For this, the 32nd edition of One Trek Mind, I thought I would have some fun. (You know, because the previous weeks of determining which is the best pet on the Enterprise or my favorite Transporter moments have been grueling drudgery.) I wanted to take an out-of-left-field episode from the franchise – a spot check, if you will – to see how it holds up isolated from a regular weekly run or a home-screened marathon. To break down what worked, what could perhaps have been revised and what makes an old fan smile.
To determine what to watch I randomly generated a number by asking my followers on Twitter to @ me something between 1 and 727. I took the first 10 responses, averaged them, got 311.1, rounded down, then looked up the corresponding episode in the order in which they aired. That episode is Star Trek: The Next Generation's “Masks.”
Not exactly what I had in mind. I wanted, basically, a forgotten, ephemeral episode, one that was punched out with the workmanlike efficiency of a franchise with two regular shows in production and a string of feature films in development. (Ahhhhh, the golden years.) Instead, the Fates dealt me a controversial hand.
I personally witnessed a recent Star Trek convention where Brent Spiner himself chuckled and admitted something to the tune of "Yeah, we had no idea what the hell was going on in 'Masks.'" And this was the guy who did all the funny voices!
"Masks" came along just 8 episodes before the brilliant finale "All Good Things..." and, if one is looking for a positive spin, it acted as a nice counter-argument for all of us who never wanted to see TNG end.
"Masks," if you don't recall, tells the story of a floating 87 million year old cultural vault that overpowers the Enterprise's replicators and recreates its temples and artifacts. Data becomes possessed by a handful of key citizens of this culture and the damage to the ship can only be stopped if Picard puts a silly mask on his face. (Don't try and correct me, I just re-watched it last night!)
What's Good About It:
Well, despite the fact that the story is very confusing, somewhat anticlimactic and altogether silly, Spiner does a good job showing off his acting chops. It is really, really difficult to slip in and out of multiple personalities and pull it off. While one of the possessive personas (Ihat) sounds a bit like Data tasting a revolting beverage from Forcas III, one must salute Spiner for evoking the core struggles of a character in under 60 seconds with just a facial expression and a change of pitch.
The other cool thing is that with Data out of the picture, Worf gets to do stuff. He's the one who melts the comet of debris and collected gasses that have engulfed the vault and he's the one who calculates how much longer until the ship is completely overrun by the transformation. See? The Klingon's got a head on his shoulder.
What's Not So Good About It:
Sigh. Let's start with the premise. Firstly, a roving archive forcing a culture down the Enterprise's throat has happened before. In fact, it happened in one of the best episodes, "The Inner Light." In it, we also learned quite a bit about the now-extinct Ressikan people. In "Masks" we don't learn anything about this culture. . . except they built really hostile libraries and had pagan Gods who chased each other. . . or something. . . and wore masks.
That's the thing: despite the numerous and lengthy scenes of Picard and "Data" talking, you don't learn anything about the invaders. All you do learn is that Captain Picard is really patient and lets any disembodied spirit have its way.
Things really reach a head when Picard orders LaForge to input a symbol into the foreign ship's generator. "Isn't it a little risky?" Riker asks. Troi agrees and lists numerous reasons not to proceed. Picard stands his ground, LaForge makes the move and a silver mask appears. After a beat, Picard muses, "You know, we could be going about this the wrong way?"
Gee, NOW he says something?
Picard is able to chase the demons out of Data (and off the ship) by posing as the hero Korgano opposite the deity-like Masaka. Not with fighting, or with clever wordplay, just by basically standing there and saying "Hey! it's me!" When Riker and an awakened Data ask for an explanation (like how they knew which corridor on the ship would be transformed into the alien temple) he just nods and says, "I'm afraid that would take some time to explain." Believe me, Captain, we'll make time. We'd like to know, too.
What Makes An Old Fan Smile:
I've touched on this before, but we love to see our characters engage in their passions. Picard is able to solve the riddle of "Masks" (even if he won't share it with us) because of his background in archeology. Indeed, he even seems like he'd be having a good time if his ship weren't being turned into a Space Easter Island.
Speaking of which, am I crazy or do all the little alien bric-a-brac appearing throughout the ship kinda remind you of out-of-control Tribbles?
There are other moments in "Masks" that only a true fan can love. Chief among them is watching Counselor Troi coaching Data in the art of sculpting his feelings. Why are they in a children's classroom? Because education is important, communal and ageless in a utopian society, that's why!! Why are the walls so spare and the set so blank? Well, that I couldn't answer, but I'm guessing they needed to hold some of the budget for "All Good Things..."
Strangely, I don't remember disliking "Masks" that much when it first aired. I think I was still of the belief that Star Trek could do no wrong and each episode was either Great or The Greatest. I think most would agree this is one that feels a little half-baked, a little boring (so much talking!) and perhaps better left "un-revisited." Why the random numbers generated from my Twitter followers led me here is something that, perhaps, needs some investigation. Maybe I should check my apartments for strange objects?
Let me know your thoughts on "Masks" in the comments - and whether or not I should try this experiment again in a few weeks.
Jordan Hoffman is a freelance writer, critic and independent film producer living in New York City. He fell in love with Star Trek through TOS reruns just as TNG was getting ready to launch. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels. He has a funny story about the one time he met Leonard Nimoy. Click HERE to follow him on Twitter.
Follow us for more news at StarTrek.com
and via our social media sites.