WARNING: This article contains spoiler information for TNG's "Masks". Keep the article well masked unless you wish early exposure.

Well, Spiner got to have a lot of fun -- but I'm getting tired of "excuse to make people behave strangely" shows, and this was definitely one of them.

"Masks" was far from bad, but it really didn't do much to inspire me, either. More, as always, after a synopsis:

The Enterprise has come across a rogue comet that has been traveling for 87 million years to get to its current location. A sensor scan creates a temporary but giant sensor echo, and suddenly strange things start happening: Troi finds a pedestal in her quarters, Data is inspired to sculpt a mask with a similar design, and symbols start appearing on terminals all over the ship. As Geordi discovers that the symbols have leaked in via the sensors, Data somehow intuitively recognizes many of them, and suspects his systems have also been corrupted.

The Enterprise uses main phasers to melt the icy shell off the comet, and discover a city-like structure lurking within. It is of unknown composition, and is even older than the comet itself. Data theorizes that it is a type of cultural archive, and becomes concerned enough about his own systems to have Geordi run a diagnostic. As he leaves, Picard notes the frequent occurrence of two symbols all over the ship: a compass symbol possibly denoting movement, and a small sliver of unknown meaning.

The diagnostic suggests Data is fine, but Data begins to feel extremely strange, as though he is losing his mind. Geordi tries to reassure him as much as he can, but Data ... changes. As Geordi disconnects Data from the diagnostic set, there is a rush of sound and Data's appearance alters: now, not only does he have an eerie grin on his face, but he also has one of the key symbols appearing on his forehead -- and he tells Geordi very smugly that "Masaka is waking."

Picard makes it to Engineering in short order to talk to Data, or "Ihat", as he now calls himself. Ihat tells Picard that soon he will know pain and death, because "Masaka is waking". He tells Picard to leave, quickly, and possibly avoid being found. Ihat tries to leave, but runs into Troi and falls to his knees, identifying her as Masaka.

After a conference revealing that Data is being taken over by elements of the archive, in effect suffering an android version of multiple personality disorder, Picard goes to talk to him in his quarters (to which Data has now been confined). Ihat's personality is dormant until Picard specifically asks for him, but then emerges and smirks. He refers to Masaka as being "a lazy creature", mostly sleeping -- but very, very dangerous when awake. Picard suggests that they should keep her sleeping, but Ihat scoffs, saying one might as well "try to stop the sun from climbing the sky," and informing Picard that only "Korgano" can do that. Suddenly, Ihat vanishes, to be replaced by someone terrified of Masaka, and clinching Picard's wrist to the point of pain to avoid being left alone. Ihat briefly returns, then, telling Picard that Masaka is now awake.

By now, Ten-Forward has been converted by the archive into a primitive-looking structure, complete with a totem to Masaka (represented by the sun-symbol). The small, crescent-like symbol is also there, but hidden. As the data show that the Enterprise is slowly being converted into a city, Picard orders the archive destroyed -- unfortunately, the inner mechanisms of the photon torpedo Geordi and Worf plan to use are transformed into snakes before they get the chance. With propulsion and weapons systems out, Geordi suggests that he try to access the transformation program in the archive. Picard agrees, and also wants to access Masaka herself. He leaves once again for Data's quarters.

There, he finds Data in the role of an old man, Masaka's father. This one also says that Korgano is the only one who can control Masaka, but that he "no longer pursues her." Masaka's father is quickly replaced by Ihat, who taunts Picard once more, but also agrees to give Picard the symbol to create Masaka's temple in return for Picard's agreement to take his place as a sacrifice if necessary. Ihat is "captured" before he finishes, however, and disappears, to be replaced by the old man. Picard convinces Masaka's father to finish the symbol: "a line, as the unending horizon; a cure, as the rolling hillside; a point, as a distant bird; a ray, as the rising sun." The old man then collapses into a helpless, pitiful soul, saying only that "she's coming."

The symbol for the temple is input, and a corridor transforms into the temple. Picard, Worf, and Troi explore the temple, and find several instances of the sun-symbol and the crescent-symbol paired, almost as if the sun is chasing the crescent. As Data "becomes" Masaka, donning her mask and breaking out of his quarters, the three realize upon seeing the crescent "chasing" the sun that they're dealing with a sun/moon myth. Masaka appears on "her" throne, but will not speak to Picard, or anyone else.

Picard decides to take matters into his own hands, using the symbol for Korgano to create his mask, and bluffing his way through the culture's legends to appear before Masaka as Korgano. Korgano convinces Masaka to sleep once more, so that she can wake as the hunter rather than the prey. Masaka/Data agrees, and as Masaka fades into sleep, everything returns to normal. With the transformation program disabled, Picard reassures a now empty-feeling Data that he's had a unique experience: becoming, if only temporarily, an entire civilization.


