Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season 5 Episode 13

The Masterpiece Society

Aired Unknown Feb 10, 1992 on CBS

Episode Fan Reviews (7)

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  • Okay, Hannah's "multi-phase tractor beam" was very clever. Clearly, these are smart people; they just haven't had a reason to be smart.

    I'm not sure human beings are designed to appreciate Utopia. At least, not the sort of Utopia we can create ourselves. It always bothers me in The Matrix when Agent Smith talks about people "rejecting" a perfect world. I think we flatter ourselves by pretending that we're too driven and clever to be satisfied with a computer generated heaven; I doubt it would be that difficult to provide us with some simulacrum that would satisfy our pleasure centers and scratch whatever itch we have to achieve. But the machines would have to be the ones in charge. A human-run Utopia, to me, isn't really possible, because it would require every person involved to always be acting with the best interests of everyone else in mind. Individual people can, by turns, be noble, sacrificing, and trustworthy. They can also be selfish, short-sighted, and cruel. While it would be nice to believe that an environment without negative influences would prevent these characteristics from arising, I'm not sure I believe it. Of course, "The Masterpiece Society" tries to make a case otherwise, but then, that's not really surprising coming from TNG. This has always been a show built on idealism, as much as any show can be. Admittedly, life can't be perfect for the crew of the Enterprise and the universe they inhabit, because then we'd have no drama, and that would make for a fairly boring series. But TNG delivers us a version of the future in which nearly all our current major crises have been resolved, where, so far as we can tell, there's no class struggle, no poverty, and no discrimination of any kind. Sure, it's not exact, and maybe I'm being too cynical by not believing humanity would be capable of getting even this much perfection out of its government. But I'm almost reflexively more interested in the show when it tries to show the impossibilities of ever maintaining a life of complete harmony when dealing with multiple cultures over multiple worlds. Life is not designed to ever be perfectly satisfied, at least not for very long; perfect satisfaction is perfect rest, and perfect rest is death.

    "Society" doesn't quite confirm this; before the Enterprise shows up, the group of bred and perfect humans living in isolation on Moab IV seem to be in perfect harmony, and it's only the reminder that there are other worlds than these that gets everybody riled up. In fact, large parts of "Society" are dedicated to giving as true a sense of loss as possible to the community's dissolution. But that society is by far the least interesting element here. It's as blandly generic as nearly all attempts to portray group perfection are, because the ideas here are more important than the individuals. We're dealing with the Prime Directive again, and the tricky ground our heroes walk on whenever they interact with strangers, even if they aren't violating their own rules, even when they have the best of intentions. Also we're dealing with Troi apparently failing in love with yet another stranger within five minutes of meeting him, but that's a bit less heady.

    Speaking of heady, I should probably get to the plot here: The Enterprise is following a core fragment of a neutron star, to study it and to warn any inhabited planets it might disrupt. To the crew members' surprise, they discover a colony of humans on Moab IV, a supposedly uninhabited planet in the Moab Sector, but when they contact the society to warn them of what's coming, and to offer their assistance in evacuating the locals, they're met with polite, but firm, dismissal. Aaron Conor, the colony's leader, explains that they are a society designed to live in perfect balance with their environment and each other, and that any change, no matter how slight, would result in chaos. But that core fragment isn't something you can exactly ignore, and Conor is so impressed by the idea of matter-energy transport that he invites a few crew-members down from the ship to talk things over with the society's scientists. Once Riker, Troi, and Geordi arrive, Conor explains the situation a bit more clearly. He and the rest of his people are the result of a centuries old selective breeding process which... yeah, that's right. "Selective breeding." Which means Eugenics, and while there are rational ways to discuss this, it's hard not to be uncomfortable at how, well, happy everybody here is that they were designed at birth to fit specific roles. "Masterpiece" largely gets around the moral dilemma by making sure the people who initiated this colony are all long dead; this is the only life Conor and the others have known, and no one objects to it. One of the primary arguments against eugenics is that it takes away the individual's right to procreate and lets a select group decide which qualities are "desirable" and which are "undesirable" to reproduce. Here, that argument is somewhat moot, since it doesn't seem like there are any "undesirable" traits left to "purge." Apart from blindness or other physical defects, I guess.

