They’ll never catch up at this point. I think there’s Doctor Who, there’s James Bond, there’s Star Trek, there’s Star Wars, but Star Trek is the great American epic. I hope it goes forever. It very well might. I mean fifty years this year. You know once something goes fifty years, you sorta have to take it seriously.’”
The moderator mentions that he has worked with Patrick Stewart, and he immediately goes into a perfect imitation of Sir Patrick. “You know I can still do his voice even better that I’ve lost mine. You know, perhaps that’s what I’ll do, I’ll become Patrick.” He briefly discussed how funny Patrick is on Blunt Talk, which Brent has appeared on.
Before he got the role on TNG, Brent was doing theater in New York. He auditioned for a part in Little Shop of Horrors, and he got offered a role in the show, but not in New York; he got offered a part in the L.A. show. On the last night of the L.A. run, a casting director helped him get work. He worked on various projects including Night Court as Bob Wheeler and on Hill Street Blues as Larry Stein. Eventually he got a call from his agent about a new Star Trek series. After he read the script, he auditioned for the casting director. He couldn’t tell from the script if they wanted Data to be more machine or more human, so he made a choice to go more human than machine. Six auditions later, the part was his.
At first, he watched TNG when they aired, but soon quit. “In truth, I’ve only seen about twenty of the ones we did. I started watching it when it was first on to see what we were doing, and then it occurred to me this was sort of redundant because I had read them, I had acted on them, I really didn’t need to watch them. And I was also spending so much time. We shot for sixteen hours a day, almost every day, so ten months out of the year we did over twenty episodes a year, so I figured out I was Data more than I was myself. Then to watch them, literally there was almost none of me left, so I decided to watch other things and act on the show.”
Although days were long on set, they had a lot of fun. “We really pretty much all enjoyed each other. I enjoyed working with everybody on the show, except for Dorn.” The crowd laughed. “We had a good time, we laughed all day long, every day. And we laughed most when we were doing serious scenes. The more serious the scene, the more trouble we had getting through them.”
Brent Spiner at the 2016 Indiana Comic Con. Photo by Michelle Ealey
During the last part of the panel, Brent took questions from the fans. Fortunately, I was able to ask a question.
Me: I was raised on the films with the original cast, and that’s what got me interested in science. I’m actually a science teacher, so I feel like I’ve earned this color [I was wearing my science officer blue Star Trek hoodie]. Have you had any fans come up to you and say it’s because of Data, it’s because of Next Generation that got them into science?
Brent Spiner: We did this series and it was just, our idea was to entertain people, that was our work, we’re actors, that’s it, nothing more important. We just wanted to do the best we could with the material, that’s our job, you illuminate the material as best you can, the author’s intent, and entertain people, and I was perfectly satisfied doing that. That’s what I wanted to be doing. But subsequently, in the last few years in particularly, so many people have come up to me and said, “I’m a doctor, I’m a scientist, or I do research, or I do physics or whatever, and it’s because I was so dedicated to Next Generation and it inspired me to do these things.” It’s kind of overwhelming if you think of this. It’s really just an ancillary thing, it’s nothing we planned on. But the impact, it just landed in such a profound way that we had nothing to with really. I’ll tell you what though, there’s one thing that even more that means more to me than anything and that is, I’ve had a lot of young people come up to my table when I’m signing autographs or whatever, and say, “I have Asperger’s or I am autistic or in that spectrum, and when I was a kid, the only character I could relate to on television was Data.” For obvious reasons, because of his struggle to understand emotion and humanity and so on. I actually met Dr. Oliver Sacks, who wrote Awakenings and an expert on autism, and he came to my trailer while I was shooting and said, “You’re the poster child for autism.” And I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time, but now I do, and it really is so overwhelming and moving to think that we had that sort of impact. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time because I think I would have pushed to the writers further to do more about that, and I probably would have ruined everything. But it’s been a very rewarding thing to see the ancillary impact the show had.
I was not expecting such a beautiful and heartfelt answer, and I appreciate the time he took to answer my question and go beyond it as well.
September 8, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Like Mr. Spiner, I hope Star Trek continues far into the future.