TNG: S7E17: “Masks”

In which Data takes up sculpture, religion, and schizophrenia. 

"Seriously, I can't even believe you said that, and I'm IN the episode!"

“Seriously, I can’t even believe you said that, and I’m IN the episode!”

Troi is supervising a sculpture lab as, uh, part of her normal duties as Ship’s Counselor? I guess stranger things have happened on this ship, and if you didn’t get a sense of chilly dread crawling up your spine when you read those words then all I can say is you have not been paying attention.

This is, apparently, some sort of theraputic class, and also Data is here. While she’s teaching children to make their sculptures express emotion over realism, Data has crafted a PADD. She tells him instead to try an abstract, and to sculpt ‘music.’ he does a pretty good trebel clef and is called away to the bridge before further progress can be made.

The Enterprise is checking out a rogue comet which escaped its system of origin (two sectors away) 87 million years ago. That’s neat, I was expecting to have to make fun of the astrophysics but those numbers seem legit. As Data is running down the analysis of the comet, a bright light suffuses the bridge and quite frankly I’d still like to know how stuff like that happens. There shouldn’t be an ingress for strange energy signatures, sensor echo or no.

When asked, the statue got defensive and said "Hey man, it's tribal, it doesn't have to 'mean' ANYTHING."

When asked, the statue got defensive and said “Hey man, it’s tribal, it doesn’t have to ‘mean’ ANYTHING.”

Crusher and Troi are getting ready for their Klingon Tai Chi class, when Crusher finds a sculpture in Troi’s quarters that she hasn’t seen before. Troi hasn’t seen it before either. Crusher suggests it might be from a secret admirer, and Troi does not immediately become worried about someone breaking into her quarters. I mean, sure, you have replicators and there’s probably nothing you own that couldn’t be replicated, including the ‘print’-outs of digitally stored pictures and various sentimental tokens, but she also doesn’t seem to care about the possibility of someone breaking in to steal her underwear or whatever. I guess when you live with transporter technology, doors are even more of a social construct than usual. The two blueshirts leave, and moments later the sculpture changes itself to add a design.

Sculpture class resumes, and Data has created a mask with a sun motif similar to the designs on Troi’s mystery sculpture. Also, the computer terminal is now full of space-mayan glyphs. There’s a similarity of design between those and the sculptures, suggesting Data was probably infected. If we needed another hint, he’s not participating in the dialogue between LaForge and Riker, just kind of staring at the glyphs. He also recognizes all of them.

See, this is apparently what happens when you don’t secure your transmission formats. If there’s one thing Starfleet really needs to do, it’s to make sure sensor input is properly encapsulated and protected against buffer overflow.

Picard immediately dove behind his chair screaming "not again! Not again! Not again!"

Picard immediately dove behind his chair screaming “not again! Not again! Not again!

Intrigued, Picard orders the comet melted, and reveals a funky-looking artificial structure. A strange alien probe no doubt carrying the entire culture of a long-dead civilization. A device capable of using reflected scanners as a carrier wave to infect local ships. Data has an intuitive understanding of its purpose, again because he’s been hacked. He suggests they run Norton on his brain.

And starring Brent Spiner as Tom Hiddleston.

And starring Brent Spiner as Tom Hiddleston.

Later, after crews have erected firewalls in the computer but before they resort to the universal cure-all, Riker checks in with Picard, who has been collecting all the mysterious sculpture that’s been appearing on the ship. He determines that they’re all ceremonial artifacts, and he gets to do his playing at archaeology by deciphering the symbology. There’s a theme of movement, boundaries, and death, with another symbol always in the background. While this happens, Geordi and Data are doing their diagnostic, and Data asks the best question he has ever asked. Also, his entire circuitry and face change. Apparently, Masaka is waking.

Data, now adorned with a Zenith Caste mark and a clay tablet nametag, is sitting on the warp core heralding for Masaka. Data is now Ihat, and Picard is trying to figure out what’s going on while doing his typical thing of only barely deigning to play along. All we know is that Masaka is serious bad news, and also looks a lot like Troi, metaphysically speaking. Ihat bows to Troi when she walks in, and then shifts posture and changes his clay nametag and voice along with his personality. Time to confine him to quarters.

