HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Star Trek has a long history of weird. Sentient arch ways, candle-bound ghosts, prisons that exist only in the mind, and aliens that speak only in glorified memes are all canon in one way or another. However, “Masks” might just be the weirdest episode of them all. I reference “Darmok” deliberately. Joe Menkosky wrote both “Masks” and “Darmok,” among several other episodes across the Trek franchise, and not to put too fine a point on it, Menkosky specializes in high concept weird. I generally like Menkosky’s brand of weird, but where “Darmok” explored themes of communication through shared experience, “Masks” weaponizes that communication. The concept driving the episode is an interesting one, but TNG was perhaps not the show to realize it.
In a children’s art class, Counselor Troi challenges Data to music as the goal of the class is to create something that sparks a feeling. Commander Riker mercifully calls Data to the bridge where the Enterprise investigates a mysterious comet. Data initiates a scan, and there is a mysterious flash of light. Later, unknown artifacts begin appearing all over the ship, including in Troi’s quarters. Meanwhile, back in art class, Data sculpts a mask featuring the same symbol. Eric, one of the students in the class asks if Data and Troi can repair his terminal as it is not functioning correctly. They comply and discover that unknown symbols have appeared on the screen. Strangely, Data can read these symbols.
After Worf vaporizes the comet’s outer layers, they discover a structure inside it. Data posits that the object is an informational archive, but whatever it might be, the object is the source of the symbols. The archive used the sensor beam as a carrier wave and has accessed the ship’s computer and replicator systems. Geordi La Forge takes Data down to Engineering in order to run a diagnostic on his positronic net, but when he does, he triggers massive changes in Data’s personality and an unexpected remodeling of Data’s circuitry. La Forge calls Picard down to speak with Data, and they discover that Data is no longer Data but rather an entity known as Ihat. They also learn that Ihat is frightened of a Queen Masaka.
La Forge and Troi confirm that the archive is rewriting Data’s programming to turn him into different people, and Picard experiences the personalities first hand when he begins speaking with Data, who has been confined to quarters with a severe case of no longer being himself. Data manifests two more personalities aside from Ihat: a devotee who deeply loves Masaka and Masaka’s father. Ihat remains absolutely terrified that Masaka will kill him, and the Father simply wants to be warm. The Devotee spends most of the episode afraid of Masaka. Ihat at least offers some solid information in the form of veiled references to Korgano.
The archive reactivates and uses a tractor beam to neutralize several of the Enterprise’s key systems, and it turns ten forward into some sort of alien space. The archive continues to transform the ship, prompting Picard and the remaining Bridge Crew to press Ihat harder for answers. Picard theorizes that if they can activate Masaka by prompting the archive to reactivate her temple, they might be able to convince Masaka to let them go. Picard asks Ihat for the necessary symbol as La Forge has hacked the archive’s transformation program. Ihat offers him part of the symbol, and the Father provides the remaining pieces when Masaka apparently kills Ihat.
Picard asks La Forge to initiate the transformation program, and the ship manifests Masaka’s temple. Picard, Troi, and Worf wander around the temple and note several instances of the half moon symbol, which Picard conjectures to be Korgano’s. Based on statements by Ihat, the Father, and the Devotee, Picard further concludes that Korgano is the only being to whom Masaka will listen. Furthermore, based on the iconography, Picard concludes that Korgano is the moon. He resolves to have La Forge initiate the transformation sequence based on Korgano’s symbol despite the misgivings voiced by Troi. The program produces a mask, which Picard dons in order to go confront Data who now sits in Masaka’s temple and wears Masaka’s mask. Picard convinces Masaka to go back to sleep so that Korgano may hunt her through the sky again, fulfilling the myth. The archive then reconverts the Enterprise to its pre-Masaka form. The Enterprise leaves the archive to Federation archaeologists, and the experience leaves Data with both a clay mask and the experience of having been host to a civilization.
Having “Masks,” a Data-centric episode follow “Thine Own Self,” another Data-centric episode must have exhausted Brent Spiner, and frankly, it shows in his performance. The fact that “Masks” dumps a nigh-impossible task in his lap certainly doesn’t help either. Spiner is no stranger to playing multiple characters, even multiple characters in the same Data makeup, but in “Masks” he must not only serve as our only touchstone for the culture behind the archive but also do so in the form of four different personalities. That’s a huge ask, even for the most well-rested of actors, and while Spiner clearly gives it the old college try, he just comes off as tired. Unfortunately, the success or failure of the episode rests exclusively on his shoulders, and try though he might, he just can’t carry the episode. Still, he remains committed to the premise and does manage to create four distinct personalities to go along with the different tablets attached to his chest via space-Velcro.
