Data’s autonomy is at stake in a taut, character-driven courtroom drama that resists pandering — no distracting fist-fights or space battles. This episode not only succeeds as a stand-alone meditation on the human condition, it meshes narratively with events from past shows and offers affordances for future story arcs at a time when most TV was purely episodic.
“The Measure of a Man,” by Melinda Snodgrass, perfectly exemplifies Star Trek’s moral conscience in an understated but jaw-dropping scene between Guinan and Picard. This episode also showcases the ensemble in the first of many poker table scenes. According to various sources of Trek trivia, the Guinan scene was inserted because actress Whoopi Goldberg happened to be available that week, and the poker scene was added after a “Data learns to swim” scene was rejected as too costly to film.
Data’s complex thought processes, his rigid idealism, and his filter-free speech all perfectly capture the plight of an outsider wrestling with the nuanced unpredictability of a society designed by and for the neurotypical majority. While other scripts play his otherness for laughs, in this episode he drives the emotional content, humbly but firmly pushing back against Picard’s initial willingness to go along with Starfleet’s plan, reaching out to LaForge during his (Data’s) own going-away party, reaching out to the cyberneticist who wants to disassemble him, and reaching out to a self-loathing Riker after it’s all over.
The episode is well-done, but not perfect.
The local JAG office is supposedly so under-staffed that Picard is drafted as the defense advocate and Riker has to prosecute (hence the aforementioned self-loathing). The cutesy plot contrivance nicely ramps up the drama, but surely other officers would be available on a starbase that big. The re-used space station model from the Trek movies looks too fancy to represent a scrappy new military listening post on the fringes of Federation space.
I was a little impatient with the time devoted to introducing Captain Phillipa Louvois, who (we learn) zealously prosecuted Picard in the court martial following the loss of the Stargazer. Not only have we already seen this same dynamic in the TOS “Court Martial,” this time it feels like a deliberate red herring. Guest star Amanda McBroom gives off so much charisma that several times I swear she was about to start singing some grande dame Broadway anthem. (As it happens, McBroom wrote the hit song “The Rose,” and harmonized on Bette Midler’s hit recording.)
When Admiral Nakamura asks to see the Enterprise, which we have seen through a window in the lounge, Picard says,”Right this way” and leads the admiral off. Why does Picard seem to think the admiral needs to be told where to go on his own station?
This episode featured a few new SFX shots of the redressed space station, and several nice glimpses of computer displays that still hold up after 30 years. We also see characters interacting with hand-held devices that take the place of legal papers, and we see personal items that Data packs as he prepares to be reassigned (and disassembled). An arm prop with articulating fingers looks pretty good. When Data bends a hexagonal rod on camera, the prop develops a kink as if it’s about to snap in half; however, when Riker puts it down a moment later it’s evenly curved, as if machined.
As a student journalist, I attended a screening of this episode, introduced by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, as part of a symposium on artificial intelligence.