Star Trek: Picard Episode Review – Season 3, Episode 1: The Next Generation

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Seasons 1-3. Spoilers are also present for The Next Generation and Voyager.

Before I’d even watched a single second of Star Trek: Picard Season 3, I was sceptical. In both Seasons 1 and 2, incredible premiere episodes gave way to stories that either failed to pull out a decent ending… or just failed across the board. Regardless of how The Next Generation landed, it’s the first chapter of a season-long story where success or failure will ultimately be determined over the next nine weeks. Having been burned by Picard twice now, I’m afraid that I begin this new season feeling more than a little jaded.

Taking the episode on its own merit, however, The Next Generation feels like a solid start. I wouldn’t say it was perfect – it’s an episode of contradictions, where a couple of story beats seemed to rush past in a heartbeat whilst its contribution to the overall narrative of the season may turn out to be too slow. But there were points of high excitement, fun little character moments, and more than enough intrigue spread across two distinct – yet surely connected – narrative threads to drive things forward and keep me engaged.

The new season has officially launched!

I said as Season 2 came to a close that I was bitterly disappointed to see most of the main cast being jettisoned in order to bring back characters from The Next Generation, and how I hoped their absences would be addressed somehow. Perhaps the most important of these characters was Laris, who, despite making only a handful of appearances across Seasons 1 and 2, was absolutely essential to last season’s story. Although we didn’t get to spend a great deal of time looking at Picard’s new relationship with her, I was pleased that Laris was able to be included and that we got to spend a little time with her before the main story took over.

I said in Season 1 that Laris and Zhaban served a similar role in the story to the residents of Hobbiton in The Lord of the Rings – being the familiar and comforting faces of home that Picard had to leave behind as he set out on his adventure. And Laris once again seems to serve a similar function in Season 3 as Picard sets off on a new quest. It was great to welcome back Orla Brady, and to catch a glimpse of Picard’s newfound home life with Laris before the main story kicked off. I’m glad there was time to include those sequences – and it gives me hope that we might get to hear something of Elnor, Soji, and the Borg Queen-Dr Jurati hybrid as well.

We got to catch a glimpse of Picard’s life with Laris before the main story got underway.

One of the biggest problems that has tripped up Star Trek: Picard in both of its seasons so far has been pacing. This is something that we won’t be able to judge fairly until we’ve seen most of the rest of the season, but there are causes for concern at this early stage – at least in my opinion. The Next Generation introduced us to some kind of mysterious threat that seems to be hunting Dr Crusher… but after setting up that she was in danger, the main story arc of the season didn’t really progress beyond that. Picard and Riker arrived at her ship, the Eleos, but there wasn’t any time left to go into detail about who might be hunting her or what they want.

And that could be okay… if the rest of the season has time to explain all of these points and tie together the different character arcs and narrative threads. But it’s also worth noting that The Next Generation didn’t bolt out of the gate. We met several new characters, but not the villain hunting Dr Crusher, and the episode ended more or less in the same place as it began: with Dr Crusher having fended off an attack, and the help she had called for – Riker and Picard – having only just arrived. In both Seasons 1 and 2, pacing issues across much of the season meant that too much story was left on the table, with whole storylines and characters literally ignored and dumped as time ran out. I sincerely hope that this problem hasn’t been repeated, and that The Next Generation hasn’t set up the season for a disappointingly familiar end.

In terms of the main story of the season, I’m not sure how far we’ve progressed.

Conversely, parts of The Next Generation seemed to race through – or rush past – potentially-interesting story beats. There were quite a few different elements crammed in to kick off storylines and character arcs, and the result was that not all of them seemed to get enough time in the spotlight – even though the episode as a whole wasn’t in a horrible rush.

It’s a contradiction! Raffi’s story in the criminal underworld was a bit of a whirlwind, taking her from off-the-wagon junkie to undercover operative in a heartbeat, and then culminating mere moments later in her failure (or what she will undoubtedly see as her failure) to stop an attack against a Federation facility. This storyline didn’t necessarily need more time, but it certainly could have had longer to play out. In past iterations of Star Trek, a story like this could have been an episode (or even a two-parter) in itself; Picard’s own undercover mission in Gambit comes to mind!

Raffi on her undercover assignment.

I would have liked to have spent more time with Raffi. Although she and her nameless “handler” made mention of stolen weapons, I didn’t really feel that The Next Generation properly conveyed the stakes. It was only when the Federation facility was destroyed (a moment that had been shown in pre-season trailers) that the extent of the threat that Raffi was staring down became apparent – and by then this part of the episode was pretty much over.

If this storyline had a few more minutes dedicated to it, we could have had a bit more of a conversation about what this missing weapon was, why it was so dangerous, how long it had been since it was stolen… and more background that could have set up the attack on the base. As it is, it’s hard to get too invested in this story. We never saw the base, nor met anyone who might’ve been stationed there, and we don’t know if the weapon used to destroy it was the only one stolen or one of many. Without more information to put these points into some kind of context… it just feels a tad rushed.

The attack on the base and missing weapons could’ve used a bit more context.

That being said, Michelle Hurd did everything she could with the material she had and the limited screen time afforded her to really sell this storyline, and her emotional performance was deeply impressive. Given that she was working on her own for practically the entire time, it wasn’t an easy challenge to really sell the idea of Raffi being in this dark place, but Hurd rose to the occasion.

In terms of visual effects, The Next Generation had a couple of unspectacular moments. Generally, the quality of the animation work was high – and far better than the lacklustre visuals we saw in parts of Season 1. But there were a few moments with the USS Titan that I felt were just a bit “last-gen” and not quite up to modern standards, especially when we look at what other sci-fi series and franchises are doing.

The Titan in spacedock.

This is a consequence of Paramount and Star Trek not having the budget or resources that the likes of Disney and Star Wars do, and that’s okay. In a season in which a big return to space is clearly on the agenda, though, it’s at least noteworthy that not all of the CGI moments in The Next Generation stuck the landing.

At first I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about a couple of shots of the USS Titan that I didn’t like, but I think I’ve finally nailed it down. In short, the ship is in the “uncanny valley,” looking real, but not quite real enough. Between the “lens” and the “model” there was just a bit too much smoothness; panels and lines don’t have the textural variation we’d expect to see on a real object. This problem plagued CGI through the 2000s, and if you look at Enterprise or the Star Wars prequels you’ll see far more extreme examples. While it wasn’t terrible, it was noticeable enough to pull me out of the immersion on more than one occasion – and to leave me lamenting the loss of physical starship models!

Picard and Riker’s shuttle leaves the Titan.

Aside from the heavy-handed nostalgia play, I’m genuinely not sure what the title of this episode was supposed to be about. The characters who were in focus for the vast, vast majority of the time were very decidedly not the titular “next generation,” and those who arguably might be – Sidney La Forge and the character who identified himself as Dr Crusher’s son – were only on screen for a couple of minutes at the most.

This isn’t a big deal really, but when the title of the episode clearly indicates the same kind of passing of the torch that we got back in 1987, we didn’t really feel any of that as the story unfolded. Perhaps someone cleverer than I am might be able to pick up on what the writers and producers were going for here, but I’m struggling to see it!

Ensign Sidney La Forge.

A few points that The Next Generation glossed over could’ve used some additional clarification. The last time we saw Admiral Picard he’d just taken up a new role as Chancellor of Starfleet Academy, and the pin/combadge he wore during this episode was the same one we saw him wearing on the bridge of the Stargazer in Season 2. Yet Captain Shaw made the point that Picard had now retired from Starfleet – and used that to deny his request to change course. So did Picard cease to be Chancellor of the Academy in between Seasons 2 and 3? I guess he must’ve – perhaps while deciding to move to a new planet with Laris – but it wasn’t clear.

If he did retire, how was Captain Shaw convinced to allow him and Riker to “inspect” the Titan? Captain Shaw clearly didn’t want the two of them to be there, and wouldn’t have voluntarily allowed them on board, so the question of exactly what status a retired ex-Admiral and ex-Captain occupy is a bit up in the air. The episode seemed to want to have it both ways: to tell the story of the retired old guard, but also make sure they had a pathway to commandeering a starship.

The specifics of Picard’s place in Starfleet weren’t made clear.

Captain Shaw is a great character – though I’m still convinced he won’t last very long, one way or another! I noted influences from the likes of Captain Stiles from The Search for Spock and Edward Jellico from Chain of Command, as well as perhaps a dash of Discovery’s Gabriel Lorca, in his characterisation. The strict, rigid, no-nonsense approach that we’ve often seen other characters come up against was on full display, and where Captain Shaw could have come across as a bit of a wet blanket – an unnecessary bump in the road as our protagonists set out on their journey – I think it worked well in context. Starfleet is bound to be populated by career officers like Shaw, and while he comes across as unsympathetic and even malicious due to his treatment of Seven, Riker, and Picard… in a way he isn’t wrong. These two were trying to take his ship and crew on an unsanctioned, dangerous, clandestine mission, and he was right to be suspicious of them and call them out on it.

In terms of the narrative of this first chapter of the story, though, I can’t help but wonder whether it might’ve been better for Picard and/or Riker to have called in a different favour! Instead of sneaking aboard the Titan and trying to secretively reroute the ship, couldn’t they have called in a favour from someone else in Starfleet – someone who could have hooked them up with a ship, or at least gotten them a spot aboard a ship with a captain who likes and respects them? I know that Dr Crusher warned them not to involve Starfleet – but they did anyway, and so I guess my question is: was this their only option? Maybe that’s a bit of a nitpick… and if I’m wrong and Captain Shaw sticks around, perhaps he’ll have a contribution to make to the story that will be more than worthwhile. Time will tell!

Captain Shaw may be an unpleasant man… but he was right, in a way, to be suspicious of Picard and Riker.

So let’s talk about Dr Crusher’s son. As of the last time we saw her, Dr Crusher only had one son: Wesley. And as we saw at the end of Season 2, he’s off doing his own thing with the Travellers and Supervisors. So who is this new character really – and if he is Dr Crusher’s son, will we learn who his father might be?

The obvious connection – especially in a show called Star Trek: Picard – is that he’s Picard’s son, and especially considering that Laris mentioned earlier in the episode that Picard and Dr Crusher had “tried” to become lovers, that could very well play out. We’ll take a look at this in more detail when I update my theory list, but for now suffice to say that this seems to be the most likely outcome.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about Crusher Jr. in the episodes ahead!

But even if we’ve figured out this character’s parentage, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Riker and Picard both noted that it’s been about twenty years since they last saw or heard from Dr Crusher… but her son is clearly not twenty years old or younger, so he must’ve been around during the years before she disappeared. That doesn’t mean she would have told her friends about having another child – but it does raise questions. If he’s Picard’s son, and Picard seemed to be in danger, could that explain why Dr Crusher chose to leave her friends behind? Was it all for his sake?

Again, that’s something we can consider in more detail in my theory update. This revelation of Dr Crusher’s colleague being her son raised a lot of questions – but it was also a story point that was blitzed past pretty quickly in The Next Generation. The character emerged, pointing a phaser at Riker, revealed his connection to Dr Crusher, and then it was time for a close-up look at the Shrike before the credits rolled. There was definitely scope to spend a minute or two more on this revelation – both for the sakes of Riker and Picard and for us as the audience. This bombshell didn’t get more than a few seconds in the spotlight before the episode rushed to its next point.

We could – and perhaps should – have spent a couple of minutes more on this moment.

Last season, I argued that an apparent studio-mandated decision to have every single episode end on a cliffhanger was to the story’s detriment, and with The Next Generation ending with not only one but arguably four shocking moments, I feel a tad worried that that trend might continue. In retrospect, Season 2 feels like it was chopped up quite artificially, with a strong focus on these cliffhanger endings to such an extent that it didn’t serve the story, splitting up storylines across multiple episodes unnecessarily. We’ll have to judge this aspect of Season 3 when it’s over, but it’s certainly noteworthy at this early stage that The Next Generation also ended in similar fashion.

Who was the mysterious stranger eavesdropping on Riker and Picard? It seems a safe assumption that he’s some kind of friend or ally of Vadic – the season’s main villain who was teased in pre-season trailers but is yet to make an appearance. He could also be a Starfleet operative, or perhaps someone aligned with Dr Crusher. But it felt like quite a played-out trope to have Riker and Picard meeting up in a bar to have their private chat about secretive and sensitive issues. I know it’s another nitpick – but couldn’t Riker have met up with Picard at the vineyard? If this character’s spying is going to be relevant to the story later on – and surely it will be in some form – it just feels a bit clichéd to have him overhear them speaking in such a public setting.

The stranger in Guinan’s bar.

One of the best things Picard did in its first season was re-establish the relationship between Riker and Picard, taking it beyond anything we ever saw in The Next Generation and the films of that era. No longer serving together opened up the possibility of a genuine and deep friendship between the two, and the episode Nepenthe was the perfect way to revisit Picard, Riker, and Troi and establish a new, post-Starfleet dynamic for them.

And The Next Generation picked up that thread from Season 1 and has begun the process of exploring it further. Picard turned to his old friend for help – and with both men being retired or no longer on active duty, there was the opportunity to really examine how well they work together and how close they’ve become. Although Riker and Picard worked well together, and there was trust and mutual respect between them really from the first season of The Next Generation, it’s only in Picard that we’ve seen this friendship genuinely blossom and come into its own. It’s been great to see – and it feels like the perfect and natural evolution of this relationship.

This episode did great things with the Riker-Picard relationship.

The themes of age and how we treat older people were present in The Next Generation, though perhaps not quite to the extent that I’d been expecting. We got a moment where Picard was unaware of the closure of a starbase and had to be corrected, and a comment from Riker about how both men were past their physical peak, but Riker’s story seems to be teeing up some kind of relationship or family dysfunction angle between himself, Troi, and their daughter Kestra. Jonathan Frakes seemed to suggest in a pre-season interview that Riker has felt unsettled and has been keen on returning to Starfleet, and that could be the source of the tension there.

Having seen Riker and Troi in semi-retirement in Season 1, seemingly doing the best that they could to have a happy family life and provide for their daughter, I hope that this story doesn’t end up coming across as a kind of gratuitous and unnecessary shake-up. I’d have been happy, quite frankly, to have left Troi and Riker behind, with Nepenthe serving as their post-The Next Generation epilogue. With them returning this time, I just hope that if there is to be a relationship dispute, it won’t feel tacked-on or overplayed.

Riker seemed to suggest that all may not be well in his marriage.

But we’ll have to wait for Troi’s return before we can assess how that particular storyline will land! For now, suffice to say it’s enough to cause a little concern, because undoing or otherwise overwriting what we got in Season 1 would not be my choice – especially if it seems only to be there to inject a sense of drama into an already-dramatic season of television.

I was surprised to see how heavily The Next Generation leaned on visual and musical callbacks to The Original Series films. The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Undiscovered Country, and even The Motion Picture were all influential, with everything from fonts to musical motifs being directly lifted from those titles. I said before the season aired that I was getting a kind of “Picard does The Wrath of Khan” vibe from some of the clips we’d seen in trailers, but I wasn’t expecting to see the series lean so heavily on the feature films of the ’80s for inspiration. Don’t get me wrong – as a child of the ’80s, that style of sci-fi is exactly my kind of thing! And it worked well in The Next Generation. I just wasn’t expecting it!

There was a real ’80s flair to parts of The Next Generation.

Dr Crusher didn’t always get a lot to do in The Next Generation and the films that followed. She had some episodes in the spotlight, and we saw her take on a commanding role on the bridge in later episodes like Descent and All Good Things, but for the most part her role as the ship’s doctor was a limiting factor. Stories with medical mysteries or where characters had to visit sickbay were where we saw her most often.

With that in mind, where The Next Generation excelled was in ensuring that Dr Crusher stayed true to her characterisation, but took on much more of a leading role in an action-packed storyline. Traits like her courage, that we remember from her earlier appearances, came to the fore in a new way, and this bold direction for her character didn’t feel in any way forced. On the contrary, it felt like the natural evolution for her – especially if she’s been operating independently for such a long time.

Dr Crusher firing her phaser rifle.

The semi-automated Eleos was an interesting vessel, and I hope we get to spend a little more time with this starship. Dr Crusher and her son seem to rely on the ship’s computer for things like propulsion, where in past iterations of Star Trek we’d have expected to see people operating those stations and departments. But, as Seven reminded Picard aboard the Titan, it seems that Starfleet is embracing more and more automation. An analogy for things happening here in the real world, no doubt!

The “deadnaming” of Seven of Nine by Captain Shaw was something I was uncomfortable about at first, especially after Seven’s arc in Season 2 was all about embracing the Borg side of herself. Captain Shaw clearly has a chip on his shoulder about the Borg, as he made clear in a comment to Picard, so perhaps that’s something we’ll learn more about next time. He might’ve lost someone to the Borg, or even aboard the Artifact.

Commander Seven… uh, I mean Commander Hansen.

That being said, this kind of deadnaming – forcibly referring to someone by an old name with which they no longer identify – may have been a way of quickly communicating to us as the audience that Captain Shaw is someone we should dislike, and that kind of shorthand can work well in a story with time constraints. But in a broader sense, when we step back and think about Star Trek’s positive, progressive future and how far we’d have expected society to advance by the dawn of the 25th Century… surely something like deadnaming would be socially unacceptable, even for someone in a position of power like Captain Shaw.

In short, I can see why the writers chose to include this aspect of Shaw’s character. Seeing how uncomfortable it made Seven of Nine was a quick and relatively easy way to get across the message that this character isn’t someone we should be rooting for – and I get that. But it has an implication for the Star Trek galaxy as a whole that feels a little uncomfortable. I hope we’ll learn that the rest of the crew of the Titan have more respect for Seven and are willing to treat her better!

Captain Shaw is being set up as an antagonist.

So let’s start to wrap things up.

Season 3 is off to a solid start. My scepticism about the pacing of the episode is probably more to do with the muddled and mismanaged first and second seasons and the way those stories ended. I certainly hope that The Next Generation has set up this new story for success, and if nothing else it was nice to spend some more time with Riker and Picard, as well as Dr Crusher, Seven of Nine, and Raffi.

Seeing how these stories will come together is genuinely interesting, and while we could’ve spent a bit more time on Raffi’s side of things, with some more context provided about the stolen weapons and attack on the Federation outpost, it worked well enough. Captain Shaw was the only new character that we got to spend a lot of time with, and while I don’t like him, I can see where he’s coming from and can certainly appreciate that an organisation such as Starfleet must be populated with people just like him. Dr Crusher’s son and Ensign La Forge were on screen so briefly that we didn’t really get a good read on either – but there’s more than enough time in the episodes ahead to rectify that.

The final shot of the episode: the Eleos and the Shrike.

As I said a couple of weeks ago: it’s probably time to watch The Wrath of Khan if you haven’t seen it in a while! That film seems to be serving as inspiration for Season 3 right now, though the story is far from identical.

I had a good time with The Next Generation, taken on its own merit. It wasn’t perfect, and I don’t think it hit the same high notes as Season 1’s Remembrance or Season 2’s The Star Gazer – but if the story that it’s set up has been meticulously planned and will reach a better, more definitive end point than either of the show’s past outings managed, then none of that will ultimately matter. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that that will turn out to be the case.

Star Trek: Picard Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and other countries and territories where the service is available, and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Picard and all other properties discussed above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

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.