“Masks” (Season 7, episode 17; first aired: 2/19/1994)
Or The One Where Data Walks Like An Egyptian
When I was a kid, sick days were like a visit to a strange land. A place where it didn’t matter how much I slept, where there were no bells telling me when I had to switch rooms, and no lectures to sit through; a place where I could eat whatever I wanted so long as I drank the mystical draft of “lots of fluids.” Mom and Dad both worked, and while I read a lot as a kid, when I was sick, it was hard to concentrate, so more often than not I’d wind up by myself, on the couch, watching daytime television. That’s when it got really strange. I stayed away from talk shows and judge shows and news programs, but there was plenty to occupy my attention, and I was always fascinated by how all these cartoons and kids’ series could survive, airing as they did during what was normally school hours. There was that gnome cartoon on Nickelodeon, or The Bionic Five on one of the local affialiates, or Eureka’s Castle which, admittedly, I was too old for but it still had a cool theme song I can remember even to this day. And then there were the shows on PBS. I’m sure they weren't intended to be terrifying, and I’m sure that if I watched them now, I’d laugh at my fears, but some of the programs on public broadcasting in the late morning and early afternoon scared me for life. Like Read All About It, a Canadian educational series that aired in the US when I was eight or nine. It wasn’t supposed to be unbelievably creepy, but looking at the show now (via some heavily pixated videos on YouTube), it still seems nightmarish to me, a Lynchian horror show of baffling, dangerous creatures and the inexplicably chipper children sent to battle them.
I mention this because, hey, I love talking about myself (because I am awesome), but also to try and quantify my reaction to “Masks.” It’s not a great episode. It doesn’t really fit TNG, and it doesn’t really make what you’d call “sense.” (Although it does have its own internal logic.) To enjoy the episode requires a willingness not to snicker whenever Data speaks riddles in a funny voice--although I suppose if you do snicker, you’re getting some kind of enjoyment out of this. I’m not sure what to make of all of it, is my point, and after doing this so long, that’s unusual in and of itself. “Masks” is loopy, and while it never reaches the surreal, eerie heights of my childhood memories of Read All About It, it seems to be operating in that same unnerving frame of reference. Bad things happen, and the only way to deal with those bad things to is to play by their rules, and even then, nobody knows exactly what’s going on. If I’d seen this twenty years ago with a bit of cold medication in my veins, it would almost certainly have traumatized me for life.
The plot, near as I can make it: the Enterprise comes across a rogue comet and moves in to do some science-related investigating. After Data starts a scan, there’s a flash of light, and the android is briefly confused. Not enough for anyone to notice, but soon, his work in sculpture class takes on significantly more abstract qualities than before. Strange objects start appearing on the ship--statues and blocks covered in hieroglyphic symbols, symbols which soon enough start taking over the Enterprise’s computers. Then Data busts out the multiple personalities. He talks in strange voices about people no one on the Enterprise has heard of before, and he warns Picard (in the guise of “Ihat,” a personality that comes off like Data’s brother Lore, only slightly less of a jerk) that “Masaka is coming.” Realizing the disturbance is coming from inside the comet, Picard has Worf fire into the comet’s center, revealing an alien ship. (It looks like something left behind after an aborted game of Jenga.) The insides of the Enterprise continue to change, and what was a curiosity becomes a very real danger. Picard and the others have to decipher the messages Schizoid Data is passing on, and find some way to deal with “Masaka,” before their ship is swallowed up completely.
That about sums it up, at least right up till the ending, but I’m not sure any summary could convey just how bizarre all of this is. Data’s personality shifts are one thing. Brent Spiner isn’t always the most subtle of actors, but I thought he actually did a decent job here. It helps that his role is basically impossible; he’s called on to create multiple characters with only his voice and mannerisms, from a barely-defined culture (Mayan-Egyptian-ish?), as well as provide the episode’s only source of contact with the alien threat. No one discovers a group of recordings in the other ship, there’s no ancient caretaker (or real Masaka) who shows up to rasp threats at our heroes. It’s all Data, all the time with a side order of intruding geography. The fact that Spiner makes it the full episode and stays committed to the premise throughout is impressive enough on its own, let alone the fact that he often makes it work, at least better than it has any right working. This is very silly stuff, but when Data gasps, “Masaka is coming,” or rasps like a dying old man, it’s... well, it’s not incredibly ridiculous. Which by every right it should be, frankly.
