the story: An ancient alien probe begins to transform the ship, and Data inhabits characters from the culture's mythology.
what it's all about: Two episodes in a row now, the seventh season does some pretty neat riffing on classic franchise storytelling. In "Thine Own Self," you get a good look at what primitive science looks like when confronted with Starfleet's more advanced instincts, and now "Masks" brings to life a whole alien mythology.
"Masks" evokes prior episodes from the series, classics like "Darmok" and "The Inner Light." That's not bad company at all, and as a minor entry in that line, it's not a bad one at all. It also has a little of "A Fistful of Datas" in it, when Data's art and then Data himself begins to transform along with the rest of the ship. The whole thing becomes a stellar showcase of Brent Spiner's versatility.
But it also becomes a kind of metaphor for Picard's interest in archeology, which pops up every now and then in the series. As he and the rest of the crew begin to interpret what's going on, and Picard realizes he's going to have to embody one of the characters to help bring about a conclusion (not the first or not last such a scenario occurs in the franchise, by the way).
The best thing about "Masks," though, is that it takes the time to flesh out an alien culture, even if we don't see any of the aliens themselves (one of the classic long-dead races that pop up so often in Star Trek), which even for the best-established aliens doesn't really ever go this far. So it's definitely worth watching just to see the writers think a little more about such things than they usually do. They'd better, in a whole episode about such things, right?
- franchise - Great alien culture development.
- series - Doesn't specifically impact series lore.
- character - Good showing for Data and Picard.
- essential - Doesn't specifically impact franchise or character lore, either.