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Worst of TNG: Masks

September 26, 2013

Most people agree, ‘Masks’ is shit.

Sun Gods and Moon Gods and pieces of foam jungle lying around the ship…Picard, Troi and Worf standing on a cheap temple set for ten minutes, talking about the meaning of things we don’t care about.

Worf: This moon shaped object could represent the moon, Captain.

Picard: [Percy Jackson face] Yes…yes…The Sun is hunted by the moon, day is hunted by night.

Worf: So…when the moon is in the sky, the Sun is not in the sky. Because it is night time.

Picard: My God, I think that’s it. [Pause] Look at this, here it is again.

Picard points to a moon on the wall.

Picard: And again.

Picard points to another moon drawing.

Worf: Here’s another one.

Worf points to a moon drawing somewhere else.

Troi: Captain…I believe we are in some kind of temple.

Picard: Here’s another one.

Worf: And another.

Troi: I feel…that many people have worshipped things here before. Possibly foam.

Picard: And another!

The whole thing makes Insurrection look like Space Seed.

But is it really that bad?

Let’s get closer:

Plot: A group of young kids and Data make masks. The Enterprise encounters an ancient library inside a comet. The library is deeply ritualistic and, despite being created by an advanced race, tries to recreate a primitive temple on the ship. For some reason, the Sun God is still worshipped and…and Data becomes the Sun God. But then Picard pretends to be the moon and…nothing happens.

Subplot: Data continues to hang around with young children. It may work thematically [Data is similar to a child in the way he is still developing his identity] but it’s starting to get a bit creepy. ‘Teacher, who’s the pale man in the corner?’ ‘Why does he keep touching me?’ Okay maybe not that bad, but if Paul Schrader were writing this episode, it could’ve been.

Problems?

As with most of Season Seven, where the hell do we begin?

Let’s try the beginning…

Why is the intro tag so damn long?

It isn’t really, it just seems like it is. Actually, it’s more like four minutes – two minutes of Troi talking to a pointless child who is clearly the son of one of the producers and will never be seen again, and two minutes of Data trying to create a mask from his feelings.

Why doesn’t Troi realise Data has no feelings?

Because, even though he’s been on the ship for seven seasons, humans and half humans feel the need to re-make things in their own image. See also: human treatment of Vulcans. Why don’t you smile, Spock? What the fuck’s wrong with you?

Is this intro relevant?

It’s a bit of a mess, but I guess it’s trying to be relevant to Data’s development. The idea of the episode seems to be: Data can’t create anything from his own feelings. Then an ancient library implants thousands of different personalities into his positronic net and suddenly he can change accents and emotions at will. At the end of the episode, he’s back to square one, doesn’t really understand what just happened to him, and still doesn’t have any feelings/emotions.

Hang on, hasn’t this been done before?

Endlessly. It started in Season 1 after Tasha Yar died – Data couldn’t feel anything over her loss, but really the interruption to his routine or way of life showed that, yeah, on the most basic level, he was capable of missing someone.

It’s also been seen in:

Datalore

The Measure of a Man [a good one]

Pen Pals

The Ensigns of Command

Deja Q

The Most Toys

Brothers

Data’s Day

In Theory

Hero Worship

Descent

Redemption [Part 2]

Birthright

Gambit

Phantasms

Thine own self

Data Park

Farewell, my Data

You’re Data

Data doesn’t live here anymore

and countless intro tags with Picard

Actually, the most interesting part of Data is not how we examine our own humanity through his eyes, but how we examine how machine-like we really are behind all the emotions.

E.g. Missing someone can be reduced to not having them in your daily routine anymore. There’s no real emotion to it…it’s simply: you get used to someone being there…it isn’t painful to be around that person, it’s good…so when they’re gone, you feel a hole in your life because you can’t experience it again.

This is how Data ‘feels’ it and really, that’s the same as humans, the only difference being…we cry and mope about it too.

So, basically Data is constantly discovering over the course of seven seasons that he is already the same as humans [sometimes better than them], only without the gurning or shit jokes.

Back to Masks…

Why is the intro so damn long?

I never really dealt properly with this question, but the answer is simple: ‘Masks’ is season seven filler and there wasn’t enough being filled. You can see it throughout the whole episode: Picard, Troi and Worf going on and on [un-dramatically] about the meanings of the symbols in the temple, the obviousness of what they were saying…the way the library was inside a comet for no real reason…

It was in the comet to protect the library…

Maybe. But what’s the point of archiving your entire culture and then hiding it from everyone? Don’t you want people to learn about you?

