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The Trek Nation - The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at November 30, 2007 - 11:05 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Measure of a Man' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Commander Bruce Maddox comes aboard the Enterprise during a visit to the new Starbase 173 with transfer orders for Data, whom he intends to disassemble in order to produce more androids for Starfleet. Data has serious reservations both because Maddox does not believe that an android is a sentient being and because he does not believe that Maddox has the skill to preserve his memories and consciousness. When Philipa Louvois, the Judge Advocate General who presided over his court martial after the loss of the Stargazer, suggests that Data's only option may be to resign, Data leaves Starfleet, but Maddox files a complaint stating that Data is not an individual but the property of Starfleet, just like the Enterprise computer. Louvois rules that the law favors Maddox's position the Federation and insists that in order to hold a hearing without a full staff, Picard will have to defend Data while Riker prosecutes the case. Forced to accept the position to avoid a summary ruling, Riker demonstrates that Data is a machine that can be switched off and argues that he was created to serve human needs. Devastated by Riker's performance, Picard tells Guinan of his certainty that he will be defeated, to which she suggests that maybe that's for the best - the Federation can create an entire race of disposable people to do dangerous or undesirable work. Understanding that calling an intelligent being "property" is a euphemism for slavery, Picard insists that Data is no more property than children are the property of their parents and he should have the same right of self-determination. Louvois rules that while Data may be a machine, she does not have the authority to decide whether he has a soul, and he is free to make his own choices in life to discover that for himself.


Analysis: One of the best episodes not only of The Next Generation but in all of Star Trek, "The Measure of a Man" distills all the things that make this series matter: seeking out new life and new civilizations, cherishing diversity, insisting on fairness and equality, understanding the value of friendship (or, where friendship is not possible, cooperation), overcoming fears and keeping a sense of humor through it all. The story picks up where "Elementary, Dear Data" and "The Schizoid Man" each left off - the one leaving hanging the question of the rights of a sentient construct, the other honing in on the question of whether Data's rights are equivalent to those of a human. As Guinan makes explicit to Picard, that question is so much bigger than the rights of Data, or Moriarty, or - to extrapolate into Star Trek's future - a series of emergency medical holograms. Maddox frames his project in terms of the greater moral good, creating additional androids to assist and protect humans from danger. Picard mentions that he has sent humans into danger as great as that which Maddox proposes for Data. Expendable people, Guinan suggests calmly, would make such dilemmas go away; Starfleet would have an entire race of beings at its disposal, conveniently labeled property, to face the worst of the threats.

This dialogue is subtle and brilliant, though the same might be said for Melinda M. Snodgrass's entire screenplay...in fact, the only overdone element of the episode is the score, which ominously underscores Maddox's straightforward statement of his plans. The Associate Chair of Robotics at the Daystrom Institute needs no assistance to come off as a terrifying villain; Data has greater power against a bat'leth or Borg nanites than being called by the pronoun "it." This is not just a story about big ideas but the smallest details of characterization and relationships. Take Riker, for instance, whose competitive nature gets put through a full workout. We see him at the very beginning hosting a poker tournament, bluffing his way past Data's expertise about the game ("It makes very little sense to bet when you cannot win." "But I did win. I was betting that you wouldn't call"). Forced to take on a role he makes it very clear he doesn't want, he smiles as he examines Data's schematics, only to frown immediately as he realizes the implications of showing his weaknesses in the courtroom. He gives a brilliant performance in the role of prosecutor, then sits and rubs his face, smiling in genuine relief and pleasure when Picard gives the stronger argument and then avoiding the celebration because he feels guilty, until Data points out that Riker's taking on the unpleasant role "injured you and saved me." Riker's usual sounding board, Troi, is nowhere to be seen and in this rare instance that works to the character's advantage; he must knuckle down on his feelings and choose his priorities, as he will do on several later occasions under pressure to take his own command.

There are dozens of lovely little character moments. Wesley looks with concern at Data on the bridge when Maddox first appears, making it clear without a word of dialogue that he is more attuned to Data's responses than most of the more mature officers who call him a friend. Pulaski, who a few short weeks ago had her own doubts about Data's status as a full-fledged person, plays poker with him and is among the circle of friends at his farewell party. LaForge spends his time at that party moping at the unfairness of Maddox's scheme and sorry that his friend will be leaving. Picard finally reveals an attraction to a fully-fleshed-out woman with a life of her own, not a nurturer but a onetime adversary, and their biting exchanges add wit and color to what might otherwise be the drab procedural scenes necessary to set up the fireworks of the hearing. (I'm a huge fan of stickler-for-detail Philippa Louvois, whose seeming drawbacks as a judge advocate end up becoming her greatest strengths and Data's salvation...plus she's the only character we've met so far who'd tell Picard to his face that he's both a pompous ass and a damn sexy man.) Even Maddox, who's very difficult to like, is wonderfully characterized and well-acted: his admiration of Data is tainted because he's threatened by Data's intelligence, his pride in his own achievements is diminished because he can't reproduce Soong's work or even articulate a theory of how he might do so, he keeps a tight lid on his anger and responds to a question about whether he likes Data by saying tightly that he doesn't know "it" well enough to say.

But this is Data's episode, and although he doesn't get much opportunity to explore his trademark offbeat humor beyond the opening bit, it's one of his finest hours. Whereas he becomes only a bit discombobulated over losing a poker hand, he looks distinctly uncomfortable in Maddox's presence and when he learns of the scientist's plans, he comes close to losing his cool. He is willing to concede that Maddox's research has intriguing potential, but he tells Picard flat-out that he will not submit to it, and when Picard says that there are Starfleet interests to consider, Data retorts that if LaForge's VISOR allows him to see better than human eyes, it would make sense for Starfleet to require all its officers to have their eyes put out and replaced by implants. I can't recall ever seeing Picard look so ashamed of himself. When Maddox barges into Data's quarters uninvited, Data is calm but clearly annoyed about it, an ineffable quality very much like the details of memory that Data wants to preserve as something integral to himself. He seems determined to prove something when he stops trying to preserve the wrapping paper on Worf's gift and, at Wesley's prodding, rips and crumples it. He smiles when his hologram of Tasha Yar does the same, he saves his medals even before Picard emphasizes their importance by having his awards read in court (a moving nod to the original series' "Court Martial" when it was Kirk in the chair). Riker can remove Data's hand and turn him off, but Pinocchio can't be broken so easily. He's already a real boy.

And this is Picard's episode as well, one of his most memorable and emotional appearances. At first it is inconceivable to him that he could lose - that anyone could fail to see the obvious fact that Data has rights that must be protected. Then his first officer and friend gives a chilling performance at the hearing, and his confidence is shattered. Rather than either of his usual confidants, Riker and Troi, he talks to Guinan, who carefully nudges him to a different perspective, allowing him to work out the argument for himself. When he says that she's talking about slavery, she says breezily, "I think that's a little harsh." The dynamic is fantastic, very different than with Louvois, who believes that overt sentimentality is not one of Jean-Luc's failings and mocks his passion over a machine ("Then Data is a toaster!"). But Guinan is just as determined to get in her points. And she's completely confident that once Picard looks at the bigger equation, he'll come out ahead at the hearing, and he'll also never make the mistake again of allowing an easy euphemism to obscure exploitation. It's a classic moment when Picard demands that Maddox prove that he, the captain of the Enterprise, is a sentient being; it's an even more classic moment when, after flipping around Riker's opening question about what Data is (an android, an automaton, a machine...a sentient being), Picard points at Data, cites Starfleet's founding principle to seek out new life and announces, "Well, there it sits. Waiting."

It's a resolution worth waiting for...Louvois looking a bit ashamed, admitting that she struggles with the metaphysical issues brought up by the hearing but certain that Data deserves the same right to struggle with them, and Maddox finally seeing Data as a "he" rather than an "it." There's no real need for proof of Data's individuality but he provides it anyway, first being generous to Maddox, then to Riker. There isn't any big declaration of gratitude to Picard, and I'm sure Picard would agree that there shouldn't be, when he's arguing something so fundamental. Well done indeed.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.