Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Masks"

*

Air date: 2/21/1994
Written by Joe Menosky
Directed by Robert Wiemer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The Enterprise discovers an ancient computerized alien spaceship/library at the core of an 87-million-year-old comet. The library latches onto the Enterprise with an energy beam and begins using the ship's replicators to create ancient artifacts and mysterious symbols — before then proceeding to transform the Enterprise wholesale into an alien museum. Or something. (It literally transforms objects on the ship into other objects; it's more like magic than technology.) It also takes over Data, who begins channeling odd personalities of various people from this long-dead civilization. The crew must figure out what all this means before the entire ship is transformed and nothing is left of the Enterprise. (I hate it when that happens.)

"Masks" might be the most flat-out bizarre episode of TNG ever made. It's conceptually ambitious but ultimately an epic failure of an episode. I mean, this is an utter mess. The story is at times so incomprehensible, impenetrable, and incoherent as to require three synonyms starting with the letter "I" for me to adequately convey its bewildering effect. I was staring blankly at the screen in disbelief. If this were also enlightening that might offset some of its impenetrability, but it unfortunately suffers from being as hopelessly flat, dull, and pretentious as it is impossible to decipher.

Could I go back and watch/listen more closely and to figure out what this episode is trying to say? I suppose I could try, but I sure don't want to. Some puzzles are simply not worth solving. This is a story so desperately in search of subtext that it forgets to supply whatever it is that exists above that — the "text," I guess? Joe Menosky, the Trek writer who has explored ancient societies, myths, and oblique concepts more than any other, stuffs "Masks" so full of symbology and ancient characters that it becomes an archaeologist's turgid self-parody. The actors can't save it; Data's downloaded split-personality disorder is portrayed by Brent Spiner as an array of broad caricatures and silly voices, none of which I cared about in the slightest. And the way the Enterprise is transformed into this alien museum (for reasons I could never understand) is so utterly unbelievable as to venture into pure fantasy. The script itself is beaming in from another galaxy.

"Masks" is basically the story of the much-feared ancient Queen Masaka, whose authority can only be challenged by the mighty Korgano, or something. What is all this supposed to mean? Don't know. Don't care. The ancient power struggle must be played out by the crew for some reason, in order to satisfy the computerized gods of the alien archive. (The concept of a re-enacted power struggle was much more straightforward and entertaining in DS9's "Dramatis Personae," also a Menosky script.) The hokey payoff at the end, with Picard and Data facing off in their titular masks, owes more to trick-or-treating than ancient mythology. And yet as goofy as this is, the story plays itself deadly serious. As long as the computerized archive gods are happy with Picard's performance while wearing a mask, all is well in the world.

I suppose, intellectually speaking, I prefer the ambitious failure that is "Masks" to the brain-dead failure that is "Sub Rosa." Then again, maybe not; "Sub Rosa" was at least humorously, simplistically watchable in its unabashed wretchedness. "Masks" plays more like a dirge. A dirge scoring a Shakespearean dramatization of Sophocles translated into Klingon and projected through a malfunctioning holodeck during a self-destruct countdown. What is that sentence supposed to mean? Exactly.

Previous episode: Thine Own Self
Next episode: Eye of the Beholder

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72 comments on this review

Dimitris Kiminas
Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 5:13am (UTC -5)
Come now, only one star? This episode was the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy compressed into 40 minutes! :)
karatasiospa
Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 6:49am (UTC -5)
i didn't find this episode incoherent or incomprehensible and i don't understand why others do. It is true that more explanations were needed but i find the whole idea fascinating.
Paul
Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 8:19am (UTC -5)
We agree again, Jammer. But I would make one other point ...

TNG in its later seasons (as other shows have done) seemed to forget about the 1,000 people living on the Enterprise who weren't the senior staff (other than 'Lower Decks', of course). Why there's less concern that the Enterprise crew might be in danger as the ship turns into ... well, whatever it turns into is goofy. Even first season TNG would have made more of an effort to consider the safety of the ship's families.
dan
Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 1:18pm (UTC -5)
zero stars. unwatchable
Alex
Thu, Dec 6, 2012, 1:22pm (UTC -5)
What can I say, I actually enjoyed the mystique of Masks, and thought that Spiner's performance made it captivating. It was trippy, for a lack of a better word.
Jon
Thu, Dec 6, 2012, 4:33pm (UTC -5)
I have to say that I laughed when I got to Masaka's name, as "masaka" an expression in Japanese that indicates shock or disbelief at something.

I've gotta say, it fit pretty well with my thoughts as I read the summary of the episode.
Dean Grr
Thu, Dec 6, 2012, 7:03pm (UTC -5)
Jammer, I disagree on this one for the following:
*I didn't find the underlying story that hard to understand and the archaeological angle was fascinating. It reads as a story about balance in nature, light & dark, yin & yang.
*I remember reading Menosky was not happy with this episode, but a large detractor for me was the cheap production: it was a bottle show with cheaper props (the artifacts in Ten Forward were pretty funny). If they had a cgi battle between two transformed gods, that might have been different ...
*I thought Brent Spiner did a fine job with the different mythological characters, and it was chilling to think that a malfunction (or misunderstanding) of an ancient library could lead to real world death. As a writer above mentioned, it would be like LotR wih the holodeck safeties off, :).

In short, it was more the production than the story that hurt the episode. The idea was cool, the execution lacked, but when I think of season 7, I think about Data's mask. Probably a good Halloween costume, as a nod to Trekkies and to have fun with anyone that hated this episode, ;).
-Dean
SolidCastADM
Fri, Dec 7, 2012, 7:00am (UTC -5)
Riker has my favorite line from this episode: "I don't know what you did Sir, but it looks like everything's back to normal."
Jay
Fri, Dec 7, 2012, 2:59pm (UTC -5)
@ Paul...even earlier in TNG's run, it often neglected the families, but at least not always within the contents of one script. For example, The episode "The Game" aired just a week after "Disaster", which means that the one-week old Molly O'Brien wasn't being cared for by her parents, since that episode explicitly states that eventually everyone on board other than Wesley was addicted to the game.
methane
Fri, Dec 7, 2012, 8:00pm (UTC -5)
I have to say I enjoyed the oddity of it all.

