Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Next Generation 5x13 "The Masterpiece Society"

rating: ****

the story: A colony is reluctant to receive help for a potential disaster, as contact with the crew could pollute its society.

similar to: "Meridian" (Deep Space Nine), "Dear Doctor," "A Night in Sickbay" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: "Masterpiece Society" has always been tricky to contemplate, as it threatens to dissolve into the milquetoast reputation of Next Generation, something that seems bland in comparison to some of the more exciting elements of the franchise, or entertainment in general.  In short, it's a think piece.  And, perhaps, a perfect Star Trek think piece.

The franchise is no stranger to examining cultures that its crews find hard to interact with, for any number of reasons, most of them unflattering to those cultures.  In the most reductive analysis, Star Trek can be seen as a remnant of the age of exploration, when various leading states went blundering into native cultures and pronounced them primitive throwbacks to an earlier time, easy to judge and exploit.  Now, clearly the franchise has always preached that exploitation is out of the question.  But what about all the judgment inherent in these adventures, from a supposedly enlightened people?  Sometimes, if you think about it, it's just a tough thing to reconcile. 

Then an episode like "Masterpiece Society" comes along, and forces you to think about why this tends to happen.  It's one thing when, say, "Darmok" explores a language gap, but a culture gap can be all the more astounding.  What happens when Starfleet comes across a world that wishes to isolate itself, with reasons that don't seem clear until it's too late?  It's a matter of the Prime Directive, not merely a matter of protecting inhabitants at a different development platform, but cultures that are so different, they're difficult to comprehend, so that in doing anything at all will affect them. 

In "Meridian" (Deep Space Nine), there's a planet that necessarily experiences a different relationship with our plain of existence.  In "Dear Doctor" (Enterprise), it's a culture with two competing species you'd have to play god to consider helping during an epidemic at all.  In "A Night in Sickbay" (also Enterprise), it's about failing to comprehend what's important to them (better than as portrayed in Next Generation's own "Justice").

And in "Masterpiece Society," it's a culture where every member has been specifically assigned a task, and that's what they do for the duration of their lives.  Yet when Picard's crew comes along, some of the members realize there's a true alternative for the first time.  (See also: Insurrection.)  It's the rare episode that dares suggest the good guys are in fact the bad guys, not because of anything they do, but for what they fail to understand.  It's an episode, like "Ensign Ro," that suggests the perfect future really isn't so perfect after all.

It's also a minor Geordi spotlight, pointing out how in some cultures his blindness would have resulted in an abortion, his imperfection intolerable.  It's a thorny topic we still debate today, and "Masterpiece" may be worth viewing to meditate on that alone.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Ron Canada

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