Over and above the problem with placing all its story-eggs in the Data basket, “Masks” is already a very complicated episode. It pits Picard against loosely defined archetypes from an unknown, long-extinct culture. Masaka and Korgano are anthropomorphized symbols of the sun and the moon; Picard navigates their story because it shares commonalities with more familiar stories. In that sense, common myth-elements bring 24th century Picard together with a truly ancient alien civilization. Had the episode been better, perhaps they could have explored deeper into concepts of how shared storytelling impacts culture.
However, that’s very much not what we get. “Masks” is a hot mess of an episode. None of the iconography is at all subtle. Masaka’s masked face figures prominently in the middle of a sun, and you can’t tell me that the phonetic similarities between “mask” and “Masaka” aren’t deliberate. Even Korgano’s half moon is pretty obvious when taken in conjunction with everything else on the ship. Sorry, Worf, the antler theory is just ridiculous. I’m similarly certain that someone thought it was clever to have Masaka and Korgano’s masks serve as the reveal. It’s not.
Even the normally competent Picard doesn’t come off particularly well in this episode. He gets prime of place alongside Data by the default of apparently being the only person on the ship with any background in archaeology. I find it difficult to believe that there isn’t a single anthropologist or xenoarchaeologist on that ship. Even Kirk had a historian on his Enterprise, but for whatever reason, no one else comes forth. That leaves Picard stumbling around with absolutely no clue as to what these Mysterious Symbols ™ could possibly mean. In light of the aforementioned lack of subtlety, one wonders if Picard has simply not had enough Earl Grey tea to wrap his head around this particular iteration of space-weirdness. Furthermore, Picard seems to rush head on into playing the Archive’s game, and ostensibly, he does so to prevent the Archive from transforming the ship into whatever it wants. However, given that the Archive never seems to transform a key system or an important location, Picard’s hurry to confront Masaka seems to be driven by the episode length rather than the episode’s plot.
No one else comes off particularly well either. I’ve already mentioned Worf’s attempt at symbolic interpretation, and La Forge basically gets relegated to pushing buttons based on pseudo-Mayan glyphs. Troi gets both the best and absolute worst lines in the episode. She very earnestly asserts that animals are worshipped in may cultures, which is blazingly obvious, but she does get a zinger in: “The question is, can we trust a personality from an alien archive that seems bent on taking us over?” It’s a valid point, and I hate that the episode proves her wrong. TNG just can’t seem to give Troi something without taking something else away.
Underlying all of these issues is that the episode never gives us the opportunity to become invested int the Archive culture. Picard tells us that it’s clearly highly ritualistic, which fine, but we never get a sense of what purpose these rituals serve. Rituals and myths do not grow out of nothing; they serve a purpose. What does the Masaka/Korgano myth teach? Who knows? What purpose did it serve in society? We don’t know. We aren’t even sure if it’s purely a myth as the episode hints that these personalities might be the remnants of the Archive culture’s society. On rewatch, I found myself wondering if the Archive species was nocturnal as they obviously equated the sun with death by dehydration. Could their world have been a desert? The episode doesn’t care, but I do.
“Masks” really needed to be a two-parter because the worldbuilding is too shallowly done. If we had the time to become invested in the story or even for the confrontation between Picard-as-Korgano and Data-as-Masaka to be even a little bit more dramatic, this episode would have been so much better. TNG certainly had episodes it could have sacrificed to give us a longer story. “Sub Rosa,” I’m looking at you.
A cup and a half of lukewarm Earl Grey Tea on a saucer.
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- I know Picard tells us that the artifacts are deceptively primitive, but I don’t buy it. As technology changes so do our ritual spaces. There’s no way that culture muddled along using only rocks for their High Importance Rituals.
- Apparently, the Archive culture dabbled a bit in the Enterprise’s databases. It manifested some Terran reptiles to frighten La Forge and Worf away from a photon torpedo, and I’m sure those snakes were real. Remember folks, red against yellow can kill a fellow. Red against black is a friendly jack. (Not actual advice.)
- I feel fairly certain someone on that design team had been to New Mexico. The symbol on Data’s head looks a lot like a Zia, a symbol which carries its own baggage.
- I was initially confused as to how empty the ship felt, but then, Riker has a throwaway line that in retrospect is terrifying. He mentions that the Archive is using their DNA to build its creations. Y’all, those snakes could have been people. Soylent Green has got nothing on the Archive.
- The lack of historians and anthropologists confuses me. They had one in “The Big Goodbye,” though he specialized in the twentieth century. I guess they just did not replace Whalen after his death.
- Aside from the people-snakes, the Archive was certainly very considerate about how it went about transforming the Enterprise. It never interfered with life-support systems or transformed key locations like the Bridge. Yes, there’s a bit of an issue in Engineering, but clearly nothing comes of that as they never lose power. Plus, it takes a hallway to create Masaka’s temple. A hallway. It’s like it wasn’t even trying.