Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Masterpiece Society [5.13]

The Enterprise discovers a reclusive genetically engineered colony who are in imminent danger from a passing stellar core fragment.  Convincing the people of their imminent danger, the crew is able to help save them from this threat.  However, in the process various members of the colony learn about the rest of the universe and insist upon leaving, threatening the delicately-balanced colony’s continued survival.  Even the colony’s leader has fallen in love with Troi and is conflicted about leaving.  But in the end he chooses to stay and try to rebuild his home.

Teleplay by Adam Belanoff and Michael Piller. Story by James Kahn and Adam Belanoff.  Directed by Winrich Kolbe.

Previous Episode: Violations • Next Episode: Conundrum

Sometimes when I am rewatching these episodes of Star Trek:  The Next Generation, especially when I am putting a new DVD into the machine, I avoid looking carefully at the menu screen so that I don’t know which episode I am about to watch.  I get to enjoy the small surprise of not knowing which episode is next, and seeing how far I get into the story before I recognize it.  In the case of The Masterpiece Society, it was pretty far.  I had heard of this episode, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.

At first glance, there’s nothing special going on here.  Another one-note planet, a generic off-screen science fiction threat, Picard feels offended at the people’s lack of good old fashioned enlightenment,  and Troi falls in love with the local pretty boy.  But somewhere in this sea of predictability, the episode takes a turn for the better.

I think the bright spots begins after the Troi / Conor relationship reaches its peak.  Instead of the relationship being all about deifying ones feelings above everything else (as is often the case in Star Trek), Troi actually regrets her actions, recognizes they were inappropriate, and even has a pretty good scene coming clean with Picard.  I found that all to be a refreshingly mature take on the topic.

Also, while the stellar core plot turned out to be just a big plot convenience to get things going, I really enjoyed the interaction between Geordi and Hannah Bates.  Geordi’s comments about how he would never have been allowed to be born in Hannah’s society are particularly relevant in today’s world where medical technology allows for similarly selective abortions and other social ills.  Hannah’s subsequent actions (the fake disaster) were over the top but I enjoyed seeing the debate about allowing a portion of this engineered society to leave.  I thought Picard’s suggestion of waiting for six months was actually quite reasonable, and it was interesting to see it ignored.

On the other hand, I thought all the hoopla about how the society might not survive the absence of 23 people to be a bit absurd.  It’s a pretty poor job of engineering if two dozen people’s departure could cause such social chaos for generations.  What sort of pathetic society is it that can’t adjust to the absence of dozens when there are thousands of others?  I mean, the Enterprise is an engineered society as well – a much smaller and probably more delicate.  Everyone is chosen, trained, and positioned to fulfill certain key roles necessary to allow the society to continue.  But the ship doesn’t just fall apart if a few people die, even if they are officers.

Even worse is the way that Picard seems to actually think that his crew’s involvement in saving the colony might have been a mistake.  What a misguided, idiotic perception that would be!  What a terrible, unsympathetic hero we would have if Picard took the lesson he extolls to heart:  don’t help anyone, in case you cause unforeseen problems.  That is a show I would not want to watch – it sort of reminds of me of the whole thing in Man of Steel about how Clark Kent has to not help people in case he gives away his secret identity.  Fortunately Picard doesn’t go there that often (it’s more than necessary as it is already).

Perhaps his hand-wringing would feel more justified if the episode dealt more strongly with the real impact that their visit has made on the culture:  suddenly, even the possibility of leaving their world has been introduced.  The danger to the culture isn’t the departure of the colonists – it’s the introduction of a new idea into what is basically a closed culture.  Ideas cannot be shut down so easily, of course, and so it would have added a new wrinkle to the issue of there had been a faction of people in the colony who didn’t want to leave just then, but wanted to initiate continued interaction with the Federation – to reserve the right to leave at some later date.  Then the Enterprise really would have been responsible for an irrevocable change in the society.  Maybe that’s what they were trying to get at, but it doesn’t come across as strongly as it could.  I’d have liked to see Picard and company maybe face up to the reality that that’s what they do all the time, and acknowledge that maybe it’s not such an abnormal thing.

Guest Cast:
• Ron Canada plays Martin Benbeck.  He has been in lots of things, including various other parts in other Star Trek series and Babylon 5.  He also plays Undersecretary of State Theodore Barrows in ten episodes of The West Wing.

• “I can see you just fine, sir.”  I like Geordi’s indignation.

• Riker has a big smile on when he meets the becoming Hannah Bates.

• Picard’s comments about why he doesn’t like genetic manipulation are interesting. “They’ve given away their humanity with this genetic manipulation. Many of the qualities that they breed out, the uncertainty, the self-discovery, the unknown, those are many of the qualities that make life worth living. Well, at least to me. I wouldn’t want to live knowing that my future was written, that my boundaries had been already set, would you?”

• They are wondering how to motivate these people to save themselves?  Why don’t they just beam down and blow everything up?  It worked for Data in The Ensigns of Command.

• In this society’s engineering plan, the leader is not a visionary or a pioneer, he’s an administrator.  That says something right there.  The purpose of this society isn’t to grow or improve or care for people – it’s simply to exist.  The people serve the culture and not the other way around.

• The image of Troi and Conor speaking out Humpty Dumpty together is just silly.

• The sciencey course-adjusting scene is surprisingly effective in its tension.

• It’s a little lame that we don’t get to see more of the action with the fragment impacting the society

•  Geordi has many of the best lines this time:  “I understand these are human beings, Counselor, with free will. If she wants to leave, she has every right to.”   

• Picard prime directive blah blah blah.  I hate Picard’s sermonizing at the end.  It’s so ridiculous.

Dialogue High Point
Another line from Geordi, about his disability

Who gave them the right to decide whether or not I should be here? Whether or not I might have something to contribute.

Previous Episode: Violations • Next Episode: Conundrum

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