“Snake, a snake!”: The Masterpiece Society
This is probably the episode I’ve changed my opinion on more times than any other. The first time I saw “The Masterpiece Society” I thought it was middling, though acceptable in a vague sort of way: It didn’t really hold my interest long enough to leave much of an impression, though I liked that Geordi had a meaty plot with a lady guest star. Later, I came to understand that this episode has, or at least had, a very significant and vocal hatedom, with many fans describing it as the flat-out worst episode in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Which struck me as odd, considering “Code of Honor” and “Reunion” both exist. Then I remembered I had read somewhere that some fan forum or critical aggregate site (I can’t remember which one) bestowed upon “The Masterpiece Society” the unusual title of “most average Star Trek: The Next Generation episode”. As in, if you were looking for one episode that best encapsulated what the show looked like and how it operated on an average week, this would be it.
So going into it this time I really had no idea what to expect. These are the kinds of episodes I actually secretly like revisiting the most: I always know the classics and my old favourites are going to be just as good as I remember, but it’s the episodes I haven’t seen in many years or don’t remember as well (or in extremely rare instances have *never* seen) that often prove the most rewarding from an analytical perspective as it gives me a chance to approach a show I typically have a very hard time maintaining any sort of real emotional distance from with the full arsenal of critical tools and ideological maturity I’ve accumulated over the years. So my takeaway from “The Masterpiece Society” in a nutshell is that it is actually kind of bad, but not at all for the reasons people tend to say it’s bad and is actually way less egregious in some respects than other times the show has slipped up. And even then the only truly irredeemable bollocks is in the last act, and there’s quite a strong kernel of a good idea here that’s obfuscated by the unpleasantness at the end.
The first thing about this episode is that, like a lot of middling Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, it’s basically an Original Series episode. The Enterprise discovers a “Planet of Hats” where everyone behaves in a programmatically idiosyncratic manner where said idiosyncrasies put them at philosophical odds with our heroes and the crisis of the week. There is a conflict of interests and culture clash between the two parties as they work to resolve the crisis, exacerbated at least in part by one of our heroes falling in love or becoming otherwise involved with a prominent figure among the natives. Just a brief tangent before I launch into the redemptive reading: This bothers me quite a lot, and I think it’s very indicative of the more systemic problems with this writing staff. Say what you will about people like Maurice Hurley and Melinda Snodgrass (or indeed, of Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor and even Ira Steven Behr), but they were veteran writers and TV people who came from outside the Star Trek think-tank, and they brought their years of experience and wisdom with them.
People like Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga though literally have no credentials apart from being Star Trek fans, and one gets the sense altogether too frequently they’d much rather be writing for Kirk, Spock and McCoy instead of Picard, Deanna and Geordi. This crops up not just in their own scripts, but in the teleplays their team adapt from freelance submissions. At least D.C Fontana and Bob Justman had the excuse they were writing six weeks into the first season and nobody really knew what Star Trek: The Next Generation actually was yet.
But enough of that, as A. there’s an episode next season where these complaints are going to prove even more damning, and B. “The Masterpiece Society” is actually on Michael Piller, who thought the idea was good enough to press ahead with. Ron Moore actually hates this one for his own reasons, which we’ll discuss later on. And anyway, “The Masterpiece Society” actually does something rather interesting with the “It’s just TOS with nicer paint” brief: Typically with a story like this you’d expect the triumvirate roles to get pigeonholed onto the usual suspects-Kirk’s role would be filled by either Captain Picard or Commander Riker, rarely both, Spock’s part would go to Data and Doctor Crusher would fill in for the impassioned Bones McCoy, unless Worf or Commander Riker already has. Meanwhile, nobody gives a shit about Geordi, Laren (unless the episode is about her), Beverly (if she isn’t given a triumvirate position) or Deanna (unless the episode is going out of its way to mock her).
What “The Masterpiece Society” does though is really unorthodox by the standards of lazy plug-in-the-numbers stock TOS stories: The Kirk figure’s role, that of the person who falls in love with a prominent local authority and gets emotionally invested to the point their judgment is clouded, falls to Deanna, while the voice-of-reason Spock role gets absorbed into Captain Picard’s part, which both includes it and is something far more (as he still has to shoulder the brunt of the philosophical dilemma and decision making). Meanwhile Data is practically missing in action, which he almost *never* is, while the overwhelming majority of the episode’s ethical teeth go to Geordi. And Geordi is something special to watch here: Sure, it’s not like he has a huge task in front of him going up against an engineered society of eugenicists, they basically line themselves up to get knocked down. But even above and beyond that he gets a number of truly devastating bits where he icily rebuffs Hannah’s flagrant abelism with what have got to be some of the best words ever penned to combat it.
The exchanges in question,
“It was the wish of our founders that no one have to suffer a life of disabilities.”“Who gave them the right to decide whether or not I might have something to contribute?”
“Oh, that’s perfect.”“What?”“If the answer to all of this is in a VISOR created for a blind man who never would have existed in your society.”
were obviously intended to critique the Moab’s practice of eugenics, but in the context of their scenes, and particularly thanks to LeVar Burton’s delivery, they also serve as a powerful, and irrefutable, response to those who would argue disabled people are deserving of pity, lack self-worth or are somehow unable to live a full and fulfilling existence. It’s a side of LeVar we’ve never really seen before, and he’s unbelievably good at it. Seriously-This is probably the single best moment for Geordi as a character pertaining to his blindness we’ve seen so far, if not in the entire series. If Michael Piller had wanted to do an actual, legitimate story about blindness in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s utopian setting (not that piece of shit “The Loss”) this is the exact groundwork for going about doing that.