Then there’s the weird cosmology behind the alien ship’s invasions. I’ve been reading up on Philip K. Dick lately (I’m doing a thing at a comic convention this weekend in Portland) (neerrrrrrrd), and all the references to Masaka and Ihat and Korgano remind me of Dick’s increasingly complicated and, quite frankly, insane conception of the foundation of the universe. Or really, any particularly left field religious history--it’s that feeling of people juggling ideas that aren’t really based off of any visible, definable concepts, connecting them with their own tenuous narrative logic. This stuff makes my head hurt, although nothing here comes close to VALIS levels of mind-melting. Ostensibly, Picard is just going along with what Data tells him; since the Enterprise lacks the tools to effectively combat the alien ship (in that the alien ship keeps taking those tools away), the captain has to beat them at their own game. And there’s something charming in watching Picard fight fire with fire, especially given his long established love of archaeology. There’s a part of him that clearly lives for this shit, studying the designs on the alien structures, trying to piece together what they might mean, and, finally, using those symbols to create his own method of stopping the threat.
“Masks” does its best to keep things interesting, although it doesn’t entirely succeed. The problem here, for me, is that there’s no real core to any of this. There are cool bits here and there, like the photon torpedo that gets filled with snakes before Worf and Geordi can fire it, or the fact that the alien objects appearing in the Enterprise aren’t being beamed over, but actually transmuted from material already on board the ship. And there are weird bits that, at the very least, offer some solid “the hell?” value. Like the chest plate on Data’s uniform that changes every time he shifts between personalities, or, hell, the whole bizarre narrative of Masaka, who is some kind of goddess, and she does awful things to anyone who wrongs her, and only Korgano can stop her. In order to save the Enterprise, Picard summons Masaka and pretends to be Korgano, convincing Masaka to go back to sleep so they can go on the hunt again. Or something like that. I get frustrated by backstories that refuse to make intuitive sense, so I tend to get lost very quickly.
That’s what kept me from having as much fun with “Masks” as I wanted to. I’ve heard comments for and against this episode, and it’s not hard to see either side of the argument. If you can really get behind the crazy, oddly haunting vibe the episode is intent on putting out, this is a fascinating anomaly; just because it isn’t the sort of story TNG usually tries to tell doesn’t make it inherently bad. But on the other hand, you really, really need to be on the episode’s wave-length for this to work for you, and it’s a kind of wave-length I don’t think TNG has ever really prepared us for. We’ve had mysterious alien races, sure, but in those confrontations, the point was to try and find common ground before moving forward. In “Masks,” Picard simply does his best to play Masaka’s game just long enough to be rid of her. That makes for a hollow story, one that lacks much of anything in the way of an emotional component or, to be honest, a significant threat. For all of Ihat’s doom and gloom, Masaka turns out to be a big bowl of not much, and the episode’s commitment to following the alien ship’s mythology makes everything else disconnected and surreal. I was terrified by Read All About It because there was just enough realness there to make me feel personally threatened by what I was seeing, suggesting that the irrational was always possible, no matter how much I might want to believe otherwise. “Masks” is all irrational, and without that context, once you remove the surface, there’s nothing underneath.
- “The question is, can we trust a personality from an alien archive that seems bent on taking us over?” I am %99 convinced this line appears somewhere in PKD’s Exegesis.
- “Animals are worshipped in many cultures.” You think?
- Picard decides they need to fight fire with fire. He inputs the symbols they’ve found into the ship’s computers, and the ship synthesizes a mask. Picard picks it up. Riker says, “Another mask.” Thanks, Riker! (Also, why the hell is he saying “another”? Data only made one mask in his pottery class near the beginning of the episode, and he doesn’t wear it until the next scene. Unless Will is being all metaphorical.)
