Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Masterpiece Society   Rewatch 
April 29, 2021 3:16 AM - Season 5, Episode 13 - Subscribe

Troi inadvertently causes a diplomatic incident when she brings her hilarious "Pobody's Nerfect" coffee mug to the genetically-engineered colony of Moab IV.

Memory Alpha is integrated and refined to such a degree that any fundamental change would lead to chaos:

• The story started as a pitch from James Kahn titled "The Perfect Human". According to Adam Belanoff, "Not many elements from 'The Perfect Human' ended up in 'The Masterpiece Society,' but one of the things that did make it was the genetically engineered society. In Kahn's conception, it was an idyllic community that contained, essentially, a hundred Dolph Lundgrens and Paulina Porizkovas, romping around semi-clothed, Adam and Eve-like. It was a beautiful Blue Lagoon colony."

• "The Masterpiece Society" passed through five writers' hands before Michael Piller took on the script. The main problem for Piller was how to define a genetically engineered society.

• At one point, Piller was prepared to abandon the concept, before Belanoff suggested that it would be more interesting if the colony had people of diverse appearances and talents, each of whom was themselves a "masterpiece" in a different way. Joe Menosky then proposed setting the story in an artificial biosphere, inspired by the Biosphere 2 facility in Arizona. Belanoff explained, "People need obstacles. In a place where everyone is an Einstein or a Mozart, there's nobody to perform for, everything is provided for, and life is quite easy. Things would tend to stagnate. So we created a biosphere where everything was so finely balanced that even one person's departure could harm it."

• David Livingston recalled that visualizing the biosphere proved to be a challenging task for the production team. "Rick [Berman] wanted to make sure we could see the effects outside the window. He didn't want to do what we normally do on stage, which was something tangible and real. That presented some challenges to the director, because the blue screen was right in the middle of the set, but he shot around it a little bit and I think it worked out successfully."

• Both Ron Canada and Dey Young's next Star Trek appearances were in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Canada played Advocate Ch'Pok in "Rules of Engagement" and Young played Arissa in "A Simple Investigation".

• This is John Snyder's second appearance on TNG. His first appearance was as Romulan Centurion Bochra in "The Enemy".


"It was the wish of our founders that no one have to suffer a life of disabilities."
"Who gave them the right to decide whether or not I might have something to contribute?"
- Hannah Bates and La Forge, on eugenics

"They've managed to turn a dubious scientific endeavor into dogma."
- Picard


Poster's Log:
There's something pretty off-putting about the fundamental concept (genetic predetermination) that this story's conflict hinges upon, and also about Troi's latest Bland Yet Off-Putting White-Dude Love Interest. (I liked him better as Bochra.) So I was surprised that I got more into the second half of this one than I expected to. The arc, and performance, of Dey Young's character may be largely why, but credit should also go to the writers, who took the time to engage the PD-adjacent philosophical issue at play here.

Ron Canada (Perpetually-Dubious Moab IV Guy) will go on to play more memorable and less one-note characters in one episode each of DS9 and VOY.

Bernd at Ex Astris Scientia has some interesting thoughts on this one and how it fits within the franchise. The MA page also goes into lengthy detail about how the writers' room disagreed on whether it's a successful episode. To me, it's like, put a gun to my head and tell me I have to watch a Troi relationship episode? This might be the one.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
With high degrees of specialization within systems comes brittleness. This is a problem we deal with in managing (for example) machine learning systems today, it's interesting that the writers kinda backed their way into that observation.

I can easily see some members of our current crop of rich tech bros wanting to create their own Mastergeek Society.

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:
Premiere included Female's Love Interest, which is a bit heteronormative.(The female STCCG players I knew mostly preferred Ezri, FWIW) It was somewhat useful in Premiere, but you'd never play it after the Borg affiliation appeared. They simply refuse to go on any dates. The nerve!

Hannah Bates is a card. Dunno, I never needed a Physics mission specialist.

Colony, which let you score points passively on a planet after you finished the mission, is one of those few cards that provides a sort of 'alternate win condition': do a mission or two and just pile up in your Colony till you win. Whole deck types were built on this. It was also made more accessible in DS9, if you were willing to set up shop in another quadrant...

Avert Danger is a planet mission that needs 'space skills'. Could be useful in an Engineer-heavy deck.

Stellar Core Fragment follows a standard template in the Second Edition sets, 'have a crew member with 2X or 2Y or stop X or Y'. Generic. Avert Danger takes less stats than the 1E version, for once, and with its gametext bonus points, was decently useful.

