Recently, I’ve been going through episodes of sci-fi series from the 80’s and 90’s and I recently started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek was Gene Roddenberry’s attempt to show how humanity had overcome many of its own issues, gone to the stars to explore all the wonders, face the dangers, and deal with all the “strange new worlds” they would encounter, hand-in-hand alongside all the various alien species they would find. Some species, like the Vulcans, Betazoids, Andorians, and Tellarites, would become such close allies, they would eventually form the Federation and Starfleet, while others, like the Romulans and Klingons would become adversaries (whereas the Klingons would later become allies, but that’s for another post to delve into).
Under A Long Shadow
The first Star Trek eventually became such a legendary juggernaut in the field of sci-fi, that when Gene Roddenberry conceived what would eventually become Star Trek: The Next Generation, people were wondering if it could replicate the success of its predecessor. Looking back, the first two seasons of the show, it was obvious that TNG, as it became known to fans, was really struggling to break out from the long shadow of its predecessor. In fact, a number of the scripts in the first seasons were obvious retreads from the Original Series, such as the “Naked Now” for example. Others, like “Code of Honor”, “Angel One” and “Shades of Gray” were so despised by the cast and fans alike that they’ve been virtually disowned, to the point that they almost always find themselves on nearly all the lists of the ten worst Star Trek episodes ever televised, and fans simply skip past them on streaming services.
Light Peeking Out
And then there’s “Measure of a Man”, considered by many to be the first truly good, if not great episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode centers around Lt. Cmdr. Data’s status within Starfleet and the Federation. Is he a sentient being, and therefore granted all the rights and privileges therein, or because he is an artificially constructed android, is he property? The sole person on the board to have voted to deny him entry into Starfleet Academy, Cmdr. Bruce Maddox, wants to have Data disassembled to construct more of him, something only Data’s creator, Dr. Noonien Soong was able to successfully perform up until then. A trial is held at the sector’s newly established JAG office to determine Data’s rights and status within Starfleet and the Federation? Is he a new life form, the very thing Starfleet’s charter orders it to seek out and discover? Or is Data property? Can he refuse to undergo the procedure, much in the same way a computer can refuse to reboot itself when ordered to do so? Capt. Picard is chosen to defend Data’s rights, and as the next senior officer on-board, the unenviable task of prosecuting is given to Cmdr. Riker, a task he does not relish.
As mentioned before, up until this point, many of the episodes of TNG were retreads of Original Series episodes or had suffered from at best, mediocre writing, either danced around difficult topics, or decided to cushion them in neat euphemisms that were much easier to swallow. But as Capt. Picard, who is forced to defend Data’s rights as a sentient conscious being rightly points out, if one Data is a curiosity, isn’t the construction of a thousand or a million Data’s becoming a race? And, as Picard realizes during his conversation with Guinan, wouldn’t the Federation be judged by how it treats that army of Data’s being forced to do all the things that organic beings either couldn’t or simply didn’t want to do, essentially making them some sci fi 24th-century android slaves?
Friendships Tested and Reforged Anew
With Cmdr. Riker being forced into the unenviable position of prosecuting and having to argue that Data, someone whom he considers a friend and respected comrade, is the property of Starfleet, and is ordered to go with full force or else. The head of newly established JAG office, Capt. Louvois, tells Riker in no uncertain terms that if she thinks for an instant that Riker is holding back, she will summarily rule against Data, forcing him to undergo Maddox’s procedure. There is one scene in the episode where Cmdr. Riker discovers Data’s “off switch”, the switch which essentially renders him unconscious, and which, until that time, only Dr.’s Crusher & Pulaski and Capt. Picard were privy to, and which Riker uses to great effect in the courtroom. You could see Riker smiling for the briefest of moments as he felt he was going to win the case, only for his expression to change suddenly to horror with the realization that with this, he was effectively condemning his close friend to death.
Now of course, through some excellent arguing by Picard reminding the court of Starfleet’s mandate to seek out new life, even if that life is artificial, Capt. Louvois finds in favor of Data, and he is allowed to make the choice himself, at which point Data immediately declines to take part in Maddox’s procedure. Rather than be angry or resentful of Riker, after the proceeding, Data approaches Riker as the latter is brooding in the Enterprise’s meeting room and asks why he was not attending the celebration. Despondent at the fact that he was forced to prosecute his friend and came within a hair’s breadth of winning, thus nearly costing Data his life, Riker says felt he had no right to be there. But Data, ever the stoic observer of humanity, reminds Riker that he was put into an impossible position; had he not done so, the JAG office would have summarily ruled in Maddox’s favor, forcing Data to undergo the procedure regardless of his wishes. This act wounded Riker and saved Data in the process, an act Data will never forget.
While there were many subsequent episodes of TNG in further seasons that were outstanding, Measure of a Man was the first of many episodes that showed TNG could, in fact, step out of the long shadow of it’s vaunted predecessor, and come into its own, which it finally did on a more consistent basis beginning with the third season. This allowed The Next Generation to become a sci-fi legend in its own right. This is why so many people have felt this particular episode is considered the first truly good episode of The Next Generation, since it showed how much the series, Star Trek, and sci-fi had come.