“Eye Of The Beholder” (Season 7, episode 18; first aired: 2/26/1994)
Or The One Where Troi And Worf Make Out, Sort Of But Not Really
First off, apologies; for some reason last week when I was finishing my review, I thought we’d be looking at “Genesis” after “Masks,” because either I can’t read, or else I really wanted to do a terrible joke about prog rock. We’ll get to “Genesis” next week, but now it’s time for “Eye Of The Beholder,” a thoroughly mediocre episode in which the only interesting character dynamic is the one ultimately proven to be entirely fictional. More fictional than usual, I mean. As in, fictional within the context of a fictional reality, and oh lord now we’re back on the crazy train.
Which is, I guess, somewhat appropriate. “Eyes” is a more traditional TNG episode than “Masks,” and it all holds together by the end in terms that don’t require us to take a few hits of mescaline beforehand just to grasp them. Still, though, it’s a bit of a mind-flip, ending with a last minute twist that renders roughly half (or more) of the episode essentially irrelevant. The show has gone down the “It was all in my mind!” path before, most effectively with “The Inner Light,” and “Eye” isn’t operating on that level. It’s a trifle unfair to expect it to, but “Eye” meets only the bare minimum requirement for this kind of storyline. Troi has significant experiences that create the illusion that she’s living out days, while she’s actually standing frozen for a matter of seconds. She also does things during those experiences which seem to contradict what we know about her character, as well as threatening to destroy the status quo of the series. Which is why you play these mind games, really; if you’re going to spend a good deal of time trapped inside one character’s hallucination, you better damn well take advantage of the opportunities this raises. Let’s have Troi and Worf have sex! And then Troi can be psycho jealous! And then she can shoot Worf and decide to kill herself!
Wacky, right? Only, not really, since none of it means anything, and even as it’s happening, it’s hard to take it too seriously. The stakes here, for all of Worf and Troi’s canoodling, are laughable low, and what’s odd is that we don’t really realize how low they are until the very end. The event with the most consequence in the entire episode happens during the cold open, when an ensign kills himself in one of the Enterprise’s nacelles. It’s a shocking moment (although not that shocking; this is probably my own fault, since I’d read the episode was about the investigation of a suicide, but it’s hard to get worked up about a strange character dying bloodlessly in the first five minutes), and, more importantly, it’s the only thing that happens. Seriously, if you stripped away Troi’s brain trip, you get: ensign kills himself. Troi and Worf investigate. They find out there were some murders, and the imprint of a suicide is what drove the ensign to his death. Fin. The crime isn’t even something that needs to be solved. Sure, the families of the victims may have their grief soothed by a psychic vision imprinted on a plasma coil by a suicidal murderer, but the murderer is dead, and the event that killed the ensign is probably not going to come up again. Maybe now they put a sign in the nacelle that says, “WARNING: BAD VIBES. DO NOT BE PSYCHIC HERE.”
There’s just not really enough here to warrant a full episode, which is probably why the fantasy Worf/Troi relationship gets thrown in. The way Troi’s hallucination works, nothing romantic that passes between the two characters actually happened, which means that momentary excitement from seeing some Betazed/Klingon love is all for naught. (This show must’ve been hell on ‘shippers. I can’t think of a single romantic relationship that’s developed between main characters at any point in the series. Sure, Riker and Troi have a past, but that’s been largely pushed to the side.) Sure, it implies that on some level, Troi was thinking about hooking up with Worf. The hallucination provides her with a template, but she’s the one who fills in the specifics, and when it comes to choosing a lover to drive her insane with jealousy, she goes with Worf, not Riker. Putting this together with “Parallels” means that somebody on the writing staff wants these crazy kids together, but at this point, they either need to make it happen in actual continuity, or let the idea ago. That’s two teases in a row, and it’s getting ridiculous.