The comet protected it from other comets or hostile aliens or random/vague space dangers…

And it was also made by an advanced race who probably knew about shielding.

No, the whole thing doesn’t make sense…until you really think about the episode in its entirety.

Key question: what is this episode actually about?

1] It’s a character episode for Data, to show him developing.

Yes, but he doesn’t really develop, does he? Forcing thousands of primitive personalities into him does not bring him closer to humanity, it brings him closer to being a schizophrenic. The fact that he’s an emotionless android is the only thing that saves him from needing years of therapy. He can cope with the aftermath, a human probably couldn’t.

Actually, this is TNG…just wait till the next episode and everything will be okay again. You’ve lost the use of your legs? Don’t worry, you’ll be walking again in forty five minutes tops. You’ve been brainwashed by Romulans? Easy. We’ll write it out of you, pretend it never happened.

2] It’s a mystery episode for Picard to solve.

There is a mystery, but it fails for two reasons: i] the resolution, and ii] the build-up to the resolution. I guess that’s pretty much the whole episode.

Compare it to another Trek mystery episode: ‘Devil’s Due’ from Season 4. Not a great episode, but at least it gets the basics right.

Devil’s Due: It starts with Data doing Scrooge. It’s not crucial, but the idea is: Data is trying to understand the process of acting and how to do it effectively. Data doesn’t grow during the episode, but that’s not relevant. The point is: what is acting? How do you do it effectively?

This ties in directly with the main plot of the episode: A devil woman [Enya] returns to a world after 1000 years and demands they hand over the planet to her, as per the terms of a deal made a millennia before. Is she for real or is she acting?

The intro also brings out another theme of the episode: fear. People acting a certain way because they let their fears take control of them.

This is directly paralleled in the main plot: The people of the planet, who look exactly the same as humans, fear Enya [the devil] and are prepared to give everything to her.

Note: it also parallels the bullshit of religion, but it’s so subtle it might be missed. Remember Jesus fulfilling the prophecy of the old testament by doing exactly what it said in the book that was available for anyone to read all those years [as long as they could read]?

So Devil’s Due has an intro tag that ties into the episode in general. What about Masks?

Masks: Data finds it hard to create anything from feelings because he doesn’t have any. Then he is possessed by thousands of other personalities and feels things. At the end of the episode he’s back to normal.

The problem is: both the intro and Brent Spiner “acting” are subplots given too much time in the episode. The main plot should be the thing that carries the theme of the intro, not Data whimpering in his quarters.

Devils’ Due: The mystery is established quickly with the simple dilemma: is this woman really the devil?

Picard is convinced she’s a con artist and the audience is pretty much with him. So the mystery stops being a mystery and becomes a challenge: how can Picard prove this woman is full of shit?

The fact the mystery’s changed doesn’t matter…the challenge Picard faces instead is interesting enough on its own.

Masks: There is an ancient library inside a comet. It starts possessing Data and he warns of a God woman coming to kill them all.

This is actually quite promising…it doesn’t show the God woman, it promises her. At this point, the episode is quite effective.

Devil’s Due: The devil woman keeps on upping the ante by appearing on the bridge, repelling Worf with her powers, transporting Picard to the surface in his sex gown, and finally making the Enterprise disappear.

It’s true, we don’t really feel anyone is in any real danger, but in a similar vein to Poirot, you want to know how this is all being done. That is the mystery.

Masks: Data keeps talking in different accents, Picard spends way too long talking to him in his quarters, pieces of foam and straw appear around the ship, Engineering is on fire, all other crew members seem to be on shore leave, and finally…a cheap temple set appears somewhere on board.

Nothing really happens. There’s no build-up, just more talk and a lot of underwhelming action/prop placement. The only saving grace is the single thought: at least things are gonna get good when the Sun God turns up.

Devil’s Due: Picard figures out the woman’s tricks and turns the tables on her. It seems like he is losing at the end, but then finally everything comes together and the audience goes home satisfied. Not stunned, but it’s enough. The thing works.

Masks: Data puts on a mask and pretends to be the Sun. Literally, the Sun, I think. Picard pretends to be the moon. They talk. Data goes to sleep. Jesus fucking Krist.

