When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered in 1987, LeVar Burton was its best-known cast member. He was Kunta Kinte from “Roots” and that guy from “Reading Rainbow,” while his cast mates were seven unknowns and one obscure British stage actor. But instead of being hired as the captain or even the first officer, Burton landed the role of blind tech geek Geordi La Forge.
A sightless officer on a starship could have been interesting in obvious ways. But in “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s 24th century, blindness came with a VISOR, a device that granted the wearer the horrifying gift of “Predator”-style quasi-vision. It also forced Burton to act—on television, in front of people—with what looked like a lady’s hairband covering his eyes. The prop was held to the actor’s head by screws at his temples. It gave him daily headaches and obstructed his ability to see to the point that he spent much of his time on set tripping over cables and bumping into things.
Science fiction television has matured to yield shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Orphan Black.” When compared to those series, there are moments when “TNG,” which ended 20 years ago, can feel like an awkward relic. But it also can be more thoughtful than its genre successors. The plot is often propelled by debate rather than action, which provides actors opportunities to deliver nuanced work.
Burton does nuance better than anyone on “TNG”—excepting Patrick Stewart, who, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, was served red meat weekly by the writers. La Forge could go episodes at a time without saying something that didn’t involve particle waves or tachyon pulses or some other fake science thing. But when given an opening, Burton could create a sophisticated performance even out of unsophisticated writing.
When asked in an interview with the website io9 if there was anything about La Forge he wished the series had explored but didn’t, Burton responded, “His sexuality.” Consider this when watching Season 5’s “I, Borg,” in which Picard orders that a captured Borg—cyborg aliens bent on assimilating humanity—be programmed with a species-annihilating virus. Given that said work involves a lot of meaningless technobabble and walking back and forth between computer panels, the task falls to La Forge.
The episode’s finest moment comes when the captured Borg realizes that he, cut off from the hive mind of his collective, is experiencing loneliness. He then asks La Forge, “Are you lonely?”
Burton’s next line is some dreck about friendship. (Friendship gets discussed in “TNG” almost as much as sensor arrays or what it means to be Klingon.) But Burton, knowing that the line is crap, takes a moment before speaking it to communicate in silence his true response. First there is surprise. Then there is sadness. La Forge considers the question, and everything in Burton’s face tells us that the answer hurts. This puts the garbage line that follows into a context that makes it work. There are genocidal subroutines to write, after all, so La Forge collects himself, then explains that yes, sometimes people get lonely, but that’s why they have friends. The line becomes a dodge.
Burton performs surgery, infusing the words with logic and depth and years of context. Five seasons in, loneliness had been established as La Forge’s personal burden—like Worf’s immigrant-orphan complex or Riker’s inability to think past his dick. La Forge’s most meaningful friendship is with the emotionless android Data. He spends all of his time down in engineering away from his peers on the bridge. If we add in Burton’s understanding of the character’s sexuality, then we get another layer.
The idea of a tech genius in a utopian future having to remain closeted is, today, implausible. But as Burton told io9, “It was 20th-century men, for the most part, writing a show about 24th-century people.” Whether the limitations were imposed by themselves, by superiors, or by invisible societal pressures, the “TNG” writers were held back. But Burton was able to able to break through to create something awesome.
And he did it blindfolded.
Daniel Holloway is the programming and digital media editor for Broadcasting & Cable and former executive editor of Backstage.
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