    Still, it's a queasy concept, and the more I think about this episode, the more surprised I am that it asks us to take that concept at face value. Much of the dramatic weight here comes from the idea that the chaos the Moabians are thrown into is as much a bad thing as it is a good one, and that means believing that something beautiful and irreplaceable is lost once Troi and Geordi and the others work their inadvertent influence. This is a bit like "The Apple" from the original series, but here, instead of Kirk deciding it's his duty to destroy Eden, Picard and Troi are distraught over what's happening, and regret their interference even while understanding it was inevitable. Sure, there are some important differences: the natives in "Apple" were essentially kept in thrall to a super computer, while the folks in "Society" are as autonomous as their biology and circumstance allow. But there's still that sense of innocence being lost.

    Really, though, we don't see anything here that seems all that singular. We're told over and over again how balanced the group's life is, how everyone fits exactly where they belong, but for the little time the episode spends on the planet, there's no evidence of anything much better than what we've come to expect in the Federation. After spending four-plus seasons being told how wonderful the future will be for humanity, to stumble across a small pocket of humans who are supposedly living even better lives is a stretch to buy into. No one experiences any career doubt? Well, that's nice, but the advancements we see on the planet aren't particularly significant, largely because advancement comes out of a response to crisis. If everything's fine, people might putter about a bit, but there's no real reason for them to push outward. I mean, these are supposedly the pinnacles of human mental ability, bred to achieve ultimate potential, but they're astonished by technology that existed in the original Star Trek. These folks have stagnated.

    I suppose you could make an argument that progress isn't necessarily the pinnacle of human existence and that the Moabians have some kind of inner peace going that outstrips a "normal" life, but that's more implied than explained here. One of the things I enjoy about TNG this far into its run is that when it fails, it nearly always fails because it's trying to work with too many ideas at once. "Masterpiece" raises a lot of questions, but it doesn't really do justice to any of them. The first, most obvious problem, is that we aren't given much of a reason to regret the colony's woes. Judging by Troi and Picard's response, there should be a sense of loss here, but it mostly just seems like a bunch of bland people are being forced to be a little less bland. People leave home all the time. It's different here, though, we're told over and over, because the community is so well designed that it can't bear the loss of a few of its members. That seems like a bit of design flaw to me. On the one hand, it does ensure that everyone feels valued, which is one of the main factors in social disenfranchisement. But on the other, there's too much telling here, and not really a sense of what Conor means when he says the loss of Hannah and the others will wreck the place. Does he mean general dissatisfaction? Food shortages? Riots? Will someone else have to learn how to play the piano? We need stakes here, in order to make the conflict actually feel two-sided. Our natural impulse is to side with the folks who want to leave, because they want to ride in a space ship, and because whenever we see someone being potentially held against their will, unless that someone is a bad person, we want them to escape. If there'd been a clearer sense of the problems that would arise when Hannah's people got their wish or the dangers that awaited them, Conor's point would be easier to sympathize with. As it is, he just comes off as whiny. As does Troi, with her horrible guilt over her three-day infatuation or however long that lasts. She blames herself for getting involved with Conor, when their romance is about as passionate and exciting as a Sesame Street Valentines card. Picard is equally distressed over what's happened, although at least he seems to understand that the change is most likely inevitable at this point. Out of our regular cast, only Geordi seems truly bothered by what the society represents, and what their genetic manipulations and restrictions truly mean. In a bizarre capper, Riker and Picard discuss what happened, and Picard refers to the Prime Directive, and how events of the episode reminded him of the importance of that restriction. Riker says, "But they were human," which is an odd, uncomfortable point to make; if there were human cultures on other planets which existed independently of our own, wouldn't they fail under the same rules? And then Picard once again bemoans the Moabians' dissolution. For once, the captain's usually unshakable moral authority is curiously absent. There was a nice house, and then some people left it, and if there's a loss in that, the gain far exceeds the cost. If Utopia requires you to spend your life indoors, I, frankly, don't see much use in it.