While I was initially a fan of the possibilities Tworf represented, I’m no longer quite so enthusiastic. It’s a chemistry problem. The scene in “Eye” when Worf and Troi first hold hands and then passionately embrace and start making out is, if I’m remembering correctly, the most awkward, unconvincing moment of romantic surrender I’ve seen in the entire run of the show. And TNG has never been good at this stuff. Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis both give it their best, but it’s painful to watch. It gets a little better as it goes, but it never comes across as even remotely natural, and that’s a problem. Relationships need to have some reason for existing, even if that reason is as simple as, “I wanna hit that.” There’s no sense of an overwhelming sexual desire between Troi and Worf, which means there has to be chemistry and affection to push them towards creating desire. And it simply isn’t there. You could argue that it doesn’t really need to be, given that all of this is happening in Troi’s mind. It’s not actually real, so why should it look real? But since Troi’s creating all of this in response to outside stimulus, it should seem like a natural development. That it doesn’t means its easier to be suspicious when Troi starts acting jealous, and it also throws doubt on the viability of Troi and Worf dating in “real” life.
The problem is that TNG, despite its nominal efforts to project a future where sex exists without prejudice or judgment, has largely stripped its cast of its sexuality. These people seem like a bunch of genial brothers and sisters hanging out together on a farm that just happens to be moving through space. Generally, that’s fine; there’s a strong feeling of community and mutual trust that runs through the series’ best seasons, and it helps make this an environment an audience wants to return to. But when it comes for actual screwing, well, remember that scene in Back To The Future when Lea Thompson jumps Michael J. Fox while they’re parked outside the Enchantment Under The Sea dance? “Kissing you is like kissing my brother.” Pretty much. Effective romantic entanglements was never a tone TNG really got a handle on, even if it had its occasional successes, and “Eye” is a good example of why.
You’ll notice I’m not really discussing the plot of the episode, but as mentioned, there isn’t much plot to discuss. Once upon a time, back when the Enterprise was being built, a crazy guy caught his girlfriend cheating on him. They laughed at him (which is, murdering aside, amazingly dickish), and he snapped and killed them both, before throwing himself into a plasma stream. It’s a little odd that nobody on the Enterprise had heard of this incident (well, nobody in command). I doubt there are that many crimes of passion in the Federation, especially not ones that happen during ship construction. Really, though, this isn’t anything I can get worked up about, because we know nothing about any of the people involved. This isn’t even a stupid ghost story. No one’s spirit needs to be put to rest. Troi gets her head screwed on sideways for a while, and then Worf stops her from jumping into the plasma, and that’s it.
Which leaves me time to poke holes in the rest of the episode. Like the fact that Troi’s hallucination involves visions of scenes she’s not actually present for. Or the way Ensign Kwan’s suicide is handled. It’s not a bad cold open, starting with the action already in progress, but I’m not sure the standard “I’m going to talk him down from the ledge” approach is really the right call here. For one thing, why the hell wasn’t Troi around from the start? This sort of situation is arguably one of the primary reasons she’s on board the ship in the first place. (I’ll tell you why she wasn’t there: her psychic abilities would’ve set off the vision the same way Kwan’s did, and the episode would’ve been much shorter.) Aren’t there ways to beam someway out of one part of the ship to a different part of the ship? Okay, let’s assume the plasma is disrupting the transport beam. Why doesn’t Riker just tackle the guy? Then there’s the cavalier way Kwan’s supposed girlfriend handles his death. For all she knows it’s a suicide, which is a painful, ugly way to lose a loved one, which leads to a lot of ragged edges and awkward emotions. And yet, Ensign Calloway seems mildly sad, at worst. Like she’s thinking back to when her puppy died when she was ten, rather than the sudden, violent death of someone she cared about.
All in all, for an episode with such a big twist, this one doesn’t bother to go anywhere worthwhile. The murder-suicide that drives the plot is barest glean of a cliche, with no real supporting background to give it depth. Troi and Worf’s “relationship” is cringe-inducing. And in the end, we learn that none of really mattered in the first place. Flawed as it is, I’d take the ambitiously ridiculous “Masks” over a meandering mess like this any day.
- Worf’s ultra-serious, “Yes. Yes, I too have sought visions in fire” was legitimately hilarious.
Next week: We finally behold the glory of “Genesis,” and take one step closer to our “Journey’s End.”