"The Masterpiece Society"
Or The One Where Sir Francis Galton Was Right
I'm not sure human beings are designed to appreciate Utopia. At least, not the sort of Utopia we can create ourselves. It always bothers me in The Matrix when Agent Smith talks about people "rejecting" a perfect world. I think we flatter ourselves by pretending that we're too driven and clever to be satisfied with a computer generated heaven; I doubt it would be that difficult to provide us with some simulacrum that would satisfy our pleasure centers and scratch whatever itch we have to achieve. But the machines would have to be the ones in charge. A human-run Utopia, to me, isn't really possible, because it would require every person involved to always be acting with the best interests of everyone else in mind. Individual people can, by turns, be noble, sacrificing, and trustworthy. They can also be selfish, short-sighted, and cruel. While it would be nice to believe that an environment without negative influences would prevent these characteristics from arising, I'm not sure I believe it.
Of course, "The Masterpiece Society" tries to make a case otherwise, but then, that's not really surprising coming from TNG. This has always been a show built on idealism, as much as any show can be. Admittedly, life can't be perfect for the crew of the Enterprise and the universe they inhabit, because then we'd have no drama, and that would make for a fairly boring series. But TNG delivers us a version of the future in which nearly all our current major crises have been resolved, where, so far as we can tell, there's no class struggle, no poverty, and no discrimination of any kind. Sure, it's not exact, and maybe I'm being too cynical by not believing humanity would be capable of getting even this much perfection out of its government. But I'm almost reflexively more interested in the show when it tries to show the impossibilities of ever maintaining a life of complete harmony when dealing with multiple cultures over multiple worlds. Life is not designed to ever be perfectly satisfied, at least not for very long; perfect satisfaction is perfect rest, and perfect rest is death.
"Society" doesn't quite confirm this; before the Enterprise shows up, the group of bred and perfect humans living in isolation on Moab IV seem to be in perfect harmony, and it's only the reminder that there are other worlds than these that gets everybody riled up. In fact, large parts of "Society" are dedicated to giving as true a sense of loss as possible to the community's dissolution. But that society is by far the least interesting element here. It's as blandly generic as nearly all attempts to portray group perfection are (while I don't agree with Agent Smith that humans would reject an ideal environment, I do think it makes for incredibly boring fiction), because the ideas here are more important than the individuals. We're dealing with the Prime Directive again, and the tricky ground our heroes walk on whenever they interact with strangers, even if they aren't violating their own rules, even when they have the best of intentions. Also we're dealing with Troi apparently failing in love with yet another stranger within five minutes of meeting him, but that's a bit less heady.
Speaking of heady, I should probably get to the plot here: The Enterprise is following a core fragment of a neutron star, to study it and to warn any inhabited planets it might disrupt. To the crew members' surprise, they discover a colony of humans on Moab IV, a supposedly uninhabited planet in the Moab Sector, but when they contact the society to warn them of what's coming, and to offer their assistance in evacuating the locals, they're met with polite, but firm, dismissal. Aaron Conor, the colony's leader, explains that they are a society designed to live in perfect balance with their environment and each other, and that any change, no matter how slight, would result in chaos. But that core fragment isn't something you can exactly ignore, and Conor is so impressed by the idea of matter-energy transport (ie, the transporter magic we've been enjoying since the original series first debuted) that he invites a few crew-members down from the ship to talk things over with the society's scientists.
Once Riker, Troi, and Geordi arrive, Conor explains the situation a bit more clearly. He and the rest of his people are the result of a centuries old selective breeding process which… yeah, that's right. "Selective breeding." Which means Eugenics, and while there are rational ways to discuss this (and the episode does its best to stick to those ways, with some exceptions), it's hard not to be uncomfortable at how, well, happy everybody here is that they were designed at birth to fit specific roles. "Masterpiece" largely gets around the moral dilemma by making sure the people who initiated this colony are all long dead; this is the only life Conor and the others have known, and no one objects to it. One of the primary arguments against eugenics is that it takes away the individual's right to procreate and lets a select group decide which qualities are "desirable" and which are "undesirable" to reproduce. Here, that argument is somewhat moot, since it doesn't seem like there are any "undesirable" traits left to "purge." Apart from blindness or other physical defects, I guess.
Still, it's a queasy concept, and the more I think about this episode, the more surprised I am that it asks us to take that concept at face value. Much of the dramatic weight here comes from the idea that the chaos the Moabians are thrown into is as much a bad thing as it is a good one, and that means believing that something beautiful and irreplaceable is lost once Troi and Geordi and the others work their inadvertent influence. This is a bit like "The Apple" from the original series, but here, instead of Kirk deciding it's his duty to destroy Eden, Picard and Troi are distraught over what's happening, and regret their interference even while understanding it was inevitable. Sure, there are some important differences: the natives in "Apple" were essentially kept in thrall to a super computer, while the folks in "Society" are as autonomous as their biology and circumstance allow. But there's still that sense of innocence being lost.
Really, though, we don't see anything here that seems all that singular. We're told over and over again how balanced the group's life is, how everyone fits exactly where they belong, but for the little time the episode spends on the planet, there's no evidence of anything much better than what we've come to expect in the Federation. After spending four-plus seasons being told how wonderful the future will be for humanity, to stumble across a small pocket of humans who are supposedly living even better lives is a stretch to buy into. No one experiences any career doubt? Well, that's nice, but the advancements we see on the planet aren't particularly significant, largely because (as Geordi points out) advancement comes out of a response to crisis. If everything's fine, people might putter about a bit, but there's no real reason for them to push outward. I mean, these are supposedly the pinnacles of human mental ability, bred to achieve ultimate potential, but they're astonished by technology that existed in the original Star Trek. These folks have stagnated.
I suppose you could make an argument that progress isn't necessarily the pinnacle of human existence and that the Moabians have some kind of inner peace going that outstrips a "normal" life, but that's more implied than explained here. One of the things I enjoy about TNG this far into its run is that when it fails, it nearly always fails because it's trying to work with too many ideas at once. (Even "Violations," miserable though it was, had ambitions.) "Masterpiece" raises a lot of questions, but it doesn't really do justice to any of them. The first, most obvious problem, is that we aren't given much of a reason to regret the colony's woes. Judging by Troi and Picard's response, there should be a sense of loss here, but it mostly just seems like a bunch of bland people are being forced to be a little less bland. (Apart from Martin, the shouting guy, who is really unhappy about all of this.) People leave home all the time.
It's different here, though, we're told over and over, because the community is so well designed that it can't bear the loss of a few of its members. That seems like a bit of design flaw to me. On the one hand, it does ensure that everyone feels valued, which is one of the main factors in social disenfranchisement. But on the other, there's too much telling here, and not really a sense of what Conor means when he says the loss of Hannah (a scientist who becomes infatuated with the possibilities the Enterprise represents) and the others will wreck the place. Does he mean general dissatisfaction? Food shortages? Riots? Will someone else have to learn how to play the piano? We need stakes here, in order to make the conflict actually feel two-sided. Our natural impulse is to side with the folks who want to leave, because they want to ride in a space ship, and because whenever we see someone being potentially held against their will, unless that someone is a bad person, we want them to escape. If there'd been a clearer sense of the problems that would arise when Hannah's people got their wish or the dangers that awaited them, Conor's point would be easier to sympathize with.
As it is, he just comes off as whiny. As does Troi, with her horrible guilt over her three-day infatuation or however long that lasts. She blames herself for getting involved with Conor, when their romance is about as passionate and exciting as a Sesame Street Valentines card. Picard is equally distressed over what's happened, although at least he seems to understand that the change is most likely inevitable at this point. Out of our regular cast, only Geordi seems truly bothered by what the society represents, and what their genetic manipulations and restrictions truly mean. In a bizarre capper, Riker and Picard discuss what happened, and Picard refers to the Prime Directive, and how events of the episode reminded him of the importance of that restriction. Riker says, "But they were human," which is an odd, uncomfortable point to make; if there were human cultures on other planets which existed independently of our own, wouldn't they fail under the same rules? And then Picard once again bemoans the Moabians' dissolution. For once, the captain's usually unshakable moral authority is curiously absent. There was a nice house, and then some people left it, and if there's a loss in that, the gain far exceeds the cost. If Utopia requires you to spend your life indoors, I, frankly, don't see much use in it.
