Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “The Masterpiece Society”

“The Masterpiece Society”
Written by James Kahn and Adam Belanoff and Michael Piller
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Season 5, Episode 13
Production episode 40275-213
Original air date: February 10, 1992
Stardate: 45470.1

Captain’s Log: The Enterprise is tracking a stellar core fragment through the Moab system. Moab IV is in the path of the fragment—which was expected. What isn’t expected is that there are people on that world. There are artificial structures on the planet, with a defensive shield protecting them, but they’re not responding to hails. However, La Forge notices that they use low-band subspace frequencies of a type used in the past. Worf tries hailing them on the lower bands, and gets through—but their response to the hail is to increase power to their shield.

Picard goes ahead and warns them about the core fragment. To that, they respond. They turn out to be human, and the reason why the Enterprise didn’t know there was a human colony here is because they don’t wish to interact with outsiders.

There is some disagreement about how to proceed, as the colony refuses to evacuate. When the colony leader, Aaron Conor, says that he can’t leave the biosphere, as it’s a sealed environment, he is surprised to learn that the Enterprise has the ability to transport matter over distances. Picard offers to beam Conor up, but he isn’t comfortable with leaving the biosphere, but he allows a small delegation from the Enterprise to beam down.

A man has been pacing agitatedly behind Conor the whole time, and he practically busts a gasket when Conor allows them to beam down. This is Martin Benbeck, Conor’s security chief (he’s called an interpreter of the law, but it boils down to security chief). When Riker, Troi, and La Forge beam down, Conor is impressed, but Benbeck is apprehensive.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

Conor explains that the colony was genetically engineered. Each person is bred for a specific purpose. Conor’s job is what he was literally born for. They’re a part of their environment, they can’t separate themselves from it without catastrophic damage. But then there’s the catastrophic damage the core fragment will cause…

Troi promises to do what they can to preserve what they’ve built for two centuries.

Conor brings them to Hannah Bates, their best scientist. La Forge stays with her to work out scenarios for saving the planet. Troi also stays to see more of the world, so Riker beams back alone.

Bates and La Forge spitball ideas. Bates shows La Forge her schematics for a multiphase tractor beam. The colony can’t create one, they don’t have the power—but the Enterprise can. Over the extremely loud objections of Benbeck, Bates beams back to the ship with La Forge and Troi to implement the plan.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

Picard and Troi discuss the situation a couple of days later. Troi is not convinced that everyone will leave, that many would rather die than leave their home. Picard pisses and moans about genetic engineering, sneeringly calling it a bad idea whose time has passed. He also asks Troi to convince Conor that evacuation is the best course of action if La Forge and Bates can’t divert the fragment—if he believes it, and he’s as good a leader as he was designed to be, others should follow.

Meanwhile, Bates and La Forge have met with no luck. During a break, La Forge takes his VISOR off. He explains how it works—after snarking off at her over the fact that he’d never have been allowed to be born on her world—and then realizes that the same technology that keeps La Forge from experiencing sensory overload from all the inputs from his VISOR can be adapted to make the tractor beam work. (He also comments on the irony of the solution to the planet’s problems coming from technology that only exists because of something that’s been bred out of her world.)

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

On the planet, Troi joins Conor for a lovely piano recital, which is interrupted by a tremor: the first signs of the core fragment’s approach. Knowing it’s a simplistic question, Troi asks if there’s any way to re-engineer their society elsewhere. Conor comes back with “Humpty Dumpty,” an apt metaphor.

La Forge and Bates show off their idea to Picard and Riker. The increase in tractor beam power still won’t be enough to move the core fragment as far as they’d like, but if they combine that with a reinforcing of the biosphere’s defenses, they should weather it. They get Conor’s very reluctant permission to let fifty engineers down to install five new shield generators to reinforce the structure.

The Enterprise moves to divert the fragment. The tractor beam requires all the power the ship has to give, but they make it to a 1.2-degree course correction, which will just be enough, along with the shield reinforcements on the planet.

When Conor thanks them, he tells Bates that he’s looking forward to lavishing praise and rewards upon her when she returns to the surface—which causes Bates to frown.

The Enterprise engineering crew help clean up the mess the tremors caused by the core fragment made. Riker and La Forge are still on the surface when an alarm rings: there’s damage to the biosphere, a microscopic crack in the wall. Bates isn’t sure she can fix it, and they may need to evacuate—but La Forge, once they’re alone, calls her bluff, as his VISOR didn’t pick up any damage.

Bates explains herself to La Forge: she’s supposed to be the finest scientific mind on her world, but the technology she’s seen on the Enterprise is almost beyond her comprehension. Why didn’t they invent any of that stuff? La Forge opines that maybe necessity really is the mother of invention.

Beaming back to the ship, La Forge brings Bates’s request for asylum to the senior staff, with Riker adding that she may not be the only one, as the engineering team got a lot of pointed questions about the universe outside the biosphere. They argue back and forth; Worf and La Forge both firmly on the side of granting asylum, Troi just as firmly against it, with Riker and Crusher both expressing concern for the future of the colony if anyone leaves.

Picard beams down with Troi to meet Conor. They find him with Benbeck, the latter berating Bates for wanting to leave. When Picard and Troi enter, Benbeck accuses Picard of causing all this and says they never should have answered the hail. Bates points out the fallacy of that logic, as if they’d done that, the colony would have been destroyed.

Conor and Picard talk alone. Conor tries to get Picard to just leave and deny the asylum requests, but Picard can’t just refuse people who want to leave. The pair of them urge Bates and the others who wish to leave not to make this decision rashly, to give them six months to see if the colony can adjust, but Bates is adamant. All six months will do is make everyone’s life miserable. She refuses to budge, and requests asylum. Conor sadly says that, if they decide to come back, they will be welcome.

Back on board, Riker tells Picard that twenty-three colonists came on board. Picard muses on how their presence was as destructive as the core fragment, and how this was a reminder of the importance of the Prime Directive. And yet, what else could they have done? They couldn’t just let the fragment destroy the colony, either.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: Bates and La Forge are able to adapt VISOR technology to make the former’s design for a multiphasic tractor beam work on the latter’s ship.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi starts out flirty with Conor, then it turns into a romance, which she breaks off the morning after. She confesses her indiscretion to Picard when she’s about to introduce them for the climactic discussion.

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf, ever the voice of blunt reason, sees no reason why they can’t grant asylum to the colonists.

In the Driver’s Seat: We see Ensign Gates briefly at conn at the beginning of the episode, but when the Enterprise has to divert the core fragment, it’s Ensign Felton back at the station.

No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Troi and Conor wind up smooching, and it’s implied that they spend the night together. Troi worries that her presence and his feelings for her are interfering with his ability to make rational decisions.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

I Believe I Said that: “My VISOR’s positronic scan would have detected the leak. Its molecular-pattern enhancer would pick up even the smallest crack.”

“The damn thing doesn’t miss much does it?”

La Forge’s VISOR catching Bates in a lie, and Bates grumbling about it.

Welcome Aboard: John Snyder returns as Conor, having played Centurion Bok’ra in “The Enemy,” while Ron Canada and Dey Young make their Trek debuts as Benbeck and Bates, respectively—both will return, the former on Deep Space Nine‘s “Rules of Engagement” and Voyager‘s “Juggernaut,” the latter on DS9‘s “A Simple Investigation” and Enterprise‘s “Two Days and Two Nights.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

Trivial Matters: Surprisingly, the episode makes absolutely no reference to the Eugenics Wars or to Khan Noonien Singh, usually a go-to reference for any story about the evils of genetic engineering in the Star Trek universe.

The piece being played at the piano recital is Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in E-minor (Op. 28 #4).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch on The Masterpiece Society

Make it So: “Genetic manipulation or not, nobody’s perfect.” Until this rewatch, I never realized that this is, basically, the exact same episode as “First Contact.” You’ve got a conflicted male leader trying to do what’s best for his people, a hard-liner of a male security chief who is permanently antagonistic, and a female scientist who thinks the Enterprise is awesome and doesn’t want to stay on the world, and leaves with the ship at the end.

The problem is: this is warmed-over “First Contact.” The conflict in that episode revolved around the need to rescue Riker and the choices that needed to be made by the Malcorians. Here, there is no real conflict, because every action that is taken is necessary to save the colony.

To make matters worse, every casting choice in this episode is worse than the one made in the like episode from the previous season. Ron Canada, a fine character actor, has never been good with nuance, and so his Benbeck has none of the courage of his convictions that Michael Ensign gave to the equally two-dimensional role of Krola. Dey Young is perfectly fine as Bates, but she can’t hold a candle to Carolyn Seymour, whose sense of wonder as Yale is palpable, unlike Young’s. (Though there’s a story to be written about a scientific project that puts Bates and Yale together…)

But the real problem with the episode is the disastrous casting of John Snyder—who was already established as being mediocre in “The Enemy“—being brought back to completely fail at the role of Aaron Conor. If ever a role needed someone with the gravitas and depth that George Coe brought to Chancellor Durken, it’s this, and Snyder blows it on every possible level. He’s an empty shirt, coming across more as a bland politician than someone genetically engineered to lead a colony.

There are some good ideas here, but ultimately it all rings hollow because there’s no choice here. Without the Enterprise‘s intervention, the colony would have been destroyed. Yes, twenty-three people leaving upsets the balance of the world, and will be problematic, but there’s at least a chance to recover from it. There’s no chance to recover from destruction. The episode sets up a dilemma that truly isn’t one, and manufactures a conflict mostly through Benbeck’s tiresome intransigence that is in no way convincing.

Picard’s lament at the end is, frankly, pathetic. Riker’s right, there’s no question that they did the right thing here. If ever an episode cried out for one of Data’s naïve-but-wise questions about the nature of humanity (hell, even a callback to “The Ensigns of Command,” where Data faced a similar situation), or for one of Worf’s blunt assessments (which we got a bit of in the observation lounge scene, but it was drowned out by Troi, Crusher, and Riker all worrying about the consequences to the colony), this is it.


Warp factor rating: 3

Keith R.A. DeCandido is just sittin’ here on the bench. Just sittin’ here on the Group W Bench…


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