Star Trek: The Next Generation: Masks   Rewatch 
November 12, 2021 3:30 AM - Season 7, Episode 17 - Subscribe

The Enterprise encounters a rogue comet, and…there…are masks.

Memory Alpha recommends that all visitors mask up, vaccinated or not:

• The episode derived from an old premise of Michael Piller's to do a take on the lost Library of Alexandria. Joe Menosky had originally used purely archetypal forms, but these proved hard to conceptualize, so they were changed into actual characters from the archive.

• According to science consultant André Bormanis, the explanation given in the original script was that the archive was an "advanced Genesis Device" that mistook the Enterprise for a world to recreate the ancient society on.

• Ronald D. Moore recalled, "I remember seeing the initial story and saying, 'Jesus, what is this?' It was pretty out there and then the script came in and we all sort of scratched our heads and looked at each other and wondered what he's smoking out there in the Alps. But when we started to examine it and get into it a little more, we saw what he was doing. He has some real interesting ideas and he approaches things from a fresh angle."

• Brent Spiner found this episode to be one of his most difficult acting assignments on the series. "I had some good stuff seventh season. I just wish they had been scheduled differently. I got the script for 'Masks' on the night before we shot it and I was finishing "Thine Own Self" the midnight before, so I didn't have the time to even absorb the script and digest it and figure out who these people were that I was playing…I think I said to Jeri at the time, 'Give me six months and I think I could give all the characters their due,' but as it was, I didn't know who these people were and so I was doing instant acting and just coming up with whatever I was coming up with because we had to put it to film."

• The temple set was built on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Stage 18. The set was later put to good use as the Albino's fortress in DS9: "Blood Oath".

• The rogue comet effect was made by Santa Barbara Studios, who had previous experience rendering comets as they had rendered the comet for DS9's opening sequence. The melting comet effect was so well-received by the TNG production staff that it was extended from a six to nine second shot. The shot was later reused in VOY: "Death Wish".

• Many of the staff were displeased with the final episode. Naren Shankar commented, "Joe has a magnificent imagination, he thinks in a deep way. But in this case it was too much… We had to make it more understandable, make the clues clearer. And the end result is… it's still kinda confusing."

• Brannon Braga observed, "Joe is one of those writers who has a unique vision that no one else understands. Shows need to be nurtured by him and it's very tough to come in on one of his scripts and start rewriting it. He needed to be here and it's unfortunate that it suffered as a result. The first draft had some very confusing elements that needed work. On the whole, it was a very good script, but the last act was unsatisfying and I feel that was because it needed to be simplified, but Joe wasn't here to do it and the staff struggled a little bit…The best thing about the show is watching the Enterprise being mutated into this weird ancient civilization. The art direction, effects, and the opticals were among our best."

• Director Robert Wiemer is also not fond of the episode, remarking, "I always look and find a meaningful subtext of some kind in all of the shows I've done; more often than not they're little morality plays, and I was unable to find that in 'Masks'… it ended up kind of an exotic adventure story, but it didn't have any heart."

• At a Creation Entertainment convention in South Bend, Indiana in 1994, Michael Dorn cited this as his least favorite episode of TNG.

• In contrast, Ron Moore commented, "It was a fascinating episode. It was just full of wild concepts and from that angle alone it was worth doing. Sometimes you have to take those risks and really go out someplace and do something bizarre."

• In a 2012 interview with, Brent Spiner recalled, "There was one that we thought was terrible while we were doing it. We were laughing at each other's faces at the acting we were doing in 'Masks,' but that is a fan favorite. I am always hearing how fans love it and let me tell you, we could not look at each other. Colm Meaney was laughing at me, Marina [Sirtis] was laughing at me. I was laughing at Patrick. He was laughing at me. We were thinking 'this is preposterous,' but you cut it together and add the music and it works." However, as Colm Meaney does not appear in this episode, it is likely Spiner was referring to another episode, most likely TNG: "Power Play".

