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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Measure of a Man (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Ah, The Measure of a Man.

It’s the first point in the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation where we’ve reached an episode that could legitimately be ranked as one of the best that the show would ever produce. Even today, the episode remains a favourite of Star Trek fans around the world, and a superb demonstration of what the series is capable of. Almost half-way into the second season, we get a glimpse of what The Next Generation could be, and how it balance its own identity against the proud philosophical traditions of its parent series.

It’s also quite brilliant.

A Data with destiny...

A Data with destiny…

At the heart of The Measure of a Man is conflict. Of course, conflict is at the heart of virtually every great story, the source of all drama and suspense. However, it’s worth mentioning that The Measure of a Man is built upon conflict because The Next Generation has really struggled with the confines of “the Roddenberry Box” – the harsh rules set down by creator Gene Roddenberry that there should be no conflict on the Enterprise. It’s the future, everybody will get along.

While that’s a beautiful idea, and Seth McFarlane has astutely joked that Picard’s Enterprise is perhaps the best working environment in the history of television, it does undercut the demands of televised drama. While there have been some good episodes of The Next Generation so far, there have also been far too many terrible and mediocre installments. Everything is too clean, too sterile. And then The Measure of a Man arrives.

When the chips are down...

When the chips are down…

Written by Melissa M. Snodgrass as a freelance script, The Measure of a Man is just a beautiful piece of work. It’s so beautiful that the finished cut of the episode ran almost twenty-minutes over the show’s runtime. For the blu ray release of the season, using the cut given to Snodgrass as a guide, the restoration team were able to slice back that extended cut of the episode.

Despite an abundance of deleted scenes (and even longer cuts) for other episodes (like The Wounded, for example), this remains the only time that the original pre-broadcast cut of an episode has been reinstated. It is, in short, kind of a big deal. And deservedly so. Like so many great hours of television or film or anything else, Snodgrass’ script works on a number of levels. Most interestingly, it’s also a complete rebuke of Gene Roddenberry’s approach to The Next Generation, while championing the values of the original Star Trek.

Stationary orbit...

Stationary orbit…

In the commentary for the episode, Snodgrass explains to Michael Okuda that Roddenberry himself was one of the biggest problems in getting the episode to the screen:

That was one of the great difficulties for me as a writer, and I think I speak for the other members of staff, that there was this frustration that we couldn’t have conflict among the crew, or it was very difficult to get it. Part of that was due to Gene, he once told us that by the 24th century people were perfect. He said “my people are perfect; they have no flaws” in one meeting. I was taken aback by it, because Gene was a writer. He’d created the show originally, and knew that the essence of drama is conflict -if you don’t have conflict, you don’t have drama. So we had to generate conflict outside – they were always mediating peace between warring factions, rather than the war being within them. I think that was actually a weakness of the show.

I think that some of that might be that for millions of people Star Trek has become a representation of an optimistic future, of a hopeful future, and I think that Gene was getting protective of his legacy at that point. Maybe he was a little more concerned with that than telling a story. I mean there really were times when I missed Kirk punching the bad guy and kissing the girl and arguing with Spock and having a computer blow up because he gave it a logical conundrum it couldn’t solve. It was harder to find drama within the circle of characters.

Did Gene specifically respond to the conflict in this episode?

Yes, that’s actually why I was called back out to California after they initially bought the script. Gene called to visit with me. As he began to talk about my episode, one of the things he said to me was, “There are no lawyers in the 24th century, because we don’t need them. We have other means to get people’s heads right, to make them behave.” And he said, “Also, Data would be delighted to be dissected!”

So I sat there very quiet for a few minutes, and I said, “Well, Mr. Roddenberry, if that’s the case, then we don’t have a script.” So I called Maurice, and I said, “I think there’s a problem in the view of this episode.” And he and Gene discussed it and that was when I was told, “Would you fly back and we can talk about it?” Whatever happened, happened above my pay grade, I don’t know – but suddenly there were lawyers in the 24th century!