Speaking of the Moabs’ eugenics-based society, I have to wonder, especially so soon after “Violations”, whether or not this was intended as a response to that omnipresent bugbear bit of uninformed criticism of Star Trek: The Next Generation-That it’s aristocratic and elitist. Here we *really do* find a society that’s been meticulously engineered to be perfect and free of any perceived “flaws”or “defects”, and it’s just about the most horrific thing ever. Pretty much no-one on the Enterprise can contain their disgust and contempt for the Moabs and what they’ve done except for Data, who can’t feel, and Deanna, who is a problem this week. Again. I’d say her character is being assassinated by the way she behaves in this story if I thought she had any character left to assassinate by this point. Even among her dubious track record to date, falling in love with the leader of a eugenics cult and romanticizing the lifestyle they’ve created has got to be near the top of the list. Honestly, poor Deanna Troi is so far gone and so problematic five years in it would be honestly better if the writers just threw everything about her into the dustbin and started anew from scratch. Which, incidentally, they do start of make overtures to doing in a few weeks. The only place she works and displays any manner of consistent characterization is the comics.
(This is also the root of my beef with Ron Moore and director Winrich Kolbe’s criticisms of “The Masterpiece Society”: Kolbe thinks the fact the Moabs are “too perfect” makes them boring and tows the usual Interpersonal Drama Is God party line, which is still bullshit in my estimation, while Moore says the episode is boring essentially because it involves Deanna and a romance plot. Which is, well, pretty hurtful.)
On the other hand, the Enterprise crew’s response to the Moabs’ society is also this episode’s crippling flaw. Because it ends on that hoary old TOS Garden of Eden moral H-bomb: The Moabs have lost their innocence through interacting with the Enterprise crew, the only reason the Prime Directive doesn’t apply is because they’re human and isn’t it all so sad. Two weeks in a row now we’ve had a final act completely torpedo and undo the ethical position of the rest of the episode, because this isn’t a tragedy in the slightest. That society absolutely needed to be undone, because it was morally and ethically repugnant and reprehensible at basically every conceivable level. On top of coming out in favour of eugenics, “The Masterpiece Society” also manages to tell us that reactionary, insular, xenophobic fundamentalist cults are a Good Thing and talking to people from other cultures and other ways of life is dangerous and will ultimately lead us down a path of ruination that will bring about the collapse of society.
And that, actually, might be single most antithetical thing to Star Trek as has ever been said.
July 17, 2015 @ 12:31 am
I actually always interpreted the ending as the Enterprise crew feeling a kind of sympathy for the Moab, even after all their bullshit. For reasons of official tact and Federation diplomacy, they have to express some kind of sadness to the Moab that their culture was so fragile that even some brief contact with outsiders irreparably contaminated their "perfect" genome.
Geordi's storyline set the context for my understanding of the crew's reaction. The episode and narrative has already decided that the Moab are unethically elitist and dickish because of their eugenic morality and worship of an ableist, heteronormative, white concept of perfection. Most of the crew are implicitly glad that the Moab's ridiculous is over and they can grow up and accept the value of diversity. At most, the crew feels genuinely sorry that their dream is dead because these are still people and it's sad to see anyone's dream die. But it also carries an implicit tone that reminds me of when Jerry Seinfeld used to say, "Wellllll, that's a shame."
Last summer, I filled in teaching a moral philosophy class for a professor friend of mine. One of the students was in a wheelchair with spina bifida, and she was one of the best students, extremely confident and articulate. They had been studying Peter Singer's work in some of the earlier sessions, and she was already familiar with Singer's ideas about disability ethics. She rightly found them repugnant, because they were essentially the same as the Moab: differently abled people, whether blind, paraplegic, or what have you, were objects of pity whose life wasn't worth living because it couldn't have the same quality as someone whose body worked "as it was supposed to" (sarcastic brackets). She had the same reaction to this philosophy as Geordi did, though she articulated it much more directly, with "Fuck that."
July 17, 2015 @ 1:18 pm
The Geordi bits are actually the only ones I really remembered and loved, though I have at least a tacit remembrance of thinking "Boy, every single time Deanna tries a conquest-of-the-week she picks an asshole."
Riker always gets a sympathetic or strong female one-night stand, but Deanna always gets preyed upon by some ruthless jackass. She must be some great empath.
July 17, 2015 @ 1:21 pm
My inclination is to interpret the ending as a reminder that the Moab are not just the villains in this story, but also the victims.
July 23, 2015 @ 9:08 pm
"Meanwhile, nobody gives a shit about Geordi, Laren (unless the episode is about her), Beverly (if she isn't given a triumvirate position) or Deanna (unless the episode is going out of its way to mock her)."
I have little or almost no memory about this – apart from maybe a bit of Geordi's section, which I do recall was great. As you say above, too little of him and it os outrageous how Deanna gets treated by writers. I understand now as a young kid, how I found it difficult to engage with her character at times – it was because often the writers simply seemed not to care for her.