The main plot just evaporates into nothing. And when we look back on the episode we realise we’ve just watched a ‘mystery’ episode where the mystery was not even a mystery. It was blatant within the first fifteen minutes, just like Devil’s Due, but unlike that episode, Masks doesn’t do anything else.

3] It is a thriller episode

No, it isn’t. A thriller episode does not build tension by having Brent Spiner talk in a funny accent for thirty minutes [the same accent he used in ‘Power Play’ and ‘Datalore’]

Things have to happen. They don’t. This episode is a disaster.

It doesn’t even make sense…

It really doesn’t. I’ve already questioned why an advanced race that is capable of building a library ship inside a comet would still worship the sun and moon, but what’s more, why is the Sun God taking over the Enterprise? Is there really a Sun God? Was it part of the alien race or a real God? I still don’t know…there might’ve been an answer somewhere in the episode, but the fact is: if I’m still confused, the episode has failed.

Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention?

Did anyone? This is also the problem of the writers. It is their job to make the dialogue interesting or make interesting scenes or…

This thing is just a mess.

Much like the rest of Season Seven. What happened to the writers on this season? Did they run out of ideas? Did they just give up?

I want to reference ‘Sub Rosa’ but I haven’t been able to watch it again, it’s just too shit. All I remember is: more talking, a ghost with a mullet, and everyone calling Beverly ‘Beverly’ a lot.

How could Masks have been better?

I don’t like moaning about something without suggesting changes, and this one’s pretty simple.

1] Kill the opening classroom tag.

2] Kill the Sun God idea.

3] Keep the ancient library.

4] Keep the main concept of the library trying to resurrect its culture on the Enterprise.

5] Make Data the vessel for an old leader of the ancient culture…or the council members perhaps…he can be both peaceful and determined…which would give him some moral conflict about killing others to resurrect his own culture.

If they had done all of this, they could’ve kept their original theme of Data experiencing someone else’s feelings.

And it would’ve been more affecting as he would’ve known the person completely, instead of just trying on a lot of silly accents. It would’ve given focus to the theme, so at the end there could’ve been a real struggle between the identities of Data and the old leader.

I’m not saying it would’ve been a great episode, but it would’ve made a lot more sense.

Also, if you want to up the stakes, writers, try killing some people. ‘Masks’ makes the ship look deserted. Where is everyone?

Why is the ancient library hiding inside a comet?

Why do they still worship the Sun?

Why does Data take lessons with young children?

Why is the Enterprise underwater?

Man, this episode was bad.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. KarmaTiger permalink
    March 2, 2016 10:06 am

    This was a common problem with Star Trek: TNG. Many episodes were written to “showcase the craft” rather than tell a good story. McFadden can tap dance? Let’s shoehorn that into an episode. Spiner wants to show off his “range”? let’s have him act in plays all the time, as well as being possessed or reprogrammed every second episode. Frakes wants to seem less wooden? Well.. um… tell him to grow a beard.

    I like Star Trek. But watching old episodes of TNG, especially binge watching, reveals how cringe-worthy much of the writing, acting, hell even the blocking often was.

    • March 6, 2016 3:03 pm

      i read a comment somewhere that said the blocking on DS9 was awful too, but i never really understood why. I don’t really have any experience in making a tv show or acting, except when I played the 4th wise man at primary school, maybe someone could explain this blocking thing. What was so awful about it?

  2. KarmaTiger permalink
    March 9, 2016 5:33 pm

    Blocking is the relationship of the camera to the action.

    Mad Max: Fury Road is an example of masterful blocking, with action moving right to left, then the next shot starting with the action on the left, etc. so your eye naturally follows the important part of each shot. Lest someone say “But it’s harder with locked down cameras!” Casablanca also did this artfully, and with far less tech.

    On ST:TNG many scenes seem shot with “Well, put the camera wherever and film what the actors are doing” and there’s nothing carrying the viewer from shot to shot, nor to draw the eye to the interesting part of the shot.

    • March 10, 2016 1:22 pm

      ah, I see, thanks. So when we see the characters walking down the corridors on the Enterprise in TNG, turning a corner and walking down another corridor, with the camera planted at the end of each corridor, that would be an example of terrible blocking. Whereas, even in Voyager, the camera would be moving ahead of them at least then maybe let them go past and follow to end the scene.

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