I'd probably give it 2 stars; not great, but not a clunker (of which their are many this season).
Nathan
Sat, Dec 8, 2012, 10:00pm (UTC -5)
I wanted to like this, in the same way as I want to like a lot of the New Wave science fiction I read.
Mikael
Thu, Dec 13, 2012, 4:39am (UTC -5)
I LOVE "Masks" just because it's such a mystery shrouded in an enigma. The episode has a completely unique flavor, it looks fascinatingly dreamlike and is backed by great acting. And the fact that such an alien tone infinitely boils down to a very universal mythology completes the conceptual circle. I think "Masks" really boils down what Trek and sci-fi are about: an encounter with something incomprehensible, yet utterly intriguing.
Dan L.
Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 5:38pm (UTC -5)
Hi Jammer,

"Masks" wasn't so bad it was good. "Masks" wasn't so bad it was bad. It provided not a shred of entertainment value, was mind-numbingly vacuous, and committed the cardinal sin of being unforgivably boring. No other episode of any "Trek" series has managed to hit this trifecta so well - or so poorly.
Nick P.
Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 12:56pm (UTC -5)
This episode just epitomizes what was wrong with this show by this point. This episode in the 3rd or 4th season could have worked. But somehow the tone was off, the characters weren't Gelling as in seasons past, the music was non-existant, the acting was boring, the plot being ridiculous is just icing on the cake of this one. It doesn't make any more sense than "Time Squared" from season 2, but somehow that ridiculous plot was executed 1000 times better.

I would say this isn't the worst episode of the series (that was "Force of Nature" in my book), but this might be the hardest to watch. I just start yawning before the teaser is even over!
Nick P.
Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 1:13pm (UTC -5)
@ Dan L.

You really nailed it....Season 7 just isn't entertaining. There is just nothing FUN anymore. I will admit the finale has elements of it.

I had a friend tell me the other day that the 1st five seasons of TNG seemed like a fun ride with a lot of science thrown in. the last 2 seasons seemed like episode after episode of 7 people reciting math functions that they don't understand.

@Paul and Jay, I addressed that very point a few episodes ago. If you compare any random 1st season episode to any ep this season, the Enterprise really seems like a "city in the stars" in the first season, as Roddenberry intended. It seems like there are 7 crew and cast of the week by season 7. Jay, Paul isn't talking about the "focus" of the plot, in that sense I agree with you, TNG rarely addressed families, he is referring to just the feeling of having 1000 other people. You "feel" it more in earlier seasons, the 1st in particular.
Mike
Thu, Dec 20, 2012, 12:26am (UTC -5)
I always liked this one, even if it's a bit clunky. It's still more interesting to me than a standard fight the bad guy story. It has ideas, even if they aren't fully realized or executed overly well. I really don't see how it's hard to understand though, the plot seems pretty clear. I'm with those who liked it for it's archeological elements, something I always find fascinating.
Paul
Thu, Dec 20, 2012, 1:26pm (UTC -5)
@Nick P: Yeah, TNG just flat ran out of gas. I'd say season 6 is miles and away better than season 7, but season 7 is just so lifeless (other than Pegasus, Parallels, Lower Decks, Preemptive Strike and the finale).

I'm curious to see what Jammer has to say about Journey's End, which I think is one of the more passable season 7 affairs. I'd probably put it in with Inheritance, Attached, Interface and the Freud episode (blanking on the name) as OK.
Rosario
Fri, Dec 21, 2012, 1:50pm (UTC -5)
"Joe Menosky, the Trek writer who has explored ancient societies, myths, and oblique concepts more than any other, stuffs "Masks" so full of symbology and ancient characters that it becomes an archaeologist's turgid self-parody."

I can't tell if you're being serious or not but symbology isn't actually a word. The word you're looking for is 'symbolism.' Watch "Boondock Saints" and Willem Dafoe will explain it. Sssssssssymbolism!
Jammer
Mon, Dec 24, 2012, 2:37pm (UTC -5)
"Symbology" is indeed a word, meaning the study of symbols. If I meant symbolism, I'd have said that, though use of either word would've been true in this case.
Shane
Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 8:49am (UTC -5)
Yes, this is an absolutely ridiculous episode but I still love it and it was one of my favorites as a kid. Whenever a rerun of TNG came on I usually hoped for a bizarre episode like Masks, Genesis, or Phantasms over the more famous episodes such as Tapestry, Best of Both Worlds, or Measure of a Man.

So here we have an ANCIENT computer system inhabiting Data while the alien archive transforms the Enterprise. Even as a kid I found this premise to be somewhat flawed and wondered how the Enterprise held together and remained inhabitable while being transformed. Not to mention the far fetched idea of a multi-million year old computer system yet alone one that could interface with and cause changes to the Enterprise. But being that Contagion had a touch of that I guess the writers saw no problem doing it here.

As a kid I found this episode somewhat creepy and Osaka scary but as an adult I think Spiner's performances are a bit goofy. I always thought Picard dawning the mask was goofy.