Aaron Conor, Born Leader; Hannah Bates, Biosphere Expert; and Martin Benbeck, Strict Interpreter all provided good value for cost, you couldn't go far wrong including them. Throw in We're Mutants and Arik Soong, Father of Many for more fun.
posted by StarkRoads at 8:49 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]


The only Trek episode that I have ever watched for a college-level philosophy class!
posted by brainwane at 9:00 AM on April 29


John Snyder has peak 80s/90s white "hey it's that guy" energy, so of course he's a Troi love interest on ST:TNG.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:02 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]


With high degrees of specialization within systems comes brittleness.

Yeah, that's what really struck me about the central premise. The "the ship visits a society that demands or requires a high degree of control to exist" plot is a recurrent one in just about all the Trek series, whether the controlling factor is something like Vaal, Landru, or that orbital thing in "Justice", or just the way that they've always done things. (I was slightly amused that the original pitch was for "an idyllic community that contained, essentially, a hundred Dolph Lundgrens and Paulina Porizkovas, romping around semi-clothed, Adam and Eve-like. It was a beautiful Blue Lagoon colony." That's like a repeat of "Justice".) The degree of brittleness here, and the colonists' apparent inability to formulate anything like a Plan B, is almost comical--they're supposed to be genetically superior, right?--and I started coming up with a Lower Decks episode in my head called "Brianageddon" where the crisis is precipitated by a guy named Brian going missing, and no one can say exactly why he's so important to the grand scheme of things (at least not without relying on some heavily woo-inflected Treknobabble), and then when it turns out that Brian just went for a long walk and lost track of the time, the colony immediately pivots to "Oh, we're OK now, you can move along, buh-bye", and as the away team beams up, you hear in the background, "Hey, where's Steve?" and everyone gasps.

The ep briefly touches on the hot-button topic of selective abortion, but doesn't really delve into it--perhaps wisely, given that the showrunners didn't seem in agreement on the ep in general--and it's interesting that, per DS9, the only exception to the no-genetic-engineering rule in the Federation is to correct serious birth defects, which apparently wasn't an option for the La Forges. (And that opens up a fairly big can of worms WRT what, precisely, is allowed for that kind of genetic repair, and how that's justified. What counts as "normal" in a multi-species society which includes a number of hybrids such as Spock and Deanna Troi, and if you're going to improve someone's IQ (if they even use that measurement) to 100, why not to 200? And what about neurodivergent people such as the Jack Pack in DS9? It would seem that even quote-endquote justifiable genetic repair might be a very slippery slope leading to Khan-type supermen.)

Anyway, agreed that the ep is mostly good for what it is; Snyder has done better with Bochra, Canada will do better with Ch'Pok, and Dey Young is fine, but I'd probably be happy watching her make toast.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:31 AM on April 29 [5 favorites]


That the Federation, with its overwhelmingly greater diversity and size, has come up with better science and tech shouldn't be a surprise, but I think it's right that it would be a revelation to Hannah Bates who's only known her little bubble. I agree that her story is what saves this ep. I do grimace a little bit at the idea that she can just jump into discussing the technology that LaForge knows. It's as if she's only known Aristotelian ideas about physics and now he's talking about quantum mechanics. I think she should need a moment to say "...the what now?" I'll let it slide because that's just how Star Trek rolls. And hey--Geordi gets a gold star for working with a pretty lady and not getting all creepy.

I was baffled by Ron Canada's response of "how dare you save us from certain destruction?!" Like, sure, Trump might say this kind of bullshit when he's addressing a MAGA-hat wearing crowd, but that's not the kind of audience Ron Canada had here. I guess he's been genetically engineered to protect the rules or let everyone die trying. Maybe he's just mad that his whole deal is blown and he's going to lash out no matter how little sense it makes.
posted by polecat at 12:28 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


I have to admit, I was kind of giving up on TNG, but I finished watching this episode entirely on the strength of CoB's "Pobody's Nerfect" gag. Well played.

TNG does two things very consistently: shit on anyone who dares suggest that maybe you could do better than traditional human conception, and equate the worth of any society with how dull it is. They've sort of trapped themselves in the middle, here: do we hate Biosphere 3 because they use genetic manipulation, or do we love it because it's super fucking boring? On the one hand, who are you people to decide whether a fetus lives or dies (so bad), but on the other, you're amusing yourselves by sitting in a circle listening to a twelve year old clumsily smash out Chopin on a piano (so good!), so... do we have the right to disrupt their society? How will they survive without the 32 members we're evacuating from Snoresville? Can we just, you know, beam over some of the drunk and horny pastiches from Up The Long Ladder and call it a day? I mean after all, that's what you did last time, you absolute turds.

Picard introduces a ton of unnecessary hangwringing here. Should you let an entire human society die because you might upset their political stability? No, you should not, because a live disrupted society has a brighter future than a dead one. Should you refuse sanctuary to people who want to leave such a society? No, you should not, for the same reason you shouldn't refuse sanctuary to people from abusive families. These are softballs, Jean Luc! Why are you trying to fuck this up? Even Riker has his shit together on this one.
posted by phooky at 1:43 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


I was not looking forward to this, I'm pretty tired of "society that's so perfect that each person fits perfectly into our perfection, but any bump in the road will make all our heads explode" episodes, and this mixes that with "leader who values stability and tradition over averting an imminent apocalypse." However, Troi and her guy-pal were pretty cute together, and I liked how in the end he really would have preferred to leave as well.

I might be off on this, but I feel like when Riker, Picard, or even Beverly have gotten off-ship romances, they get a lot more kissy than does Troi. They portray Troi as so tightly controlled, they should have given her more moments to let loose.
posted by skewed at 1:44 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


I was baffled by Ron Canada's response of "how dare you save us from certain destruction?!" Like, sure, Trump might say this kind of bullshit when he's addressing a MAGA-hat wearing crowd, but that's not the kind of audience Ron Canada had here.

Martin Benbeck lived his entire life in a totalitarian society. Aaron Conor rules by birthright. Want to be a dentist, little elf? Too bad, it's off to Santa's workshop you go. We have Scientifically decided who you are and what you can do.

Remember those "Giant Meteor '16" bumper stickers? Instant annihilation over uncertainty.
posted by StarkRoads at 2:14 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


They portray Troi as so tightly controlled, they should have given her more moments to let loose.

I wonder if any of that is old writer's bible stuff from her originally being the Phase II and TMP character Ilia, who's a Deltan with a famous "oath of celibacy"?
posted by hanov3r at 2:55 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


John Snyder looks so much like Steve Nash I wouldn't be surprised if they were brothers. In fact they look more similar than Steve Nash and his actual brother Martin.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:42 PM on April 29


I was baffled by Ron Canada's response of "how dare you save us from certain destruction?!"

This is basically Timicin's daughter and the authorities on Kaelon in "Half a Life." No exceptions for Timicin! Hopefully in a few years we can do more experimenting. And if the star dies within the lifetimes of the children of the planet, that's okay, as long as the suicide rituals are not compromised. WTF?
posted by Fukiyama at 6:04 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


When Troi stops the elevator to tell Picard she had ‘a relationship’ with Aaron Connor, I was hoping he would say “Oh, is that all? That’s just part of away missions. Riker has ‘relationships’ nearly every time he beams down somewhere. Even I have been known to, on occasion.”
posted by rodlymight at 6:18 PM on April 29 [5 favorites]


I wonder if the original colonists pre-date the Eugenics Wars. While they say that the colony itself is 200 years old, that is approximately the era of ST:ENT, at which time transporters were fairly new, but Warp had been around for a while and genetic engineering was already banned. The easiest way to square this is that they left on a Botany Bay-like sleeper ship and spent a long time traveling at sub-light speeds. And I'm guessing before the Eugenics Wars because I expect it would've been hard to organize this sort of expedition during or after.

The colony plan is a fundamentally stupid idea, since it is ultimately the interconnectedness of humanity, rather than the presence of a few extraordinary individuals, that drives advancement. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not believable a group of people tried to set up a society this way. Quite the opposite, actually.

The space nerd in me would like to point out that if they had just used the tractor beam at a low, sustainable level as soon as they realized there was a problem it would've redirected the fragment more than that short period of super-high powered tractor beaming.

Though of course the easiest solution would've been just changing the gravitational constant of the universe.
posted by ckape at 6:22 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the original colonists pre-date the Eugenics Wars. While they say that the colony itself is 200 years old, that is approximately the era of ST:ENT, at which time transporters were fairly new, but Warp had been around for a while and genetic engineering was already banned. The easiest way to square this is that they left on a Botany Bay-like sleeper ship and spent a long time traveling at sub-light speeds. And I'm guessing before the Eugenics Wars because I expect it would've been hard to organize this sort of expedition during or after.

That gets into the subject of what the Eugenics Wars were actually like; the MA article goes into some detail about the problems with how the wars were described in canon, and potential fixes. I tend to agree with the beta canon version from Greg Cox's The Eugenics Wars books that the wars were not unlike the Cold War--not an actual open, shooting war, but a period of time in which most of the "battles" were fought largely by proxy, and given that the 1996 of the VOY "Future's End" two-parter does not seem to show a world at war, it would make more sense. That would also make it more likely that a splinter group, less aggro than Khan's group but also wanting to live their lives as they wished, took off in another sleeper ship, any time before WWIII.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:49 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


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