Star Trek The Next Generation: Masks

Data: "Geordi? What does it feel like when a person is losing his mind?"

By nature I love brevity: Picard gets to flex his archaeology muscles, and Brent Spiner his acting muscles, but ultimately it is the audience whose jaw muscles are flexed.

The first thing that immediately comes to mind when watching this episode is a sense that we've seen this before. And indeed we have. Many times, both on TNG and TOS, and even by this point once on DS9, we've seen a story where some alien culture takes control of characters' bodies and uses it to either reenact or host a massive battle of cultural significance to them. In the more generic sense, where characters are inhabited by aliens to do their bidding, it happens even more times. The point is, this episode relies on a story idea that's been done countless times already. When this happens, we look to see what in this iteration is unique or different.

The truth is, the portrayal and use of each element here doesn't really differ too much from other examples of the same thing. But the real failing of 'Masks' is not its unoriginality. As we'll see, the true problem with this episode is that it fundamentally fails to make you care at every turn.

Let's take the whole alien culture thing. We'll compare it with perhaps the greatest TNG example of an alien culture - 'Darmok.' In 'Darmok,' like in 'Masks,' there's an alien culture that the characters are interacting with and to some extent being threatened by. In both episodes, Picard plays a prominent role in figuring out what they need to know. Perhaps the final result in 'Masks' is a little more obscure than it is in 'Darmok,' but there's nothing inherently wrong with that if you know how to work with it. No, the issue is that in 'Darmok' you want to see them figure out how to communicate because you want to see Picard and Dathon succeed. You care about them as characters. In 'Masks,' you can't be bothered to give a crap whether Masaka or Korgano comes out on top. If we'd spent any time with them as characters, talking with them or seeing who they are as people, we might've been inclined to care what happens to them. But we spend absolutely no time there, and thus nobody bats an eye.

Perhaps one of the most baffling things about this episode is its rather poor excuse for pacing. In what I can only assume was an attempt at a slow burn, Data's multiple personalities, which are the focus of the entire plot, do not surface until a whole third of the way through the episode. That's probably why there isn't any time to spend with Masaka or Korgano to make us care about them. That's probably also why the climax consists of a single two-minute scene in which Picard easily convinces Masaka to back down and let the Enterprise go, completely without any suspense or difficulty.

This episode primarily suffers from a focus on plot rather than story. To explain further, plot is the events of the episode, while story is the general arc of how it goes. Story depends on the emotions the audience feels relative to what's going on, while plot is merely what's going on. Far too many writers focus on the plot rather than the story, and this is no exception. If the characters had been interesting or engaging, this episode could have been a hit. Instead it's a lifeless clunker in a season of lifeless clunkers.

Strange New Worlds:

The entire episode takes place aboard the Enterprise.

New Life and New Civilizations:

The D'Arsay are the alien race that created the floating archive comet thing. Apparently, their mythology depended heavily on symbols and archetypes.

Pensees:

-This is Michael Dorn's least favorite episode of TNG.

-What the heck was the purpose of the random obelisks that kept on showing up all over the ship? And were they converted from other objects into obelisks, or did they just appear?

-Brent Spiner's performance in this episode was mostly on the spot, without much preparation. He got the script the night before they began shooting, and he'd just finished 'Thine Own Self,' in which he also had a large part.

-This episode always freaked me out as a kid, especially when Data put on the mask and started attacking people. I suspect that's the strongest feeling anyone's ever gotten from this episode.

Quotes:

Troi, on Data's sculpture: "It's a start."

Riker: "Maybe we'd better talk in here. The observation lounge has turned into a swamp."

Picard, trying desperately to justify this episode from a character perspective: "Well, Data, you may never become fully human, but you've had an experience that transcends the human condition. You've been an entire civilization."

2 out of 6 archaeology muscles.

--
CoramDeo is waking. Eventually.

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