Lots of folks like to suggest TNG was out of gas and it was time to end but Season 7 was planned to be the last so I think that contributed to more unusual ideas making it to production. Maybe the actors were getting fatigued but I'm thinking the "weaker" storytelling was simply due to the a-team writers giving additional attention to DS9, while other staff were starting work on the forthcoming TNG film, and Voyager.
Brian D
Sun, Dec 30, 2012, 11:51pm (UTC -5)
Agree completely with the 1 star rating, although I have to say that your comment about the fantasy nature of the ship being transformed is debatable. The reason being that I don't think transforming one object into something else is any more unbelievable than Replicators, Holodecks or Transporters in Star Trek terms.
TMLS
Wed, Jan 2, 2013, 12:02pm (UTC -5)
Absolutely awful. If given the option of being forced to watch this or Shades of Gray, it'd be the latter.
Nic
Thu, Jan 3, 2013, 9:49am (UTC -5)
I would give this episode at least a little credit for trying to say something meaningful and thought-provoking, even though it failed spectacularly. I may not understand what they were going for, but I can at least believe that they were going for SOMETHING. That's more than I can say for "Sub Rosa" and especially "Genesis".
Dom
Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 1:21am (UTC -5)
"What is all this supposed to mean? Don't know. Don't care."

Funny, that's how I felt throughout the entire last two seasons of Battlestar Galactica.
Rosario
Mon, Jan 14, 2013, 7:15pm (UTC -5)
'"Symbology" is indeed a word, meaning the study of symbols. If I meant symbolism, I'd have said that, though use of either word would've been true in this case.'

Yes, in between that posting and seeing the response now, I was being a bit snarky in exactly the same way and got educated the same way. Consider me educated. And chagrined.
Paul
Tue, Jan 15, 2013, 3:59pm (UTC -5)
Apparently this took almost twice as long to film as normal as the actors kept bursting into laughter at the dreadfulness of it all. Brent Spiner said "The crew hated us." Terrible ep.
Ace
Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 7:24am (UTC -5)
I definitely think that there are a couple of different kinds of Trek fans, or at least Trek fans who are looking for different things. Just as I've never understood the Lwaxana hate, I thought this episode and even Sub Rosa were absorbing I like to think - and this is going to sound pretentious, but it isn't meant that way; we're all looking for different things in our entertainment - because I approached them on their own terms: this isn't a ridiculously mishandled sci-fi about Data incarnating one-note characters we don't care about, it's a drama of mythology that uses Trek as a frame story. Seen that way - myths don't have to have fleshed-out characters (though I would have liked to know more about Ihat) - i feel the episode works much better. Likewise, Sub Rosa isn't a hilariously I'll-thought-out Trek, it's a Gothic romance, and a reasonable one at that. (I also have a fairly high camp tolerance.)

Again, if one of the reasons you watch Trek is consistency of genre, these won't work for you. That's fine (although I don't really hold with the extreme emanation of this, which hates DS9 apparently for no better reason than its difference for other Treks). Nobody's required to enjoy Gothic romances or explorations of mythology. But the badness of there episodes, I think, is largely a matter of perspective, rather than the flat-out incompetent storytelling of a Shades of Gray or a Let He Who Is Without Sin.
Ace
Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 7:27am (UTC -5)
Yikes. Autocorrect much? Period after absorbing, ill not I'll, these not there.
Comp625
Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 12:17pm (UTC -5)
I think "Ace" is right; each person approaches Star Trek with a different want and need. It also depends on that person's mood during the episode. If you had a bad day, you may not appreciate the episode as much, or you may love the episode since it helps you temporarily escape reality for 45 minutes.

I love that science fiction is able to create its own rules that help to shape a fantasy universe that viewers use for entertainment. However, there's a fine line where absurdity simply takes over, regardless of genre. For me, that's when the entertainment factor is diminished, because you feel like your intelligence was questioned and that your time has been wasted.

"Masks" was an atrocious episode, save for Brent Spiner's humorous performance. It goes to show that an actor/actress can take a very sub-par script and turn it into a decent piece of work. It also doesn't come as a surprise that the TNG crew had trouble filming this episode.

Think about it: an alien society creating its jungle onboard the Enterprise while demonly possessing our beloved characters is absurd. Even more absurd is communicating to these aliens by posing as one of their own kind via the use of a mask.

Going back to my point about science fiction and entertainment, the absurdity detracts from our fantasty universe that viewers have been escaping to for almost 7 seasons. I agree with Jammer in that I'll take "Masks" over the ghost sex in "Sub Rosa." However, I still can't help but wonder if the TNG writers were trying to make a parody of themselves.

My rating: 1 out of 4 stars
duhknees
Tue, Mar 12, 2013, 9:31pm (UTC -5)
Worst. Episode. Ever.
Matt
Wed, Mar 13, 2013, 1:03pm (UTC -5)
I'm not a rabid Star Trek fanatic and I am not as well-versed as the lot of you, but I am nearing the end of watching through the entire series. This is - by far - the worst episode of the series.
Matt
Wed, Mar 13, 2013, 1:10pm (UTC -5)
Another point: as I watch the series, I check Jammer's star rating for the episode as I start watching. It clues me whether I'll enjoy the episode. Jammer gave this episode 1 star, so I thought it would be watchable. It's obviously far from watchable. I think Jammer owes me (and anyone else who fell victim to his rating) a huge apology. :)
fluffysheap
Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 2:03am (UTC -5)
In good Trek episodes, the characters solve a problem, and in so doing they reveal something about the human condition or at least about themselves. When there's no problem to solve, you're going away from the formula - which means the episode is going to be unusual, either in a good way or a bad way.

To me, this episode is like "The Inner Light"'s evil twin. In both cases you have an ancient alien society that has left a cultural archive which the Enterprise happens to discover. Neither episode has a real problem to solve (I don't consider deciphering the alien symbologism to be a real "problem"). Everyone is basically just waiting for the magic alien gadget to finish. Is symbologism a word? It is now!

But in that episode, it's done by showing us what amounts to an alternate-universe version of Picard. Not only do we learn what Picard would have been like in a very different situation, we also learn what the people of the ancient society are all about. We see them caring for their families and building their future, even though we know they are all doomed. They aren't that different from us, really.

This one doesn't really involve any of our actual characters. It uses Data's body, but not actually Data. And we don't really learn much about the alien culture. We only see it in such disconnected pieces that it's hard to get much of a feel for it, and we don't really get to know any individual characters either, certainly not to the level that we get to know the individual ancient Kataanians. We only really learn about one myth. I'm not even sure if any of the various personalities here are supposed to be real, or if they're all mythological.

