Friday, April 22, 2016

TNG Flashback: Masks

"Masks" was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that dared to try something quite unusual... and mostly fell on its face.

In their investigation of a rogue comet, the Enterprise crew uncovers a strange alien archive buried beneath the comet's surface. Soon the archive begins to take over the ship, slowly transforming it into a monument to the alien culture -- and possessing Data with numerous personae from its mythology.

"Masks" was the brainchild of staff writer Joe Menosky, who had worked an unusual deal with the production that allowed him to live in Europe for three years and send in ideas to the show remotely. After writing the brilliant episode "Darmok," one can imagine how he secured such a sweet deal. "Masks" even feels a bit like a spiritual successor to "Darmok," in that both stories feature an alien culture with its own carefully detailed mythology that's largely and purposefully kept hidden from both the main characters and the audience.

But where "Darmok" used its mythology as backdrop for a powerful story about how people communicate and bond with each other, "Masks" seems to have no real message at its core. At least, none that got across even to those working on the show. The episode's director, Robert Wiemer, noted that he couldn't find here the meaningful subtext or morality play that he thought typical of the series, deciding the episode "didn't have any heart." Staff writer Ronald Moore recalled that upon seeing the first draft script, "we all sort of scratched our heads and looked at each other and wondered what he's smoking out there in the Alps."

Though to be fair, that first draft was reportedly even weirder than what ended up on screen. Menosky's approach used pure archetypal forms so difficult to conceptualize that a rewrite was deemed necessary. Staff writer Naren Shankar drew that assignment, and added actual characters from the archive that the audience could relate to. Yet even he acknowledged that "the end result's still kinda confusing." Another staff writer, Brannon Braga explained the episode thusly: "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."

But it's not just the broad strokes that don't quite make sense in this episode. Even the details seem off. Why is Troi so blasé at the thought that someone might have broken into her quarters? Why does the crew assume there's something hiding in the center of the comet in first place? And what's the point, script-wise, of uncovering the alien archive in that way, as opposed to just encountering it in space? When the archive starts hacking the ship's computer and transforming the Enterprise in a way that threatens to expose people to open space, why is it not immediately taken as a dire threat? How does a society advanced enough to create this probe still cling to a mythology in which, as Troi puts it, only the sun OR the moon can be ascendance at any one time. (Imagine the tidal forces on a world where that's literally true!)

What started out rough on the page was further hindered in the performance. It's rare for me to cast aspersions at the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but here Brent Spiner himself beat me to the punch. He has repeatedly talked about the making of this episode (including in the documentary on the seventh season Blu-ray collection). He was just coming off "Thine Own Self," an episode in which he was heavily featured, and which was filming past midnight on its final day. "Masks" was set to start the next morning, and he only read the script for the first time in between late night shots of "Thine Own Self." He was so alarmed by what he read that he called showrunner Jeri Taylor and begged her for an emergency episode shuffle.

Spiner recalls saying, "Give me six months and I think I could give all the characters their due." Taylor remembers him arguing that "Dustin Hoffman had a year to figure out how to do Tootsie and portray a woman." She apparently took it as an actors' not-atypical whining, fluffed up his ego, and assured him he could do it. But suffice it to say, whatever magic goes into, say, Tatiana Maslany's stellar multi-character performance on Orphan Black wasn't there that week for Brent Spiner. I give him credit for making firm choices and committing to them... but they were clearly his first choices, with no time to modulate the results.

And so you get a procession of quirky voices (further modulated in post-production) as Data is inhabited by four different characters (and sprouts a morphing chest piece to further signal the character switches to the audience). Meanwhile, the plot flirts oh-so-closely with an idea that might actually have worked better: having other main characters be possessed too. Picard, for example, ultimately poses as Korgano to resolve the story, while the episode twice tries to make us think that Troi is Masaka (once when Data mistakes her identity, and again when the camera lingers on her strangely in Masaka's temple as she ascends the steps toward the throne).

Brent Spiner's sense of self-confidence wasn't the only casualty of having this episode immediately follow "Thine Own Self," either. With the back-to-back positioning of these two stories, Data winds up with amnesia twice in two weeks. And Troi's first responsibility with her new rank of commander? Teaching sculpture to school children.

And yet, there's some pretty great production value on display here, which sometimes lulls you into thinking maybe the episode isn't as bad as all that. The visual effects of the comet are pretty spectacular (from the same people who created the comet for Deep Space Nine's opening sequence). Masaka's temple is a large and impressive set build on Deep Space Nine's stage (because the "Thine Own Self" village was still standing on The Next Generation's own stage); it was later redressed for use on Deep Space Nine in the episode "Blood Oath." There's also a neat moment at the end when the mask disappears off Picard's face, an effect made possible by Patrick Stewart's ability to hold absolutely motionless as someone removed his mask with the camera rolling. (Those seconds of footage were then removed from the scene.)

Other observations:
  • There are a trio of deleted scenes and/or scene extensions included with the Blu-ray version of this episode. One, set early on in Ten Forward, depicts food and drink transformed by the alien archive, and revisits the old gag of Worf enjoying the taste of something that everyone else finds disgusting. Another scene has the characters speculating as to the purpose of the archive; Worf's thought that it might be a weapon is, as per tradition, shot down.
  • Speaking of Worf, Michael Dorn has at least once stated this was his least favorite episode of the entire series.
Despite the episode's numerous flaws, there is somehow a sense here that no one is phoning it in. I find I can't send it to the cellar with the truly worst episodes of the series. Still, I can't see fit to grade it better than a C-.

No comments: