Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Measure Of A Man

James' season 2 look-back reaches a solid contender for the best TNG episode of all time. Here's his take on The Measure Of A Man...

This review contains spoilers.

2.9 The Measure Of A Man

The Enterprise has docked at the newly-built Starbase 173 for routine maintenance (exciting!). While the bridge crew (and Chief O’Brien) sits down to ones of its regular poker friendlies, Picard is surprised to discover his old flame Captain Louvois is now the chief JAG on board the Starbase. Apparently they parted in acrimonious circumstances when she didn’t so much throw the book at him as the entire library, following the loss of the USS Stargazer.

More pressingly, the crew discover that local cyberneticist Commander Maddox has big plans to create a working positronic brain. And all he has to do is take Data apart. He asserts that he can probably put him back together again, you know, if he takes enough reference photos along the way, but for some reason no-one is particularly keen on the idea. So Maddox busts out a transfer order forcing Data to go with him.

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Unable to find a loophole preventing the transfer, Data instead attempts to resign his commission. Sadly, slowly, he begins to pack up his stuff: a box of medals, a book, and a tiny holographic depiction of Tasha Yar. Unfortunately, Maddox interrupts (we know he’s a dick because he constantly calls Data “it”, Pulaski-style) and claims that Data can’t quit Starfleet because he’s just a robot. Which begs the question of why he was allowed to join in the first place, but that’s beside the point.

Picard requests adjudication, and naturally it falls to the episode’s other new character (Louvois) to perform that duty. Understaffed (the legal advocates will be delivered on Tuesday) she appoints Picard as defender and forces Riker to be the prosecutor, lest she summarily rule in Maddox’s favour. The trial (although it’s not a trial) of the century begins: is Data a man or a machine? Man-shaped machine doesn’t count!

In his opening argument, Riker make a convincing case for Data being a mindless automaton which ends with him dramatically pushing one of the various off switches Data has (seriously, how much redundancy does one Android need? This one is conveniently located on his back. “Sorry I was late for my shift, Captain, I hit my chair at the wrong angle and switched myself off”)

Rattled by Riker’s brilliant offense, Picard goes to talk to Whoopi Goldberg, who “gently” nudges him towards the realisation that a race of Datas would essentially be used as slaves by Starfleet. Enthused by this, he heads back down to the courtroom and delivers an impassioned argument so devastating that even Maddox stands up and applauds it (well, virtually.) It’s a victory not just for Picard, but for a more compassionate humanity. By the time this scene was over, I’d been convinced to try emancipating not just Siri, but also whichever program it is that sits in the DVD player and makes it say “hello” when I switch it on.

With Data’s status newly defined by a court of spacelaw, he formally turns down Maddox and promises to lend a hand when his experiments aren’t a complete joke. The crew are throwing a victory party for Data, but Riker’s off moping in a corner until Data comes and thanks him for taking on such a burden as having to prosecute him, promising to never forget his self-sacrifice. And audiences everywhere are reduced to tears – and this time, with good reason.

TNG WTF:  The only real problem in this episode is that one can’t help but wonder why this hasn’t come up before. Like, for example, when Data applied to the academy. Surely a ruling was made then which determined Data’s status, and thus establishes a precedent?

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And as good as this episode is, it’s also hard to ignore the total lack of chemistry between Picard and Louvois. While the text makes it clear that there’s supposed to be a love-hate relationship between them, but their interactions are flatter than Minkowski spacetime.

TNG LOL: Data unwrapping presents, then tearing the (already removed) paper when prompted by the bridge crew. An utterly hilarious moment.

Time Until Meeting: 8:37. The lead into this cracks me up. “I am going to disassemble Data.” says Maddox. Reaction shot of Data. Reaction shot of Picard. Hard cut to them all sitting down at the meeting table. TNG is the only show where the meeting which follows that assertion is considering more interesting than the immediate, emotional response to it.

Captain’s Log: Sometimes it felt like the day might never come, but this is it: the first episode of TNG that doesn’t just reach the potential of Star Trek, it stretches far, far beyond it. Admittedly, you couldn’t do this episode without a lot of set up beforehand, but it more than justifies the failures if once or twice a season we can get a success even close to this.

The genius in this episode pretty much starts in the first scene and doesn’t stop until the closing credits. Spiner plays up Data’s innocence throughout, but also manages to project an air of stoicism. He might be emotionless, but that just leaves him as a blank slate onto which we can project our own feelings. There’s huge pathos in the scene of him packing up his few treasured belongings, and that makes it doubly affecting when Picard busts them out in the courtroom.

It’s perhaps unfair to judge all previous episodes by this one. Let’s be fair, this is a solid contender for the best TNG episode full stop. But if you ever wondered what any of us ever saw in TNG, this is it. A powerfully humanist piece of television that gives impersonal issues a personal face.

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Watch or Skip? If you only watch one episode of TNG, it might be a good idea to make it this one.

Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, A Matter of Honor, here.

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