In the thirteenth episode of the fifth season of The Next Generation, the Enterprise tries to save a colony from destruction, but may risk destroying it just by intervening. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of eugenics, ableism, racism.
Holy shit, y’all, this was a fantastic episode, one that’s both haunting and illuminating. This is also the kind of story that could have plummeted into a mess of themes, messages, and plots, But for something so drastic, intense, and brutal, “The Masterpiece Society” is remarkably subtle. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but HERE WE ARE.
I think what this episode does best is show us the hypocrisy of Moab IV’s beauty. It’s not enough that the idea is creepy all by itself; we see how genetic engineering (and, by that logic, breeding) produces a society that will always be inherently flawed and tragic. And yet, in the midst of this? AN ETHICAL CONUNDRUM AS WELL. It’s all quite layered and complex, and it’s another part of this journey that makes it so rewarding.
So let’s talk first about Moab IV. On the surface, it’s a beautiful place, there’s a lot of peace between the people who live in this community, and the society appears to be thriving. And for all intents and purposes, it was thriving, right up until a stellar core fragment (I honestly have no idea what the hell that thing was, and at this point, I don’t even bother to understand some of the scientific lingo thrown at me) risks the whole arrangement. But that’s the problem with this kind of organized society, right from the start: to someone else, it’s going to be a dystopia. While Troi and some of the others saw the good in Moab IV, it became obvious and apparent that this place was not what it seemed.
Most of that is demonstrated through Geordi. The ableism thrown his way is astounding, of course, especially since Aaron and Hannah are so casual about how they feel towards disability. In their world, there simply isn’t any existence of any disability. And to them? A life with disability in it is not worth living. They speak of suffering and pain, unaware of the very idea that one can be disabled and experience happiness. It doesn’t matter that Geordi has found a way to cope with his blindness, and it doesn’t matter that he’s been able to contribute to world in a positive way. In the end? The disability is a flaw, and it shouldn’t exist.
Thankfully, The Next Generation shreds this logic to pieces, not only by having Geordi exist, but to have him exist so simply next to all of these people. It exposes a massive problem within the world of Moab IV: there is no spontaneity. There is no need. There is no adversity. There are no situations that can give birth to the kind of thinking that Geordi is used to, and it’s why Hannah has so much trouble thinking of a solution to Moab’s impending disasters. Truthfully, she’s probably never had to live through a disaster in her entire life. But what I love most about this is that the show is definitively stating that our experiences in life absolutely affect our thinking. Geordi’s experience as a blind man who wears a VISOR is what helps him determine a way to save Moab IV. That’s undeniable!
Unfortunately, there’s a secondary threat that sits quietly in the background of this episode, one that shows that Moab IV was always going to be destroyed. I found it appropriate that the Prime Directive was brought up again because this is one hell of a disaster to deal with. The Enterprise were obligated to reach out to Moab IV to warn them, and I found that to be an ethical move. I wouldn’t even argue that Troi’s developing affection for Aaron was all that influential either. While I understand her guilt over her feelings, I think that if she hadn’t had chemistry with Aaron, Hannah’s story still would have happened. At the same time, I think the point is that each of the Enterprise crew members were always going to affect these people’s lives. Attraction happens. Curiosity is a part of human nature, even in genetically engineered humans.
I think that’s why this is one of the few episodes where a suddenly-developed romantic relationship actually makes sense within the story. It’s usually a tired storytelling device because it happens so frequently within the Star Trek universe, and the lack of serialization as a whole means you don’t often get a satisfying story. But Troi and Aaron had undeniable chemistry to me, and I think there was a need to introduce an ethical conundrum that was emotional. Plus, that scene in the lift between Picard and Troi? Utterly captivating and one of the best things this season, y’all. It’s so raw, and we don’t often get to see Troi like that.
So what does this all mean for Moab IV? It means that change is inevitable. For a society that has never had a single aspect of their lives largely unplanned, they’ve now been dealt a serious blow to the order of their existence. The more I think about how this place was designed, the more eerie it seems to me. (I’ll reiterate what I said in the video: does this episode imply that there are only so many artists allowed? Does no one break away from their programming? Are positions filled generationally?) And I think that eeriness is exploited throughout “The Masterpiece Society” so that at the end of the story, we understood why Moab IV had to change. There’s something inherently wrong with this kind of engineering, and random chance exposed that to us. That’s it! Random occurrences in the universe put the Enterprise on the path to disrupting this community, and if that’s all it takes? Then maybe it wasn’t as strong as they thought it was. At the very least, it was flawed enough that twenty-four people – including Hannah – were willing to toss it all away, just so they could pursue a life away from their programming.
If there’s any flaw here in “The Masterpiece Society,” though, I think we can find it in Data, Dr. Crusher, and Martin. I’m still perplexed that an episode of this show that addresses genetically programmed humans did not invoke a comparison to Data even once. It seems like a massive oversight on the part of the writers. Hell, he and Dr. Crusher are barely in this episode at all. Where was she? Wouldn’t she want to study these medical oddities? And while this last issue probably comes down to casting, I think that Martin is easily the worst written character in the bunch. Granted, I understand why he’s written as a one-note, antagonistic force, but when you give that role to a black man? You’re invoking the Angry Black Dude trope effortlessly, and it comes across as pretty glaring as Martin continues to angrily disagree with literally everything. He never smiles, he’s verbally aggressive, and it’s just unfortunate at the end of the day.
The video for “The Masterpiece Society” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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