Wednesday, 16 January 2013

"The Masterpiece Society" - Civilisation Perfected?

What is perfection?  Is it the eye of the beholder or is it what resides within?  Is the very concept of perfection in its own way imperfect and to what ends can this idyllic demand of life actually lead?

Season Five's "The Masterpiece Society" tackles this in 45 minutes.  Contacting a previously unknown xenophobic colony to warn them of an impending collision with a stellar core fragment from a disintegrated neutron star, the Enterprise crew find they are dealing with an apparently "perfected" race.  Everyone has their role in society, there is no illness, life is structured from the cradle to the grave and any form of disability is eliminated at birth.

Like many of the episodes I'm choosing to look at during my rerun of TNG,  "The Masterpiece Society"  was not one of my preferred list of episodes to watch.  In fact it comes right bang around what I consider to be a bit of a lull in the season,  surrounded by the likes of "Hero Worship", "Ethics" and "New Ground" which are all excellent character driven stories but are very Enterprise-centric, allowing for some great performances but little diversity in the environment to mix up the dynamic (but let me not take it away from some great guest performances in all those installments).  

Re-watching this episode (number 113 for the record) was actually a breath of fresh air.  It's not a dawning revelation as I experienced with "Unification" a few weeks ago but I have developed a better understanding of what it's aiming to do.  Heck, I think it would be impossible to love every single episode because of the variety in plot, subtext, writer etc etc.  but what I can garner now is that here we have TNG attempting to tackle quite a touchy subject and not being afraid to do it openly. In this sense TNG has a great deal in common with its 1960's predecessor through such stories as "Miri", "Plato's Stepchildren" and "A Private Little War" but this is a much softer attempt at unraveling the discussion than the barely concealed fables regarding the state of America during the post-war decades.

Once the Enterprise has made contact and the away team have beamed to the surface, we find there are two sides to the story - those who are more open to outsiders led by Aaron Conor and the opposing opinion from Martin Berbeck. Their civilisation has been perfected to ensue smooth running and this interaction with outsiders is seen as a terrible mistake while also being a necessity - a necessary evil if you will - to ensure the very survival of the secretive colony. 

The irony of the episode I believe is that while they save the colony from an interstellar disaster, the damage to the colony is much more personal. In a way, Berbeck is absolutely right to be skeptical of the new arrivals from the Enterprise because he can see that it will only cause an imbalance within the community.  He can see that there will be individuals who will be swayed by the excitement and intrigue of something different from outside their protected environment and when everyone is engineered to perform a specific task within that, losing one piece would cause difficult readjustment.

Leading the colony on the counterpoint is Conor and here I am at a bit of a loss. While I can feel the sense of difficulty he goes through as a character to justify the presence of the away teams and the choice to allow Hannah Bates aboard the starship, he commits something of a sin in forming a romantic relationship with Troi. Why does Picard not chew her out over this misdemeanour?! Surely this is like spitting on the Prime Directive considering the delicate nature of the mission and Troi appears to have no concerns about  developing this relationship which she MUST know is never going to last?  Conor is never likely to leave the colony - he stands as their leader, his genetic makeup tells him that is his position and no matter what choices he makes this is still where he belongs whether it's by choice or physical design.

Ultimately it is the attraction of the imperfect universe which gnaws away at members of this community, most notably Hannah, once she has explored the Enterprise and worked with Geordi to devise the solution to the danger approaching their world. As a scientist her (constructed!) nature makes her inquisitive and opening up the endless possibilities of the universe after a lifetime contained in a bubble (literally) would not be something easy for her to turn away from. She needs to know, explore and learn and the colony can no longer contain that part of her innate inbuilt nature.  Perhaps a twist here that the way they have refined their genetic makeup has in fact led to the collapse of the carefully nurtured society. The masterpiece does indeed have its flaws due to the perfection with which it has been balanced over seven generations. In a way it was perhaps inevitable and at some point this Utopia would have collapsed once people began to ask "Why?" and become curious about the wonders outside of the biosphere. Hannah herself even questions the perfect nature of the perfect world while working with La Forge, wondering why their society has not invented such incredible inventions if they are as advanced as their lineage would have them believe.  It is a key thought as to how the xenophobia has been passed down through the years to keep the generations "pure" as it were: the past five days I have encountered technology that I have barely imagined. I've got to ask myself; if we're so brilliant, how come we didn't invent any of these things?
Her point is valid and effectively mirrors the two worlds.  The perfect world is, as we see in no end of moments within the episode, fatally flawed because of how perfect it argues to be while the "imperfect" world that the Enterprise brings is nothing but a magical marvel to these sheltered people, especially to those within it who were made to ask questions by their very genetic natures such as Hannah in her role as a scientist - "Why?" is what drives her.

There is a hint of arrogance in the structure of the society by the way in which removal of just one individual (or as it is, 22) could cause a total collapse.  There is no backup plan. Everyone is expected to play their part from birth until death with no exceptions and no way out of doing anything but your role as determined by your genes. They all know what they were born to do; society needs them for a particular reason; nobody is useless but that ultimately means no-one is expendable.  Although Conor notes that accidents do happen and they readjust to cope with that missing individual, their aloof nature means they never see the society from changing or, more importantly, evolving any further - why would they need to when there is the perfect status quo in existence?  The problem is that because they never expect anyone to want to leave Eden, when more than one does choose to depart it means that they have to adapt; something that they would find difficult given that so many assigned roles within the colony will be missing. Not only are they arrogant enough not to think that this is a possibility but Conor also manages to take swipe at "lesser" species:
"...My entire psychological makeup tells me I was born to lead. I am exactly what I would choose to be. Think of it another way - there are still people in your society who have not yet discovered who they really are or what they were meant to do with their lives. They may be in the wrong job; they may be writing bad poetry or worse yet they may be great poets working as labourers, never to be discovered..."
What I do like about "The Masterpiece Society" is the "two-fingered salute" that having Geordi come up with the solution makes to the story.  The only outwardly disabled member of the cast comes up with the answer to their prayers thanks to his VISOR which would not have existed had he been born within the colony because "defects" are eliminated. 

So who is right here?  Is the Picard's decision to help them correct? Should the colonists have been allowed to leave or should they have been left to reassemble their community after this limited brush with outside life?

Picard is, I believe, right to allow some of the colonists to leave as it is a matter of free will and he and the Enterprise are responsible for causing the ripples of change in the first place.  It's a dangerous thing that Prime Directive especially when bending it is unavoidable as here where doing nothing would have caused the destruction of the Masterpiece Society. However amazing this place may actually be and however brilliant the people have been "constructed" to be, they still need to live their lives and experience all it has to offer.  Perhaps in this sense it is the ones who remain behind who are imperfect, preferring to stay and close themselves back off from the outside world; their xenophobic attitudes perhaps tolling the death knoll of the Perfect World. Maybe they are foolish and selfish to chose this path but then there is no force to leave - indeed it might even be argued (as it might be in the case of Conor and the speech I noted above) that it is in their very nature; their very genes that they are unable or unwilling to leave - the way they have been made has pre-determined their choices. Berbeck himself is not quiet about his concerns but it may only be that he voices the feelings of the majority because of who and how they are.

Star Trek has certainly not shied away from the sci-fi friendly concept of genetic perfection over the course of its lifetime, right back to the days of Kirk.  We have seen warriors bred purely to fight and act as a brutal right hand where needs be (the Jem'Hadar), subserviant races designed to be commanded and worship their creators (the Vorta), ultimately "pure" genetic creatures (Species 8472) and a race that adds a species' distinctiveness to its own in the form of the Borg. 

We have even had genetic creations who have been modified to be "super humans"; altered to give them advantages in life such as Doctor Bashir on DS9. Both he and the group of "misfits" featured in "Statistical Probabilities" and "Chrysalis" were enhanced to give them an extra push in life with very different results. It's possibly worth name dropping Khan Noonien Singh as well as Dr Arik Soong and his Augments from season four of Enterprise in here too as they are all excellent examples of genetic engineering. However, what is notable about "The Masterpiece Society" and is unique when we are examining the bigger "genetic manipulation" picture is that their society works because they have defined each individual and the role they play . If you look at all the examples above, perhaps the Moab IV colony can hold its head high because there was no "darker", underhand motive to their existence. That and possibly the fact that at some point most of these creations have wanted to start a war against the Federation....

In conclusion I think "The Masterpiece Society" more than adequately shows that nothing is perfect and it is only in the eye of those who have created or experienced it that believe it exists. An outside force is always likely to bring something different and new whether it be a belief or a microbe that will change the nature of that enviroment and its inhabitants.  The colony at Moab IV is no exception within TNG as the wonders of the Federation make them question their past and existence to the very core - their lives may be defined because of their genetics but they are still not being allowed to truly explore all the avenues that might be open to them even within their "specialist" fields. Imperfection, here perhaps most prominent though Geordi's VISOR, brings variation, unexplored answers and raises previously unspoken questions.  Would I want to live in the Masterpiece Society?  Not likely thanks; I'm more than happy with our flawed human world - something that a certain Vulcan had to come to terms with following rebirth I recall...

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