"Geordi. What... does it feel like... when a person is losing his mind?"
"Data, come on, you're scaring me now. What's going on?"
" I... do not know. I... am different."
"Well, you're going to be all right. You're with me, okay?"
- Data and Geordi La Forge

"Masaka is waking."
- Ihat

Poster's Log:
Season seven is so much weirder than I remember—you get several really good episodes, sometimes even one right after another, and yet you also get freakin' "Masks."

One of the most basic rules of narrative is that the outcome of the story needs to induce some amount of detectable change at the end in one or more characters whom we care about. Episodic TV often struggles with this, understandably, but TNG didn't, at least not as often as you might expect given the series' various other stumbles. So I dunno, maybe "Masks" is just another symptom of acute seasonsevenitis. "Why bother inducing change in a character," the writers' room may have decided, "when we only have nine episodes left with them?"

Because Data remembered nothing of the A-story of "Thine Own Self," you could say that one missed this target as well, except we did come to care a bit about the guest aliens in that one, and they were changed by the story (not to mention a clear line of character change in the B-story). But freakin' "Masks"? Well, let me just quote myself from FanFare's VOY rewatch: "the conflict is completely peripheral to the main cast; it feels like you're watching Picard and Data watching some other story."

I'll concede that the concept could have worked, so they were right to try, and try they did. It was wise to try another archaeology episode; unfortunately, the hook is too reminiscent of the Ressikan probe. They did boldly go with a way-out-there premise; unfortunately, they couldn't (A) actually make it make sense—by which I mean, the mechanism being used by the comet-station-thing to transmute the ship was presented even less comprehensibly and consistently than the Janeway-Paris Salamander Incident; or, more essentially, they couldn't (B) give us a reason to care. The ship being in flimsily transparent danger isn't enough. A thought I had after this rewatch was, suppose the Mask-Makers' species are the ancestors of a member of the ship's crew. Doesn't even have to be somebody we've met before—Lt. Steve Masakason of Antimatter Ops, say. By this point in the series, and particularly after "Lower Decks," we will automatically care a little bit about Lt. Steve if he's not a complete ass, and when the alien probe Inner-Lights HIM, and turns HIM into a gibbering collection of incomprehensible personalities, we'd be like, "Oh crap, Lt. Steve might totally die, since he's a guest actor," and maybe more importantly, "That guy's in charge of the antimatter pods! I sure hope they stop him from transmogrifying any of the stuff on THAT deck," and probably MOST importantly, "Lt. Steve dying would make it a rough day for La Forge and probably Riker."

Also: Sir Pat has never looked more Done With This Shit than in the scene where he wears the mask.

I'm struggling to think of a worse episode that isn't in season one. I seriously, not kidding, got more out of the clip show.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
…Oh my god, I'm an anti-Maskser.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (14 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
we only have nine episodes left with them

Whenever a long-running show is headed for the finish line, there's always a goofy episode like this one in the mix and I say to myself "This is what you're doing with your limited time left?" But it makes more sense to realize they are out of ideas and not rushing to cram in every last great idea they had scribbled on a whiteboard for seven years.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:26 AM on November 12, 2021

Poor Brent Spiner. He is every dad who, exhausted at the end of a long day, is pestered by their kid to "do all the voices" in their bedtime story. Oh my god, kid, fine. Here, we'll give the Pokey Little Puppy a high-pitched squeaky voice. Scuffy the Tugboat will sound like a mob boss. Little Brown Bear sounds like a little kid-- oh, that's too close to Pokey Little Puppy? Okay, we'll add a lisp. The rabbits will be baritone. Scrawny Tawny Lion will be-- fuck, can we just make him French?-- he's French now. And so on. Spiner handles it with aplomb, all things considered.

