Friday, May 01, 2020

ST: TNG 2.9 The Measure of a Man

This is the second of 12 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation recommended to me. The first one was 1.13 Datalore.

We begin 2.9 The Measure of a Man with a game of five-card stud, our heroes discussing the mechanics of poker as if they’ve never played before - at least not together. Like the stilted joke about sneezing last time, there’s something awkward and unnatural here. It’s not just the nerdy conversation, but also that I’ve seen the Bond movie Casino Royale where the poker game is full of tension and excitement. In Star Trek’s post-money utopia, this game has no stakes, an intellectual exercise without much feeling. The point of the scene is that Data doesn’t comprehend that he is being bluffed - he lacks the psychological insight that his neurotypical crewmates take for granted. It underlines his Difference.

Meanwhile, Picard is in a space cafe meeting an old flame he’s not seen in 10 years. Phillipa Louvois suspects that Picard would, “Like to bust a chair across my teeth,” and informs him - because he did not already know - that she was forced out of Star Fleet as a result of their last encounter. That was when she prosecuted him in the court martial following the loss of a ship called the Stargazer. She says now that she was just doing her duty, following the procedure when any ship is lost but Picard says she enjoyed it. Louvois calls Picard a “pompous ass”.

My sense from all this was that Louvois knew a younger, more reckless and perhaps even violent version of Picard, in line with the revelations of his past from 6.15 Tapestry (which I’ve seen). But looking up the details, the events on the Stargazer were played out in 1.9 The Battle (which I’ve not seen), and Picard was not only faultless but saved the lives of his crew. If we know that previous episode, we immediately take against Louvois here: she is prejudiced against Picard, rather than the wronged party. I was wrong, but I think the central wheeze of this episode depends a lot on how much we’ve seen of the series so far, especially how much we’ve warmed to Data.

The Enterprise is visited by Admiral Nakamura and, trailing in his wake, a cyberneticist called Bruce Maddox. I already knew Maddox from his appearance in Picard (where he’s played by another actor), but you wouldn’t think he was important in his first scene here, where he doesn’t even speak. That means it’s a surprise when we learn he and Data have history. Maddox is sneeringly antagonistic, not only disputing that Data is sentient but also now wanting to dismantle him. Who is this murderous racist - and why the hell does Admiral Nakamura nod along to his proposal? It’s shocking because we’ve grown to like Data as a regular character in the series: we have history with him, too. But it’s also shocking in the fiction of the series because Data has served with Star Fleet for 18 years, working up the ranks to his current position as Lieutenant Commander. In all that time, has no one really ever considered this serving officer’s status and rights as a person? Did it not get addressed when he signed up, or each time he was promoted, or at his regular appraisals? It’s a massive oversight by Star Fleet HR, who surely wouldn’t award promotion to a something they considered a machine.

As with 1.13 Datalore, there’s a telling thing in the use of pronouns, Maddox insisting - big old racist that he is - on referring to Data as “it”. The word objectifies Data, but it’s not clear how consciously Maddox is using it as a ploy to exert ownership and rob Data of the right to self-determination. The less threatening argument made by the admiral is that he respects Data and simply wants to reassign him/it to a new experimental project. But Maddox is vague about the risks involved and doesn’t seem particularly concerned that Data should survive. It’s chilling.

Yet Data then has to explain his objections to his captain (and friend) before Picard attempts to help him. When Picard goes to see Louvois, she also struggles to understand the problem: when Picard says that Data has rights, she responds, “All of this passion over a machine.” If this were a standalone drama, we might sympathise with that view but we’re 35 episodes into the series and we know and like Data - largely, I think, because actor Brent Spiner is so charismatic even playing a man with no emotions.

Meanwhile, Data is in his quarters packing to leave the Enterprise in what’s surely a case of constructive dismissal. Among his possessions are a 3D hologram of the late Tasha Yar - who was killed off in 1.22 Skin of Evil (I vaguely remember that one from its broadcast on BBC Two on 6 March 1991). The hologram effect is nicely done and I wondered if actress Denise Crosby had come back for it especially - but apparently not. The hologram is subtly deployed in the scene but important: the emotional connection we feel to Tasha, and to her relationship with Data, means that it’s even more of a violation when Maddox brusquely strides into Data’s room without asking - declining to afford even the most basic respect he would presumably show to any other serving officer. Again, Data says that Maddox’s experiment is dangerous - an existential threat to Data. Maddox counters that Data is a found object, the property of Star Fleet. His “life” is unimportant.

Picard gets Louvois to agree to a tribunal to judge whether Data is a person and therefore has rights. It’s astonishing that this question should even be asked of a long-serving and well-regarded officer. But then, ahem, I sat in on a recent tribunal where it seemed astonishing there was any question to be probed. Louvois agrees to the tribunal on condition that Riker acts as prosecution - just as she was once required to prosecute Picard. This is really odd. It’s some kind of revenge on Picard, or point-scoring, or proving a point. But Riker is Data’s friend, and Picard - as defence counsel - has a history with Louvois as the judge. It’s hardly impartial. I believe the phrase used by my learned friends is that it would open to challenge.

Yet I was hooked by what follows. There’s a spectacular moment as Riker builds his case and finds something he can use - Jonathan Frakes perfectly conveying without words his thrill and then his guilt. In the tribunal itself, it’s brilliantly horrible when Riker asks to remove Data’s arm as evidence that he’s not a person and then uses the off-switch from 1.13 Datalore to show he’s not a real boy. “Pinocchio is broken,” he says of the friend and crewmate slumped across the desk. “Its strings have been cut.” Note the pronoun, used to devastating effect.

There’s then a break in proceedings and Picard takes solace in the bar. Here, wise Guinan makes explicit what this story is about: removing Data’s personhood and replicating him will mean, “an army of Datas, all disposable, [so] you don't have to think about their welfare.” When she speaks of, “whole generations of disposable people,” Picard responds, “You’re talking about slavery.” Guinan denies it, though of course that’s the allusion. I think this is all sensitively done but Guinan then says this connection to slavery isn’t the issue anyway - and Picard seems to agree.

Back at the tribunal, Picard makes a case for Data’s personhood, using as evidence his possessions, his friendships, his intimate relations with the late Tasha Yar. In fact, Data doesn’t want to be drawn on that relationship having given Tasha his word not to speak of it. His loyalty and manners, all of this stuff, make a compelling case appealing to our emotions. But Picard then pivots to confront Maddox’s central argument that Data is not sentient and therefore can be treated as property rather than a person. As Picard argues, sentience is a difficult thing to define - I thought of Alan Turing’s imitation game, predicated on the idea that we assume intelligence on the part of people we talk to. There’s a good argument here: that Maddox should have to prove his own sentience before casting aspersions. But that’s not where Picard goes.

He argues that Data is the first of a new kind of android, one that Maddox and others seek to replicate. The judgment of this tribunal will define how all those androids are treated in the years to come. Picard makes the link to slavery explicit here: “Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?” The point is not what Data is but the behaviour of Star Fleet and the precedent set for the treatment of a whole new class of life. Picard quotes from the the mission statement of the Enterprise - and the series, since it’s given at the start of each episode - is “to seek out new life and new civilisations.” So the discussion here is fundamental to Star Trek. It's not about Data specifically but a wider-reaching principle of tolerance and respect for the different. It is fundamentally wrong, Picard argues. to treat some others as if they matter less. Cor, I thought, that’s really something.

Two things still bother me. First, this determination so fundamental to the series and to the Federation’s future is made by one judge with a personal score to settle with the defending counsel, while the prosecutor she appointed is a good friend of the defendant - known to socialise with Data, such as in the opening scene of this episode. It would surely be easy for Maddox to demand a retrial with more objective participants. As they acknowledge here, he very nearly won the case. Rather than settling the matter, the fact that the question was even asked about Data’s personhood is unsettling.

Then there’s Louvois’s concluding remarks:
“We have all been dancing around the basic issue. 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.”
Why bring in a spiritual dimension at all? It’s not the point Picard has made and puts the onus back on Data. It lets Star Fleet off the hook for treating him so badly by forcing him to go through this grisly business at all.

After the judgment, Data says he is still intrigued by Maddox’s research and may yet help him if they can mitigate the risks. Maddox is surprised by this gesture, admitting, “He’s remarkable.” That pronoun is important but it’s a shame our attention is drawn to it explicitly, as if the production team doubt that the sentience of their audience. The use of “he” suggests Maddox won’t be back demanding a retrial (and he's not seen again until Picard). Data and Riker are also reconciled, again the onus on Data to make it all okay when he's done nothing more than have the temerity to exist.

Then Picard and Louvois head off for drinks, reconciled themselves. It's a happy ending all round, the matter of Data’s personhood settled for good. Isn’t it?

Next episode: 3.16 The Offspring

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