In the seventeenth episode of the seventh season of The Next Generation, this is a weird one. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
This was kind of a mess.
It feels impossible for me to talk about “Masks” without referencing my thoughts on “Dramatis Personae,” which feels like a spiritual successor to this one. Both episodes focus on an ancient civilization and conflict unfolding in the present time. Crew members act weirdly, and then everything is solved by… well, that depends. Both resolutions are pretty meaningless and silly, and yet, I can’t ignore that “Masks” does exactly what “Dramatis Personae” doesn’t do.
It gives me context.
There’s a great deal of worldbuilding here, and I think that by the end of the episode, we get a good portrait of the civilization contained within the Archive. Granted, the writers borrow heavily from Aztec and Mayab culture, smushing a whole bunch of tropes and stereotypes together into some weird mixing pot society. Which is… whatever. It exists, and this episode is so bizarre and unfulfilling that I don’t even really want to spend time dissecting how much of this episode relies on really lazy cultural clues.
[Description: GIF of Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation turning to the left, with text overlay that says, “Actually, it’s gonna bug me if I don’t.”]
Look, I’m reminded of the fact that my boyfriend just spent the last month binge-watching all nine seasons of The X-Files. Nearly every time the show featured a story dealing with non-white cultures or people, Mark Snow’s music would do The Thing. What is The Thing? It’s where the soundtrack suddenly contains some sort of ethnic flourish that lets the audience know how “exotic” the story and the characters are. “El Mundo Gira” is a serial offender on this, as is “Teliko” and every episode with Navajo characters. When white people show up? This never happens. As far as I can recall, there are no annoying bagpipe riffs when an Irish person shows up. I only bring that up to give context for the fact that those pipe flutes appear here. Why? Because our minds immediately think of the Aztecs, or the Mayans, or some nondescript Central American indigenous.
That’s what happens when we look at the images used here. Or the construction of the sets. All of them have this vague approximation of something real. Which isn’t necessarily a problem! I think that using something in the real world for visual reference is perfectly understandable, and I’m certain many of us do that. But what purpose do those images serve? What sort of story are you telling with them? Granted, I think the story in “Masks” is deeply complex, which makes me feel a bit better about how this all unfolds. The problem, though, is that there is so much information. This unnamed culture is filtered through Data, which has the odd affect of stripping the visual reference of the people out of the picture.
Aside from the weight of the exposition (there’s so much of it!!!), that’s the major flaw in this episode. Brent Spiner clearly had a lot of fun in this role, but I simply could not imagine an entire civilization through him. I just couldn’t! The whole idea of him having multiple personalities seemed cheesy (and borderline offensive), and I couldn’t get invested in the story. Elements of it were interesting to me, such as Picard playing an archaeologist detective. But the focus was splintered. There was too much going on, and I didn’t know what to pay attention to. Spiner is talented, but aside from hunching his body over or speaking in a weird voice, I don’t think he truly conveyed the full experience of life in this world. That’s not an insult to his talent but a flaw of the story.
In the end, the ritual that Picard and the others must construct made little sense to me, though I got a sense that this was supposed to be about balance, but logistically? It’s a mystery that’s solved by Data and Picard wearing silly masks and talking Data into going to sleep. That’s… that is hardly entertaining. It’s a disappointment because it feels so hokey and weird, and not the kind of weird that I normally like. Hell, I did appreciate how bizarre much of this was, but the ending is a let down because it’s so muted. I suspect that this episode is not exactly adored by the fandom either. Sometimes, I’m totally off the mark about this, but I feel pretty confident that I’m not the only who thought this was a dud.
The video for “Masks” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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