Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Masterpiece Society"

**

Air date: 2/10/1992
Teleplay by Adam Belanoff and Michael Piller
Story by James Kahn and Adam Belanoff
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The Enterprise makes contact with a human colony that has been willingly isolated for 200 years but may face destruction in six days because of the gravitational forces that will be caused by a passing stellar fragment. The colonists live in a biosphere and have been engineered to be the "perfect" culmination of generations of eugenics. They do not take lightly to talking to outsiders, lest they disturb the delicate balance of their hermetically sealed mini-society.

"The Masterpiece Society" is essentially a Prime Directive episode, with the twist here being that the Prime Directive does not apply because the colonists are humans. The story takes quite a while to get going, and the plot aspects involving the attempt to deflect the stellar fragment away from the colony employ off-the-shelf TNG technobabble and problem-solving procedurals. But there are some decent arguments here. Geordi, for example, disagrees with the very notion of this colony. (He would've been terminated as a defective zygote the moment his blindness was discovered.) This episode tackles questions about the consequences of culture contamination in a way that is uniquely Star Trek. I was most persuaded by the character of Hannah (Dey Young), who sees the opportunities that lie on the other side of the bubble, and wants out.

But as an hour of TV, this is just way too dry. The "relationship" between Troi and colony leader Aaron (John Snyder) and the consequences that ensue are especially unpersuasive, with overwrought love-at-first-sight dialogue that has no emotional credibility. The colony itself comes off as a sterile soundstage. Meanwhile, an undeveloped character played by Ron Canada is basically unnecessary, serving as a mouthpiece of obstinacy without much of a reasoned perspective.

And while Picard (and the story at large, which remains ambivalent) says his place is not to judge this colony's way of life, I will observe that it's frustrating and mystifying to watch people argue in favor of a philosophy that basically stifles free will while making societal evolution impossible — even as it argues that it's doing the opposite. (Hannah at least is willing to stand up and declare her freedom.) But forget about arguing over an idealized philosophy: These people would all have been dead had the Enterprise not intervened, and yet at the end Picard is still wringing his hands over bringing in an imbalance that could destroy what this place originally stood for. Well, I don't think much of what it stood for; this society of unremitting self-important blandness could use some imbalance.

Previous episode: Violations
Next episode: Conundrum

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24 comments on this review

Nic - Sat, Apr 2, 2011 - 4:53pm (USA Central)
I liked this one. The situation of the colony was a little extreme, but when you think about what is being done with genetics today, it doesn't seem that much of a stretch for the 24th century. And the philosophical issue of 'tampering' with who we are is certainly worth adressing BEFORE we actually reach that level of technology (if anyone hasn't read Brave New World I strongly recommend it).

As for the love-at-first-sight dialogue between Aaron and Troi, well he WAS genetically engineered after all. I would assume that everyone on this planet is a perfect flirt - to quote Q, "h
Nic - Sat, Apr 2, 2011 - 4:54pm (USA Central)
Frak. I pressed enter by accident. The Q quote I was about to add was "How boooorring!"
methane - Sat, Apr 2, 2011 - 5:07pm (USA Central)
I haven't watched this episode in forever, but I'm currently reading an interesting book on the philosophy of Trek (Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos) that I picked up at my library.

I just finished a chapter on the false utopias encountered in Star Trek, and this was one of the episodes they used to illustrate the difference between TOS and TNG. In TOS, Kirk repeatedly comes across a 'perfect' society and overthrows it, claiming the prime directive doesn't apply to a backward society.

In the TNG era, the idea of enforcing your ideals on another culture has fallen out of favor. Whenever Picard encounters such a 'paradise', he gives them a good talking to, and maybe they'll change on their own. It satisfies our current cultural ideals, but it takes more skill to make that an interesting script.
Nick Poliskey - Fri, Apr 15, 2011 - 8:43am (USA Central)
Although this was another in the long line of "season stupid" episodes, I thought the premise here was one fo the better of the series. I think had the acting been better, this could have been a classic sci-fi (ala the city on the edge of foerver). As a previous poster mentioned, with genetic engineering already extant we are rapidly heading towards a world where Geordi would indeed be destroyed as a Zygote.

One fascinating aspect of this episode and others like it, to me anyways, is peoples automotic response. I would be not to far off to say that Star Trek fans are liekly majority Liberal. Yet the reponse fans have to these kinds of episodes is a very conservative response. Geordi is making at heart a pro-life argument here.

If you had to say the idea of a genetically engineered "masterpiece society" was going to come from a George Bush type person or a Barack Obama type person, the truth is, the right wing HATES these kinds of ideas. this is a very left thing. And my big secret is that I kind of admire the concept, and found myself sympathizing with the colony leaders. I know post-WWII morals must hate everything that sniffs of eugenics, but I don't think trying eliminate the worst ailments, and producing a rich society that with no crime, and other postives, is somehow worse to the crap we allow in the modern world. Yeah, I am not with Picard and crew on this one.
Michael - Fri, Apr 15, 2011 - 10:35am (USA Central)
I liked this episode quite a bit actually. It's a quite reasonable take on this sort of scenario that avoids Kirk-style ethnocentrism and talks about the reasonable objections and observations that people in this situation might have. Yeah, it's a bit slow, and this story reinterpreted through VOY or ENT would have included a tedious phaser fight or some other action element and been no better for it. It's biggest failing is, I think, a failure to take chances.

Treks stance against eugenics has always been sort of cheap and cowardly, painting every application of the technology in a poor light. How much more interesting would it have been to have the dome people be truly advanced, with mental capabilities far superior to conventional humans? Imagine members had wanted to join the Federation, but were not allowed because they were too smart (see DS9) or where members of the Enterprise crew want to join the colony because they believe it is a breakthrough in human evolution? The story doesn't go far enough to place the characters in interesting places (mentally). It kind of assumes that the dome people are misguided and the Federation is the culturally evolved one, which is too bad.
Jay - Sun, Sep 25, 2011 - 8:02pm (USA Central)
I found this episode just as tedious and as it's sibling episode, Season 3's "The Ensigns Of Command". I'm not sure who annoyed me more Goshevan from the latter episode, who was a hard headed stubborn leader, or Aaron, the level headed stubborn leader (who for some reason struck me as looking like he was made of wax).

Also, interesting that two of the most excrutiating guest characters Trek has ever had, Martin here and Ch'Pok in DS9's "Rules Of Engagement" were both played by Ron Canada.
Captain Tripps - Sun, Oct 9, 2011 - 8:32pm (USA Central)
Well Trek is at least consistent when it comes to eugenics and the attitudes of the in universe humans, which probably has more than a little to do with canon history, mainly the Eugenics Wars.

Also with regard to DS9 they weren't forbidden to join Starfeet because they were "too" smart, but because the Federation did not support eugenics or genetic manipulation, nor did it want to reward those who broke the law, fearing it would encourage others to do the same just to keep up. Which again, harkens back to the experiences earth had with augments.
procyon - Tue, Jan 17, 2012 - 6:04pm (USA Central)
This episode was pretty likeable in my opinion, at least deserving of 3 stars.

I was immediately reminded of Huxley's "A brave new world" when I saw it.
Geography Nick - Thu, Jan 26, 2012 - 11:57pm (USA Central)
Nice review, Jamahl - thank you. What hasn't been pointed out yet is the potentially simple observation that Picard seems to jettison his otherwise unwavering - at times spectacular - commitment to the prime directive. I don't buy the reasoning that because they're human they somehow get a break. What seems to be at odds here is species vs. way-of-life. The implication that "seeking out new life," and respecting what you find, does not include civilizations derived from earth is at odds with what I understand as the spirit of the prime directive. This episode is rather profound, therefore, in that it challenges us to sharpen our perception of how the prime directive cuts the line between nature (new life) and culture (new civilization).
Nick P. - Fri, Jan 27, 2012 - 9:06am (USA Central)
Great Point Geography Nick (like the name).

That episode would have been very different had it been a group of Bajorans who were using Eugenics to advance themselves. And I am guessing since Bajorans are the classic "oppressed minority", Picard would have been far more favourable to their society.

Yes, this episode was handled very timidly, and could have been a great one.
Tom - Thu, Jan 31, 2013 - 4:59pm (USA Central)
It looks like the consensus from fans is that this is a very solid episode, I'm glad to see since I dont see why you think the episode is dry Jammer. But from all the comments most people think it was solid, imaginative and substantive.
Sintek - Sun, Jun 16, 2013 - 12:14am (USA Central)
I'll take Gattaca over this fecal flake specked waste of film stock.
Sintek - Sun, Jun 16, 2013 - 12:29am (USA Central)
I mean video.
ncfan - Fri, Jul 12, 2013 - 8:04pm (USA Central)
I'd just like to point out that if two dozen people leaving a society is enough to break it, then the roots of that society were rotten from the start. It was going to break eventually.

And given that those two dozen colonists are genetically engineered, I'm not sure that their future in the Federation will be a particularly bright one.
Jay - Wed, Jul 17, 2013 - 1:42pm (USA Central)
@ ncfan

Indeed so. Interestingly, the events of the S5 DS9 episode "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" would seem to suggest that the scientists in the S2 TNG episode "Unnatural Selection" were engaged in wholly criminal activity. If we're to believe DS9, Picard should have taken the entire staff of the Darwin facility into custody immediately.
Peremensoe - Fri, Jul 19, 2013 - 7:44am (USA Central)
No colony of post-warp people--human, Bajoran, or otherwise--would fall under the PD in any case. They have left the phase the PD is meant to protect, moved out into the galaxy on their own terms.
mephyve - Tue, Jul 23, 2013 - 7:39pm (USA Central)
Waaaaah! We saved a populace from certain dooms.' 'Waaaaah if we hadn't come here they would have been completely wiped out' 'Now instead of annihilation, 23 people are happy because they have an opportunity to broaden their horizons ,' 'Waaaah, even though the rest of them are alive, they now have holes in the fabric of their society.' 'Waaaah, prime directive' (Riker was right by the way, the prime directive didn't apply here. Sometimes Picard is so cool, sometimes you just want to tell him' Shut up Picard!'
Anyway, this episode was a mish mesh of old themes and stories from past TNG episodes. The only enjoyable part of it was hearing Troi admit over and over again 'I am a useless counsellor. I am a useless counsellor. I am a useless counsellor ...' And what was with her telling the guy,'Don't say that' She's half Betazoid, it didn't matter whether he said it out loud. She already knew how he felt.
William B - Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - 8:13am (USA Central)
On the one hand, there are things I like about this episode. I like that Picard ultimately *does* regret hurting the community; this is a guy who really does believe that people have the right to build societies however they like, even if he disagrees with those results. I like too that the episode also suggests the appeal of a less structured, more spontaneous life, away from a genetically engineered society, is so clear that at least some people will be swayed by it even without anyone working hard to convince them; only Geordi makes an actual pitch for the strength of his own society to Hannah, whereas Troi and Picard try hard to stop themselves from imposing. I like, too, that conflicts within the episode are relatively quiet; despite his obstinacy, the Ron Canada character never tries holding people at gunpoint or something, which is how this story easily could have gone. And in fact, the character we are most likely to be sympathetic to -- Hannah -- is the one who does the most morally objectionable thing in favour of her cause, in claiming that there is a leak. As was pointed out earlier, the false utopia here contrasts a great deal to how TOS (or early TNG) would handle the same subject matter. This society is inert, but it is pleasant and it is not presented as an automatically oppressive culture, allowing for some moral ambiguity. The episode makes good use of Geordi, too.

All that said, it is true that the hand-wringing in the episode becomes excessive; at a certain point, claiming that the Enterprise did as much damage to their society as a stellar core fragment is a bit eye-roll-worthy. The episode feels padded out, as if there are not enough conflicts to sustain a whole hour; I feel like this would be more natural as a Twilight Zone half-hour episode. Many scenes eventually involve the same dialogue being repeated again and again. A fuller sense of what this society entails and what they might have that the Enterprise lacks, or vice versa, would have made the impact of the tragedy and/or triumph of Hannah and a few others leaving the colony that much stronger. And the fact that the society is not strong enough to survive the departure of two dozen people needs more vetting within the episode; at least someone should have pointed out that this society is pretty weak if it can't handle those departures at all. And yes, the Troi/Aaron romance was underwhelming. Ultimately, I admired some of what the episode did enough to bring it to 2.5 stars.
William B - Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - 3:54pm (USA Central)
I gotta say, after a relatively strong opening -- "Redemption II" and "Ensign Ro" are pretty good, and "Darmok" is *excellent* -- the next ten episodes, up to the end of the first half of the season, was a pretty poor run -- probably the worst since season one. "Unification I" and "Hero Worship" were good; nothing else in this run really was. No episodes in this run are *terrible* to me, but...they all feel like misses, some of them close to working but ultimately falling short. "The Game" and "Disaster" manage to make decently watchable and interesting shows out of premises that are fundamentally flawed, and things like "The Masterpiece Society" and "Silicon Avatar" take potentially interesting premises and just don't push them far enough. Season 2 was on average about as mediocre as this run, but that's because season 2 had lots of strong and lots of weak episodes; there is a pervasive blandness to the run from "Silicon Avatar" to "The Masterpiece Society" which is a lot less fun than the roller coaster ride season two provided, IMO. I feel kind of depressed about this show now; which, well, I am glad that the second half of season five is very good.
JJ - Sun, Feb 9, 2014 - 12:28pm (USA Central)
I agree that the relationship between Aaron and Troi is absolute drek, however I do find Hannah's part of the episode compelling. The scene where she fakes the crack and talks about being preordained the big fish in science, and then suddenly finds herself in a very large pond is well done. The technical part of the story with the core fragment is mediocre at best. I also agree that all of the hand-ringing by Picard and others seems forced in order to clumsily bolster the colonies side of the argument, because as NCFan said, any society that requires coercion to exist is not one worthy of respect. Considering all of this, I think the 2 star rating is deserved.
SkepticalMI - Mon, Jun 9, 2014 - 9:09pm (USA Central)
There is a real problem with Picard's regret at the end, regardless of whether or not the Prime Directive holds. Not to get too political, but Trek's utopia usually relies on classical liberalism, which is conveniently held up by wishful thinking that everyone will automatically approve of the new society. Yet Picard's regret at hurting the society moves beyond liberalism to leftism, where the state or the idea dominates over the individual. This sort of thinking inevitably leads to totalitarianism (as the leaders suggested forcing the 23 rebels to stay and likely would have to crush their rebellion in other ways). This is what Picard is supporting by putting the desires of the leaders of the society above the needs of the individual. This is not at all the same man who walked away when Roga Danar and crew were pointing guns at their world's leaders. To doom the people that want to leave to stay and submit to the Great Society is hardly a very enlightened view.

Or to put it another way, Spock's maxim of "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" is quite admirable when he voluntarily sacrifices himself. It is a brutal necessity when Troi must be willing to order a soldier to die in order to save the rest. But it is despicable when a tyrant uses that maxim to suppress and destroy individual rights for the common good. Picard is coming dangerously close to supporting the last option.

Other than that, it was a very interesting episode. It was interesting seeing how everyone came down on their support or disagreement with the society. Obviously LaForge was opposed. But Worf and Riker were also opposed, and they are the usual "barbaric" ones. Troi and Picard are the most supportive, and they tend to be the "enlightened" ones. And yet, the episode seemed to be opposed to the society, with Hannah being the most sympathetic character. So why is that? Well, Picard may have been just been being too cute by half in trying to balance his role as a statesman. And it'd be easy to say Troi was just thinking with her hormones, and thus her support was without thinking. But that'd be too easy...

What makes Troi tick? She's a very underdeveloped character, but never seemed to get an episode to challenge her inner ideals (See Ethics as an example of a character-defining episode for another undeveloped character in Beverly). Troi is just the nice one, the statesman, the peacemaker. But what does she believe?

I keep going back to a line by Riker in The Loss. He called her aristocratic. And maybe that is what she is. And it seems to fit here. She likes order, with everything in its proper place and naturally with her proper place being above others. It makes sense with her upbringing. She does appear to be a member of the nobility, even if her mother overstates it. And even though she assures herself that she is different from her mother, her mother's self assuredness that the universe revolves around her had to have rubbed off of her to some extent. And look at other pieces of evidence:

- She's a therapist. Her entire job is focused around finding troubled people and putting them back to normal. Taking disorder and fixing it. Putting herself in charge of other people's lives.
- She is terrified when she loses her empathic powers. She is now the abnormal one. And she takes it pretty hard. And part of the reason she takes it so hard is because she is now just like everyone else and can't use her special powers to her advantage. She loses her high ranking place.
- She is rather self centered in Night Terrors. Everyone else is dying from lack of dreaming, and she's sitting around complaining about a few little nightmares.
- She eventually takes the bridge officer test after Disaster. It was terrifying to her that the natural order might put her in command (as it did in Disaster) and that she wasn't ready for it. Clearly something had to change.
- She can be very authoritative when she feels she has the right to be. See Suddenly Human, where she as the therapist becomes the expert on the annoying kid. Her solution is to force Picard to bond with him, even though Picard is clearly uncomfortable with the idea and others could conceivably play the parent surrogate role. It didn't matter, this was her area of expertise, so she can push people around to fix this one problem.

I may be stretching it a bit, and I am certainly magnifying a negative aspect of her character beyond its intention. And it's not necessarily all bad. But I do agree with Riker, there is a little aristocratic streak in her (now that I think about it, the weird accent doesn't help matters any). So given that, it makes sense that this ordered society would appeal to her. After all, that's exactly what aristocrats want; an ordered society. And with the obvious nobleman expressing interest in her and her obvious attraction to him, it makes sense that she would lose her objectivity here. It really does seem to fit. So while her quick romance was boring to watch, I think it is a bit understandable. And I think her character here is still realistic for her.
William B - Tue, Jun 10, 2014 - 7:48pm (USA Central)
@SkepticalMI, I enjoy reading your thoughts on these episodes, and I especially like what you've written about Troi. Definitely, she is one of the show's underdeveloped characters, but I have some fondness for her, partly because of these very negative qualities.

The linking of Troi with the aristocracy also gives a bit of added heft to "Face of the Enemy." One of the strengths of that episode, and one reason that it functions a *little* like "Ethics" does for Crusher, is that Troi is essentially placed in a position where she uses her ability to read and to manipulate people, long honed to help people solve their problems, as a way of dealing with Toreth. One of the ironies of that episode, too, is that in order to play the part of the Tal Shiar operative, she has to *become* a Tal Shiar-like spy and manipulator, all in order to undermine the ultra-authoritarian Romulan regime represented by the Tal Shiar. By playing into the concept of the entitled, higher-caste Tal Shiar operative, and by playing into Toreth's class resentments, Troi is able to project an image of entitlement which allows her to pass off any errors she makes in her performance as being the result of her contempt for the lower echelons of Romulan society. Part of what makes that episode gripping for me is that Major Rakal is someone with whom Troi might share a little bit, even though she also sympathizes (more strongly) with Toreth.
Taylor - Sat, Aug 30, 2014 - 3:10am (USA Central)
Putting the typically unlikely whirlwind romance aside, my problem with this episode is the alleged fragility of the society. We're continually reminded everyone is wired to perfection, yet if a couple dozen people leave, everything is supposed to collapse? It doesn't make any sense. (And hello, this is Trek. Anyone remember Khan and The Space Seed? Genetic engineering led to supermen.)

Funny story: We were just watching this and my wife said what about the Prime Directive? And I said I don't think it applies to humans, which my wife disputed. And then Riker and Picard had a very similar conversation moments later.
Lal - Wed, Oct 1, 2014 - 10:34pm (USA Central)
Only 2 stars? I would have given it 3. It's a competently written drama with an okay premise, but some great ethical dilemmas. Yeah the 'romance' was a bit lukewarm (not to mention that they became "in love" awfully fast), and Ron Canada's character was unnecessarily stodgy and single-minded. But Geordi's dialogue with Hannah, and her reasoning on why she needs to leave - it's pretty well done.

The society itself is puzzling, with questionable internal stability. I also think it wasn't visibly rigid enough - I would have expected a bit more uniformity of dress, with colours of cloth to differentiate professions. (Plus, there is a somewhat implied caste system at work, if some people are bred to be the top dogs, and others are bred for less high-profile jobs. But I guess there was enough holes in this utopia to see it as a dystopia anyway.

Too bad the Enterprise crew can never examine their claims of being "evolved" human beings more closely (Q comes close to do this from the get-go in "Encounter at Farpoint", but Q had to be the bad guy, so he's wrong no matter what). This is TNG, and Roddenberry's utopia has no problems because its blinders block any peripheral vision from coming through.

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