Monday, November 14, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: The Masterpiece Society

The Next Generation, Season 5
"The Masterpiece Society"
Airdate: February 10, 1992
112 of 176 produced
112 of 176 aired


The Enterprise is tracking a stellar core fragment and finds that its course threatens a previously unknown colony. The colony is made up genetically engineered humans who have forsaken outside contact for fear it will contaminate the delicately balanced world they have built. The gravitational forces of the passing fragment will destroy the colony unless a way can be found to alter its course, a seemingly impossible task. Will the Enterprise be able to save these people? Even if they do, will their world ever be the same?
It must have been the genetically engineered ultra-wide shoulders that put Aron Conor over the top...


Kevin: We get two pretty nifty science fiction ideas in this episode. First, we get an exploration of a genetically engineered society. I enjoyed a lot of what they explored, but I don't think they did enough with it. I like the idea that genetically engineering people would go hand in hand with engineering society. I also liked that they explored a different pitfall than the one seen in the story of Khan. The risk of genetic engineering is not just creating a race of super-ambitious supermen, but so specializing your society that it can't respond to the unexpected. Their perfection made them stagnant and fragile. I will say it didn't make sense the colony couldn't just be resettled. The entire structure is described as self-contained. Why should it matter which inhospitable rock it's situated on?

Matthew: Well, I think this is not only a story about genetic engineering, but about Biospheres. Biosphere 2, which had been completed at around the time of this show's writing and production, was big news, and a big concept in contemporary science. Could a closed environment actually thrive? Every plant, insect, human, and microbe was essential to the Biosphere's survival. And indeed, the human element of that real project proved to be inimical to the project's success just as well as biological problems. So I did not have a hard time believing that a small imbalance could have wide-ranging repercussions, without implying that the society is a dead one. Also, this was a colony of several thousand people in such a precarious balance. It didn't seem crazy to me at all that the structure could not be moved, nor could the entire population, before the core fragment made its way through the system. As far as the genetic engineering stuff went, I would have liked a tad more detail. Did they plan couplings? Use in vitro fertilization? Educate children only in one subject area? Is their economy centrally planned as well?

Kevin: The other angle is the rights and responsibilities of the individual versus their obligation to society. On some issues, I respond to the idea of the individual setting aside their own desires for the good of society, like in the case of vaccinations. An individual choosing to forgo a vaccination reduces the herd immunity effect and imperils the people who can't take the vaccine. On the other hand, does an individual have a similar obligation to a culture? I liked how they focused on Hannah and her realization that her perfect life was holding her back. I also liked watching Picard wrestle with his Prime Directive sensibilities versus his normal desire to see the will of an individual honored. My only problem with this aspect is that the society as displayed seem so atrophied that I wasn't terribly invested in their continuation.

Matthew: I agree that some greater representation of the benefits of their colony would have helped muddy the waters of the moral dilemma. It seemed a bit one note as written. But the scenes you mention, especially between Picard and Troi, were really, really good. The ethical theme was well developed, and Picard ends up coming down on the side of individual liberty, despite showing worry over the health of the society. It's a nice, subtle moral stance, that doesn't over simplify or dumb things down too much.

Kevin: My only major problem with the episode was one of pacing. Too much of the dialogue was Geordi and Hannah hashing out the tractor problem or Troi and Connor having a sonorous conversation over a piano sonata. It doesn't derail the episode, but it does defuse some of the tension. I enjoyed the ideas the episode present, but the action never really grabbed me.

Matthew: I wish the romance elements would have been played up more. I don't mean in terms of melodrama, but in terms of real human nature. Trust me - if you grew up in a small town of a few thousand that never saw any visitors, and then 50 svelte, attractive, intelligent 20 to 30 year-olds just popped in for a visit, there would be a lot more knocking boots than just Troi and Conor. Geordi totally should have gotten busy with Hannah Bates. We could have had the delicious irony of Martin railing against race-mixing. It would have raised the stakes a bit, and addressed any pacing issues you might have had (I didn't share them, for what it's worth).


