With the return of Bruce Maddox on Picard, I thought it was time to re-visit his previous appearance. I thought he’d been in more than one episode but while he is name-checked in other episodes, this is his only appearance. I thought he’d also appeared in the season 3 episode The Offspring (the one where Data makes a daughter) but rather like Harry Mudd not being in Trouble with Tribbles, a different character (Admiral Haftel) plays a similar role (and follows a similar arc).
What strikes me on re-watching is how weak the episode is but this is still The Next Generation finding its feet. Later episodes (for example the fore-mentioned The Offspring) make better use of the wider cast, present more subtle dilemmas and have a greater emotional impact.
Even so, The Measure of a Man still stands out as a milestone in the TNG’s attempt at humanist plots: presenting ethical challenges as the driving force of a story. Even for TNG, this is an episode that is mainly people gathering in meeting rooms but it is powered by the basic unfairness of the situation.
Admiral Nakamura brings Bruce Maddox aboard the Enterprise giving the impression that there is a routine matter to be dealt with. Maddox reveals he is there to take possession of Data so that he conduct some experiments on positronic brains with the hope of making more synthetic people like Data.
Data is sceptical about Maddox’s methods and is concerned that his offer to back-up Data’s memories will be insufficient to preserve him as a person. We’ll fall quickly into confused terms about ‘life’ in this episode but what Data is pointing at is the idea of death as a loss of identity. Data can be literally switched off (Riker does so later in court) which for a living organism would be effectively death but as he retains his self when switched back on, he is not dead-and-gone. It’s a distinction that the recent Star Wars film The Rise of Skywalker, fails to make when C3PO has to face a wipe of his memories. To Maddox’s credit, he has thought about this but purely from the pragmatics of wanting Data to be functional.
The issue appears to blind side everybody from the crew, to Picard to Starfleet in general. For the episode to work, it requires nobody to have really thought through what Data’s status is. To the crew he is a colleague and hence a defacto person with the rights of a person (but this is a logical implication that is implied by their behaviour rather than one they have thought about). To Starfleet, Data is equipment.
Clearly this can’t be the case and Maddox (who we are told argued against Data being graduated from Starfleet academy) is the only one who appears to have been consistent in his position. At some point Starfleet gave Data a rank and a job (and crew quarters and a uniform and the authority to give orders etc). The question of Data’s status has already been established by Starfleet, what we are seeing is an attempt to undo his status.
The matter is taken up by the JAG of the local starbase Phillipa Louvois, who had prosecuted Picard in a court martial in his past and who regards Picard as very sexy. I think the we-hate-each-other-but-want-each-other aspect of the Picard/Louvois aspect of the plot just comes over very odd, as if the writers were just begin to grapple with the idea that Picard could be sexy one of the Enterprise crew but weren’t sure how.
The trial is simply a farce. Riker is bullied into being the prosecution by Louvois, even though Riker is manifestly unsuitable and has an inherent bias. The pretext is that he’s the only officer available even though we had just met an admiral earlier. Riker argues that Data is a machine and pushes Maddox’s line that Data is not sentient i.e. is not self aware and lacks inner feelings. Neither Maddox nor Riker address why that matters, after all lots of animals are sentient in this sense but are not normally accorded human rights. That Data can’t demonstrate he has an inner life is an absurd argument for a Federation that has encountered a diverse range of aliens (none of whom we hope have been declared property). There is zero case to answer and Riker’s demonstration that Data can bend steel and has an off switch is all irrelevant.
However, for plot purposes Picard has to regard Riker’s argument as devastating. He seeks advice from Guinan, who makes the only observations of real depth in the episode. She points to the desire of society for disposable people — people to do the dirty work, whose inner lives can be ignored. She lets Picard make the leap to the concept of slavery and even plays it down. This is treated as revelation by Picard and it re-invigorates his defence but oddly he doesn’t re-iterate Guinan’s point in the second half of the trial. Instead he points to Data’s keep sakes and his obvious sentimental side including a small hologram of the deceased Tasha Yar.
