Star Trek The Next Generation: The Measure of a Man

Picard: "Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits! Waiting."

In a season of episodes rated as twos and threes, this one stands above the rest. 'The Measure of a Man' is not only the best episode of this season, it's one of the best of the entire series. Perhaps even one of the best in the whole of Star Trek.

Much like Phillipa Louvois felt in delivering that final verdict, I feel a bit inadequate to write this review. This episode deals with some pretty heavy material: philosophy, civil rights, the human condition. Like all the great episodes of Star Trek, and science fiction in general, we aren't given easy solutions. Is Data alive? Does he have a soul? Personally, I feel that he does, because to me he is far more than just a machine.

But in the larger scope of things, should an artificial intelligence have rights? I think Guinan's argument is the only truly important factor to consider. As a moral society, especially the one described in the utopian future of Star Trek, it would be reckless and outright monstrous to condemn another intelligent species to servitude and slavery. It is clear to me that even if Data isn't alive, he has enough of a consciousness to be given basic rights.

But I have to consider the other side of the argument. Data does not feel fear, and it is safe to assume that as long as his positronic brain is unharmed during the procedure, he could possibly reclaim most if not all of his personality after his memories were re-implanted. To use a familiar phrase, do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? I'm honestly not sure. An entire race of Datas seems like a laudable goal, but is it worth the risk? Losing Data would be a devastating blow to the crew, and to Picard in particular. Which begs the question, is Picard serving his own interests by defending Data? Or is the experiment simply an unreasonable and unfair thing to ask anyone to submit to? Data had a strong point when he brought up the idea that Geordi's eyes are superior to human eyes in practically every way, and having every officer with those implants would be a boon to Starfleet. Yet the idea of forcing anyone to undergo that kind of invasive and permanent medical procedure is both appalling and disgusting. It's no wonder Picard jumped into action.

All of these questions are a response to an episode that delivers in every possible way. The story structure is tight, and there isn't a single irrelevant scene. The characters all work, and the dialogue is marvelous. Yet the real strength of this episode is the acting. Everyone stood out in this episode, even the smaller roles.

Amanda McBroom (Phillipa Louvois) immediately made an impression. There was the mostly implied history of her role in Picard's Stargazer court marshal, the subtle romantic vibes she shared with Picard, her almost humble realization that the case was too big and too far reaching for her and that she had to side with the future instead of being narrow-minded. At the same time she managed to convey the conflict and the complexity of that decision in such a way that it could be interpreted on multiple levels.

Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) seemed like more of a straight forward villain, a scientist so blinded by his profession that he could never consider the possibility that Data could be sentient. Yet it came across clear as day that Data's testimony surprised Maddox, especially the idea that Data had been intimate with someone. So when Picard cross-examined him, forcing him to ask the question about Data's sentience, he realized he was wrong. That's not a small character arc, especially given the brief time the character was on screen.

Then we have the wonderful performances by our main characters. I really liked the way Jonathan Frakes played Riker in this one. He was both zealous and horrified to be the prosecutor charged with taking away Data's rights. He did his job, and he did it well, but it was clear he was devastated by his own actions. The scene where he discovered that Data had an off switch is a particular favorite of mine. Riker expressed pleasure at finding the key to his argument, followed by the realization that he was likely condemning his friend. It was kind of perfect.

Brent Spiner was equally impressive with his understated performance. He had to walk a fine line, to express so many emotions without actually expressing them. I know that's basically what he always does, but instead of showing frustration and anger that would be the usual responses to this kind of situation, Data basically had to sit and be a passive participant in his own fate. Spiner used subtle facial tics and various subtle intonations of voice to display Data's internal conflict.

In the end, though, it came down to Patrick Stewart and his incredible acting range. I won't discuss the entire episode -- this is without a doubt a Picard episode. I want to focus on his absolutely riveting performance during the trial. He ran a gamut of emotions as he spoke, evoking specific reactions and then capitalizing on them. He forced everyone, including the audience, to see his point and come to the conclusion that his was the only opinion worth listening to. In short, it was a performance that cemented for me that Picard is my Captain.


Stardate: 42523.7
Location: Starbase 173, Sector 23 (near the Romulan Neutral Zone)

This episode was written by Melinda Snodgrass, and it was the first unsolicited script the show ever produced. It was also one of her first attempts at a screenplay, based on her time as a lawyer. She eventually went on to be a Next Generation story editor and an executive script consultant for the series in seasons 2 and 3.

Admiral Nakamura has the dubious honor of wearing the 'interim' Admiral's uniform, which appeared only twice in the second season.

This episode marks the first appearance of the poker game. This time we got Dr. Pulaski, Chief O'Brien, Riker, Geordi, and Data playing his first game ever. ("Is that what is called a poker face?")

Bruce Maddox worked for the Daystrom Institute, which was an homage to the character Richard Daystrom from the original series episode 'The Ultimate Computer'.

The model for Starbase 173 is the same model used for Space Station Regula 1 in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

My only real criticism of this episode is the obvious question of why didn't the status of Data's rights come up when he was entering Starfleet?


Picard: "It's been ten years, but seeing you again like this makes it seem like fifty. If we weren't around all these people, do you know what I would like to do?"
Phillipa: "Bust a chair across my teeth."
Picard: "After that."
Phillipa: "Oh, ain't love wonderful."

Phillipa: "It brings a sense of order and stability to my universe to know that you're still a pompous ass... and a damn sexy man."

Data: "I am the culmination of one man's dream. This is not ego or vanity, but when Doctor Soong created me, he added to the substance of the universe. If, by your experiments, I am destroyed, something unique, something wonderful, will be lost. I cannot permit that. I must protect his dream."

Guinan: "Consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do, because it's too difficult or too hazardous. And an army of Datas, all disposable? You don't have to think about their welfare; you don't think about how they feel. Whole generations of disposable people."
Picard: "You're talking about slavery."
Guinan: "I think that's a little harsh."
Picard: "I don't think that's a little harsh, I think that's the truth. But that's a truth that we have obscured behind a... comfortable, easy euphemism. 'Property'. But that's not the issue at all, is it?"

Riker: "Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut."

Picard: "Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible. In it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product: the truth, for all time. Now sooner or later, this man, or others like him, will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who will come after him to servitude and slavery?"

Data: "That act injured you and saved me. I will not forget it."
Riker: "You're a wise man, my friend."
Data: "Not yet, sir. But with your help, I am learning."

I don't think I can heap much more praise on this episode.

4 out of 4 Automatons broken with their strings cut

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related. He reviews Arrow and Farscape and cool new movies that strike his fancy.


Barbara Klein said...

A perfect review for a perfect episode!

More bits:

Amanda McBroom wrote the song "The Rose."

On Star Trek: Voyager there was an episode which delved into what happened to Zimmerman's "failed" efforts to create the holographic Doctor - servitude, slavery, and hard manual labor.

Miles O'Brien was also at the poker game.

One of the reasons Ms. Snodgrass's spec script was used is because the Writers Guild of America was on strike at the time, and only existing scripts could be used.

Billie Doux said...

Barbara, I absolutely agree. This is an excellent episode. I think what I liked most about it was that they didn't try to definitively answer the question of whether or not Data was sentient. The possibility that he might be was enough. It was also the first of very many wonderful poker games, and I think it was also the first of many wonderful Patrick Stewart/Whoopi Goldberg scenes. I had a major thing for Patrick Stewart during the run of Next Gen, and what he did during the trial is why.

Wonderful review, J.D.

Barbara Klein said...

I, too, had a "thing" for Sir Patrick!! He was absolutely perfect in this episode.

I also agree with J.D.'s assessment of Jonathan Frakes' performance, as well as how Riker was utilized. I remember watching the episode for the first time, and being devastated by the fact that Data had an "off switch."

Jess Lynde said...

I haven't commented on any of these Next Gen reviews, because I don't remember most of the episodes that well, aside from vague impressions of select moments. But there are a few episodes that have stayed strongly in mind, even after all these years, and this is one of them.

The complexity of the issues and the arguments, and the emotional stakes for all involved --- even emotionless Data --- really struck a chord with me. I was pretty young when this episode originally aired, and I doubt I had deeply considered the issues at the heart of the matter before, particularly the notion of sentience. I remember being completely devastated
when Riker did his job so well and cut Pinocchio's strings. That's Data! How could we reduce him to a mere machine? What is it that makes him more than that? An individual worthy of respect, dignity, and the freedom to make his own choices about what happens to his body? Fascinating questions for a young girl to begin exploring, and a transformative sci-fi moment for me.

Thanks for the wonderful review, J.D. It really recaptured everything that made this episode so very outstanding for me.

Mark Greig said...

Great reviews, J.D. Along with 'Q Who', this is the only episode of season 2 worthy of being considered a classic.

M said...

Captain Picard is pretty much the perfect man. I had a thing for him at 13, and I still do!

Juliette said...

It always bothers me that Riker having to prosecute Data is such a plot contrivance - there must be others around, or you could delay the trial, and Riker is clearly too close to the case to do this - but that doesn't stop this being an awesome episode. Plus is gave us 'Data is a toaster', and I'm pretty sure the slang term for Cylons in new Battlestar Galatica was not a coincidence!

Henrik Bennetter said...

My favorite Star Trek-episode of all time! Even better than some of the feature films...

milostanfield said...

Agreed that this was one of the best STNGs. Only "The Inner Light" equals "Measure" for emotional impact on a personal level for me.

Two thoughts: It was simple for Riker to yank out Data's off switch. But couldn't a skilled surgeon do the same thing with a scalpel? Sure the connections are more complex but is there any real difference in the result? On is alive and off is dead.

And: for me, being alive or sentient comes down to what you do, not what you are made of. Data is alive and sentient.

milostanfield said...

Sorry. Meant to say "But couldn't a skilled surgeon do the same thing TO A HUMAN with a scalpel?"