Kevin: The guest cast was pretty good. Dey Young handled the technobabble really well and her scenes with Geordi were pretty good. I bought her tension and angst when dealing with Connor. She seemed firm, but sad at the situation. Connor, who also played Bokra in Enemy Mine, did a pretty good job. I bought his concern and his rapport with Troi; I just found him a little on the dull side. Ron Canada did his usual efficient job of being an officious jerk.

Matthew: Indeed, all three guest stars were quite good. I did kind of wonder about Conor's wispy accent, compared to everyone else on the colony. But each actor animated their role, and gave their characters the appearance of being real people with real motives, concerns, hopes, and fears. Compare this episode to another genetic colony show, "Up The Long Ladder," and you can see the difference in both writing and level of guest cast.

Kevin: I thought Marina Sirtis seemed half asleep this episode. Maybe it was the writing or the directing, but she seemed lower energy this episode than in other outings. Not bad, just low-key. Patrick Stewart did his usual competent job of portraying moral dilemma. I liked his overt distaste at the idea of having his life planned for him.

Matthew: Again, I feel like we're watching two different episodes here. Sirtis really did it for me. Her understatement was a nice tone for the story. I loved how she was conflicted about her romance with Conor. I loved the little undertone she had with Frakes, with him gracefully beaming away before becoming a cock-blocker. I loved her scene with Picard, owning up to her mistake.

Production Values

Kevin: All of the colony seemed to be made up of common areas. I would have loved some houses. It would have given the place some depth. As is, it seemed like the courtyard of a medical profession complex in southern California. Hannah's lab was pretty lab-like, but otherwise unremarkable.

Matthew: I can agree with the relative drabness of the biosphere, but there was something about the lab that really did it for me. There were a series of really interesting Okudagrams on the walls, done in a completely different style than the Enterprise aesthetic. It's like seeing a computer operating system from decades ago, comparatively. Then, there were sets of tables and chair all along the wall. It's the sort of thing that doesn't need to be there, but is, and makes things feel real and lived in.

Kevin: The stellar core fragment was uninspired, but I did enjoy the doodad showing the mock-up of the tractor pulses. I will add I liked the civilian-wear this time around. The single color sweaters and turtlenecks gave a common thread to the colonists and looked like real clothes.

Matthew: I actually really liked the stellar core fragment. It looked like a real thing, and the glow was really nice. I liked the composition of the shot with the Enterprise in frame following its course. I also noted the not-dumb-looking civilian wear. Would I want to wear it? No. But does it look like a real set and style of clothing that an actual culture would not feel stupid in? Yes. The repulsor model was a re-use of Wesley's toy from "The Naked Now."


Kevin: This is a 3 for me. There are some interesting ideas that get some interesting discussion, but the slow pacing and low energy hold it back from a higher rating.

Matthew: I think this is a 4. It introduced and developed interesting themes of genetic destiny vs. free will, individual liberty vs. collective duty, and sexual responsibility. It wasn't perfect, and I think some more stakes could have been raised. But It was highly enjoyable in my book. That makes a 7 overall.


  1. This makes me feel old, but I actually visited Biosphere 2 while it was still active, but I'm pretty sure no one was sealed in at the time. Based on my search of Wikipedia, it looks like I was probably there during a transition period, right before a set of scientists was closed in. I have a lot of logistical problems with this episode, but it's interesting and thought-provoking.

  2. I get what you're saying about the delicate balance of a Bioshpere-type set-up, but the idea there is to test the long-term viability of a truly isolated setting with no outside help. That's not quite the case here. A small, temporary imbalance caused by moving the building lock, stock, and barrel can be offset by the functionally limitless resources of the Enterprise. There's "delicate equilibrium," then there's "no coping skills." Maybe had they played up the culture angle a little harder, more like the Native Americans on Dorvan V in "Journey's End," where the bond is a psychological one, where even knowing intellectually that they are somewhere else is too traumatizing to contemplate, regardless of the physical similarities of their new arrangement.

