Star Trek: The Next Generation re-watch – Season 7, Episode 17: Masks

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This is the first in what I hope to be a weekly series over the next few months. In the wake of the Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 disaster – the series has been withheld from fans outside of North America, if you somehow missed the news – I won’t be covering the show at all. Instead I’ll be writing up re-watches of some of my favourite episodes from Star Trek’s extensive back catalogue. This week we’re visiting The Next Generation’s final season to look at the episode Masks.

First up, a brief introduction to this format. I’m not calling these articles “reviews.” It wouldn’t be fair to do so because I’ve seen Masks – and all of the other episodes we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks – more times than I care to remember! This won’t just be a recap of the plot of the episode – I will be giving my thoughts and analysis as we go. But it can’t really be an objective “review,” strictly speaking.

The episode’s title card (from the remastered version).

Masks was one of the last episodes produced for The Next Generation before production shifted to Star Trek: Generations. At this stage we’ve been with the crew of the Enterprise-D for almost seven years and we know them well – so we think we know what to expect. Season 7 tried to shake things up at various points – like in Genesis where the crew all de-evolved! And Masks is kind of in a similar vein. We’ll see the ship transformed, and Data in particular will take on several different personalities.

Masks is one of those episodes that sticks in my mind. The Enterprise-D and her crew found themselves in many wacky and unpredictable situations over the years, but there’s something about the Aztec-inspired aesthetic that really makes what’s going on in Masks feel ancient and otherworldly. It’s a story that feels at home in the Star Trek franchise; the kind of episode no other sci-fi series would even attempt.

Picard and Troi examine a D’Arsay obelisk.

The episode is also a great one for Data actor Brent Spiner, who gets a chance to show off his range as an actor. There’s always seemed to be a disconnect between the character of Data and the personality of the man who plays the role! Data is cool and logical, but Brent Spiner has an almost chaotic energy to him, full of life and with a great sense of humour. Masks isn’t the only episode of Star Trek to give him more to do – look at his roles as Lore and as various members of the Soong family for more examples – but it’s certainly an episode that gives Spiner many opportunities to shake up his regular role.

Data is such a wonderful character, and his series-long quest to become more human saw him attempt to mimic a variety of different behaviours. At the beginning of Masks we see him taking an art class, learning to sculpt and to use his imagination. Because of the largely episodic nature of The Next Generation, even in Season 7 Data is still chasing his ambition of becoming human in much the same way as he had been earlier in the show’s run. The character saw evolution across the series as a whole, but moments like these at the beginning of Masks could sometimes feel like a reset, reinforcing Data’s android nature and showing how he doesn’t fully understand some element or other of what it means to be human.

Data learning about imagination at the beginning of the episode.

I wouldn’t try to argue that Masks is an especially important episode, either for The Next Generation or Star Trek as a whole. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t groundbreaking or transformative for the franchise in the way certain stories can be – it doesn’t introduce new characters, factions, or themes that would carry over to future projects, for example, nor is it a transformative event in the lives of any of the main characters.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun episode with an interesting premise. In a way, what we have in Masks is an examination of computer viruses and the major cultural and technological differences that exist between cultures. After encountering the D’Arsay archive inside of what appears to be a comet, it transmits its information to the Enterprise-D, but that computer code plays havoc with the ship’s systems – and with Data. Though this computer virus analogy isn’t the episode’s message or primary focus, it’s not a coincidence that a story like Masks was created at this time.

There’s a timely message about rogue computer software buried in Masks.

In 1994, when the episode was initially broadcast, home computing was growing exponentially. Along with the rise of the PC came fears of computer viruses, and antivirus software was becoming a big business. Though Masks mainly considers cultural themes within the story itself, I’d argue very strongly that the premise – disruptive or even malicious software being beamed to the Enterprise-D – is a reaction to the way the home computer market was shaping up at the time.

Computer viruses continue to plague systems today, of course, but with improvements in antivirus software and better computer education, the fears most folks have of viruses has diminished. In that sense, this aspect of Masks feels like a step back in time a quarter of a century – which it is, of course! The idea of rogue computer code harming – or in this case transforming – one’s computer was certainly a relevant concern at the time, though, and although it’s one that the episode doesn’t feature prominently it’s still an interesting aspect.

Riker, Data, and Geordi tried to make sense of the mysterious symbols that began appearing on the Enterprise-D’s computer screens.

Masks also looks at how we deal with cultures very different from our own, and how we need to be careful when interpreting history. Captain Picard is at his best in episodes like Masks, getting the chance to show off one of his real passions – history. Picard is well-placed to jump into the story and find a use for his skills, and is supported at various points by Riker, Troi, and perhaps the most unusual choice – Worf. One of Worf’s lines about the sun and moon proves crucial to unlocking the mystery of the archive, and while Captain Picard definitely needed others around him in these scenes, I’m not sure I’d have chosen Worf!