- Okay, Hannah's "multi-phase tractor beam" was very clever. Clearly, these are smart people; they just haven't had a reason to be smart.
- I also liked how Geordi and Hannah's combined efforts were able to move the neutron fragment, and I also liked how Hannah claims there's a biosphere breach when there isn't one. I wish the episode had focused more on her growing awareness than on Conor's polite complaints.
Or The One Where Troi Beats Data At Chess, And Everyone Is So Embarrassed They Forget Everything
Seriously, what the hell was that? "Chess is a game of intuition" my ass. Data doesn't have emotions! She can't read what he's planning, and it's not like you can "feel" your way to victory playing against a computer. I'm all for Troi showing greater competence, but this is absurd. It would work if it wasn't Data; she made a bet that he'd have to make a drink for her if she won, but since Data would obviously make her a drink either way, it would've made just as much sense to show her sparring off against, I dunno, Worf. (Of course, then we wouldn't get the "Data is a bartender" joke, which isn't a terrible gag, so… I dunno.)
Once we're past that initial unpleasantness, however, "Conundrum" settles into my favorite kind of episode, the sci-fi puzzle: Something inexplicable happens, our heroes struggle to explic it, and a crisis arises that makes the explanation not just compelling but mandatory. Here, the problem is this: The Enterprise encounters a strange ship. It ignores attempts at communication, and then scans the Enterprise with a green light that first glitches out Data, then ultimately wipes out the memory of everyone on board. Not the complete memory: The crew still remember how to perform their jobs, even if they're not longer sure exactly what those jobs are. But all personal knowledge is gone, including names, friendships, and even the most fundamental understanding of their purpose onboard a starship. Everyone's so confused, in fact, that nobody realizes they have a special guest among their midst, a new bridge officer named MacDuff who Dawns his way aboard and acts like he belongs there.
MacDuff's unremarked upon appearance is one of the best parts of "Conundrum," and while his presence here is significantly less impressive than what Buffy the Vampire Slayer did with Buffy's little sister (in what was essentially a live-action ret-con), there's that same casual boldness that marked Dawn's debut. Actually, even Dawn was underlined a bit when she showed up. MacDuff is in the background, and even as someone who's watched every episode of the show this far, I still had a brief moment of doubt. I knew he wasn't a regular, but it was possible that he was one of the rotating helmsmen, and I'd just missed him before. Except, well, helmsman don't wear red uniforms on this show. Which means that whatever was going on, the reason for it was right there in front of us.
Not only does MacDuff's integration go unremarked upon, but "Conundrum" does a great job of letting us know what he's trying to accomplish without ever having him come out and state it directly. We don't have a scene where he communicates with home base or where he tells Data his secrets before turning the android off (presumably laughing malevolently while doing so), or any one of half a dozen clearer ways of making sure everyone in the audience realized what was going on. Yes, when he starts urging Worf to mutiny, it's hard to ignore what his true intentions are, but those scenes are still perfectly in character. There's no hand-holding here, and while the episode isn't the most complex piece of writing ever, it is worth noting just how much this slight gesture of faith in the audience helps to make the rest of the story work better.
The "blank slate" plotline is a familiar one to genre fans; it's been used many, many times before (Buffy's "Tabula Rasa," Supernatural's "It's a Terrible Life," Angel's "Spin the Bottle," pretty much all of Dollhouse) and there's something fun about seeing it in action with a new group of characters, especially characters we know as well as we do the TNG ensemble. It's a chance to re-examine established relationships, to remind us why we like these people and what they mean together. It's also a great way to reinforce basic truths. One of the best subplots here is how Worf, stripped of his knowledge of his place on the ship, assumes the position of command. It makes a limited sort of sense (although it would mean discounting the fact that nearly everyone else aboard the Enterprise is human, but then, he has no way of knowing this, and besides, if he's the only Klingon on-board, he must be a pretty spectacular Klingon), and it fits in with what we know about Worf and his people. This could've turned unpleasant if Picard and Worf had squared off, but Picard holds back, simply doing his best to influence the new "captain's" decisions in a way that indicates he's the one more fit for the big chair. When the bridge crew finally learn their real roles, Worf steps aside and apologizes for his presumption, and that's basically that. Sure, there's some tension when MacDuff tries to get Worf on his side, but there's no real conflict there; the Picard and Worf relationship makes too much sense to pretend otherwise.
That low-key approach could destroy tension, but I actually found it to be one of the most entertaining aspects of "Conundrum." Plenty of times when a show uses this trope, it's a way to force characters in difficult circumstances to be friendly with each other again. A memory wipe clears away the drama, and it also offers an excuse for the writers to try and recapture their initial conceptions of each cast-member, before history and development took hold. Here, though, everybody acts roughly the same way they always act. Worf tries to take charge, and Riker and Ensign Ro hook up, but neither of these events are particularly shocking. (Apart from the fact that I can't remember the last time two crew members slept together on the show.) Picard is reasonable and a good leader, Geordi is smart, Dr. Crusher is a doctor, and so on. It's not the most exciting way to handle the concept, but there's something to be said for not forcing conflict where there doesn't need to be any. There aren't any lingering issues built up between our heroes, apart from, apparently, Riker and Ro's simmering sexuality. Trying to pretend there were would've been embarrassing.
Admittedly, sometimes, "Conundrum" is a little too laid-back for its own good. Once everyone realizes the basic scope of the problem, they get to work trying to get as much information out of their computer banks as they can. This leads to everybody finding out what their job is, and also learning that they are part of the United Federation of Planets, and that the Federation is currently at war with the Lysian Alliance and that the Lysians apparently have a weapon that can wipe memories. Which gives us the real crisis of the episode: Can Picard and the others realize they've been duped in time to avoid destroying a space station in the name of a made up war? The answer being, mostly, yeah. Sure, the Enterprise destroys one ship, but Picard comes to his senses before they take out the command center, and while it's a well done sequence, it's not a particularly surprising resolution.
"Conundrum" generally works. It benefits from breaking outside the mold a bit, structurally, since much of the running time is given over character fumbling and trying to regain old patterns. But even that fumbling isn't that intense; the biggest change-up here is Worf, and his ascension to the throne lasts only a few scenes. (Fun as it is, Riker and Ro's hook-up doesn't really shake the foundations of TNG. As Ro points out herself, the lack of context probably just allowed them to do what they'd really wanted to do all along. As movies and TV have taught us, any couple who bickers that intensely is bound to end up in bed together eventually.) The episode also benefits from subtly presenting us with a storyline beneath its main action, as we, the audience, are able to put together what's happening before the ensemble does; while they're debating over who sits where, we're wondering where MacDuff is leading. It also helps that MacDuff's plan isn't a terrible one. It requires an impressive amount of energy to put together (and it's also amazing that he's able to wipe out everyone's memory about the ship, and with that degree of precision, and they still aren't winning the war?), but the fundamentals are sound.
It's too bad, though, that we never learn anything more about him. One-sided villains are fun and all, but this show often works best when it shows us a bunch of different sides at once. I would've liked to have gotten a sense of MacDuff, beyond our glimpse of his "real" self under phaser fire during the climax. More than that, though, I was a little bored by this one, despite my affection for the premise. It is possible, after all, to be too low-key, and once the basic parameters were set, the plot became a stalling mechanism until Picard finally made his decision not to fire on the command center. While it makes sense that MacDuff would leave the crew's technical expertise intact, that also meant doing away with one of the more entertaining parts of the blank slate episode: There wasn't much danger here for our heroes, and there wasn't much sense of discovery, either. A middle of the road episode like this one can be enjoyable for its character moments and for allowing us to spend more time in this world. But it still makes me wish they'd swing for the fences more often.
- So, apparently there are gymnastics in the future.
- I guess everybody got their memories back, then? Actually, I like how this is treated so casually. Once Picard decides not to fire on the Lysians and Worf stands up to MacDuff (once again getting his ass handed to him), the journey back to who they were is essentially complete.
Next week: We try and make a "Power Play" and get into a question of "Ethics."