I agree that this is basically The Outer Light, with more crew and less us caring. I'm surprised that Picard didn't reference it at the end:

PICARD: Well, Data, you never may become fully human but you've had an experience that transcends the human condition. You've been an entire civilization.
DATA: That is true.
PICARD: You know, ah, I've also been an entire civilization. It was quite a thing!
DATA: Is that so?
PICARD: Yes! In fact, I even got a flute out of it. Maybe we can discuss this further. Why don't I come over to your quarters later. I can play my sad little flute, and you can wear your mask, and we can sit and quietly think about long-dead civilizations.
DATA: I do not think I would like that, sir.
posted by phooky at 7:03 AM on November 12, 2021 [17 favorites]

Yeah, I mean given the choice between Masks and Sub Rosa, it's Sub Rosa every time. I think Masks holds up better than it really ought to, but it's still just another Data-centric episode as opposed to a rare Beverly Crusher episode.
posted by Kyol at 7:57 AM on November 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I feel much kinder about this episode after reading Brent Spiner's explanation. He was just throwing shit at the wall, and it didn't work out. I struggle to remember anything in the second half of this episode, less than 48 hours after having rewatched it. I was pretty much done after the second appearance of Ihat. I wasn't even fiddling around on my computer while watching it, I just don't remember what Picard did to intervene and stop Masaka.

That comet-smoke effect was pretty cool, especially for 1994.
posted by skewed at 7:58 AM on November 12, 2021

"Masks" is a good example of one big difference between RoddenberryTrek and BermanTrek. In TOS, there are episodes like "The Ultimate Computer" or the one where ... was it the Kelvins ... take over the Enterprise and turn the crew into easily-crushable cubes. Or "Day of the Dove," where the alien energy being pits the Enterprise crew against the Klingons in melee combat and so traps hundreds of crewers down below. Whatever. Whatever. The point was, the crew was not necessary for the episode. But the writers took that extra step to come up with an explaination why the crew was not in the episode, and that explaination was integral to the plot, more or less.

The Next Generation, moreso later on, was more concerned with the story it was telling and the issues those stories were dealing with than it was with the details that make Star Trek Star Trek. For instance, in "Masks," if I'm recalling correctly, it is mentioned that the crew has been confined to quarters for their safety. Bad enough that they aren't fighting back against the alien probe, but they don't even abandon ship in any operative pods or shuttles. Hell, do they even consider a saucer separation! No, TNG simply handwaves the crew out of sight by confining them to quarters.
posted by Stuka at 8:14 AM on November 12, 2021

the one where ... was it the Kelvins ... take over the Enterprise and turn the crew into easily-crushable cubes

The Kelvans in "By Any Other Name", featuring long-time SF character actor Warren Stevens.
posted by hanov3r at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2021

I'll give them an A for Ambition, given that it's late in the last season and the franchise has another show running, a new show in the works, and is probably casting an eye toward taking over the movies soon. The premise--along with the prior art already mentioned--has some roots in DS9's "Dramatis Personae", also written by Joe Menosky, although that didn't include physical manifestations/transformations and was about the dead culture's history rather than its mythology, plus it roped in more of the crew for its re-enactment. But the changes were significant, and reflected on the central mystery of this episode: why did the D'Arsay do this? Did they mean for the events to happen as they did, in an effort to make their gods and their stories literally immortal? Or was it just an accident that the archive's recreations of the myths had two platforms (Data and the ship) that they could run on? And the re-enactment of the myth as a combination religious ritual and dramatic performance also reflects on the franchise's long history of involvement with stage acting, both in terms of many of its actors' dramacred, the often stagey productions (especially the planet scenes that are very obviously shot on a soundstage), and the incorporation of drama in various episodes. The bits with the masks reminded me both of TOS' "The Conscience of the King" (Anton Karidian appears in a mask during a production of Hamlet, symbolic of the fact that "Anton Karidian" is a mask) and VOY's "Muse", with the masks that represented various members of the crew as the play cribs from Voyager's epic odyssey across the Delta Quadrant.

Too bad that they didn't seem to have the time to get it right; Brent Spiner is basically doing a one-man show WRT setting up the dramatis personae, and if he was really up 'til midnight the night before finishing up "Thine Own Self", well, that's no way to run a railroad. There's some potential there for some pretty heavy duty symbolism and cultural resonance; the ending, with its union of the deities representing the sun and moon, is a bit like an alchemical wedding, and boy wouldn't that be interesting, given that both of the players are male. But, as you note, Stewart just isn't into it. It's just the off switch for the thing that's messing up the ship. At least they got to reuse the set for DS9's "Blood Oath", which was way more awesome.

Commenter's Log, supplemental: talking about drama did lead me to consider something: what do you think of the idea of doing an episode of one of the current (non-animated) Star Treks as a live stage production? Of course, it would have to be a very SFX-light story or premise, but, given the staginess of so many episodes in the franchise, could it work as well or better than the usual mode of production, or is the franchise too SFX-dependent at this point to even consider it?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:00 AM on November 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I saw this episode again recently and had forgotten about it entirely, Spiner's goofy voices honestly sell this episode for me. I can't write a long post about why it's maybe good or why I like it, but only that episode kept me entertained.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:09 AM on November 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Spiner's goofy voices honestly sell this episode for me.

The old man by the fire is probably the best.

One takeaway - I wish they'd been able to do in-frame changes of the symbol on Data's chest when he changes personalities, rather than cutting to a reaction shot and then back every time he switches.
posted by hanov3r at 9:16 AM on November 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:

Masaka Transformations provides an alternative to just drawing more cards, cycling your hand and the bottom of your deck. Somewhat useful at the time. Investigate Rogue Comet is a pretty simple 35 points. The Mask of Korgano provides a common card as a source of red AU icons, really only for players on a strict budget. Obelisk of Masaka, like most Referee icon cards, provides a janky technical solution to combos like Visit Cochrane Memorial and Barclay. This kind of solution did allow them to largely avoid issuing errata on overpowered cards, which was harder to access in such early internet days. It has nothing to do with "Masks" though.

Second Edition featured an updated Investigate Rogue Comet and D'Arsay Archive as kind of a new Masaka Transformations. With less draw manipulation in Second Edition, it's a bit more playable.
posted by StarkRoads at 9:54 AM on November 12, 2021

It's kind of fascinating to me (for values of fascinating that include simmering resentment) the level at which all the quotes from the staff are just bending over backwards to find praise for a white man's failed idea, when they've never done that with, for example, Jeri's less-than-stellar outings. And we know there hasn't been any room for other marginalized voices, with failed or successful scripts.

I can never keep my attention when Spiner is mugging it up. I have so little patience for it that I drift away, start talking to my cat or tidying up the living room or whatnot. Ah, everyone else has said much better and more insightful stuff than I can say; I'm just looking forward to some of the better eps to come and also to some of the really batshit ones, and am kind of preemptively sad about winding this up, even with episodes like Masks.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:08 PM on November 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

the one where ... was it the Kelvins ... take over the Enterprise and turn the crew into easily-crushable cubes

The Kelvans in "By Any Other Name", featuring long-time SF character actor Warren Stevens.

Yeah, a Kelvan is a technologically advanced alien from another galaxy. Kelvin is... well, we don’t say that word here.

Anyway, the bafflement and disappointment I recall from my single viewing of this episode more than 25 years ago is most of the reason why I have never rewatched even a single seventh-season episode.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:50 AM on November 13, 2021

Yeah, a Kelvan is a technologically advanced alien from another galaxy. Kelvin is... well, we don’t say that word here.

Ah, understood. I should have checked my spelling. I can easily get into the weeds if I head over to MA to check on details, so I try not to. And that association never came to mind. My interest in new Star Trek was long gone by the time Kelvin became a dirty word.
posted by Stuka at 8:03 AM on November 13, 2021

I have no idea how I missed this post, and I was anticipating this episode.

Yeah, it's another Data/ Spiner episode but I was truly terrified for the Enterprise-D and Data. As a final season episode, I applaud that they did one more Spiner showcase.
posted by porpoise at 9:10 AM on November 20, 2021

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