The struggle that Picard and the others had of trying to interpret an unfamiliar culture is one that historians and anthropologists have long dealt with. And to me, Masks is an example of Star Trek doing what it has always done: using a sci-fi lens to examine a real-world subject. Usually the stakes aren’t so high, of course, but putting a kind of ticking clock and threat in the background gave the story an impetus it would’ve otherwise lacked; had Picard and the crew simply been trying to learn about the D’Arsay symbols and characters out of curiosity, the story wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

Picard had to draw on his knowledge of history and anthropology to solve the mystery of the D’Arsay archive.

On the technical side of things, Masks was one of the first Star Trek episodes to use computer-generated imagery (CGI), using the new technology for the comet and D’Arsay archive. The remastered version, which is what you’ll find on blu-ray and streaming – didn’t preserve the original CGI model, recreating the archive from the ground up based on the original design. The DVD version, however, and other older copies (like VHS) do still have this piece of Star Trek’s history. You can also find images of the original CGI model online, of course.

A few times across The Next Generation, sped-up shots would be used to show Data working or moving faster than a human could. Out of everything present in Masks, this short sequence (which shows Data sculpting a treble clef in his art class) is perhaps the only part that feels dated in 2021. The rest of the episode’s effects hold up remarkably well, and the remastered CGI sequences look great even on a modern 4K display.

This shot of the Enterprise-D melting a comet with its phasers is pretty darn cool.

Many times across Star Trek’s long history there have been so-called “bottle shows.” These are episodes which primarily use existing sets and often don’t bring in many new characters or guest-stars, focusing on just the main cast. Though there was a set built for Masks – the temple, which would later be re-used in Deep Space Nine – the episode is mostly a bottle show, or perhaps a semi-bottle show! It focuses on a handful of characters, mostly re-uses existing Enterprise-D sets – with a few additions and changes to reflect the transformation the ship is undergoing – and feels like a very self-contained story in that respect.

Given Data’s prominent role, Brent Spiner is the star of Masks. And while we see elements of his portrayal of Lore in one of the personas that Data assumes, for the most part he makes each of the D’Arsay characters feel unique and distinctive. For an actor who spent most of The Next Generation’s run playing a very unemotional, unreactive character, I can quite understand why Brent Spiner would describe Masks as one of his biggest acting challenges on the show. I think he rises to the occasion and shows off a range that any actor would be proud of; making each persona feel separate despite only minor costuming changes is no mean feat, and he pulled it off very well. There was a risk, perhaps, that in order to differentiate each of the D’Arsay personas in such a short runtime each would have to be exaggerated to the point of pantomime caricature, but that didn’t happen in the final episode. That alone should be testament to Brent Spiner’s talents and hard work.

Data actor Brent Spiner had to take on several different personas in Masks.

There are a few lines from Masks that resonate with me from a mental health standpoint. Though the episode isn’t intended as an examination of mental illness, Data developing an android version of “multiple personalities,” as Troi puts it, does bring up some comparisons. When Data asks Geordi what it feels like to lose one’s mind is a line that very much struck a chord with me, not least because it’s a question I’ve asked myself (and doctors) in the past.

Data’s line as the episode draws to a close about feeling “empty” following the removal of the D’Arsay personalities likewise felt very relatable. It isn’t always easy to tell where the line is between one’s own personality and aspects of oneself that might be better characterised as manifestations of mental illness, and even the removal or lessening of a mental health symptom can, in some cases, bring with it a feeling of emptiness or of feeling incomplete. That’s definitely a second thing I find relatable – and I think it shows how stories which only touch on themes of mental health can still be impactful even if mental health isn’t the focus.

Data on Masaka’s throne.

The only real criticism I have of Masks is that its ending feels a little too quick – almost abrupt, really. After a slow buildup which sees the Enterprise-D progressively transformed to resemble the D’Arsay culture, Picard has a short conversation with Masaka, and then after a quick “woosh” everything is un-transformed and back to normal. A quick epilogue with Data and Picard in the ready-room closes the episode, and the final few minutes just feel a little rushed, especially considering the deliberately slow pacing of the rest of the episode.

Despite that, I enjoy Masks. It isn’t my all-time favourite episode of The Next Generation, but it’s one of those solid standalone stories that Star Trek does far fewer of since the move to serialised story arcs and shorter seasons. Masks shows off a different kind of science fiction with its slightly wacky concept of an archive transforming the ship into stone artefacts, but at the same time it’s a story that’s grounded in real-world parallels of history and anthropology. Brent Spiner puts in one of his finest performances, taking on a variety of personas that force him to step well outside of his normal bounds as Data.

So I hope this was a bit of fun. My objective at the moment is to remain connected to Star Trek and the Star Trek fan community but without providing any support or coverage of Discovery in light of the awful decision from ViacomCBS. Later this week I hope to look at an episode from Star Trek: Enterprise, and I already have dozens of other ideas for episode re-watches as we move through the holidays and into 2022.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is out now on blu-ray and DVD, and is available to stream on Netflix outside of the United States (at least for the time being). The Star Trek franchise – including The Next Generation and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Could Voyager’s Doctor appear in Star Trek: Discovery?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Star Trek: Voyager, and other iterations of the franchise.

Star Trek: Discovery’s premiere brought back Sarek, Spock’s father who had been first introduced in The Original Series. Season 2 saw Spock himself as well as Captain Pike and Number One make appearances, so Discovery is a series that has no qualms about reintroducing legacy characters. But its 23rd Century, pre-The Original Series setting precluded the use of most of Star Trek’s characters, as the bulk of the franchise’s 780+ episodes and films take place later in the timeline.

Discovery’s move forward in time should also mean that no legacy characters could have significant roles. After all, who could possibly still be alive more than eight centuries after the events of Star Trek: Picard? I can think of one character, but not in the way you might expect!

Voyager’s Doctor – or at least a version of him – could be alive in the 32nd Century.

As a hologram who doesn’t age, we could definitely argue that The Doctor – played by Robert Picardo for all seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager – might have survived this long. But that isn’t the angle I’m taking.

The 23rd episode of Season 4 of Star Trek: Voyager, Living Witness, takes place in the 31st Century. After the USS Voyager had an encounter with a species called the Kyrians in the 24th Century, some pieces of technology were left behind, including a backup copy of The Doctor. Reawakened in the 31st Century, he stayed with the Kyrians for a number of years, righting the wrongs in their historical records about Voyager and its crew.

The episode is interesting in itself, and well worth a watch, but from our point of view today what I want to consider is the episode’s ending. After living with the Kyrians for years – perhaps decades – The Doctor took one of their ships and left the planet, hoping to retrace Voyager’s path and return to the Alpha Quadrant.

A photo of The Doctor in a museum at the end of Living Witness.

We know from later seasons of Voyager that it only took them another three years or so after leaving Kyrian space to make it home – though that did involve the use of the Borg transwarp network, among other helping hands – so the journey is definitely achievable. The Doctor, unlike us mere humans, doesn’t need food or any other supplies personally, so as long as his ship was functional, even if it took him decades he would have been able to make it back to Federation space – and if it took him several decades, the timeline starts to line up for a crossover with Discovery.

One thing that I’m cautiously interested in when it comes to Discovery’s third season is the potential to learn more about what happened to some of the characters we knew in other Star Trek shows. Perhaps we won’t learn the specifics of what happened to individuals, but we may learn broad strokes about what happened to their planets and cultures, and we could infer from that what may have happened to them. The series looks – if we take its trailer at face value – as if part of the story will be about restoring a declining or defeated Federation. Characters who originated in an era where the Federation was strong and just would be well-suited to that task, and they may find an unlikely ally in this version of The Doctor.

Restoring the Federation may be part of Discovery’s third season storyline.

On the production side of things, Star Trek has recently had great success bringing back Brent Spiner as Data and Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard. Spiner’s role as Data is a great comparison, because both Data and The Doctor are artificial, and thus not susceptible to ageing. Brent Spiner had said as early as the mid-2000s that he felt he’d “aged out” of the role of Data, yet the makeup and visual effects used in Star Trek: Picard worked very well. Obviously if you try to compare the way he looked earlier this year to the way he looked in 1987’s Encounter at Farpoint there’s a difference, but it’s not immersion-breaking. All this is to say that there’s no reason why Robert Picardo couldn’t reprise his role too.

Digital de-ageing effects have been used more and more often in recent years, even on television, and while the technology isn’t cheap, it shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive either. So that option would be viable for the team behind Star Trek as well.

But the big question is what kind of role The Doctor could play in a 32nd Century Discovery story.

Robert Picardo in a 2017 episode of Lucifer.

If I were writing it, the way I’d see him involved would be working alongside Burnham, Saru, and the crew of Discovery to restore the Federation. They’re looking at things from a 23rd Century viewpoint, but The Doctor could fill in more than a century’s worth of gaps in their knowledge. The Federation in the 24th Century is very similar to how it was in the 23rd in terms of morals and outlook, so I could absolutely see them working in common cause.

Rebuilding or reinvigorating the Federation is a noble task, and while I’ve documented my misgivings about Star Trek taking on a kind of post-apocalyptic setting previously, one way I think it could be made to work is if at the end of the season the Federation was back up and running. The Doctor could be invaluable to Discovery’s crew in accomplishing such a task, and with Data now permanently gone from the Star Trek universe, there aren’t many others who could still be around in this era.

The Doctor could help the crew of Discovery in the 32nd Century.

Perhaps after Season 2, which brought back several legacy characters for major roles, Discovery wants to stand on its own two feet again. Indeed, part of the reason for shifting the show’s timeline so far into the future is specifically because the producers and showrunners wanted to get away from the constraints of the 23rd Century – and the fan criticisms that came as a result of using that setting. So perhaps bringing back a legacy character in Season 3 isn’t on the agenda.

But The Doctor could still appear in Season 4 – and reports suggest that pre-production is underway on Discovery’s next adventure. While I think that The Doctor could be a good fit for a “rebuilding” type of storyline for the reasons already mentioned, if Season 4 takes the show in a different direction, perhaps that would be something more suited to his medical expertise, such as curing a disease. For all we know at this stage, a disease could be involved in damaging the Federation in this time period!

If not The Doctor, there are a few other characters who could – in theory – still be active in the 32nd Century. Let’s look at them briefly:

Number 1: Soji

Spoiler warning for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, but Soji is synthetic; an android. At the end of the season, Picard was told that his new synthetic body wouldn’t keep him alive for centuries, but there’s no reason Soji should have the same limitation. In many ways, Soji would make for a better crossover character than almost anyone else, as she’s a main character in an ongoing series. The crossover would thus be between two Star Trek shows that are currently in production, providing a link between them.

We could also add into the mix the other synths from Coppelius, including Sutra (aka Evil Soji) and even Dr Soong, if he was successful in creating himself a new synthetic body (and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have been).

Number 2: Lore

Lore was said to have been disassembled after his final appearance in The Next Generation, but we learned nothing of his fate after that. I speculated during Star Trek: Picard’s first season that Dr Maddox may have had access to Lore’s components while working on Soji and the other synths, but this was never confirmed on screen. It’s at least possible that Lore survived in disassembled form until the 32nd Century.

However, with Star Trek having gone out of its way to write Data out of the franchise, and to give Brent Spiner a new character in Dr Soong, I think any re-emergence of Lore is highly unlikely.

Number 3: Benjamin Sisko

I’ve mentioned Captain Sisko so often in relation to characters who could re-appear that you may think he’s become an obsession of mine! However, his story as of the end of Deep Space Nine was deliberately written in such a way that he could come back at literally any point in the Star Trek timeline. After being saved by the Bajoran Prophets, Sisko went to stay with them for a while – and they exist outside of linear time, meaning he could essentially travel to any point in time, including the 32nd Century.

Avery Brooks, who played Sisko, hasn’t always seemed willing to reprise the role, and recently declined to appear in the documentary What We Left Behind. However, there’s no reason why the character couldn’t be recast for future appearances.

Number 4: The Dax symbiont

While still arguably unlikely, this seems perhaps the least-unlikely of all the characters we’ve looked at so far. The trailer for Discovery’s third season showed Trill characters as well as what looked like a scene set on the Trill homeworld. We know, thanks to Deep Space Nine, that Trill symbionts can live for centuries; how many centuries exactly has never been stated as far as I’m aware. That leaves an opening for Discovery to bring back Dax – as well as an excuse to recast the character.

With centuries of knowledge, Dax could be a huge help to the crew of Discovery for the same reasons we’ve already talked about. Rebuilding the Federation will be a huge task, and it will take people who knew how it worked to help out.

So that’s it. A handful of other characters to go along with The Doctor who could – but probably won’t – appear in Star Trek: Discovery’s 32nd Century setting. As the show gets nearer to being broadcast (mid-October, in case you missed that announcement) my optimism is growing. Season 2 was decent, and despite my misgivings about taking the series away from its setting and into the far future, I think it has potential to tell interesting stories. I’m cautiously optimistic!

It seems unlikely that The Doctor, or any of the other characters mentioned, will make an appearance, but from an in-universe perspective it’s not entirely impossible. We’ve seen with Star Trek: Picard that bringing back legacy characters and referencing events that took place in a past episode or story are both things that the people in charge of Star Trek are willing to consider, so it’s at least possible to think we could see someone from the past reappear in Discovery.

Most of all, this was a bit of fun. We got to look back at Living Witness, which was a unique entry in Star Trek: Voyager, as well as speculate on the fates of The Doctor and some other well-known characters from past and present iterations of Star Trek. I’ll take any excuse to spend more time in the Star Trek galaxy!

Star Trek: Voyager is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 will be available to stream beginning on the 15th of October 2020. The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS.