Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Measure of a Man”

“The Measure of a Man”
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Robert Scheerer

Season 2, Episode 9
Original air date: February 13, 1989
Star date: 42523.7

Mission summary

Data gets an important lesson in humanity when he joins O’Brien, LaForge, Riker, and Pulaski for a game of poker and loses to Riker’s bluff. (Which only worked because of the beard.) But life deals Data an even worse hand when Enterprise arrives at Starbase 173 and Commander Maddox comes aboard with orders to dismantle the android.

Maddox was the sole naysayer on the committee that evaluated Data for entrance to Starfleet Academy, maintaining that he was not sentient. Since then, he’s been studying Data and his creator’s work, and now he’s ready to reverse engineer the android to begin mass production. Data and Picard refuse to allow this delicate procedure, but Maddox has had Data transferred to his command—and orders him to report the next morning for disassembly.

Picard appeals to an old nemesis for help, Phillipa Louvois, the head of the Judge Advocate General office for the sector, who ten years before was the prosecutor in the Stargazer court martial. Despite her previous attempt to screw him over, she now seems just as interested in screwing him, but he would rather think about someone he actually likes: his second officer. Louvois doesn’t understand Picard’s “passion over a machine” instead of her, but she throws him a bone. The only way to protect Data is for him to resign from Starfleet.

Data tries to do just that, but Maddox cog blocks him by going to Louvois to argue his case.

MADDOX: Data must not be permitted to resign.
PICARD: Data is a Starfleet officer. He still has certain rights.
MADDOX: Rights! Rights! I’m sick to death of hearing about rights! What about my right not to have my life work subverted by blind ignorance?
LOUVOIS: We have rule of law in this Federation. You cannot simply seize people and experiment with them to prove your pet theories.
PICARD: Thank you.
MADDOX: Now you’re doing it. Data is an extraordinary piece of engineering, but it is a machine. If you permit it to resign it will destroy years of work in robotics. Starfleet does not have to allow the resignation.
PICARD: Commander, who do you think you’re working for? Starfleet is not an organization that ignores its own regulations when they become inconvenient. Whether you like it or not, Data does have rights.
MADDOX: Let me put it another way. Would you permit the computer of the Enterprise to refuse a refit?
LOUVOIS: That’s an interesting point. But the Enterprise computer is property. Is Data?
MADDOX: Of course.
PHILLIPA: There may be law to support this position.

She determines that the “Acts of Cumberland” establish precedent and rules Data the property of Starfleet. Picard challenges her decision and she agrees to convene a hearing, provided that Picard defend Data and Riker prosecutes the case, since the rest of her staff won’t arrive until Tuesday, and they’re the two highest ranking officers at the starbase.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have another thrilling episode of Law & Order: Starfleet.

Riker is conflicted by his assigned role in Data’s downfall, particularly when he studies his friend’s schematics and discovers a damning piece of evidence, which basically makes his case for him: Data is clearly a machine because he can be turned off. When Data takes the stand, he uses the super-secret insider knowledge about the android’s off switch to deactivate him: “Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut.”

Picard calls a recess and drowns his sorrows in synthehol in Ten Forward, where Guinan offers a few sage words of advice and helps to crystallize the real issue.

GUINAN: Well, 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 to 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 we have obscured behind a comfortable, easy euphemism. Property. But that’s not the issue at all, is it?

Court resumes and Picard calls Data to the stand and begins building a case around the personal effects Data has packed and his illogical, sentimental attachment to them: his Starfleet medals, a book that Picard gave him, and a hologram of Tasha Yar, his one-time lover. Picard then challenges Maddox to prove that the captain is sentient but Data is not. The captain proves that the android meets two criteria for sentience: he is intelligent and self-aware. It all comes down to one criterion: whether Data is conscious. And he argues that no one can know that answer for sure, so they can’t treat him as if he isn’t: “Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?”

Louvois reluctantly admits that she isn’t qualified to answer “questions best left to saints and philosophers,” but someone’s gotta do it:

We have all been dancing around the basic issue. Does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.


Unsurprisingly, Data chooses to remain intact but encourages Maddox to keep working hard and one day, when he’s competent, maybe the android will cooperate with his research. Maddox finally accepts that Data is more than a machine, referring to him as “he” for the first time. Picard is so grateful to Louvois, he invites her to dinner. And Data consoles Riker for nearly getting him killed, because he did it for all the right reasons.


This is the episode I used to get an ex-girlfriend interested in Star Trek, and it did the trick. (The other episode I showed her was “Arena,” when she wanted to see the inspiration for some jokes in Galaxy Quest.) I’ve always upheld “The Measure of a Man,” a title which perhaps sounds naughtier than it is, as one of the best the franchise has to offer. I’m pleased that after this re-watch, it I still think as highly of it.

I didn’t quote large chunks of dialogue in the recap above out of laziness; this is simply one of the best written episodes we’ve seen to date, and of the entire series, with a superb performance by Sir Patrick Stewart. Courtroom dramas keep cropping up on Star Trek, but this one sets the gold standard: It’s tight, compelling, well-paced, and thought-provoking, without getting too preachy.

