Sunday, December 14, 2014

“If you prick me, do I not...leak?”: The Measure of a Man

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.

Especially when so many of those things seem to be important to the sorts of people traditionally deemed “disposable”.


  1. Here's the thing I like about The Measure of a Man as a Picard episode.

    Picard has had a massive blind spot when it comes the Data's personhood. Compare Picard's treatment of Data in Datalore to his treatment of Worf in Heart of Glory. In Heart of Glory, a bunch of Klingons show up, and Picard trusts Worf implicitly and unquestionably. In Datalore, another android shows up and Picard makes a big speech to the bridge crew about how it is perfectly acceptable to question Data's loyalty, even though he is less subject to sentimentalism than his human or Klingon colleagues.

    In fact - and this is a detail that becomes clearer (and actually explicit) in the extended cut - Picard is quite happy for Data to submit himself to the procedure at first. (He actually asks in the extended cut, but dances around it in the broadcast episode.) It isn't until Data explicitly asks him if he would expect human crew members to undergo similar procedures that Picard realises how blind he has been.

    For what it's worth, Picard's bias is also visible in The Offspring, where Data correctly points out that his response to Lal is somewhat hypocritical because he would not ask the same of an organic crew member. And there is also an element of it in Quality of Life.

    There is a sense that The Measure of the Man is the first episode to question Picard's unwavering loyalty to the state and his own somewhat patriotic attitude about human superiority. (It also comes up in Q Who?, which is basically about Picard's arrogance and over-confidence.)

    The second season begins to treat Picard as a person rather than a simple ideal, and the show gets the stronger for it. (I like that a large part of Time Squared is Picard responding in horror to the idea that he would ever abandon his crew in their hour of need, because his self-image is that important to him.)


    1. I sometimes think that Picard in his younger days was a lot like Kirk, and that dashing young Ensign Picard would take any shore leave or starbase opportunity to explore the local female inhabitants. Eventually, as he accustomed himself to the responsibilities of command, he calmed down. He can still bring his sexy charms to a situation should it require them (can't wait for your take on Captain's Holiday), but mostly lives a sedate personal existence as Captain.

  2. I do like this episode, and at the same time I don't disagree with any of the problems you raise Josh. The reason I like it is really down to this blog and your writing. What's good in the episode for me is that it takes another step in portraying Starfleet and the Federation as problematic - any story that contributes to that, I enjoy, as well as building up the Enterprise crew as a utopian ideal, set up against their authorities.

    Good points above from on how the story challenged Picard also.

  3. There's something about the courtroom drama that truly is so utterly unrealistic, precisely because a real courtroom can't be nearly as dramatic as our dramatic conventions require.

    I do want to say, though, that for me today, the most important point in the episode is Data and Riker's scene at the end, even though the drama between them was entirely manufactured for the sake of drama alone. Riker feels awful because he presented such a good case against his friend that it almost got Data killed. But Data understands that if Riker had not presented such a good case, or refused to serve in this role at all, the court's default judgment would have killed him anyway. "That action injured you, and saved me. I will not forget it."

    The whole episode is about whether Data is morally equivalent to a human, and this last scene showed how Data was actually superior to humans ethically. Humans are resentful creatures, and Riker was right to have expected resentment and anger from Data because his actions were visibly a betrayal. But Data isn't human, so can understand that Riker's actions were necessary so that Data would have an opportunity to defend himself and set precedent for Federation law. Data's moral sense is beyond the human tendency to resent and rage at direct harms. He's already better than human.

  4. This is one of my favorites for good reason, but your criticisms are all on point.

    I like it as a Picard episode because I'm not sure we'd seen him take this hard a stand on anything before, and we also hadn't really seen his connection with Guinan yet, nor for that matter Stewart and Goldberg's chemistry. There are two scenes in this episode acted so beautifully that they actually can hurt me in my chest if I come across them not having seen the episodes in a while, and the first is obviously when you watch Stewart's face as it dawns on Picard just what Guinan is implying. There's few heavy moments in all of fiction on film that wrench my chest as much as that (maybe four or five, and most of them come from Star Trek).

    But the other one is Jonathan Frakes, and I've talked before about how the reason Data really works is because of how the others react to him (one reason why I'm not entirely spiteful of his final fate in Nemesis, other than how it's an awful film). I can't argue that Riker prosecuting seems like hollow melodrama. I'm not even sure what the hell function it serves to (albeit, against his will) set Riker against Picard. What contrast is it showing? But the scene where Riker sits alone studying Data's schematics, realizes he's found the argument he needs ... then realizes what that means ... is wonderfully emoted. And then even after his devastating prosecution, the way any time the camera pans to Frakes you can see Riker's disgust at the entire affair written in his body language is right on the money.

    Riker intuitively lives and breathes Enterprise values. It's almost instinctual for him. No wonder he won't take a promotion. But how much of that is the Enterprise being where he wants to be ... and how much of it is that the Enterprise is what it is because Riker is the XO and is the one setting the tone? Infusing the Enterprise with his values? An XO is more hands on. Arguably, a ship is more the XO's than the Captain's (and certainly the crew are). Symbolically, Riker must be the Soul of the Enterprise (sidenote: this puts his jazz skills in a new light, amongst other things, like his connection to the ship's intuitive counselor).

    Anyway, Riker's clearly the secondary character here, even moreso than Data. And historically I'm pretty fond of stories that go the "Picard & Riker Show" route. I like ensembles better, but they have a good dual dynamic. The reason this run of two episodes - Matter of Honor and Measure of a Man appeal to me as much as they do is that they serve as a high and a low for Riker, and showcase first his friendship with Worf, then Data.

    Plus I always like a bit of Cartesian skepticism to creep into anything.

  5. A little post-post reflection; as "Soul of the Enterprise" this opens Riker to be the most perceptive (or second-most perceptive, given Troi's capabilities - Worf is another candidate because he comes from a culture that's a pastiche of pagan warrior cultures and is mildly (and often rightly) superstitious) to be sensitive to magic. The fact that he plays a horn, no less, quite probably supports this. Or for that matter the fact that Q believed him to be a candidate for Q. I'll be watching for this much more closely now, and probably reconciling the fact Riker is usually my favorite (when O'Brien's not around) with my own connection both cultural and reflective on magic, and its use in storytelling.

    For Riker, who is the Soul and who then can connect with other souls - it's a matter of instinct and sense to know that his friend Data has a soul. He can sense it in his bones. Their souls have touched.