Star Trek TNG Review: The Masterpiece Society

You never really look for something till you need it.”

Star Trek

It appears that CBS Action (one of those free Sky channels hiding way down on the channel list that only ever shows reruns) is screening old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, which is an interesting fact to file away for future reference, and also handy when you’ve got a spare TV hour to kill before Masterchef. TNG-wise, I think I’ve only seen a couple of the films, and what really struck me about this episode was how similar TNG is to TOS superficially, but how much more complex it is ideologically.

Some context for the episode would probably be useful before I go on. The Masterpiece Society sees the crew of the Enterprise making contact with a genetically engineered society whose planet is threatened by an approaching piece of solar debris. They are unwilling to allow anyone in or out of their sealed biosphere, on the basis that any slight change could disturb their genetically balanced environment. So there is a dilemma: save the people and destroy their society, or let both be annihilated by space debris.

What’s interesting about The Masterpiece Society is that it’s less a plotted narrative than an exploration of a situation. Sure, there’s a little bit of the rather overdone romantic intrigue that plagues Star Trek, but here it feels rather less gratuitous than such interludes do in TOS: it stands as a furthering of the script’s project, which is to think about the intrusion of the Enterprise‘s progressive, exploratory ethic into the perfect yet stagnant society inside the biosphere.

It might be surprising that a show with such an unashamedly scientific outlook – there are whole scenes in The Masterpiece Society during which an engineer converses with one of the colony’s scientists in technobabble – seems routinely so squicked out by scientific advancement (see The Changeling, in which Robots are Bad, or I, Mudd, in which Androids are Bad), but it’s clear that in this episode at least the issue is precisely not science; or, to be more exact, the issue is treating science as it was never supposed to be treated. “They’ve taken a dubious scientific experiment and turned it into dogma,” says Picard angrily at one point: that is, the colonists, while acting out a seemingly scientific utopia, have forgotten the rigorous processes of questioning and testing that make science what it is and by doing so have turned science into religion.

Interestingly enough, there are clear Edenic subtexts to this: “We were innocent. We will not be so again,” says one of the colony’s scientists after the Enterprise‘s interference. It’s worth stopping to think about this because, although the show clearly doesn’t want us to find the biosphere society appealing, it is willing to consider alternative reactions to it – something that, to my memory, TOS never managed to do. The invocation of the old innocence/experience dichotomy suggests that there is perhaps something appealing about the semi-religious way of life the colonists experience, at the same time as rendering that religious, unsceptical mindset obsolete. It’s a much more nuanced look at anxieties regarding scientific advancement than Captain Kirk’s red-blooded American approach, which makes it that much more interesting as an exploratory rather than narrative episode.

Which is not to say that The Masterpiece Society is entirely perfect: the exploratory format is dull at times, with no real narrative tension, and the pseudo-scientific reasons cited at every possible juncture can get irritating (because they are mainly nonsense). But it’s good enough to watch again, and certainly better than some of what’s on the main channels at the moment.

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