That should suffice. Now, onwards:

Even if I hadn't looked at the credits, I might have guessed that this was written by Joe Menosky. It had traces of both "Darmok" [the metaphor/ cultural angle] and DS9's "Dramatis Personae" [ancient artifacts make lots of strange things happen for no particular reason whatsoever] all over it, and Menosky was at least partly responsible for both.

One might think that the "Darmok" angle would be a good one. In many respects, it is -- except for the fact that "Darmok" was the sort of show that's so unique it can't be repeated. Given that the core metaphor in this story was an extremely simple sun/moon myth [one we guessed twenty minutes in, but figured "nah, it won't be that obvious"], there didn't seem to be a great deal of ... well, for want of a better word, texture in the culture side of "Masks".

There were more similarities to "Dramatis Personae" -- unfortunately, they were the ones having to do with a lack of justification for the show at all. If the characters can be excused in the end by "well, they were possessed by other people and weren't really themselves", then there's justification for doing anything you want in the story and handwaving it all away at the end. That may work while the story's actually on screen, but it doesn't lend itself to much of any thought afterwards. "Masks" didn't have nearly the problems with this that "Dramatis Personae" had, but they were there, and enough to make me notice them.

One of the things "Masks" definitely was, in an external-to-the-universe sense, was an excuse to let Brent Spiner do a one-man show complete with hordes of different characters. While I have my doubts about the tactic they used to do it, the effects were certainly strong: Spiner ran the whole show. I rather particularly like Ihat (who I keep wanting to call "Loki" for some fairly clear reason :-) ), but Brent did a good job showing off his rather considerable range. Anyone who watches TNG primarily as a Spiner Fan [TM] will probably come away pleased based on that performance alone.

Apart from the lack of coherence, "Masks" really had no big problems. I thought all the actors (I'd say "all the regulars", but they're the only ones we saw!) were on fairly good form this time around. Spiner was clearly the one who had the most to do, but Stewart seemed in good shape (with the exception of his "I will not allow the Enterprise to be turned into an alien city!", which I thought was a little overdone), and pretty much everyone got in a decent line or scene here and there. I definitely liked Riker's line about "we'd better talk out here; the observation lounge has turned into a swamp." :-)

The direction was, on the whole, fine, especially in Data's quarters -- the scenes around the fire were top-notch on all counts [although Picard offering himself as sacrifice out of the blue set off my "what the hell?" alarms]. There's one scene, though, which I must comment on:

When Riker and Picard are talking in the ready room about the pedestal with the strange symbol, Picard is holding it in a rather ... well, let's say a rather provocative angle. ;-) Now, I doubt that was intended, and wonder why it stayed in -- but even more striking, halfway through Picard's speech in that same scene Frakes starts smirking like all get out for *no apparent reason*. Rather, there's no apparent reason for Riker to be doing it; Frakes had plenty of reason, and apparently did. If that's the version of the scene that stayed in, I have got to find a way to see this scene's outtakes. :-) [We had a good deal of fun adding comments once Riker said he kept seeing the symbol appearing on the pedestal: "everywhere. Even in my sleep. Especially in my sleep. Actually, I'm not getting much sleep these days..." Don't ask. :-) ]

I also had something of a problem with the final scene. Given that Data has, at the very least, the records of an entire colony within himself, he's a decidedly odd choice of person to feel empty after this experience. I think I can see what was intended in the scene, but it didn't work; I was telling Picard to shush by the end of his reassurances.

Basically, "Masks" works fine when you're actually watching it, but it's not very filling. I can't say I didn't like it, because I did, for Spiner's work if nothing else (especially as Ihat). It's just something I don't expect to age particularly well.

So, some short takes:

  • I have a feeling some dialogue was cut in the first Picard/Ihat scene. Picard refers to Masaka as "her" before her gender is revealed. For that matter, there are a few scenes where I had the feeling we were supposed to notice something as Significant that we hadn't really seen yet. Maybe some editing glitches are at fault?
  • This may be an odd question, but given that communications were working even while the transformations were going on, why didn't Picard et al. think about calling Starfleet for help?
  • I want to call attention to the music, which captured the mood of the culture very well, I thought. In particular, the music as Data becomes Masaka seemed very effective (though Lisa was reminded of "Ghostbusters", which I wasn't).

That would seem to wrap that up. There's not really much to say about "Masks"; it's not bad, but it's a little too simple for my tastes.

So, in closing:

Plot: Reasonably coherent within, but without much justification for any of it happening beyond random chance.

Plot handling: Good most of the time; unintentionally humorous in the ready room scene. :-)

Characterization: Pretty good, though Picard seemed a little out of character once or twice. The acting was top-notch.

OVERALL: A 6.5. Pleasant, but not something you'll want to go back to again and again.

NEXT WEEK:

Troi and Worf get together, and people die. What causal relationship there is between the two is not clear.


Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
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"WELL.  Aren't we the persistent one."
"Ihat."
"Is anyone else so charming?"
--
Copyright 1994, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...

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