You might also compare this episode to "Darmok," because both of them are basically an incomprehensible muddle until the crew manages to piece together the outlines of an alien myth. I think the difference again comes down to characters. Darmok has them, and even without real communication, you learn about the Tamarian captain and what their society considers important.

Anyone who's been in a foreign country and managed to make a friend without knowing the local language can probably relate to "Darmok." This episode is more like getting lost on the way to physics lab and finding yourself in the midterm for a comparative religion class.
Patrick
Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 12:00pm (UTC -5)
@fluffysheap

Actually, "Shades of Grey" is "The Inner Light"'s evil twin. Or perhaps better described as "The Inner Light" on opposite day.
T'Paul
Tue, Jun 25, 2013, 8:34pm (UTC -5)
I agree with ace... what's wrong with exploring a society based on mythology here? I think it as at least as interesting as the so-called "political" dramas with the Klingons and the Cardassians...
Steve
Mon, Aug 5, 2013, 4:49pm (UTC -5)
I still find this episode to be extremely memorable, and actually pretty fascinating. The bit with the symbol about the "Line like the endless horizon, the curve like the rolling hillside, the point like a distant bird, the ray like the rising son" was one of those ultimate moments in college, where when originally watching this with my friend, we turned to each other with a blank faced stare and said, we have to write that down!! I liked the weird mood of this one and considered it a tour de force of Brent Spiner's acting. This is a 3 out of 4 stars for me.
Chris
Sun, Aug 18, 2013, 11:44am (UTC -5)
This is a really underrated episode in my eyes. I agree with you though, ambitious but flawed. Like a lot of great things. Then again I do have quite a bit of nostalgia for this one.
Cheyne
Thu, Nov 7, 2013, 9:14am (UTC -5)
Some points for originality surely...

But this did feel more like a Voyager episode, down to the music and everything.

As someone else has said, the ship seemed very, very empty in this episode, almost as much as when everyone was disappearing into Wesley's Wacky Warp bubble.

But yes, there was a certain "mojo" missing here that meant a possibly good idea fell to bits.

Stewart seems especially wooden here, Worf out of place in a number of scenes, Troi seems to have gone back 5 years.
mephyve
Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 12:18am (UTC -5)
I could have used Masaka when I was 7. A teacher put on a record and told the class to draw what the music felt like. I saw everybody else making all these shapes but it made no sense to me so I sat there and cried.
I guess when Troi gave Data the same dumb assignment I should have taken it as an omen that this episode was going to suck. Somebody must have been smoking the peace pipe when they wrote this mess.
Smith
Thu, Feb 27, 2014, 12:25pm (UTC -5)
Not as bad as people make it out to be. The visual props were outstanding, the score was nice and it had a "Zelda" feel to it which was unique and welcome.

What didn't work was trying to fit an entire civilization into Data. This wasn't Menosky's original idea...his original script was much different and the other writers butchered what he submitted from Europe. The execs felt that script was "too complicated" so they dumbed it down for us which was unfortunate.

Spiner wasn't even given a full day to prepare for this script which unfairly hurt his performance.
Adara
Fri, Apr 11, 2014, 4:52pm (UTC -5)
Steve, were you high? Be honest.
NCC-1701-Z
Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 8:06pm (UTC -5)
I can kind of see what they were going for, but...how do I put this gently?

Shaka, when the walls fell!
Y'know Somebody
Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 10:51am (UTC -5)
Has no one else considered their dubious use of the Masaka-Korgano relationship as an analogy of the Sun-Moon relationship?

The Sun-Moon relationship is only applicable on planets like Earth. Forcing some establishing piece that the place the comet comes from also happened to have 1 moon would be rather out of place.

I feel they ought to have used some more... applicable dichotomy.
Paul M.
Sun, Aug 31, 2014, 1:38am (UTC -5)
I don't think that is particularly problematic and nowhere near the top of the list of this episode's biggest problems (though I kinda like its wackiness).

Still, you do raise an interesting point. The dualism many older religions and myths ascribe to the Sun and the Moon stem from the fact that the two celestial bodies appear to be of exactly the same size - the Sun's radius is some 400 times greater than the Moon's while it's 400 times farther out from Earth, effectively cancelling each other out where an observer standing on our planet is concerned. It really is a curious turn of events dictated by mere cosmic chance.
Y'know Somebody
Sun, Aug 31, 2014, 6:09am (UTC -5)
Yeah, I realize it's not nearly the biggest problem, but I felt it was rather telling to overlook something conspicuous like that.
SkepticalMI
Mon, Sep 1, 2014, 11:39am (UTC -5)
Aw nertz, I had my comments for this episode all planned a week or so ago, but got sidetracked by that annoying thing known as life. And now I'm going to look like a copycat of Y'know Somebody. Because that's the exact same thought I had. Well, not the same thought, but basically I felt that this episode's largest flaw was in ignoring its source material.

Fluffysheap compared the episode to Darmok, and I like that comparison. In my comments on that episode, I mentioned that I felt the story did a great job of presenting a truly alien community. It wasn't just the language, but their decisions, their rituals, everything pointed well to a people who had a low sense of identity and focused more on narratives. I liked that about Darmok. And it would have been nice to see it here. Rather than the somewhat generic plot we got, it would have been nice if the plot focused more on learning and discovering who this lost civilization is. After all, that would fit more with the Trek ethos of seeking out new life and new civilizations. And it would have made the symbolism more pronounced, more impressive than a simple sun/moon story. As it stands, what we got was a jumble.

I like mythology. I like sci-fi. I like examining alien cultures. So why couldn't we really delve into it here? With Picard as an archaeologist, this could have been an episode tailor made for him. But anything interesting about these people was dropped and ignored without a single sideways glance to us. I noticed three main issues that were worth exploring, which I think would have greatly improved the episode.

