Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Episode 169 (Masks)

With television series, there’s no promise that every episode is going to be perfect.  Occasionally, one or two episodes will hit it out of the park.  Everything comes together just right.  Others are more of a perfect storm.  You realize that each element of the episode ultimately detracts from the whole.  Masks was such an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise finds what they assume to be a comet that they age at 87,000,000 years.   Some sensor feedback catches them off guard, but it doesn’t seem to do any damage to the ship.  The only indication that anything is off is Counselor Troi finding an ornamental statue in her quarters.  From there, things get stranger.  Various parts of the ship are transformed.  More of those ornamental items pop up throughout the ship.  Strange icons appear on display screens.  Oh, and Lt. Cmdr. Data starts to display multiple personalities.

When the Enterprise hits the comet with a phaser beam, the comet disintegrates revealing some sort of computer archive.  It’s responsible for all of the strange happenings on the ship.  Presumably, some ancient civilization built it 87,000,000 years ago and sent it out into space.  Eventually, the bridge crew is able to figure out that Data’s main personality is some sort of sun goddess.

By activating the archive’s program for the moon good, maybe they can end whatever’s going on.  What they get is a mask similar to one that Data made earlier.  Picard decides to wear the mask and try to bluff his way past the sun goddess.  He knows enough about archaeology that he’s able to make the program end, thus returning the ship to normal.

A great many things bother me about the episode.  In fact, the more I look for answers online, the more questions I come up with.  For starters, 87,000,000 years is a long time.  By comparison, the Earth’s age is in the billions.  Recoded history is something like 5,000 years.  It’s conceivable that a planet was able to form with life evolving quickly and so forth, but how could a civilization develop to where they could have launched something so complex so long ago?

For that matter, why would they go through the trouble if building the thing only to have it replicate primitive artifacts?  Wouldn’t it have been easier to download information into the ship’s computer?  Wouldn’t they have had more information like scientific developments or a detailed account of their history?  I mean, I’m assuming that it’s supposed to be an archive to preserve their culture.  Any way you look at it, having Data act out several personalities is a bit odd.

That brings me to another point:  What if Data hadn’t been on that ship?  It’s possible that if the archive hadn’t found a proper receptacle for the personalities, nothing would have happened.  It’s also possible that the bridge crew would have been screwed.  You’d have the ship transforming into some sort of ancient city with no way of stopping or reversing it.

Another thing that occurred to me is that if the ship had had several androids, would each android gotten its own set of personalities or would all of them have become the sun goddess?  It is possible that the creators of the archive intended another android or suitable equivalent to become the mood god.  (On that note, could you imagine the Borg finding the archive?)

The episode bears a striking resemblance to Inner Light.  In both episodes, one character is chosen by a probe of some sort to receive information from a lost civilization to carry on knowledge of that civilization.  Both characters get an artifact as a memento.  The Inner Light was a great episode, mostly because of the emotional connection.  Masks was the opposite mostly because there’s no real connection to the story.  This episode looks like a rejected idea for Inner Light, in fact.  I could see something like this eventually becoming a decent episode except that it was already done.

IMDb page

The episode is never referenced again on The Next Generation or in any of the subsequent series.  We don’t even know if this is how the archive is supposed to behave.  We’re left to assume that it is, but it could easily have been a glitch.  Being that the archive was 87,000,000 years old, it’s impressive that it worked at all.  It would have been interesting to have an episode of Deep Space Nine or Voyager come across the planet that launched the archive, as both series dealt with distant parts of our galaxy.  Then again, it’s probably just as well to forget about it.

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