Data’s performance of sentiment sways the judge and even sways Maddox, who for the first time uses “he” rather than “it” in describing Data. While moving, this is also absurd. Picard and Data have not disproven Maddox’s point which remains as valid or as wrong as it did before hand. Maddox’s hypothesis would be that when people perceive feelings from Data they are firstly projecting their own feelings and secondly Data is simply mimicking human interaction. That was already his position and nothing Picard did disproved it. The judge, on the other hand, should have rejected Maddox’s argument precisely because it could equally applied to aliens. Heck, Vulcans TRY not to show emotion and a skilled Vulcan should FAIL Picard’s approach to show that they were sentient.
We can forgive Riker for not making use of a simpler demonstration of a lack of interiorty for Data — calling Troi to stand and have her testify that she can’t sense emotions from Data or simply have Data state that he doesn’t have feelings*. Likewise, Riker could have dragged everybody to the holodeck and demonstrated that ‘feelings’ can be simulated. Picard could have countered with examples of beings that were weird energies that could possess machines or entities that were just a big puddle of evil. If puddles can have a moral dimension (all be it a evil one) then why not very human machines?
The Offspring feels like an attempt to do The Measure of a Man but better. The basic situation is similar: Starfleet wants android technology and Data’s rights are in the way. Instead of an admiral bringing Maddox along, we get a single character Admiral Haftel. The extra layer is Lal, a daughter constructed by Data. The dilemma is shifted a little. Underneath is the same issue (Starfleet wants to make synthetic people and doesn’t really regard Data as a proper person) but the situation allows multiple characters to dress up their issues with complications.
Specifically Lal is regarded as a child and so Admiral Haftel can cast his desire to have her taken to a research facility as care for her well being. Unlike in The Measure of a Man, there is no talk of disassembling Lal for research only studying her development. Likewise Data’s rights here are those of a parent and placed more ambiguously as it requires a genuine extension of the concept of ‘parent’ to see that this really is what Data is to Lal.
This extension of a concept to establish a moral status is nicely done. Picard is initially angry with Data for constructing Lal and he also attempts to persuade Data to obey Haftel. Picard has to educate himself and reconsider his own concepts in the course of the episode in a way that The Measure of a Man can’t match.
There are clumsy moments. Gender is handled in a poor way that is almost positive (Data makes Lal gender neutral so she can can choose her own gender expression later) but which trips over its own feet with Lal saying she is “incomplete” negatively without a gender.
The greatest failure of the episode is a lack of a moral resolution. As Lal was not going to be a new regular cast member, the story has to end with Lal no longer on board the Enterprise. The option taken by the story is for Lal to die tragically, as she begins to develop emotions which cause a cascade of failures in her positronic brain (ironically demonstrating that for the purposes of the court judgement in the earlier episode, androids can have feelings and that Data does not have them yet).
Haftel assists Data in trying to save Lal but neither of them can rescue her brain.
It is a sentimental episode with its own take on robotic lack of social awareness. Riker is off the ship for most of the episode primarily to set up a joke where Lal is serving in the bar having just learned about kissing and forces a big kiss on Riker’s lips, thus narrowly avoiding the creepier joke of Riker hitting on the new bartender who the show has gone to some lengths to establish is a child.
There is a power even in inadequate stories. The Measure of a Man really does no justice to its topic and while The Offspring offers more depth, it too avoids examining the ideas too deeply. However, both set off chains of thought around the issues that they sketch out. Some of those chains are dead-ends (the issues aren’t “life” nor “sentience”) but even considering the failings is thought provoking. As always with The Next Generation, episodes were gifted with a strong cast that could add depth with small gestures. There’s a well done moment when Maddox first appears on the bridge and Data is at the controls — he gives just a little nervous side glance at Maddox, establishing before we’ve been told that Data is why Maddox is there, that they have a past history and that Data has reason to be concerned. Acting! Or how people create the impression to other people that a fictional being has an inner life!
*[I don’t think this is true based on how Brent Spiner plays Data but it is a claim Data keeps making.]