1) Masaka was a bad guy! The sun-goddess was feared rather than worshipped and celebrated! This is hardly consistent with Earth mythologies. Ra, Sol, Shamesh, Utu, Apollo, and probably all the ones I don't know tend to be associated with positive imagery like truth and justice and so forth. Which, of course, makes perfect sense for ancient human cultures. The sun brings out light and warmth and drives predators away. The sun allows crops to grow. Of course we would celebrate and not fear the sun. So why do all the characters fear Masaka?

Here's one interesting sci-fi answer that took all of 10 seconds to think up. I'm not an expert on orbital mechanics, but what if this planet was in a binary star system? It orbits one star similarly to Earth orbiting the Sun, but the second star is in an eccentric orbit. This orbit brings the second star close to the planet every 100-200 years or so, and wrecks havoc on the climate for a few years during that time. Thus, the inhabitants called the second star Masaka, and would have a reason to truly fear her return. And maybe the solution to the plot here involved Picard and company finding out something about this civilization, and thus required Picard to make this logical leap. Now, the symbolism present would be a key aspect to the plot itself, as well as relating to the sci-fi nature of the TV show.

2) All the characters suggested that Korgano was no longer chasing Masaka. Isn't that weird? The plot suggests that's only because the Korgano symbol hadn't been downloaded yet, but that's just silly. Isn't it more interesting to think that something actually happened? If Korgano is the moon, then why did the moon stop chasing Masaka? Was it destroyed? Just how would that impact this society? Maybe that's why they all fear Masaka now. Or maybe that's why the civilization itself was lost. Again, this is something weird in the symbolism itself that the story ignored, and I think it would have been much better to embrace this symbolism rather than just move on with the plot. Again, a destroyed moon would have been an interesting story to deal with.

3) On a meta-example, why did this civilization take so much effort to preserve their mythology? They are undoubtedly an incredibly advanced civilization, and undoubtedly would have discovered the principles of orbital mechanics and the likes. So there is no longer any need for myths to state how the stars and moons and suns move across the sky. And yet, that seemed to be the primary thing that this civilization preserved. If we could recreate part of our society in space, would we recreate Mt. Olympus? Or would we recreate New York or London or whatever? Undoubtedly the latter. Heck, we'd probably be more likely to preserve Marvel's Thor than the Norse Thor... We keep our mythology, but our interest in it is very shallow and doesn't impact our day to day lives.

So why is this civilization different? Like with Darmok, the unique plot aspect (speaking in metaphors, preserving a mythology) should speak to the alienness of the culture. But while TNG succeeds with the Children of Tama, we don't really get a chance to understand the Mask people at all. Why are they so interested in preserving their mythology? Do they still talk like that?

I'm reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Calvin asks his dad how wind appears, and his dad says the answer is trees sneezing. Calvin asks "really?" and the dad responds no, but the truth is more complicated. The last panel has Calvin walking outside on a windy day and commenting that the trees are really sneezing today.

So is that the answer? Do the people not care about truth, but only care about convenient answers? Leave the actual science to the scientists, but we'll just choose to believe the easy answer? Or maybe they just like anthropomorphization? And if so, how would that impact the rest of society?

Maybe this would have been better as a novel than a 43 minute episode. Maybe its impossible to really delve into a culture in a plot like this. But it would have been more interesting than what was given. I know most people look at this episode and just declare it to be a waste, but I think of it mostly as a lost opportunity.
Daniel B
Sat, May 30, 2015, 12:26am (UTC -5)
Not everything is trying to say something; I think that's the problem with your criticism.
Peter
Thu, Jul 16, 2015, 11:24am (UTC -5)
I didn't find the episode's symbolism indecipherable at all. Masaka represents the sun and Korgano is the moon, just like Picard, Worf and Troi discuss at one point. It also fits with the golden color of Data's mask and the silver color of Picard's. Even Ihat alludes to it when he says that Masaka has been known to make people die of thirst and will even sometimes burn them alive.

That said, I still didn't see the point of it all. Ancient aliens with space travel technology decide to build a giant Lego library (sorry, but the thing looked like a painted Lego sculpture to me), launch it into space disguised as a comet just so it can take over and transform whatever ships it encounters?
WHY?

The beginning of the episode was especially weak for me. Why is Troi teaching a children's sculpture class? And why is Data taking a CHILDREN'S sculpture class? Why does it not occur to Picard or anyone else to evacuate the crew (or at least the children and families) in some shuttle craft once the Enterprise is trapped in the tractor beam and starting to be transformed?
sticky steve
Sun, Jul 26, 2015, 10:12pm (UTC -5)
give me episodes like this over any episode with the badly and overacted Q character. 5/5
Troy
Tue, Aug 11, 2015, 10:07am (UTC -5)
I liked this one though it is subpar 2.25 stars for me. I like masks, mythology, and astronomy so I should be smitten, but, no, much of it seems rather forced. The whole converting matter in the Enterprise seemed like a bad crisis to me, just wasn't buying it. The highlight of the episode was Data's personalities and the ritual at the end.
Regarding other comments:
I liked Steve pulling out his pen and writing it down...hey this is good stuff!
Regarding SkepticalMI's comment that the sun is a bad guy...
In particular desert cultures sometimes regarded the sun as either evil or having harsh elements.
Luke
Sat, Oct 24, 2015, 9:11pm (UTC -5)
"It's conceptually ambitious but ultimately an epic failure of an episode. I mean, this is an utter mess. The story is at times so incomprehensible, impenetrable, and incoherent as to require three synonyms starting with the letter "I" for me to adequately convey its bewildering effect. I was staring blankly at the screen in disbelief. If this were also enlightening that might offset some of its impenetrability, but it unfortunately suffers from being as hopelessly flat, dull, and pretentious as it is impossible to decipher."