This episode shows restraint that has been lacking in the series up until now, whenever the writers want to push a moral agenda. “The Measure of a Man” does raise some big human rights questions, but it also leaves them there, allowing Data and viewers to decide the answers for themselves. Louvois cleverly (or incompetently) doesn’t rule that Data is a sentient being, simply suggesting that he deserves to have free will. Data gets what most of us want out of life: the chance to grow as individuals, explore all the possibilities before us, and fulfill our potential.

“Starfleet was founded to seek out new life,” Picard reminds us. “Well, there it sits.” It’s incredible that a ship tasked with seeking out new life and civilizations already carries one of its most precious discoveries. Possibly my favorite moment of this episode is the one in which Data defends his decision to Maddox, not out of selfishness or even the understandable desire for self-preservation, but because he is unique:

I am the culmination of one man’s dream. This is not ego or vanity, but when Dr. 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.

Put this way, one wonders why Data puts himself in danger week after week, but if we extrapolate a bit, we’re all just as unique. We may not be the only remaining specimen of our kind like he is (barring a couple of prototypes still lingering about), but our personalities, thoughts, and contributions to the universe are just as important and irreplaceable.

I was similarly moved by the discussion of him being more than just his memories and knowledge, which really is getting into the distinctly metaphysical territory of what makes us who we are. I’m not sure how this holds up in light of the recent “The Schizoid Man,” in which Dr. Graves successfully downloaded himself into Data’s positronic net, not to mention Star Trek Nemesis (I really do have to stop mentioning it!), but as a question limited to just this episode, it’s ripe for debate.

I’ve always been a little confused and put off by the slavery defense, though, and find it curious that it only occurs to Picard when a black woman brings it to his attention. (Though slavery presumably was not something the El Aurians had to deal with.) The episode just shies away from drawing direct parallels to human history, but I think it muddies the issue.

Before you can argue that it’s wrong to treat people like property, you have to establish that Data is a person—which was the whole point of the court case. Picard jumps ahead a bit to warn of the implications farther down the line, but by suggesting this is the path they’re on and the burden of the court decision to the future, he may have freaked out Louvois enough for her to essentially default on her duty. I understand that slavery was justified by maintaining that slaves were not human, but it still seems like a tenuous connection to me. Am I wrong?

There are also some refrigerator door questions that I’m mostly willing to overlook. One would presume that Data was already ruled sentient years ago, when he was admitted to Starfleet. Or did they do the same thing they did here, say “Well, we don’t know, but he’ll probably make a good red shirt, so why not let him in?” And why would Starfleet authorize Maddox to disassemble their only android, even if they did think he’s only property?

There’s also the matter of Riker being able to access Data’s schematics. I look at this as the equivalent of him being able to look at another crew member’s personal medical history. And why the hell is Data’s off-switch, something he disclosed in strict confidence to Dr. Crusher, now a matter of public record? It kind of seems like he’s being treated like property already, yeah?

And I figure there are all sorts of conflicts of interest at work here: Having Riker take the prosecution, and presenting the case to a prejudiced judge who had already decided that Data is just a machine. Then there’s the fact that Louvois is attracted to Picard, and he takes her to dinner right after she finds in his favor…

But these minor issues don’t change the fact that this is a solid hour of television, and the first to really show us just how thoughtful the new Star Trek could be when it tries really hard. And there wasn’t even a single explosion or fancy special effects, just five people in a room, talking. Bravo. This episode leads the way to a brighter future for the series.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: Nothing too embarrassing in this episode, since it’s mostly just Starfleet uniforms. I could talk about Guinan’s usual getup, but instead I’d like to point out a small bit of wardrobe, more of a prop, really: Data’s poker visor. This is the first appearance of the weekly crew poker game, which ends up becoming a regular feature of the series, as well as an occasional plot point, so it’s also the first appearance of his visor. Consequently, the prop became rather iconic, so much so that one of them went for $6,000 in the Christie’s auction six years ago. On a side note, I was surprised and pleased to see O’Brien playing poker with his commanding officers. I don’t remember how often this happens, but it usually seemed to be senior staff only, and Picard only ever joins the game once himself, in “All Good Things…”

Best Line: DATA: “With the application of a little care, Wes, the paper can be utilized again.”

Trivia/Other Notes: Twenty minutes of deleted scenes will be restored in an extended version of this episode for the Blu-ray “TNG remastered” season set.

The Regula I laboratory model from Star Trek II was repurposed as Starbase 173.

The Daystrom Institute is a reference to Richard Daystrom in the original series episode “The Ultimate Computer.”

This episode is almost universally praised from both crew and critics, cited as a favorite of Rick Berman’s and Michael Piller’s, ranked #6 on Entertainment Weekly‘s top 10 of TNG list, and garnering a Writer’s Guild nomination for “Best Episodic Drama.”

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 8 – “A Matter of Honor.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 10 – “The Dauphin.”

About Eugene Myers

E(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He has published four novels and short stories in various magazines and anthologies, most recently 1985: Stori3s from SOS. His first novel, Fair Coin, won the 2012 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF and Fantasy. He currently writes for the science fiction serial ReMade from Serial Box Publishing.