Ricky Church revisits the essential Jean-Luc Picard episodes as we count down to the premiere of Star Trek: Picard…
Though Star Trek: The Next Generation helped reintroduce the public to the franchise and cultivated new fans, common perception and many reviews at the time of the series’ beginnings felt it wasn’t as good as the original Star Trek. That perception began to shift during TNG‘s second season and one episode to thank for that is ‘The Measure of a Man’, where Captain Picard has to defend Data’s right to personhood before he’s taken away for study.
While the Enterprise is docked at a new outpost Commander Maddox, a Starfleet science officer who specializes in cybernetics and argued against Data joining Starfleet, comes aboard with orders to take Data away and study him, essentially dismantling him in order to produce more androids like him since Data is unique and the most advanced android anyone has come across. Data tries to leave Starfleet, but Maddox argues he is Starfleet property and his departure is akin to the ship’s computer refusing an order. It then turns to a legal court battle as Picard takes the position of defending Data on the grounds he is a sentient being even though, by Data’s own admission, he is a machine.
While the stakes revolve around Data’s future, both on the Enterprise and quite possibly his existence should something with Maddox’s experiment go wrong, what feels like a Data-centric episode is actually a Picard one. Even Melinda Snodgrass, the episode’s writer, believes it is a Picard episode because the stress is all on him to prove Data’s sentience. Picard goes from reluctantly agreeing with the transfer to vehemently fighting it not just because Data is his friend, but he comes to the conclusion that believing Data is not sentient is against everything the Federation stands for as Data may very well be a new form of life in the universe and considering him property and reproducing him for the sole purpose of service is tantamount to slavery.
What makes ‘Measure of a Man’ stand out more among TNG, especially in those early seasons, is how it evokes the classic feel of the original Star Trek. While there are no ship battles, fist fights or phasers going off, ‘Measure of a Man’ delves into heavy philosophical topics the original series would often explore. From Data making Picard realize why Starfleet is bold enough to make this request to the opposing arguments Picard and Maddox make, the story is riddled with heavy questions surrounding the possibilities of Data’s existence. Even Riker, in the unenviable position of representing Maddox in the hearing, makes a strong argument to view Data as nothing more than a useful machine, enough so that it nearly convinces Picard of it. But then it dives further by examining the three laws of sentience: intelligence, self-awareness and consciousness. Data has already met two of of Maddox’s criteria and there is nothing to say he, or any android that follows Data, will not reach true consciousness. The thought is a powerfully impactful one that remains one of the most compelling sequences of TNG as Picard delivers his closing statement and says with zeal “Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits! Waiting.” It’s enough to make even Maddox stop referring to Data as ‘it’ and ‘he’ instead.
Even without the philosophical debates over what is sentient, ‘Measure of a Man’ is an important step in the friendship between Jean-Luc Picard and Data. Much like Kirk and Spock before them, these were two very different living beings who often discussed the values, potential and questions of humanity. Picard and Data would go on to become hallmarks of TNG as they both helped each other navigate life and discover more about themselves. Patrick Stewart again gives an impressive performance as Picard, particularly during the aforementioned closing statement, but Brent Spiner is also worthy of recognition for his performance. Though Data does not have the emotions chip he would later gain, Spiner conveys many of the emotions Data feels throughout the episode. You know something is up when Data immediately reacts to Maddox’s name with apprehension and confusion or his surprise to find Maddox has entered his quarters unannounced and uninvited. The chemistry between Stewart and Spiner is strong here, but only grows stronger in the rest of the series and the building blocks for Picard and Data’s friendship is laid here.
‘The Measure of a Man’ was a turning point for Star Trek: The Next Generation as audiences began looking at it with a more serious eye due to its examination of machines and sentience. It may be a legal drama instead of a space adventure, but the story is compelling to watch just for the arguments it presents as well as the performances from Stewart and Spiner. It is definitely the start of TNG coming out of its growing pains and into the excellent and thought-provoking show it is known for.
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