Um, Jammer, I think you may have been watching 1984's "Dune" instead of "Masks". They both have Patrick Stewart in them. Just saying. :p

Okay, confession time again, ladies and gentlemen. "Masks" is my guilty pleasure of TNG. And not in a "so bad it's good" kind of way. I legitimately like it. Granted, I can see how a lot of people wouldn't like it because, let's face it, it is a rather absurd episode. But it just clicks for me on all the right buttons. Maybe that's because I'm a huge mark for the mythological/symbology/archaeological aspects and this episode is indeed loaded to the brim with them (at the expense of just about everything else). I've liked it ever since I first saw it when it originally aired. In fact, when I later found out that it was almost universal detested, I was amazed.

It's got a good atmosphere, a nice use of an ancient civilization and its rituals, a wonderful score (probably one of the best of late TNG) and a really good performance by Brent Spiner (for crying out loud, he plays six different characters in this one episode!). Granted, it's got more than its fair share of problems when you stop and think about it. For example - how is the ship able to continue functioning when everything is being transformed; what happened to the rest of the crew (I guess it's a good thing that none of the 1000+ people aboard the ship weren't transformed into anything); why does the library just stop recreating the city when Masaka goes to sleep; etc. Still, I like it in a kind of "just shut up and enjoy it" kind of way.

What else is there really to say? There's absolutely no meat to sink your teeth into here. "Masks" is quite possibly the quintessential definition of a fluff episode that isn't trying to say anything. But so what? What is "Timescape" trying to say? What is "Gambit" trying to say? "Starship Mine"?

I like it and I'm not ashamed to say so. Like I said, however, I can understand why it's not everyone's cup of tea (if the symbology/symbolism and atmosphere isn't enough to carry you through it, then avoid "Masks" like the plague because it simply is not going to be for you). But I simply don't understand the level of visceral hatred it receives from so many quarters. I'll gladly defend this episode until the day I die.

7/10 (yes, I just gave "Masks" a higher score than "The Inner Light")

*runs and hides* :-)
Grumpy
Sat, Oct 24, 2015, 10:42pm (UTC -5)
Luke: "(yes, I just gave "Masks" a higher score than "The Inner Light")"

Whatever. But the comparison is instructive. Actually, fluffysheap made the same comparison, above, which to me suggests a way "Masks" could've been invested with more significance. To wit, suppose this archive was another Kataanian probe.

The Kataan connection would resonate with Picard, as that culture's last survivor. He alone would recognize its symbols. As the probe threatens the ship, he can't bring himself to destroy the last relic of his lost lifetime.

Further, Picard would have a deeper connection with Data, who undergoes essentially the same experience, becoming a repository of Kataan's culture. (Often ignored, except in "Silicon Avatar," is than Data is *already* a repository with a legion of voices in his brain.) Data's role could be further enhanced by letting him choose to be possessed. By volunteering to act as a spokesman for the probe (as he did with the nanites in "Evolution"), Data is a hero, not a victim. He might crave the experience as a window into what it means to be human (or Kataanian).

Huh. Seems like I derive enjoyment from Star Trek these days mainly by imagining how it should have been done differently.
Grumpy
Sat, Oct 24, 2015, 11:02pm (UTC -5)
Actually, the final scene of the episode does try to force some kind of character angle: Picard ties Data's experience to his ongoing quest to be human. As I suggested above, that would've been a great foundation for the entire episode, not a tossed-away coda.

Another idea just occurred to me: given the similarity to the destructive probe in "Contagion," what if this story revealed that the archive was Iconian??
Skeptical
Sun, Oct 25, 2015, 7:29pm (UTC -5)
Hey, everyone needs an episode in which they are completely in contrast to the popular opinion. I'm sure, somewhere in the world, there is someone who thinks Best of Both Worlds is atrocious while Code of Honor is brilliant. OK, that might be going too far...

Still, I do find it interesting, Luke, that you like the episode for the same reason I was disappointed in it. I like mythology too, but it seemed that the writers just threw random imagery together without trying to make the culture behind it have any meaning. To me, this episode is like if someone created a "World War II" story, but only had the superficial trappings. I mean, it would have Hitler and Churchill and Hirohito and Roosevelt and everyone else, but with no historical accuracy in terms of who they were or the geopolitical situation. If you were a fan of that period of history, would you enjoy the story because of the superficial trappings, or would you be annoyed by the lack of understanding?

Just curious if you agree with my assessment that the mythological angle is lacking, and you simply don't care about that aspect, or if you did think they did a good job in that department.
Luke
Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 9:32pm (UTC -5)
@ Skeptical

"To me, this episode is like if someone created a "World War II" story, but only had the superficial trappings. I mean, it would have Hitler and Churchill and Hirohito and Roosevelt and everyone else, but with no historical accuracy in terms of who they were or the geopolitical situation."

That sounds a lot like the Quentin Tarantino movie "Inglourious Basterds". That movie has all the superficial trappings of World War II yet almost no historical accuracy what-so-ever. I still kind of liked it. In fact, what you describe sounds like most works of historical fiction. There is always a huge amount of suspension of disbelief involved with that genre; but I still consider myself a fan of it.

As for what you say about the mythological angle being lacking - well, I can't argue with you there. It is, indeed, lacking and we could have been given a lot more. But, what we are given works well enough for me. Then again, your argument of "it could have been more" is the same one I used in my review of "The Best of Both Worlds." It lacks what I consider an extremely important element - the response to the Borg threat on Earth. Still, what we're given is very good.

