Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Measure of a Man"


Air date: 2/13/1989
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Robert Scheerer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

In TNG's first bona fide classic, the nature of Data's existence becomes a fascinating philosophical debate and a basis for a crucial legal argument and Federation precedent. Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy), on behalf of Starfleet, orders Data to be reassigned and dismantled for scientific research in the hopes of finding a way to manufacture more androids with his physical and mental abilities. When Data says he would rather resign from Starfleet, Maddox insists that Data has no rights and takes it up with the region's newly created JAG office, headed by Capain Philipa Louvois (Amanda McBroom), who serves as judge. Picard takes on the role of Data's defender.

This episode plays like a rebuke to "The Schizoid Man," taking the themes that were intriguing in that episode and expanding upon them to much better effect. What rights does Data have under the law, and is that the same as what's morally right to grant him as a sentient machine? Of course, one of Maddox's arguments is that Data doesn't have sentience, but merely the appearance of such. The episode cleverly pits Riker against Picard; because the new JAG office has no staff yet, the role of prosecution is forced upon the first officer. Riker finds himself arguing a case he doesn't even believe in — but nevertheless ends up arguing it very well, including with a devastating theatrical courtroom maneuver where he turns Data off on the stand.

Picard's rebuttal is classic TNG ideology as put in a courtroom setting. The concept of manufacturing a race of artificial but sentient people has disturbing possibilities — "an entire generation of disposable people," as Guinan puts it. Picard's demand of an answer from Maddox, "What is he?" strips the situation down to its bare basics, and Picard answers Starfleet's mantra of seeking out new life by suggesting Data as the perfect example: "THERE IT SITS." Great stuff.

Still, what I perhaps love most about this episode is the way Data initially reacts to being told he has no rights. He takes what would for any man be a reason for outrage and instead approaches the situation purely with logic. He has strong opinions on the matter, but he doesn't get upset, because that's outside the scope of his ability to react. His reaction is based solely on the logical argument for his self-protection and his uniqueness. And at the end, after he has won, he holds no ill will toward Maddox. Indeed, he can sort of see where Maddox is coming from.

Trivia footnote: This is also the first episode of TNG to feature the poker game.

Previous episode: A Matter of Honor
Next episode: The Dauphin

Season Index

30 comments on this review

Tres - Fri, Apr 17, 2009 - 10:21pm (USA Central)
just wanted to agree with your review of "Measure of a Man" and wanted to add, the final secne, where Riker and Data speak in the conference room, when Data says, "you're actions injured you to save me. I will not forget that." Chokes me up every time. Wonderful writing.
Damien - Wed, Apr 22, 2009 - 10:47am (USA Central)
"Measure of a Man" - absolutely a classic and one of my favourites, possibly favourite.

I only have one small quibble (well, it's a biggie, but not so that it detracts from the overall ep).

It just didn't seem realistic that a case of such huge potential importance would be prosecuted and defended by two people that have no legal training, have never tried a case and are friends and colleagues serving on the same ship! It beggars belief that such a trial could take place, especially given its importance.

Surely the logical thing to do would have been to delay the trial until such time that trained lawyers could be gathered and a legally binding decision could be made, rather than leaving the decision open to appeal/overrule in the future on the grounds of improper procedure.
Trajan - Tue, Mar 30, 2010 - 3:49pm (USA Central)
'The Measure of a Man'. Ugh! I'm sorry, I hate it. I have no problem with the theme but as a lawyer, I really, really hate it. It's a bit like the entire Doctor Who series 'Trial of a Timelord' where the greatest and oldest civilisation in the galaxy apparently has a judicial system that bears no relation to any reasonable concept of 'justice'. No JAG officers so you must prosecute? If you don't he's 'a toaster'? No, if you insist on making that ruling I'll ensure that I have your head on a plate by the end of the day and you'll never practice law in the Alpha Quadrant again. As for turning Data off; it was his rights as a sentient being that were for the court to decide. Allowing him to be turned off constitutes assault, battery, actual bodily harm and possibly attempted murder if he had no reset button. And this is allowed in A COURTROOM?

Sorry. No stars from me. Actually, can I award negative stars??
J.B. Nicholson-Owens - Sat, Jul 17, 2010 - 1:20am (USA Central)
More about "Measure of a Man": In addition to Trajan's objections, I'll also add that the episode strikes me as a huge dodge of the issue they set themselves up to decide.

One wonders how Data got to serve at all if his entrance committee only had one objection -- Cmdr. Maddox's objection -- and that committee based their decision on sentience like Data said.

But there's another problem: the slavery argument (should we or should we not let Maddox make a race of copies of Cmdr. Data?). The slavery argument only works if you already agree with what Capt. Picard had to argue. The slavery argument fails if already agree with what Cmdr. Riker had to argue (Data is property, he can no more object to work than the Enterprise computer can object to a refit). It seems to me that the slavery argument presupposes the very thing the hearing is meant to decide and therefore this argument has no place in this hearing.

And Cmdr. Louvois' finding essentially passes the buck (as she all but says at the end of the hearing): she has no good reason to find as she does but she apparently believes erring on the side of giving Data "choice" is a safer route.

I think this episode might merit as the most overrated TNG episode.
Dave Nielsen - Mon, Aug 8, 2011 - 10:58pm (USA Central)
"The Measure of a Man." I too loved this episode, but I can't help wondering how this question wasn't already decided years earlier. It seems to me Data's status would have had to be decided before he could join Starfleet, or at least before he could be given a commission. Then I partly agree with Maddox that Data could just be simulating sentience. With a sufficiently sophisticated computer there would be no way to tell. I guess the point is that there's no way to tell with anyone, but then there's a difference between the "programming" of biological life and that of an articial, constructed life form. It's also a bit cheeseball that they would have no staff just so that some of the principal actors won't just be getting paid to sit in the background. I wonder too if it was necessary for the Philippa to have been an old flame of Picard's. Still, with all that I still love and it still stands as one of TNG's best episodes.
Dave Nielsen - Mon, Aug 8, 2011 - 11:16pm (USA Central)
Trajan: "As for turning Data off; it was his rights as a sentient being that were for the court to decide. Allowing him to be turned off constitutes assault, battery, actual bodily harm and possibly attempted murder if he had no reset button."

Since Data's sentience was the question here, Riker couldn't be charged with anything for turning Data off so that would be perfectly fine to do in a courtroom. Even after the ruling, it wouldn't have mattered - only if he did it again. If Maddox's arguments had been upheld, and Data was property, who could be dissected against his will, he can't have the rights of a sentient being.
Trajan - Wed, Jan 25, 2012 - 3:08pm (USA Central)
Dave Neilsen: Since Data's sentience was the question here, Riker couldn't be charged with anything for turning Data off so that would be perfectly fine to do in a courtroom.

I disagree. You could 'turn off' an alleged human being with a baseball bat but it would produce no more evidence of his sentience than Data's off switch does of his.
X - Sun, Mar 25, 2012 - 7:03am (USA Central)
Trajan: You could 'turn off' an alleged human being with a baseball bat but...

No. You could not 'turn off' a human being with a baseball bat in the same way that you can turn off a machine. You can either turn off a conscious part of a man's brain (brain and the entire organism is still functioning) or kill him. You cannot turn off a human completely, as you can turn off a machine, an then turn him on again.
Trajan - Tue, Apr 10, 2012 - 3:32pm (USA Central)
X: You cannot turn off a human completely, as you can turn off a machine, and then turn him on again.

Sure you can. Just don't be so enthusiastic with the baseball bat and knock him unconscious with it. (Which, in my courtroom, will still get you locked up for grievous bodily harm...)
Patrick - Mon, Aug 27, 2012 - 9:28pm (USA Central)
The Original Star Trek had a second pilot and in some ways, TNG did too--"The Measure of a Man". This was the watershed turning point of the series it's thoughtful story was uniquely it's own and not another riff on Classic Trek. The actors were truly becoming comfortable in their character's skin; call backs to the series own mythology from Tasha Yar's intimacy with Data, to a mention of Lore made the fictional universe of TNG more real. Secondary characters like O'Brien and Guinan were weaving their way through the mythos. And last but not least: THE FIRST POKER GAME--a brilliant edition to the series that provided some of the best characters moments and the classic final scene of the series.

"The Measure of a Man" and "Q Who" were an effective one-two punch that made the show the one we know and love.
Peremensoe - Mon, Sep 3, 2012 - 7:11pm (USA Central)
"I partly agree with Maddox that Data could just be simulating sentience. With a sufficiently sophisticated computer there would be no way to tell. I guess the point is that there's no way to tell with anyone, but then there's a difference between the 'programming' of biological life and that of an articial, constructed life form."

Is there?

It's a somewhat deeper question than the episode really addresses, but... what *is* sentience?

Is it physically contained in the actual electrical and chemical processes of neurons?

Or is it the *product* of a certain complexity of such processes?

If the latter, then not only is there no fundamental difference between biological and synthetic processors giving rise to the sentient function--but there is also no such thing as 'simulated' sentience. If the complexity is there, it's there.
xaaos - Tue, Nov 13, 2012 - 12:37pm (USA Central)
Data is the best!!! Loved the final scene between him and Riker.
ReptilianSamurai - Fri, Nov 30, 2012 - 10:53am (USA Central)
Just saw the new extended, remastered version of the episode the other night, and it was absolutely fantastic. It really gives the story a bit of room to breathe, and better develops the guest characters (especially Philipa's backstory with Picard) as well as really exploring Data's dilemma and the nature of being sentient. This version of the episode, in my opinion, is one of the best in all of Trek and I'm really glad they were able to give us this extended cut.

Hope Jammer reviews the extended version at some point, I'd be interested to hear his take on how it changes the episode.
Rikko - Sun, Feb 24, 2013 - 9:52am (USA Central)
What a wonderful episode!

@ Trajan: I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think you're being too hard on this ep for something it isn't. TNG is not trying to be 'law and order in space'. It's always about the bigger questions.

I can suspend my disbelief with stories like this, specially when I compare 'The measure' to total fantasy wrecks like the black pond of tar of 'skin of evil' or the many energy life -form from countless episodes.

Still, I wont deny that the lack of crew for a trial of this gravity was hilarious. The production staff must have been in dire straits during this season.
Shawn Davis - Fri, Mar 8, 2013 - 7:00am (USA Central)
Greetings to all. I love this episode. One of TNG's classic and features one of my favorite character, Data, in an most interesting position ever.

I have one question though, Riker as Data to bend a metal bar in an attempt to disprove that he is not sentient and Picard object to that by stating that there are many live alien species that are strong enough to do that, Capain Philipa disagreed with him and told Riker to continue with the demonstration. My question is why is Picard wrong? I though what he said about some aliens being strong enough to bend the metal bar along with robots and androids like Data was logical to me.

PeteTongLaw - Fri, Mar 8, 2013 - 4:09pm (USA Central)
It seems to me that the space station and the Enterprise-D are not appropriately scaled.
William B - Wed, Mar 27, 2013 - 3:35am (USA Central)
I do like this episode, perhaps even love it, but I admit that I do find it hard to suspend my disbelief in portions of it related to the legal proceedings.

It does seem, as others have mentioned above, as if Starfleet should have settled this issue before; but on some level it does make sense that maybe they didn't, because Data's status is so unique.

That said, I do think the idea that Data would be Starfleet property because he went through the Academy and joined Starfleet is disturbing, because Data is only in Starfleet because he chose to do so. The Enterprise computer never *chose* to be part of Starfleet.

I suppose one resolution to this would be that since Data was found by Starfleet personnel (when he was recovered from Omicron Theta), at that point he 'should have' entered into Starfleet custody as property. It would also make sense if the reason that Data's status as having rights/not having rights was not extensively discussed (e.g. whether Data constitutes a Federation citizen) was that he spent all his time from his discovery on Omicron Theta to his entrance into the Academy with Starfleet personnel in some capacity or another, so that there was never a time in which he would need official Federation citizenship.

On some level it does make sense to me that Data would hang around the Trieste (I think it was?) after they discovered him until eventually a Starfleet officer there sponsored his entry into the academy.

I suppose that if Data had no sentience all along, and had a mere facsimile of it -- if Data genuinely WAS an object and not a person -- perhaps he would go to Starfleet ownership merely for the fact that Data was salvaged by a Starfleet vessel after the destruction of Omicron Theta, and since there are no living "rightful owners" with the colony destroyed (and Soong and his wife for that matter thought dead) it makes sense that Starfleet could claim something like salvage rights.

Re: the point raised by J.B. Nicholson-Owens, it is true that IF Data is property, then so would a race of mechanical beings created in Data's image. It does not actually affect the case directly.

However, I do not think this is a flaw. Picard makes the point that one Data is a curiosity, but a fleet of Datas would constitute a race. Perhaps that was a leading phrase -- but instead we should say that a fleet of Datas would constitute a much larger set. The main purpose of this argument is, I think, to demonstrate that the consequences extend far beyond Data himself.

Put it this way: if there is a 99% chance that Data is property and a 1% chance that he is a sentient being with his own sets of rights, then taking Data by himself, there is a 1% chance that a single life will be unfairly oppressed. But if there are thousands and thousands and thousands of Datas in the future, that becomes a 1% chance that thousands and thousands of beings will be oppressed. That is simply a much bigger scale and a much bigger potential for tragedy. If Luvois ruled that Data were property and he were destroyed but was the only creature destroyed, it would be tragic, but still only a single being. If Luvois ruled that Data was property and thousands of androids were produced and Luvois was wrong, then _based on that ruling_ a whole race would be condemned to servitude. The possible cost to her decision is much greater, and the importance of erring on the side of giving Data rights becomes greater as a result as well.
N.I.L.E.S. - Sat, Apr 13, 2013 - 4:50am (USA Central)
Has anyone considered that the basic premise of this episode is unnecessary based on the shows own rules. The premise is that Data needs to be dismantled so that more androids like him can be created but Data is dismantled every time he uses the transporter. Since the enterprise computer is able to dismantle Data and reassemble him it must have detailed information about his construction. Surely all Maddox needs to do is access the information stored in the transporter logs and he would have all the information he needs to replicate Data.
The above point aside I really love the episode and the questions it raises about the point when a machine becomes conscious. I agree with those that have stated that his issue would have been settled before Data entered Starfleet, especially since the sole bases for Maddox objecting to Data's entrance into Starfleet was because he did not believe that Data was sentient. The fact that the others on the committee allowed Data to enter Starfleet anyway suggest that they believed he was sentient.
I also agree that there were some aspects of the court scenes that were not as convincing as they could have been. For instance, since the issue to be decided is whether or not Data is sentient I find it odd that no psychologist were asked to testify since consciousness is part of what psychologist study. I also find it odd that there were no cross exam when a witness testified. For example, when Data was on the stand Picard asked him what logically purpose several items Data had packed served. In reference to his medals Data replied that he did not know he just wanted them and in reference to a picture of Tasha Data replied that she was special to him because they were intimate. Clearly Picard was trying to imply that Data had an emotional connection to the things he had packed much as humans do. Riker could have easily undermined that premise on cross exam by asking, "When you say you wanted these medals do you mean you felt a strong desire to take them with you?" Data would have had to have answered no because by his own admission he does not feel anything. This would have reminded the audience that Data is a machine.
Grumpy - Sat, Apr 13, 2013 - 4:51pm (USA Central)
"...Data is dismantled every time he uses the transporter."

If you're suggesting that Data could be replicated like any other hardware, a fair point. Presumably something in his positronic brain is akin to lifeforms, which can be transported at "quantum resolution" but not replicated at "molecular resolution." But the issue was never addressed in the series.

Also, apparently Data's positronic brain is an "approved magnetic containment device," which the tech manual says is the only way to transport antimatter without "extensive modifications to the pattern buffer."
istok - Fri, May 10, 2013 - 7:24pm (USA Central)
This is the best TNG episode I've seen so far. Admittedly, I've only seen season 1 and half of 2. Nonetheless it is very compelling and it suspended my disbelief just fine. I don't care to dissect mainstream scifi television in great detail. Something will inevitably fail to add up. But overall, uncharacteristically for the said mainstream television, this episode actually raised some deep issues, and it was done well, in its own context. It actually got me thinking, what is life? No, really? Seems very easy but I have no more concrete answers to that, than I do to the questions, "what is the universe", or, "what is the earth's core really like".
All in all, this was good television.
Frank Wallace - Mon, Jul 8, 2013 - 9:54pm (USA Central)
Wonderful episode.

I never saw any reason to question the legal elements of the episode. For one, Starfleet officers are multi purpose types, given that the Federation doesn't have "police" or "armies" in the truest sense. Secondly, The reason for Picard being involved is explained early, and the other captain is a JAG member.

Lastly, the person that wrote the episode has actually trained and practiced law as a career for several years. She will know enough about it to make it believable, and it DID seem believable. Plus, it's the idea behind the episode that matters. :)
Sam S. - Sat, Aug 3, 2013 - 11:36pm (USA Central)
I just wanted to add that this episode provides the term toaster for artificial life. This apparently is where Battlestar Galactica reboot gets the concept for its artificial lifeforms.
SkepticalMI - Thu, Sep 19, 2013 - 9:48pm (USA Central)
This was basically an all or nothing episode. A concept like this could either succeed magnificently in raising philosophical points or fail miserably in cliches and preachiness. Thankfully, it hit the former far more often than the latter.

Yes, the courtroom scenes were hardly very legally precise (but heck, lawyer based TV shows aren't very legally precise either). Unfortunately, I don't think either Riker or Picard did a very good job. Maybe that was due to the fact that it had to be short to fit in the episode. Of course, they could have cut out some of the Picard/JAG romance backstory for a better courtroom drama.