Now, a lot of nonsense goes on in this episode, but none so egregious as trying to confine Data to quarters. a bug-alien using normal human musculature threw a person through those doors. Data performs feats of strength that regularly baffle Klingons. Plus there’s the whole aforementioned fact that transporters exist and are a huge gaping hole in security. One could argue that the brig is shielded against transport, but it would almost certainly be considered unsafe to do the same for crew quarters, in case of medical emergency.

So somehow, the archive probe is transforming Data’s brain, physically adding personality nodes and giving him the android version of the fictional version of dissosciative identity disorder. His current personality is a reverent revenant of Masaka’s, but Picard is able to ask to bring back Ihat. Ihat lets slip that only Korgano to stop Masaka from waking.

I feel oddly compelled to defend this episode. Sure it’s super weird, but the antagonist is being described vaguely, which is a nice touch, as basically Cthulhu – worshipped by some, feared by others, and mocked by those with the trappings of madness. Also, the Archive has caught the Enterprise in a power-draining tractor beam and begin transforming the ship, because why not.

Now, with much more context, Picard studies the statues configured from the matter that used to be Ten-Forward. He has no problem with the sun as a symbol of death (a desert-originating culture, perhaps?) but is surprised by a device that can reconfigure matter? You live on a ship with replicators in every room, sir, get your act together.

The onboard fire suppression systems are also clearly snakes now.

The onboard fire suppression systems are also clearly snakes now.

The first plan is to blow up the Archive before it transforms the ship into a temple. Sadly, in the torpedo they modify to do the job, the power supply has turned into snakes, shortly before main engineering turns into jungle. I wonder what happens when the Archive gets to the antimatter storage. Probably Bad Things. The Archive appears to be some sort of paperclipper – a machine that makes the thing it was told to make regardless of the consequences. Picard finally gets with the program and goes to Data to try to play into the scenario and find out what’s really up with Masaka. Data is in his old-man personality and it turns out he’s Masaka’s father. And only Korgano can talk to Masaka anymore.

Moments later, Ihat tells Picard that the best way to get Masaka’s attention is to build her temple, but it’s not the kind of attention you want. This was almost certainly a desert culture, despite what the jungle ferns may suggest – their sun goddess kills people by making them die of thirst and burns them alive. Which is how you’d expect a sun deity to kill people, I guess, but normally sun dieties are more associated with nourishing life than ending it. A nicely subverted trope. But before Ihat can give Picard the right glyph, Masaka ‘finds him’ and the personality submerges.

"I want my friggin' chair back."

“I want my friggin’ chair back.”

We keep hearing that Korgano ‘no longer pursues’ Masaka. Since all her iconography is in a sun motif, we can guess who and what Korgano was before he stopped, which then lets us infer some nifty things about whatever calamity befell that civilization. If I recall correctly, these are never stated outright, which is what makes this episode so enjoyable.

Geordi has found the part of the Archive that accepts glyph input, and they trigger it after clearing out a deck. When they do, the temple is successfully created. Now they just have to wait for Masaka to show herself. In this temple, the Masaka symbol is paired directly with the crescent symbol that previously just kind of slunk around nearby. It’s a little cute to see Worf and Troi try to play the anthropology game, while Picard just ignores them and plows on with his analysis. Meanwhile, Data wakes up, puts on the Masaka mask, and starts beating up security personnel.

Picard decides that Korgano is the moon, based on some more glyphs. Then Data shows up as Masaka and tells them to go away. The only thing left is to put in the Korgano glyph, which generates a silver mask, which Picard is going to put on to argue with Data/Masaka. I am going to stick with my theory: that some calamity destroyed the moon of wherever the Archive came from, and the civilization sent it out with that myth most prominently ‘displayed’ for whoever found it. Regardless, when Picard shows up in the Korgano mask, Masaka goes to sleep and all the transformations reverse themselves,Geordi disables the Archive onboard replicator, and the thing is now under study by Starfleet.

Ostensibly, this study is to retrieve cultural information, but possibly so that they can keep that remote replicator beam in their back pocket in case the Romulans and Cardassians get uppity. Well, more uppity.

Did we miss something awesome?