The more I think about the episode there's another appealing aspect that I forgot to mention. I love that the culture is depicted as so ritualistic. If you'll indulge me, I'll try to explain with a personal anecdote. I'm a practicing Roman Catholic, but I wasn't raised Catholic. I converted to Catholicism in my early twenties. I was raised in a very lukewarm Protestant house (Methodist, to be specific). My parents weren't huge church-goers and we didn't attend church all that often. It would be a stretch even to say we were "Easter and Christmas only Christians". Still, I did experience a wield variety of Protestant services since I was in Boy Scouts (various local churches would aid our troop so we often had to go to their services to thank them). I saw a lot of different types of services (Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, various non-denominational ones - just to name a few). The one thing I found that they all had in common was that were all so incredibly dull - I mean just mind-numbingly boring! By sheer happenstance, however, most of my friends in high school and college were Catholic. So, in my senior year of high school, I asked one my Catholic friends if I could go to Mass with him since the local Catholic church was the only one I hadn't been to yet - that was enough to arouse my curiosity. What happened was very similar to something from TNG: "Sub Rosa", of all places. In that episode, the alien governor says that, when he first looked out over the Scottish Highlands he felt as if he had come home. That's how I felt in my first Mass. It was the first church service I had been to where I wasn't bored out of my mind. And that was entirely due to the highly ritualized aspect of the service. It just spoke to me on some deep level, which I still to this day can't entirely explain (maybe it's just the high theater aspect, I don't know). It took me a few years of soul-searching but I finally decided to take the plunge and become a Catholic. Even when I have massive disagreements with the Church (like on its, and especially our current pope's, stances on economic issues), I'm still happy to be a Catholic because I love the ritual/liturgy. In fact, I would love to attend a church that offers a real old-school, pre-Vatican-II High Latin Mass with literally all the bells and whistles, but I don't live near one that offers that, more's the pity.

What I'm trying to get at is that I love the fact that "Masks" is willing to showcase a culture that shares my love for ceremonial rituals. And I do think that the intention was to pay some respect to this sort of thing (yes, the rituals are the driving force to be overcome in the episode, but the characters never denigrate the culture or its rituals - they even show a good amount of respect for it all in the end). Now, like the mythological aspects of the episode, they could have done a lot more with this but didn't. But, still, what they did give us works well enough for me. I'm just glad they gave us anything. Maybe it's just that I'm too easy to please in this department. :-)

So, to finally answer your question - do I think they did a good job or do I not care if it's lacking.... I guess I just don't care. :-P

However, there are parts of the episode that I do think are done very well - most notably the score and Spiner's performance. The score adds a sort of Aztec/Mayan/Incan feel to the atmosphere and is easily one of the best musical pieces of late TNG. And I really thought that Spiner did a wonderful job, even though most people don't share that opinion. Given that he plays no less than six different characters (Data, Ihat, Masaka, Masaka's father, the terrified supplicant and the awestruck supplicant) he does an excellent job of giving them all distinct personalities.
James
Fri, Nov 6, 2015, 9:18am (UTC -5)
Wow, I actually liked Sub Rosa more just because Crusher orgasm was hysterical, and the scotsman was great.

There is nothing redeeming about Masks. Except that last tine: Riker: I dont know what you did Captain, but things are back to normal.

to which the audience responds, neither do we riker......neither do we.
Diamond Dave
Fri, Nov 6, 2015, 4:01pm (UTC -5)
One of those episodes where you just have to say - what the hell was that all about? It does actually have some of the feel of Darmok, but with none of the development and none of the resolution. It's dry, wordy and slow in the extreme - the scene where Picard tries to extract the symbol from Data's multiple personalities just goes on forever.

Additionally, we have Brent Spiner chewing the scenery in a variety of silly voices. Ambitious but ultimately fatally flawed. 1.5 stars.
Luke
Sat, Nov 7, 2015, 1:10am (UTC -5)
*sigh* Us fans of this episode continue to be in the minority. ;-)
Mr B
Wed, Nov 11, 2015, 7:21pm (UTC -5)
I just finished watching this on BBC America. Staring at the screen, all I could think was WTF!!
LOL and this has happened ever since 1994.
The worst TNG episode.
Will
Thu, Jan 28, 2016, 6:01pm (UTC -5)
I have seen this episode get rated bad on many sites and people have listed it as one of the worst on IMBD. I do not understand this at all as it is one of my favorite episodes. The main problem people seem to have with this is that it does not make sense. I think it makes perfect sense. I guess I understand and follow it because I have a background in archaeology and ancient languages/scripts which this episode fully exploits.
Nytrydr
Wed, Feb 24, 2016, 1:23am (UTC -5)
Have to disagree with you on this review, Jammer.
There are not many episodes of TNG that I hate, though there are some that I think are measurably less good than others. Having re-watched Masks last night, I was struck , not by any suckiness, or incoherence of plot (I will say I thought that a society who could build the device in the comet , which is technologically comparable if not superior to the Enterprise may have moved past such simple allegorical stories, but then our messages to the universe are simple too, by necessity), but by the fact that for once, when he wasn't playing 'straight man Data' I was impressed by Brent Spiner's performance.

I ordinarily hate him playing anyone else (in part because he is sooo good as Data), and because I find him less convincing as a human being. I thought in Masks, that his portrayal of the other characters was great. The trickster, Ehot was a bit irritating, but those archetypes roll that way, but the other 'inhabitants' were goosebump material.

I'm also realizing (I've been re-watching them all) in Season 7 that Michael Dorn is a tremendously under-rated actor. Even under all the prosthetics he as a remarkable degree of charisma and gravitas. They really should have done more Worfisodes. This episode is a great example of him being given absolutely sod-all to work with and doing a great job of it.
Paul M.
Thu, Feb 25, 2016, 7:09am (UTC -5)
I have a sort of weakness for crazy silly episodes such as this. Is Masks all that good? No! But is it silly and offbeat enough to make me kinda interested to see where it goes? Well... yeah. At any rate, I always prefer dumb episodes like this (or the King of the Dumb Episodes: Genesis) to bland, insipid, I'm-gonna-fall-asleep episodes like some of the other late season fare.
Luke
Thu, Feb 25, 2016, 8:02am (UTC -5)
Three people in a row that like "Masks"? This makes me very happy! :-)
Bogdana
Wed, Mar 30, 2016, 3:58pm (UTC -5)
Brent Spiner is a pretentious asshole IRL which makes me hate this episode even more. I want to punch him when he makes those stupid voices!
Robert
Wed, Mar 30, 2016, 6:22pm (UTC -5)
On what do you base that? I've actually never met him, but TNG is the only thing I've ever watched that I never heard anyone say anything bad about any of them?
Greg Q
Tue, Apr 5, 2016, 1:26am (UTC -5)
As much of a fan of the franchise as i am, I have never considered any of the series good science fiction. Good science fiction presents futuristic stories and ideas that may be out there, but ultimately are believable. Holodeck, transporters, replicators, interspecies procreation, universal translaters, a utopian Earth where there's no more war or hunger or money for Pete's sake, medical instruments that not only heal wounds instantly but also vaporize the clotted blood on the skin, warp drive that bends space yet also moves through it whilst the stars go streaking by, cloaking devices that not only cloak the ship but somehow its occupants at the same time: these are all impossibilities that we look past because we like the characters and stories, but let's stop referring to it as science fiction. It's science fantasy at best. That said, this was an horrendous science fantasy story.
Chrome
Tue, Apr 5, 2016, 10:37am (UTC -5)
@Greg Q

I'm not sure if I agree that good Sci-Fi *needs* to be believable. Take hyper-spatial jumping in Asimov's books. Our science has zero understanding of hyperspace. It's a completely fictional concept. It's not something combustion, fission, or solar engines can plausibly be modified to reach. Yet, considering a galaxy as a collection of points on map that can bent together through a different plane of galactic travel is an intriguing and clever concept, so we let it pass. I suppose the idea is that in science, disruptive, or unheard of techniques can be discovered, making that seems unbelievable now completely believable.

Let's take a concrete example like the iPad, which roughly look like PADs on TNG. Those would've been unthinkable even as late as the 80s, because the then popular CRT screens needed large vacuum tubes and fans to operate. But now we have pads even more powerful and smaller than the ones used on this show. So believably isn't necessarily a dealbreaker.

As for this episode, which you didn't mention, I think it's okay. I like the simple symbolism of the episode. It reminded me of Season Two's "Contagion" in that an enticingly ancient civilization was able to use primitive technologies to have a profound effect on a modern starship. It's interesting to think how technologies may develop very differently than our own, and in ways we cannot understand or believe now. That's what I liked about the Iconians, and that's still likeable about the D'Arsay.

2.5 Stars
Greg Q
Tue, Apr 5, 2016, 10:09pm (UTC -5)
@Chrome
"Plausible"may be the word I was looking for.
Or maybe "possible".
Hyperspace works because Asimov introduces us to a hypothetical phenomena that exists outside of our physical universe, so it is not a slave to our laws. Warp drive attempts the same with its "folding" of space, but is then constantly misused as just another way of going real fast. I remember an episode where they used their momentum at warp speed to carry them through an anomaly safely with the engines turned off. If they could do this, why wouldn't they do it all the time and save on plasma or whatever it is they use for propulsion. (If their speed with warp drive off is anywhere near light speed then it is an impossibility in our physical universe.) Is it folding space or moving real fast. It can't be both.
I just recently started to read these reviews, and I was seeing a lot of people liking or criticising episodes for their under or over use of sci fi themes, and bashing episodes because of their scientific impossibility and I just felt like saying something. I love Star Trek, but if I based my opinion of the show on its scientific accuracy I would have stopped watching a long time ago. (It's true, this comment was not specific to "Masks").
That being said, this wasn't a bad episode because it wasn't good sci fi, it was bad because it didn't mean anything or make any sense in our universe, of course this is just my opinion.
Greg Q
Wed, Apr 6, 2016, 2:00am (UTC -5)
Correction:
I love the Star Trek franchise.


Skywalker
Sun, Apr 24, 2016, 12:30pm (UTC -5)
@Luke, I also love this episode (great Lukes think alike, it seems). I confess to having a nostalgic excitement about the sixth and moreso seventh seasons of TNG because I was old enough then to remember the commercials advertising the next episode. And "Masks" definitely looked like it would be an awesome episode.

And I still feel that way. I'm also a huge fan of Stargate, which also regularly appeals to archaeology, one of my favorite subjects. Indeed, there is no character development per se, except for what Data got out of it. It was reset at the end. Meh.

So it was a Trek one-off, so what — remember, ye haters, above all, this show is about "[seeking] out new life and new civilizations," and this is exactly in that vein. It's not necessarily about "solving Worf's convoluted but intriguing family problems" or "Jake wants to become a writer instead of joining Starfleet," though those human interest stories are also what make Trek the Trek what we know and love. Paraphrasing Freud, sometimes a space adventure is just a space adventure.

I give it 3 Masakas, 1.5 Korganos, 1 Eehat, and 1 comet 🌞🌞🌞🌝🌛💫☄
Skywalker
Sun, Apr 24, 2016, 12:49pm (UTC -5)
A rightful criticism is that, yet again, the android is a huge liability. While his ability to be controlled by Holodecks, 87 million year old alien archives, Noonien Soong, Lore, the Borg Queen, and many others makes for interesting stories, it shows that keeping him around seems to pose a myriad of unknown dangers, especially given his superhuman strength and abilities.

I always hated that Data can't get promoted above the transparent aluminum ceiling of LCDR (I guess because he didn't have his Imzadi giving him hints to pass the bridge officers test), but maybe this is the very reason...
William B
Sun, Apr 24, 2016, 8:43pm (UTC -5)
@Skywalker, while Data is certainly a liability in many instances having to do with his android existence, it is worth remembering that there are also numerous instances where he is the sole member of the ship unaffected by biological forms of attack -- off the top of my head, Angel One, Clues, Night Terrors, The Game, and Genesis come to mind...as, for that matter, does ST: First Contact. In fact I think the Borg Queen example is a bit backwards: while she does tempt him, he resists her, and the whole reason she had to go to bondage-seduction is because he is the only crew member who could not simply be assimilated in the traditional way.

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