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.
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