It’s quite an extreme example of the way that Roddenberry’s philosophy was really hemming in The Next Generation, and really damaging the show. In Roddenberry’s version of The Measure of a Man, Data would willingly offer himself to the state so they might experiment upon him; with no real reflection on the implications of that decision, or what it actually says about Roddenberry’s futuristic paradise.

Tabling the discussion...

Tabling the discussion…

The Measure of a Man is a rather blunt rejection of the type of utopianism proposed by Roddenberry, a stark rebuttal to the futuristic conflict-free paradise that he insisted would exist in the 24th century. The Measure of a Man is a story about how conflict and debate and discussion are a vital part of any free society, and – by extension – how they are necessary for good drama.

Snodgrass was a lawyer by profession, and so she has an understanding of the importance of conflict in defining what a society should be. Even in the post-scarcity economy of Star Trek, various human needs must come into conflict. For all the jokes that exist about lawyers and their function (with Data even getting in on the act in the extended cut), they do have a vital role to play in the democratic process.

We'll always have the Neutral Zone...

We’ll always have the Neutral Zone…

In the extended cut, Riker is appalled by this function. “A system that pits people against each other can’t be the answer,” he protests, seemingly shocked that the Federation adopts an American-style adversarial model rather than the a more European legal code. It’s worth noting that actor Jonathan Frakes has argued that Roddenberry saw a lot of himself in Riker, so giving Riker this objection feels appropriate.

Philippa Louvois, then, feels like an obvious stand-in for Snodgrass. On the commentary, Snodgrass notes that we even cast the character with red hair, speculating that the production team meant to invite the comparison. Like Snodgrass, Louvois is a lawyer. Also like Snodgrass, Louvois argues that conflict and disagreement are a necessary part of the process. “When people of good conscience have an honest dispute we sometimes must resort to this kind of adversarial system,” she insists, in a line featured in both cuts.

Letting rip...

Letting rip…

Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia seems ideal. Jonathan Frakes is fond of quoting Roddenberry’s insistence that “in the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed and all the children will know how to read.” It’s an ideal worth striving towards, and it’s easy to understand why it meant so much to Roddenberry and to fans of Star Trek. At the same time, it leaves a lot of uncomfortable questions about what happens when the individual comes into conflict with the greater good.

The politics of the Federation are somewhat hazy. In the loosest terms, the organisation maintains the structure and iconography of a Western liberal democracy, combined with an internal economy that seems to follow a successful socialist model. However, the Federation does appear to have some measure of economy, if only because we see characters trading and dealing with external cultures.

Riker adopts a hands-off approach...

Riker adopts a hands-off approach…

Roddenberry’s view of the Federation is it’s a society built on the assumption that people are selfless and ideal, and that individual needs are never in conflict with the greater good. Which seems a bit hard to believe. The Measure of Man beautifully subverts this idea by asking what happens when Roddenberry’s utopia state decides that it wants something that an individual isn’t willing to offer.

Note that, in Snodgrass’ example, Roddenberry doesn’t argue that the Federation would never ask Data to take such a risk; instead, he insists that Data would happily go along with it. There’s something very sinister about this version of utopia, and The Measure of a Man represents a rather brutal critique of Roddenberry’s vision, suggesting that even if Roddenberry’s future were able to provide for everybody’s material needs, there would still remain important questions to be asked.

Maddox would have had him if it wasn't for Picard's medalling...

Maddox would have had him if it wasn’t for Picard’s medalling…

In this respect, then, Roddenberry’s views seem rather bluntly represented in the character of Maddox. Maddox is a visionary, but he’s not really in tune with the reality of people. He’s obsessed with the potential for a perfect utopian ideal. “If I am permitted to make this experiment, the horizons for human achievement become boundless,” he insists. “Consider, every ship in Starfleet with a Data on board. Utilising its tremendous capabilities, acting as our hands and eyes in dangerous situations.”

When Data objects, Maddox rejects the notion that anybody has the right to stand in the way of utopia. “Rights! Rights! I’m sick to death of hearing about rights! What about my right not to have my life work subverted by blind ignorance?” Maddox is an artist, he’s a man building the future, increasing frustrated by the limitations of those around him and the practical demands of the work that he is doing.

Maddox doesn't have the necessary Data...

Maddox doesn’t have the necessary Data…

Watching the first two seasons of The Next Generation, it’s not hard to get a sense that Roddenberry was quite similar to Maddox – the champion of what he sees as the absolute and unquestionable good, with little patience for compromise and little willingness to accept dissent. It’s worth noting that Snodgrass treats Maddox sympathetically. Data himself is sympathetic to Maddox’s goals, despite his disagreement with the man. In the end, Maddox is willing to see Data as a person rather than a thing.

So The Measure of a Man is really a strong statement on how the show needs to be willing to accept that conflicts can exist, even in this idealised future. In the closing lines from the extended cut, Data himself reflects on this. Meeting Riker in the observation room, he thanks Riker for what has been an educational experience. “Commander… Will, I have learned from your experience,” he explains.

Throwing the book at him...

Throwing the book at him…

When Riker asks what he learned, Data replies, “That at times one must deny their nature, sacrifice their own personal beliefs to protect another.” In a way, The Measure of a Man argues that conflict is a necessary part of growth – both for the Federation as an institution, for Data as an individual, and for the show as a whole. If you want to get really abstract about it, you could argue that even conflict over the existence of conflict in Star Trek is a valuable debate, worth having.

And so The Measure of a Man introduces conflict. Lots of conflict. Data is thrown into conflict with Starfleet. Picard is thrown into conflict with a former lover. Even Riker is thrown into conflict with Picard. After all, Riker is a character who was really neutered by the “no conflict” directive. Riker was meant to be this ambitious second-in-command, the equivalent of James T. Kirk. A bit of this carries through, with the really awful “Riker gets laid” plots from the first season, and with the character’s swagger and confidence.

Riker's argument falls to pieces...

Riker’s argument falls to pieces…

However, Riker can never seem too ambitious. He can never seem like he might actually want to replace Picard, because no idealised human would even think like that. He can’t relish assuming command, and he can’t conflict with Picard too often. As a result, he seems like a competent (if slightly bland) first officer. A Matter of Honour was able to write around this by taking Riker off the Enterprise, but far too many Riker episodes feature characters telling us about how ambitious he is, with little evidence to support it.

Later this season, we’ll get fairly boring installments like The Icarus Factor or Peak Performance about how Riker is really just gunning for his own ship. It’s such a strange character beat that runs so contrary to the way that Riker is generally written on the show that Michael Piller builds the show’s first two-part episode, The Best of Both Worlds, around this conflict.

Everybody's cup of tea...

Everybody’s cup of tea…

Here, Snodgrass relishes throwing Picard and Riker into conflict. In the televised cut of the episode, the subplot does feel a little under-developed, but it fits thematically with the episode. As she explains in the commentary:

Now we have Riker and Picard in conflict in a way that we’ve never seen, because – I think unfortunately – Riker spent so many seasons going “Oh, no! I could never leave you Picard! You’re so awesome! I don’t want a ship of my own!” And this was a chance for him to challenge and to have a conflict with this officer, even if it was the thing he didn’t want to do.

Frakes relishes the opportunity, and The Measure of a Man features several effective sequences. Riker’s opening argument is superb, but that little moment where he smiles at the thought he might win (before quickly realising the consequences) is a delightfully effective moment.

Old friends...

Old friends…

Of course, none of this is why fans remember The Measure of a Man. This is all just fascinating stuff that plays out in the background, and against the context of the rest of the first two seasons. The Measure of a Man isn’t championed or relished because it introduces conflict into The Next Generation. It’s measured against the very best episodes of the franchise because oft he ambition of its ideas. It’s a provocative and challenging episode about how we define what “life” is, and how the state deals with the needs of individuals.

In many respects, it’s a firm rebuttal of Spock’s famous “the needs of the many…” speech in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, supporting the argument that a society is best judged by how it treats its weakest members – those marginalised and dismissed and unable to stand up for themselves. (It’s a philosophy espoused in various forms by any number of high-profile figures, including Dostoyevsky, Ghandi, Churchill, Truman and Pope John Paul II.)

Wrap party...

Wrap party…

The Measure of a Man is a story about the rights of an artificial life form, and so it’s understandably abstract. Given we’ve yet to invent an artificial life form, the question isn’t directly applicable to the modern world. But that’s missing the point. Abstract questions are fascinating because they prompt debate and thought and consideration, and also because they allow us to engage with larger issues in a way that might be too awkward to do directly.

In a way, then, the law is the perfect metaphor for this process. Judgments are handed down in legal cases dealing specifically with the facts of those cases. However, those decisions have far wider implications, as other judges try to divine big ideas and fundamental principles from these specific examples. It’s a fascinating process, and it’s quite akin to watching the types of morality plays that Star Trek constructs, asking how these relate to the real world.

Riker switches sides...

Riker switches sides…

Picard’s arguments in the court room build on this idea, on the notion that this is really just a beach head to far more important and wide-reaching questions. Patrick Stewart delivers the monologue with gusto, but it’s written well enough that it’s worth quoting here in full:

And the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery? Your Honour, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits. Waiting. You wanted a chance to make law. Well, here it is. Make a good one.

It’s just an absolutely wonderful idea, and it’s arguably a much better articulation of the appeal of Star Trek than Roddenberry’s ardent insistence on an unquestionable utopia. After all, if mankind has already found perfection, what is left to explore?

Courting opinion...

Courting opinion…

To be fair, Snodgrass wears her influences on her sleeve. On the commentary, she confesses that she wanted to do a story about the Dread Scott decision… in space. The scene with Guinan might be the best use of the character to date. It astutely argues that the treatment of Data shares some parallels to the treatment of other individuals that were denied personhood in the service of “more important” vested interests.

“Well, consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures,” Guinan explains. “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.”

Poker face...

Poker face…

Whoopi Goldberg was seldom given this quality of material to work with, and The Measure of a Man demonstrates that Goldberg could be a tremendous performer in the right circumstances. On the commentary to Star Trek: Generations, Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore discussed how hard it was to write for Guinan, recalling that they used to joke about whether they could write a scene between Guinan and Picard consisting of nothing more than “meaningful glances.”

That’s an observation that reveals a lot of the problems with Guinan as a character, problems that would become more obvious in the years ahead, but The Measure of a Man demonstrates just how effective Guinan can be, if used smartly and efficiently. The Measure of a Man uses a lot of the core ideeas and concepts of The Next Generation with a lot more confidence and a lot more comfort than many of the previous episodes.

Base-less accusations...

Base-less accusations…

More than that, though, Snodgrass hits on an interesting aspect of the relationship between The Next Generation and the original Star Trek, which is something that The Next Generation is struggling with at this point in its run. The dynamic is rather interesting. Leonard McCoy appeared in Encounter at Farpoint to pass the torch from one generation to another; the first regular episode of the show, The Naked Now, had the Enterprise encountering the same threat that menaced Kirk’s Enterprise in The Naked Time.

While Roddenberry restricted the use of Romulans and Klingons in the first son, and was reluctant to use familiar guest characters or to overtly reference Kirk or Spock, there was a sense that a lot of The Next Generation was struggling to emulate its direct predecessor. The most recent addition to the cast, Katherine Pulaski, is very clearly intended to evoke the country doctor stylings of Leonard McCoy.

A handy argument...

A handy argument…

Many first season episodes feel like attempts to carry on where the classic show left off. The racism of Code of Honour makes more sense (but is no more forgivable) if you read it as a sixties throwback. The same is true of the sexism in Angel One. Justice is a “free love atheism” episode that seems like it was a recycled script from the classic show. Home Soil is a more abstract version of The Devil in the Dark. The Neutral Zone is a more intellectual take on Balance of Terror, with extra moralising thrown in.

These stories tend to try to directly mimic the style of classic Star Trek, written as if intended for some fourth season of the classic show. They ignore the fact that decades have passed, and that society has moved on. Justice would always seem like a throwback to the era of free love, but broadcasting it during the AIDs scare demonstrates just how out of touch The Next Generation was with the outside world.

A fair hearing...

A fair hearing…

In contrast, The Measure of a Man embraces the spirit of classic Star Trek, in a less literal and more abstract sense. Star Trek isn’t about Romulans or Klingons or free love, as much as those might have become a part of the series. The Measure of a Man is more interested in the philosophy of Star Trek, in its essence, as Snodgrass herself argues:

To tell you the truth, when I sat down to write this episode, I wanted to write something that could have aired on the original show. I hope this isn’t heresy to to any viewers or listeners, but I think that the original show – despite only running for three years, despite the cheesy sets and the terrible effects – in terms of the number of fantastic episodes that they did, had a percentage that was stunning compared to the seven years of The Next Generation. I think that Next Gen lacked some of the heart and those deep emotional currents that ran through the original show. I wanted to write a show that could have been Kirk and Spock instead of Picard and Riker, and I wanted that feel.

I don’t think Snodgrass is entirely fair to The Next Generation, but she makes a valid point. So far, The Next Generation has been more concerned with mimicking the form of Star Trek, rather than its core values. Episodes like Symbiosis have engaged with big ideas, but they are few and far between. It’s something the show would get better at in the years ahead.

I, Android...

I, Android…

The Measure of a Man is a massive accomplishment for The Next Generation. It’s really the first time the show has demonstrated that it deserved comparison with the classic Star Trek, and that it’s not afraid of big ideas or high concepts. It’s a bold and philosophical hour of television, one populated with big ideas and bigger questions, one which really embodies the essence of what Star Trek can be.

However, it’s also the moment where The Next Generation seems to realise what it can be as well, challenging a lot of the assumptions and rules imposed by Roddenberry, and daring to examine some of the deeper underlying questions about Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia. It’s a massive step forward for the series, and one that offers the promise of much more to come.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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3 Responses

  1. ““There are no lawyers in the 24th century, because we don’t need them. We have other means to get people’s heads right, to make them behave.” ”

    Uh..what?

    And btw, excellent episode, I love watching the HD version. Now THIS is what I like about Star Trek

  2. There’s been a heck of a lot of discussion about Discovery on the internet. I haven’t remarked on it, because I haven’t seen it yet (darn CBS All Access) but I’ve been glancing over the comments on Facebook.

    On the Nexus of NERD group, Josh Hartung poses the question “What does it mean to have a “Star Trek” ethos?” As part of his subsequent effort to answer his own question, he stated the following…

    “There’s a point at which Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future starts looking a lot like a dystopian nightmare.”

    This immediately caused me to recall the DVD commentary by Melissa M. Snodgrass, specifically Gene Roddenberry’s remarks to her, that you quoted in this review.

    “There are no lawyers in the 24th century, because we don’t need them. We have other means to get people’s heads right, to make them behave.” and “Also, Data would be delighted to be dissected!”

    Both of those comments by Roddenberry are, well, disturbing.

    Roddenberry created Star Trek, but a lot of other people contributed to the crucial development of the series. You can say that without Roddenberry there would have been no Star Trek, period, but without Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana and Herve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer and all the people who worked on the original show and the movies and the spin-offs it would never have become that massive success and cultural phenomenon that it has.

    If you straitjacket yourself attempting to make a Star Trek series based solely on what you Roddenberry would have wanted, or what you *think* he would have wanted, you are going to probably doom yourself to failure. You’re going to end up churning out the equivalent of fan fiction. This episode and others really demonstrate that new ideas needed to be introduced & developed in order for the series to continue to be both relevant & successful. what worked in 1967 will not necessarily work in 1987, or in 2017.

    • Yep, Snodgrass’ discussion of the production of The Measure of a Man is insightful and very worth seeking out for anybody with any interest in the history and evolution of Star Trek. This was a watershed moment in the history of the franchise, and all the more important for that.

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