TNG: S5E13: “The Masterpiece Society”

In which a colony is in danger, Geordi argues pro-life, and Picard needs to angst. 

Even the best fall down sometimes/ Even the stars refuse to shine / Out of the back you fall in time / I somehow find, you and I collide

Even the best fall down sometimes/ Even the stars refuse to shine / Out of the back you fall in time / I somehow find, you and I collide

Well that’s a great visual. Even before we hear the log play out, we can see that the Enterprise is following a blue-white star as it heads towards a planet. Now, what I love about this is that it dooms the planet in literally the first shot of the episode. If that star is massive enough to be burning that brightly, and that planet is that close, and they’re approaching each other, then Universe Sandbox tells me that that orbit is irrevocably altered unless Q swoops in to save everyone. As it turns out, this is a fragment of a Neutron star that’s bigger than the Enterprise and as such, if that star is only the diameter of the Enterprise it has approximately .67 Earth masses. It looks quite a bit bigger than that and ought to be causing earthquakes on that poor unsuspecting planet as we speak.

As a matter of fact, this was expected, but the fact that the planet Moab IV is inhabited was not. Picard is going to chat with them, but they put up their shields and it takes Picard’s most strident warnings to get their attention. They don’t seem concerned, and Data gives it’s mass as an order of magnitude lighter than I estimated. I’m still going to call that a win for me, though. Cosmically speaking, that was pretty close.

Picard offers to arrange a face-to-face meeting inside the colony’s closed biosphere. These people have been cut off from everything seemingly since before Kirk’s time – they don’t know about transporters, so they probably don’t have replicators either. Also, Picard is sending Riker so somebody on that colony is going to wind up with the syph.

There are factional politics inside – Aaron is the first person we meet and is willing to chat with the Enterprise, while Martin is older, more isolationist, and apparently willing to risk dooming his fellow colonists to death by quake as preferential over the death of their culture. We don’t like Martin.

"We haven't been able to isolate and remove the arrogance gene just yet..."

“We haven’t been able to isolate and remove the arrogance gene just yet…”

These people are a society of genetically engineered people whose ancestors seem to be an offshoot of the genetic eugenics movement, albeit less militant than the official history suggests. At least Aaron is aware of the pretension that comes along with it, but the fact remains that it’s a closed system and they can’t just up and leave.

Aaron presents a fairly poetic explanation of how awesome it is to live there so of course there’s going to be an awful flaw and a dark secret, like that time that the perfect society was full of clones that needed an infusion of luddite neo-Irish stock. This time, they have a sufficient genetic base to do real breeding and no cultural taboos against squishy stuff. Good thing, too, because Troi and Aaron are going to inject some empathic reading into their perfectly balanced society. Meanwhile, Geordi has met Hannah, their theoretical physicist, who’s already invented a tractor beam that would solve the problem, and the Enterprise has the power. Of course, to do that, she needs to go to the ship to help make the modifications, and how are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen a Frenchman with an English accent in charge of a cruise ship capable of moving at 2700c?

So now Picard gives his treatise on the Federation stance on Genetic engineering – extolling the freedom to be confused and undetermined. Many of the points he’s making sound just as dogmatic as Martins, which for my money makes this a better episode than I thought it was going to be. Although we’re still talking about the potential death of the entire colonial line, so there’s kind of an obvious answer.

Way to blow your shot, Geordi.

Way to blow your shot, Geordi.

Geordi’s philosophical point is more salient, to me. If he’d been conceived on Moab IV he would have been terminated in favor of a zygote without defects. And that’s a whole other discussion which we’re not going to get into now because VISOR FACTS. It scans from 1Hz to 100PHz, which according to this somewhat dubious diagram ought to let him see past UV but not quite into X-Ray. Imagine filtering out all that visual noise on a daily basis. This is important because it lets Geordi have a House moment and come up with the solution. He’s pretty smug about the fact that the solution comes from his VISOR, too.

Temblors are starting on the planet now, and Aaron’s job is going to start to get difficult now that the public can perceive the danger. Of course, only Aaron and Troi can perceive the danger from snogging in the arboretum.  And Troi is the one who decides to protect the integrity of their society. If he’s getting ready to give up their way of life, what are 48 hours of engineering crews mingling with the locals going to do to the society?

So now we’re in the engineering challenge phase of the episode, where we see if Geordi and Hanna’s modifications that increase the efficiency of the tractor beem by 300% will do the trick. Hannah is remarkably efficient at reading standard Federation interfaces, but the fragment’s course isn’t quite changing fast enough … to avoid the requisite nail-biting down-to-the-wire sequence. The colony’s integrity is safe. Now to see about its soul, because Hannah doesn’t want to go back.

The biosphere seems to have been breached, but Geordi can see that it’s a lie, and Hannah manufactured the alarm in order to force the society to rejoin the Federation. She’s the brightest mind in s tiny little pond and completely dissatisfied with that. The transporter, the Matter/Antimatter reactor, all invented to fill needs that the colony has never had. Now the ethical implications of this whole interaction come to the fore. Granting asylum to Hannah and everyone else who wants to leave would remove too many puzzle pieces from the colony for it to continue to function.

Picard is willing to try to persuade people not to abandon the colony, but not to refuse them passage if they insist. One kind of feels like this is the exact problem with such a designed society – so rigid it’s brittle, and could never survive colliding with the outside. And everyone has been so specifically designed, psychologically, for their intended role that there ought to be entire swathes of that society that are wiped out once asylum is granted. Anyone whose function requires them to be open to new ideas will be gone. Whole industries wiped out, leaving Picard to agonize about the Prime Directive, even though it doesn’t legally apply. Sometimes, you just need a good sulk.

Did we miss something awesome?