But it probably would feel incomplete no matter how long they took. In reality, it would probably be a very lengthy trial, so no showing in a 43 minute TV show could fully expand whether or not he's sentient.

And frankly, it isn't necessary. We already know the arguments already. It really does boil down to a few simple facts: On the negative side, he was very clearly built and programmed by a person. On the positive side, he very clearly acts like he's sentient. And frankly, we don't know.

And that's probably what makes this episode work. They acknowledge and reinforce that. Picard's realization (actually Guinan's realization) to make the argument but avoid defining the scope in favor of the bigger picture was pitch perfect. This is a simple backwater JAG office. Should it really be deciding the fate of a potential race? Picard made that point beautifully in the best speech he's had so far. And it was that speech, that implication, that resonated.

The point was not to decide whether or not Data was sentient, but to consider the consequences. And to err on the side of caution.

Of course, in the real world, Maddox would undoubtedly appeal to a higher court, and this would make its way to the Federation equivalent of the supreme court. But you know what? I'm glad it ended here. Another good aspect of this story was that, despite going full tilt towards making Maddox the Villain with a capital V, he seemed to get Picard's point as well. I'd like to think that Maddox does have a conscience and was willing to stop his pursuit based on even the chance that Data is sentient.

This episode seemed to skirt the edge of being melodramatic, preachy, and cheesy, but always managed to avoid falling into it. Most importantly of all, it hit exactly the right tone on the fundamental question. There's a few nagging doubts in terms of the plotting and the in-universe rationale for all of this (which others have pointed out). I think that keeps it from being elevated too highly, but it's still the best episode of the series so far.
Latex Zebra - Sat, Sep 21, 2013 - 6:45pm (USA Central)
This might actually be the best episode of any Trek series.
Nick P. - Mon, Sep 30, 2013 - 4:11pm (USA Central)
OK, first amazing episode! One of the best of the series...However, I am not sure that I agree with the central theme, that it is wrong for starfleet to create a race of slaves. The enterprise is as sopshistacated as data, and has already been able to create sentience (elementary, dear data), and there is a fleet of them, further, data numerous times saves the ship, why is it wrong to want to mass produce him for starfleet needs?
K'Elvis - Thu, Oct 24, 2013 - 10:26am (USA Central)
Sure, you had to suspend disbelief, but this was one of my favorite episodes of TNG. This wouldn't have been resolved on some Starbase, but by properly trained legal officials in a proper court.

This should have been resolved already, Starfleet had already accepted Data as a person by allowing him to enter the academy and commissioning him. Data's ability to bend a bar is not evidence that he is a thing. As counter evidence, Picard could have brought in a bar of his own, and showed that some members of his crew were strong enough to bend it, while others were not.

To counter the off-switch argument that Riker made, one need only have someone perform the Vulcan nerve pinch, which effectively turns a humanoid off.

If Data had been declared to be property, that wouldn't mean that he was Starfleet's property. Starfleet didn't make him, if he was anyone's property, he would be Dr. Soong's property.

Still, this is an episode well worth suspending disbelief, because the ideas are so profound.
Cammie - Wed, Dec 4, 2013 - 5:36pm (USA Central)
I don't think Riker would have liked it if Data did a Vulcan Nerve Pinch to turn him off.
Cammie - Thu, Dec 5, 2013 - 9:29pm (USA Central)
I love any Star Trek episode with Q,Data,or Spock in it.I think they are the highlight of the show.
Jons - Mon, Feb 17, 2014 - 2:53pm (USA Central)
There is no "we don't know" about him being sentient - the very fact that he spontaneously says (and insists) he's sentient means he is.

And an argument which I think should have been pushed further: Organic life isn't any less a machine than Data. The only difference is that it's a self-replicating machine. Animals (humans included) are organic machines whose building and functioning is determined by dna sequences (GACT instead of 0 & 1).

As for the comparison with the ship's computer: As a matter of fact, not all organic life is sentient: We have somehow determined, for diverse reasons good or bad that non-sentient life isn't as respectable as sentient life. In that, the ship's computer isn't Starfleet's property any more than a dog belonging to Starfleet would be. Still, just as a dog isn't a human being, the ship's computer isn't a sentient android. The fact they're both non-organic has no bearing on this.

In any case, whether it's here or during the Doctor's trial in Voyager, I cannot even begin to understand the arguments of the "they're machines" side. Obviously as portrayed in Star Trek, they ARE sentient (whether we will one day be able to replicate a brain's complexity well enough that this would be possible is another matter entirely).
Yanks - Wed, Mar 5, 2014 - 10:21am (USA Central)
Where did my(our) discussion go?

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