    Their need to keep everything in perfect stasis just didn't read as credible or interesting as it should have. They're all "We can't move. This is the only place in the universe we can exist." And I'd be like "Dude, you live in a post-industrial mall's food court. It'll be okay. We'll build you a new one just like it. We're the Federation. It's what we do."

  3. The piano sonata was a bit slow and tired, but I thought it was artistically poignant it was a slow and fairly emotionless performance of a very emotional piece being performed by someone presumably bred to be a "perfect" musician.

    Maybe I'm giving too much credit to that scene and it was just a crummy uninspired piano recital by some kid that they filmed, but it's what I took away from it, kind of showing the limits of the society that wouldn't know the desperate emotions associated with a romantic piano piece.

    1. I think this is a nice insight. I could see it both ways, but I kind of like the gloss you've put on it.

  4. Urgh. I am really tired of all this doom and gloom bullshit talk and fears about how machines and genetic engineering and cloning etc will take over one day and turn us into some kind of a Terminator-like dystopia putting an end to our beautiful humanity blah blah blah. It is talk like that and the culture of fear that such talk has created, that has put a halt to meaningful genetic research and ultimately finding cures for countless horrific diseases. All these laws governing stem cell research, (human) cloning and even GMOs, the latter of which is opposed by the same idiots who oppose vaccination, have been nothing but an impediment to progress.

    Star Trek is littered with this negative attitude toward genetic engineering and the - unfounded if I may dare say so - assumptions about the alleged perils and liabilities associated with genetically modified organisms.

    From TOS to ENT - across the board, genetic engineering is depicted in this negative light. From the Eugenics wars and Khan and his army of augments creating havoc and wars, to DS9 where we were given this lecture about the alleged horrible consequences of genetically engineered humans on Federation societies - to the point where genetically altering humans was outlawed and a father who had his mentally incapacitated child genetically altered, had to go to jail for it, we have seen it happen.

    And we saw it in Enterprise, too, with the augments who were these brilliant, yet ruthless killer machines seeking world domination and thinking they are better.

    I mean, wtf? Who said it had to be this way?

    A lot of the things we see depicted in this episode about GE are projections of our own fears of what might happen. And other than unfounded paranoia governing these fear, there is very little based in actual facts. The people here are shown to be rigid, unable to adapt or survive or even learn and grow beyond their "programming" if you so will and the whole time I kept wondering" why?" What basis do we have to assume that genetically engineered people will be like that?

    Why cant someone who has been modified to be a brilliant scientist or musician not also be anything else? Or capable to adapt and adjust? Who said that genetically changing someone had to result in them being stagnant and fragile?

    Why should said kid from the above mentioned comment be a passionless automaton whose humanity and passion is lost after his genes were altered to play the piano better?

    I guess what im trying to say is that a lot of the fears people associate with GE are unfounded and, to some extent, fueled by superstition almost and doomsday scenarios as depicted in pop culture and movies in general.

    Like the whole disabilities part with Gordi: he is blind and we should accommodate people with disabilities, but come on, are you telling me that if we had a chance to remove a gene for, say, blindness, deafness, or any other handicap or disease, we wouldn't and we shouldn't?

    We put up with disability cause, quite frankly, we got no other choice. But it is not desirable. No parent ever thinks "oh gee, I so want a disabled child, it will make him that much more interesting."

    Yes, with every technology comes the potential for abuse. But so what? We cannot sit tight and red tape GE into inertia and essentially do nothing, not move forward, not advance, out of fear that what we find may potentially land in the wrong hands and lead to our demise. That is such nonsense and it really upsets me that Star Trek, which is otherwise so enlightened, has fallen for the anti GE propaganda.

    1. I agree that the "pro" side was given somewhat short shrift here. Though, with that said, this is the most benign portrayal of genetic engineering in Trek - no remorseless killers on Moab IV. Really, the main thrust of the "con" argument was simply Picard's distaste.

    2. I understand. They didn't make them out to be monsters or anything. However, there is this negative undertone accompanying all GE - not just in this episode but all throughout Trek - with variation.