Listening to Masaka

Notes from our meeting in the GHG observation lounge

Notes from our meeting in the GHG observation lounge

Literacy*Imagination*Community*Inclusion. These are the values of the Grey Havens Group. We can’t say them enough. We can’t share them enough. We can’t live them enough, but we try. This is what we are about. The word “inclusion” was not originally part of our values statement. It was added after a parent of one of our young adult members pointed out that being part of GHG means finding places and experiences where people are accepted for who they are. If you are a Trekkie or a Whovian or passionate about anything from cars to cosplay, we believe that your enthusiasm is a part of who you are, something to be taken seriously.

The Oxford Inklings–J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield and their friends–took the things they loved very seriously. They loved language and they loved myth or what Tolkien called fairy-stories. They loved the human imagination so they applied it liberally, reading to each other from the works they wrote because, as Lewis reminded Tolkien, no one else was writing them. They had the literacy, imagination and community parts down pat. They needed some help with “inclusion.” For example, no women attended their meetings. We try to do much better at the Grey Havens Group but we don’t forget the debt we owe to these sometimes stodgy, sometimes narrow-minded but deeply imaginative men.

Inklingsiana.

On the second Thursday of every month, we host our Inklingsiana meetings, gathering to explore the culture of myth and imagination that reigned at the meetings of the original Inklings. This week, our discussion took us out into space and into the depths of myth and archetype. We watched “Masks,” perhaps the most myth-centric episode* of Star Trek: The Next Generation then we spent the next part of the meeting talking about what we had just seen.

Masaka is waking. 

“Masks” is not for everyone, not even for every Trekkie. There is no phaser fire. The episode lacks the typical subplots that keep up the pacing and provide insight into the personal lives of the Enterprise crew. It is hard to worry for the safety of the crew when they seem oddly unperturbed by their own peril. “Maybe we’d better talk out here,” Riker remarks casually, “the observation lounge has turned into a swamp.”

The plot doesn’t so much develop as it inexorably unfolds. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S Lewis wrote that this sense of the inevitable is what defines a myth. One’s enjoyment of the story does not depend on suspense, character development or even good storytelling but on the acknowledgement of the numinous truth that lies underneath the myth. A myth is only a hint of something much greater, of something that, in some mysterious sense, we already know.

D'Arsay_pictographs

“Could we have stumbled across some sort of alien library?” Who prefers the Dewey Decimal System?

The episode treats myth in exactly this way, showing instead of telling the audience what a myth means. When the Enterprise uncovers an alien archive buried deep in the core of an asteroid, the ship becomes a stage for the re-enactment of the central story of a lost culture and Data becomes all of the characters. Data’s transition from one personality to another is signaled by the excellent, very physical acting of Brent Spiner and by the appearance of a different “deceptively primitive” symbol on the android’s chest. Each character is defined by his (they are all male) relationship to the fearsome feminine, to Masaka, a glorious and murderous queen. The Enterprise crew is really in for it now. Masaka is waking.

ST TNG Data as Masaka 2

Brent Spiner took all the guest star roles in this episode!

Listening to Masaka

Our discussion began with speculation about what kind of culture would give us Masaka and her subjects. Masaka is revealed to be a sun deity relentlessly pursued by a lunar deity, Korgano, who is the only one who can subdue her. We decided that the archive must have been built by a society attuned to natural cycles, that thinks in mythological symbols but is advanced enough to produce technology superior to that of the Enterprise. We also decided that it was lucky that it was Picard and his crew who found the archive. Data’s circuitry is just begging to be rewritten so that he can become all those archetypes, though some of us felt that writer, Joe Menosky, missed an opportunity to transform the gorgeous Troi with her fabulous hair into a goddess on a rampage. Worf was born into a ritualistic culture and Troi has that Betazoid intuition. When it comes to Masaka, however, Picard just gets her.

troi goddess

Sorry, Troi. They did that episode already.

Ferengi_Gruppe

How much for just the artifacts?

Many of our members wondered if the archive was subtly rewriting the consciousness of the Enterprise crew, like it did with Data but in a more gradual way. Tolkien wrote that when the elves present men with what he called Faerian drama, the men can believe that they are bodily inside its Secondary World. The extent to which this was happening in “Masks” was perhaps the most contentious point of our discussion. Some suggested that the archive chose its drama for the audience it encountered. What would have manifested had the archive been discovered by a Klingon or Romulan ship? What about the Ferengi? Where we had trouble agreeing was in the extent to which the archive altered the Captain.

Picard seemed drawn to Masaka and her culture from the beginning. Instead of alarm that his office has been transformed into an alien rummage sale, we see the zeal that he always displays when he gets to play archaeologist. Picard is perfectly poised to listen to Masaka.

The Drama Unfolds

The crew quickly abandons an attempt to blast the archive with a photon torpedo, their efforts impeded by something as low tech as a writhing bundle of snakes and some puny flames. Picard then shoots down LaForge’s suggestion of controlling the archive. Instead, he wants to learn from it. The key, he believes, is Masaka herself. Each step that Picard takes from this point looks increasingly like a hunch. His officers are skeptical when he decides to take on the role of Korgano but Picard puts on the appropriate mask then plays the part as if he had been born to it.

Korgano

This is nothing compared to that weird headdress Picard had to wear in Insurrection.Data_as_Masaka (1)

The myth must play out and that is exactly what Picard allows to happen. He somehow knows just what to say to send the sun queen to her sleep. Whether this is because, through his studies, Picard has become a master interpreter of cultures or because he has been taken up into the Faerian drama is never made explicit. What is clear is that there is a cycle that must be fully realized so that everything can return to the way it was.

The story of Masaka and Korgano is a way of reminding us that nature has a reset button. Even if Masaka takes a few victims along the way, balance will ultimately be restored. As members pointed out, the female as both the giver and taker of life, is a symbol of transformation, sometimes brutally so, but harmony prevails.

As the temple around the captain and a bemused Data  is swept out of existence , Picard removes his mask, sighs and seems to shake off the dream. It is as if he knew this would happen. We are not told if this is because, for a moment, he was Korgano or simply because he has an intuitive grasp of mythology. What is clear is that Menosky has an intuitive grasp of mythology and that the cast and crew are skilled in the art of Faerian drama, making “Masks,” a natural centerpiece for our Inklingsiana evening.

Signal the Enterprise: Leave a comment telling us what you think of the way “Masks” handles its mythological themes. What other episodes from the Star Trek franchise would make a good topic for an Inklingsiana dicussion? 

Bonus Content: I was having trouble providing a synopsis of this episode so ten year old, G, who attended the meeting offered to recap:

masks-schoolroom

Picard gets symbols to eventually create Masaka’s temple with lots of plants and a golden throne. There are symbols on the walls with Masaka and Korgano’s symbols within stone blocks a big Masaka and a small Korgano but Troi found one with big Korgano and small Masaka. Soon enough Data, or Masaka, is sitting on the throne with Data’s mask he made himself. Picard had Geordi use the archive’s transformation system to transform Korgano. They end up getting Korgano’s mask. Picard wears the mask and convinces Masaka to sleep. The mask of Korgano disappears but the mask of Masaka’s is Data’s to keep.


*Shaka when the walls fell? “Masks” is arguably not more myth-centric than the beloved “Darmok,” also written by Menosky and the first TNG episode we watched at an Inklingsiana meeting. picard darmok beam out

3 thoughts on “Listening to Masaka

  1. The myth-centric episodes are, by far, the ones I enjoy the most. New insights arise with each viewing, and I enjoy the “little light” with all the enthusiasm of a first discovery. “Masks (Masaka?)” and “Darmok,” with the re-writing of Gilgamesh, are wonderfully done and the company does an excellent job of presentation.
    Interestingly enough, once Picard/Korgano understands that the cycle must be completed, I was reminded of “Jumanji,” instead of the obvious mythos of Sun and Moon and Cyclic Event. “Jumanji” was in production when “Masks” was aired, so there *might* have been some cross-over, but as is the way of inclusion, it is not unthinkable that two minds saw a similar Cycle, and expressed it in two different ways.

    As for what the Archive might have presented to Klingons or Ferengi would have needed to be entirely different. The acceptance of Data’s positronics meant that the pattern would unfold as it needed to. I can’t help but wonder what another culture in some other portion of the galaxy will think if it finds any of the Deep Space Probes that have been sent out into the cosmos in the last 50 years, and how they will perceive us, as a race.

    Another (completely different) episode that might be interesting to view and discuss would be “Measure of a Man” where Data’s continued existence is on trial, and “life” must gain a whole new definition.

    Thanks for the recap, Kelly. I wish I could have been there.
    Becky

    • I teach a pop culture and philsophy class for senior adults (and, sometimes, for all ages. Everyone who knows my classes just assumes there will be Star Trek and Doctor Who clips. At the meeting, we did talk about what Americans sent out in Voyager and what that says about our consciousness as opposed to the consciousness that produced the archives . (It is not stated in the episode but the culture is called the D’arsay.) The D’arsay seem to think in pictographs, symbols that they might even consider universal but we sent out music and numbers, thinking that these are universal enough to prove that they come from intelligent life. I do think the archive might have presented the same puzzle to another culture but would they have interacted with it the way Picard did? i apologize if my thoughts are disjointed. There is so much to discuss in a single episode! Thank you for reading the discussion recap!

  2. Pingback: Deep Thoughts on the Big Screen: 5 Philosophical Movies | The Grey Havens Group

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