“The Measure of a Man” is consistently named one of the best ever Trek episodes. Because it’s such a favourite, I’m going to assume you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, go watch it right now, then come back. I only judge you slightly.
Here are – in no particular order – some of the coolest things about this episode:
1. It’s the first episode by Melinda M. Snodgrass.
Snodgrass’ script was unsolicited and also one of the first scripts she ever wrote, but it led to three more (plus the teleplay for “Pen Pals”) and some work as Story Editor in Season 2 and Executive Script Consultant in Season 3. She got a nomination for a Writers Guild of America award for this episode.
2. It exemplifies classic Trek ideals.
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.
What makes a sentient being? What defines us as humans? How committed are we really to equality, fairness and justice? This episode asks these classic questions and comes out making a firm case for being solid in our ethics, respecting others who are different, challenging our assumptions, and valuing friendship and cooperation.
3. The dialogue is brilliantly crafted.
“The Measure of a Man” has both great overall lines (Louvois’ “Data is a toaster” moment springs to mind) and effective details. One of the great choices was to have Maddox and Louvois refer to Data as “it” because they see him as a machine, unlike Data’s friends. When Louvois makes her final ruling she begins calling Data “he” as she’s learned to respect his humanity. Even Maddox at the end says, “He’s remarkable” and Louvois notices the change.
“You didn’t call him it,” she says.
4. It’s the first poker game episode!
And while it might not be passable to a poker pro, it’s a ton of fun and a great frame to let each character show part of their personality. Take this opening from O’Brien:
Hold it, that’s my chair. My luck is always lousy unless I start on the dealer’s right.
Data says that’s superstitious but O’Brien says ruefully that experience has taught him it’s a truth. It’s endearing and helps set a fun tone. The scene also plays an important role in the story – showing Data’s friendship with the other officers while highlighting his difference (he doesn’t understand bluffing).
5. No character is wasted.
While Troi doesn’t appear in the show, everyone who does has something significant to do to contribute to the plot or the overall mood. The little things like O’Brien in the poker scene and this scene at the going away party (aka the most depressing party ever) are part of what really make this a great show:
Wesley: Data, you’re supposed to rip the wrapping off.
Data: With the application of a little care, Wes, the paper can be utilised again.
Wesley: Data, you’re missing the point.
Data (rips the paper and pulls out a book): The Dream of the Fire, by K’Ratak. Thank you, Worf.
Worf: It was in the hands of the Klingons that the novel attained its full stature.
Pulaski: I couldn’t disagree more. We’ll save that argument for another day
It’s subtle but every line fits its character to a tee. That’s followed by the tearjerker of a scene with Geordi.
Forcing Riker to act as the counsel arguing against Data was also a brilliant choice, adding another layer of internal conflict over the main courtroom conflict.
Finally, the guest characters are well-crafted. Maddox is the “bad guy” but not evil – while we’re dead set against him, we can understand his argument. Even Data at the end tells him he finds his work “intriguing” And:
5. Philippa Louvois is a complex, commanding and awesome woman character
Philippa Louvois, in charge of the 23rd Sector JAG office, is a truly awesome, interesting character. In her first scene she’s established as complex, smart and confident, with a sense of humour.
What other woman gets to talk like this to Picard?
You know, I never thought I would say this, but it’s good to see you again. It brings a sense of order and stability to my universe to know that you’re still a pompous ass. And a damn sexy man.
And consider the dimensions she displays just in this exchange:
Louvois: There is always an option. He can resign.
Picard: I see.
Louvois (smiling): So you came to me for help.
Picard (snaps): Yes, I came to you. You’re the JAG officer for this sector. I had no choice but to come to you.
Louvois: Wait! I didn’t mean it that way. I’m glad that you felt you could, well, come to me.
Picard: The word trust just isn’t in your vocabulary, is it? Good try, nine out of ten for effort.
Louvois: I wish things were different.
She goes from talking firmly about the law to teasing Picard, to apologizing because she realizes she should’ve respected how important the issue is to him. But despite his distrust of her we’re never made to think she’s not competent.
Her final ruling has authority but also shows humility as she recognizes she can’t really grasp the metaphysical elements of the case:
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.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail