I’ll admit I have a tendency to approach some of these marquee episodes with at least a marginal degree of skepticism. Too often I’ve been of the mind there are bits of the Star Trek franchise whose reputations have been badly inflated or, alternatively, are good but are praised for what I consider the wrong reasons. That’s not always the case, of course, sometimes things are popular and well-loved for a reason, and that’s a truth that’s far too often overlooked in pop culture discourse and critique.
This though is one that’s never quite sat entirely comfortably with me. It is unquestionably a triumphant statement of purpose from Melinda Snodgrass (in fact it’s so good it landed her the position of story editor for the remainder of this season and the first half of the next) and definitely bears more of the hallmarks of an “iconic” episode than anything else we’ve seen this season (and arguably will see, apart from the inescapable “Q, Who?”), but there have always been niggling questions and concerns Ive had with “The Measure of a Man” that I’ve never been able to fully put to rest. And unfortunately, I have to say this latest rewatch did little to change my mind.
There are two main ways of going about looking at this episode depending on who you think the main character is. Classical fan logic slants Data into this role, as it’s his rights that are at stake and so much of the story hinges on his personal experiences and sense of self-awareness. From Data’s perspective, this would put “The Measure of a Man” squarely into the territory of “Elementary, Dear Data” and its Hard SF “what manner is a non-human?” A-plot to the point it almost feels like a bit of a reiteration. Indeed, this isn’t even the first time Star Trek: The Next Generation has tackled these issues: Back in the “Home Soil” post I even threw it in with a whole series of other episodes overtly looking at the rights and sentience of artificial intelligences. There’s nothing strictly new to be talked about there. “The Measure of a Man” similarly follows in the footsteps of a number of episodes this season examining who and what Data in particular is: The aforementioned “Elementary, Dear Data”, as well as “The Outrageous Okona” and “The Schizoid Man”. Not to mention any of the season’s earliest scenes featuring Doctor Pulaski.
The thing about giving the lead to Data here though, as intuitive as it may seem, is that the entire dramatic weight of the episode is a foregone conclusion. Nobody watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989 needed the show to diegetically state Data is a person or even needed to see an in-universe assessment of that. We travel with Data and can gather everything we need to know about his personhood from narrative subtext. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing when a story’s resolution lacks any sort of suspense, I think people place far too much emphasis on things like surprise, twists and plot originality anyway. But what it does mean is that the appeal of “The Measure of a Man” was never going to be in what, if anything, it revealed to us about who Data was, but rather in how the story’s other characters react to him.
In this regard, a beneficial way to read “The Measure of a Man”, and the way Melinda Snodgrass herself intended, is as a Captain Picard story. As Snodgrass says, the episode is about determining a man’s character and Data himself explicitly says he’s not a man. This doesn’t mean he’s not an individual, even the hearing eventually does rule as such, but it’s not about determining the kind of person Data is as much as it is determining the kind of person Captain Picard is. Because while none of us in the audience need convincing that Data is a person, it would seem the Federation do. But this is something we should actually expect: To paraphrase K. Jones’ analysis of Doctor Pulaski under the “Where Silence Has Lease” post, they come from outside. We all know who and what Data is because we travel with the Enterprise every week, but the Enterprise is in truth an outlier in the world of Starfleet, not the gatekeeper of its values and ethics: We can’t expect Starfleet officers who don’t live and work on the Enterprise to share that community’s same morals and ideals. So, when faced with a situation that directly puts him and his ship in conflict with the institutionalized system they ostensibly work for, Picard is forced to take a stand, as he knows his actions will not only have consequences for his friends, but will reflect the sort of person he wants to be.
Which is why the key moment is the scene in Ten Forward where Picard is talking to Guinan about the hearing. In one of those serendipitous collusions of genius writing and genius casting, Guinan subtly points out to Picard that what Maddox has planned for Data, essentially using him as a prototype for an army of service androids who would be assigned to every starship, is tantamount to slavery. And that’s why Picard uses the otherwise anthropologically unacceptable term “race” in his defense: He’s deliberately using a loaded and deprecated term to demonstrate how Starfleet’s own behaviour in this matter has been inexcusably retrograde and would put the Federation firmly back into the master’s throne it’s always so perilously close to. There’s a lot of nice speeches and some neat stuff about philosophy of mind, the self and personal identity theory that the show laudably doesn’t screw up, and I’m sure Adam Riggio will have a lot to say about this (oh look, he already does). Phillipa Louvois even correctly says “This case has dealt with metaphysics, with issues best left to saints and philosophers. I’m neither competent nor qualified to answer those”, but she’s derailing the conversation. The issue is, and always has been, “a truth that we have obscured behind a comfortable euphemism”.
And that’s why my biggest problem with “The Measure of a Man” is that it’s played as a courtroom drama. Just for the record, I loathe courtroom dramas on general principle: I tend to find them pompously overblown things that obfuscate and misrepresent legal jurisprudence to a frankly dangerous and irresponsible degree simply to artificially inflate drama. And that’s precisely what “The Measure of a Man” does. One thing I’ve never been able to get beyond is the story’s treatment of Commander Riker: To the best of my knowledge and based on what research I’ve done (meaning I wrote a friend of mine who is a former law student and asked him), there is absolutely no legal precedent for Riker to be pressed into prosecuting the case here. I’ve always suspected that was more than a little fishy, and I think this twist really damages the finished product. It brings the entire tone of the episode down to high school logic and debate class and reduces Riker’s character to vacuous, unnecessary angst. There is absolutely no reason for Riker to be prosecuting Data and Picard against his will except drama for drama’s sake, and if there’s one trend in narrative media I absolutely hate it’s drama for drama’s sake.
Furthermore, the episode misuses the term “summary judgment” when “default judgment” would probably be a more preferable descriptor for what Louvois threatens to do, it’s never explained why Maddox can’t represent himself or seek his own council and the entire case as built should probably have been thrown out due to the *extremely blatant* conflict of interest on *everyone’s* part. Now, I’m not a lawyer while Melinda Snodgrass actually is, so I certainly wouldn’t presume to challenge her on legalese, but even *I* noticed things were a bit suspect here, and Snodgrass’ law degree certainly doesn’t preclude the producers taking her submission and monkeying around with it to make it less accurate but more dramatic. Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann even flat out say in the entry on this episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 that after they read her pitch and asked her to come to Los Angeles, the producers “made the necessary changes” to “The Measure of a Man” to turn it into a filmable draft.
And the fact of the matter is that all of this actually gets in the way of me enjoying the good philosophical stuff and touching character bits. All I can think about is how little sense this trial makes and how unfair and phony it all feels. And there’s a larger issue at play here too: Just as Guinan pointed out to Picard, all this emphasis on grandiose highbrow metaphysics only serves to distract us from the reality that what this is ultimately about is the ruling class assuming the right to profit off of and exploit an oppressed class of “disposable people”. This isn’t about personal identity theory, it’s about depersonalization, and how those in power will always default to enslavement in the name of efficiency. In hindsight it’s obvious why the Federation wouldn’t recognise Data as sentient and try to strip away his personhood in the name of replicating his value as a unit of labour: The Federation wants to mass-produce Data, which is only logical, as the Federation is built on the foundation of Western capitalism and Western capitalism is built on the foundation of slavery. What capitalistic entity wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to create an entire race of disposable workers at a negligible upfront investment cost?
(By the way, according to the scene where Riker shows Data’s arm to the court, Data’s construct apparently contains a Nausicaan valve, a Totoro interface and a Kei/Yuri submodule. Which is all the more reason why its so important that Picard’s defense sets a precedent and helps bring about a genuine societal sea change.)
This is why “The Measure of a Man” is so revealing for Captain Picard. He’s angry because he’s being forced to legally defend something that should be self-evident. We shouldn’t need laws to tell us how to be decent fucking human beings, and Picard is rightfully outraged that the Federation apparently does. And this is yet another problem I have with this episode, because, particularly through the character of Louvois, it seems to be *glorifying* the process of legal jurisprudence as a form of material social progress, which is just about the most appallingly backwards concept I think I’ve come across in this show since “Code of Honor”. Never at any point in the history of the world has any good ever come of oppressed groups asking for compromise and concessions from the ruling classes, and that includes the legal system. Progress has only ever been achieved through people living their lives in accordance with their ideals and great work, or through taking their destinies by force from the hands of the people keeping it from them. There are no compromises, there is only capitulation.
(Speaking of oppressed groups, this episode isn’t amazing for women. In spite of being likeably crusty, Phillipa Louvois is yet another in a long line of characters largely defined by being one of Captain Picard’s Old Flames. For someone who’s “not a family man” Picard sure does seem to have a lot of exes bouncing around the galaxy. Deanna Troi is once again a no-show, except in a scene cut from the final episode, and while Doctor Pulaski is great at the inaugural poker game, which I wanted to say more about before I got annoyed and carried away, she had an even better scene bidding good-bye to Data at the party that was cut as well. And don’t get me going on Tasha Yar, who is now straightforwardly only valued because she had sex with Data that one time.)
So is all of this enough to throw out “The Measure of a Man” altogether? I mean probably not; there’s still a lot of enjoyable material here that definitely earns the classic status. But the work on the whole has a lot more that I find problematic and questionable, and I’m concerned that so many people, perhaps going out of their way to try and find classic episodes, are willing to give all that a pass. I’m forced to wonder about the kinds of things fans are willing to overlook in media such as this if it means they get to gush about it without a guilty conscience.