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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Measure of A Man

August 9, 2013

Originally aired February 13, 1989. Stardate 42523.7. The Enterprise is on its way to a new space station, and we’ve got the first ever poker game. Riker, Data, Geordi, Pulaski and O’Brien. Riker bluffs out Data for the win. On the station, Picard runs into a woman he knows. There’s very mixed feelings between them.

After the credits, we get the story. Phillipa Louvois is the JAG for the station. It seems she court-martialled Picard after the Stargazer was lost. An Admiral comes by with Bruce Maddox, and asks for a tour of the Enterprise. On the Bridge, the Admiral says Maddox is there to work on Data. Maddox was on the Starfleet Entrance Board, and was the sole member of the Board to refuse Data’s request, on the grounds that Data wasn’t a sentient being. Maddox wants to disassemble Data and study him to be able to build more androids. Data is concerned that the preliminary work isn’t sufficient, so Picard refuses to go along with it. But Maddox brought reassignment orders.

After a break, Picard and Data meet in Picard’s Ready Room. Picard talks about needing to understand Starfleet’s perspective, and how an army of Datas could help a lot. Data asks why all officers aren’t required to have cybernetic eyes like Geordi’s. He later goes to see Louvois, who’s surprised to see Picard so passionate about a machine. She says Data can resign. We then cut to Data’s quarters as he packs. We see his hologram of Tasha. Maddox comes in, and tries to convince Data to go through with it. Data says he doesn’t believe Maddox has done enough to preserve his memories as anything more than facts and figures. He brings up poker as an example – he read everything he could on poker, but when he finally played it, it was nothing like he’d read. It’s a great scene.

Break. Maddox is trying to use legal means to get Data. He says Data’s not a person, he’s a machine. He says Data is property. We then head to Data’s going-away party, which includes a very funny moment of him tearing wrapping paper. He also has a nice moment with Geordi. The friendship between the two is wonderfully real. Louvois declares that Data is the property of Starfleet. Picard challenges it. Louvois says Picard will represent Data, and Riker will represent Maddox. This is an odd rule. It’s a blatant conflict of interest, but she leaves him no choice.

Break. Riker’s doing his legal research, and finds out about Data’s off-button. He smiles with success, then realizes what he’s done and feels awful. Now, the hearing. Riker calls Data to the stand. He asks various technical questions, then has Data bend a steel bar, then removes his hand. He ends by shutting Data off. His brutal argument done, he sits down, disgusted with himself.

Break. Picard talks to Guinan about it. She brings up the fact that an army of Datas would be a whole race of disposable people. Picard realizes she’s talking about slavery. Back to the hearing. Picard calls Data back to the stand. He takes out various things Data had packed, and asked why he kept them. Then he calls Maddox to the stand. Maddox retains his opinion that Data is not sentient. He defines sentience, and Picard asks why he’s sentient and Data’s not. He challenges Maddox’s definition and shows how Data matches Maddox’s own definition. It’s a brilliant scene, with a classic Picard speech. Louvois ultimately rules that Data is not property. Maddox cancels the transfer, and Data tells him to continue his research. Picard invites Louvois to dinner. And then we get a scene between Data and Riker. Riker feels guilty about almost costing Data his life. Data says he’s grateful that Riker took the chance and prevented a summary ruling.

This is a fantastic episode. This is one of the best episodes of the whole series, and the kind of thing TNG excelled at. It’s a complex exploration of what it means to be alive, to be sentient, to be a person. It’s philosophical and intelligent, and it’s also very tense. Riker’s presentation is chilling. It’s convincing. And then Picard responds with one of the speeches he became so well-known for, on the nature of sentience and slavery.

This was the first episode written by Melinda Snodgrass, who was actually a lawyer, which is probably why the courtroom stuff is so well-done, the arguments so powerful. The only weakness is the idea of Riker being forced to argue against Data, which as I said, is a blatant conflict of interest. But even that was well-handled, and resulted in a really interesting and compelling dilemma for Riker. Snodgrass quit her job and became a full-time writer, then story editor and executive script consultant.

Just about everyone has praised this episode. Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, director Robert Scheerer and more all called it their favourite episode, Stewart called it the first truly great episode (I would say A Matter of Honour was the first great episode, but this one’s definitely even better than that). It really is wonderful.

We’ll find out later that Data actually keeps in touch with Maddox. Keith R.A. DeCandido (whose own reviews of the series are far better than mine, so you really should read them) actually had Maddox defend B-4 in one of the TNG novels, Articles of the Federation. The poker game introduced in this episode becomes a major recurring thing, and is always enjoyable.

I’m giving this my first 5/5. It’s an amazing episode, excellent in every way. All the actors do great jobs, there’s a lot of powerful scenes, and a complex issue is tackled in an intelligent way.

  1. Nice write up. I was just randomly thinking today about the best Star Trek TNG episodes and this one came to mind. It’s the kind of cerebral story that is noticeably absent in JJ Abrams’ reboot, which are fun action movies for the masses.

    • Yeah, Abrams doesn’t get the point of Star Trek.He said he never liked it because it was too smart for him. But it’s supposed to be smart. It’s supposed to be an appeal to our better natures, showing us what we can be if we just try to work together.

      He turned it into a dumb, generic action movie.

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