Thursday, January 6, 2011

Perfection, Or Close Enough, In A Morality Play: "The Measure Of A Man"

The Good: Excellent character development, Strong moral play, Acting, Theme
The Bad: Moments of heavyhandedness
The Basics: Despite some annoying Picard moments, "The Measure Of A Man" remains as one of the best, most interesting morality plays this series did.

When I first wrote a review for the Star Trek The Next Generation episode, "The Measure Of A Man," I was surprised to find no one had beaten me to it. In fact, I was shocked because some of the obscure episodes of Star Trek Deep Space Nine had reviews (and not just by me!), but this rather popular episode of Star Trek The Next Generation did not. Go figure. Now, I remain surprised that this episode is not reviewed by more people, that it is not hailed in these turbulent times as a cultural milestone that illustrates how far we have fallen from our ideals.

"The Measure Of A Man" finds the Enterprise visiting a new starbase near the Romulan Neutral Zone where Captain Picard is reunited with an old adversary of his, Captain Phillipa Louvois, the woman who prosecuted Picard when he lost his last command, the U.S.S. Stargazer. After establishing their awkward relationship, Commander Bruce Maddox appears and demands Data. It turns out he is a cyberneticist studying Noonien Soong, Data's creator. He wants to disassemble Data and build more Soong-type androids. Data, not trusting Maddox's skill, resigns from StarFleet only to be told he can't; he has been deemed property. What ensues then is a legal battle where the question of whether Data is property or a sentient life form begins. When Data's identity as an individual is threatened, Picard steps up to his defense and Commander Riker is compelled by Louvois to take the prosecution's role.

I always took it as Gospel that "The Measure Of A Man" was a perfect episode. I remember, vaguely, the very first time I watched it, being blown away by the message of the episode. It's a powerful one. "The Measure Of A Man" operates on the premise that the only reason to replicate someone is to create a slave race. Bummer, especially for Data. In fact, one of the most noteworthy moments of the episode is a quiet scene between Picard and the mysterious Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who puts the concept together for Picard and the audience. It's poignant and it's terrifying in its implications, that even in the future, the dominant culture would enslave others who might have as much identity and ability as themselves.

The legal battle rivals moments from such classic shows as L.A. Law and The Practice. Here, we see Commander Riker deliver a courtroom display of evidence that is instantly damaging to Picard's defense of the android. This is high drama and the idea that the fight is not so much over an individual, but a race is compelling.

And it's a great theme and a necessary one. And it is delivered well. Brent Spiner plays perfectly the emotionless Data who frames the legal arguments both for and against him. Spiner must deliver lines with clarity and without any real affect, including some about his character's prior intimacies and there is never a moment in this episode where his facade slips. We never see a hint of Spiner in Data.

He is pulled at by a surprisingly passionate Picard who is played with grace and depth by Patrick Stewart this time around in a way we are not used to seeing him play the captain. But it works. Stewart has dramatic intensity and it works perfectly in this role as he is an expert at emoting. Stewart has a way of softening his features to emote and here he makes his face gentle and caring in a way he seldom does on Star Trek The Next Generation. Yet, he makes the viewer believe completely that this is within his character.

Almost on the same level is Jonathan Frakes, playing Commander Riker, whose tormented position in this role forces him to prosecute Data and present the counterargument. That his character comes across as tortured while presenting his powerful argument is a credit to Frakes, whose acting saves this portion of the episode. In fact, Frakes is forced to make some of the most unenviable arguments and he humanizes his character by making it difficult on Riker. Indeed, one of the best performances Frakes gives is when he - as Riker - leans down and whispers to Data before illustrating how much of a machine the android is.

But upon rewatching this classic recently, I was frustrated by how much airtime was spent with Picard and Louvois. Moreover, some of Picard's lines to Louvois are distracting; he talks down to her at times like I never have heard him talk down to his own officers. And she is his equal! It's frustrating to hear Picard say things that border on sexism (i.e. reminding Louvois to do her job in the trial) that seem unnecessary.

At the end of the day, though, this is one of the few times I'm willing to sweep a complaint under the rug for an episode that deserves to be watched. A must for anyone who likes courtroom drama, existentialist questions and a fine debate. "The Measure Of A Man" is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor that is more fun than sitting in a philosophy class.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the sophomore season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek franchise movie and episode reviews, please visit the index page here!

© 2011, 2008, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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