Saturday, August 22, 2009

Star Trek: The Next Generation--"The Measure of a Man"

“The Measure of a Man” is the first Tng episode I am going to award five stars. It is one of my favorites for several reasons. For one, it was an unsolicited script from Melinda Snodgrass when she was a lowly production assistant. Ask any aspiring, agent-less writer and they will tell you that is like catching lightning in a bottle. It is catching two lightning bolts in the same bottle when the script is as good as this one was. I give Snodgrass the highest possible praise here, both because of her accomplishments here and because my review for her second outing will put her in a fetal position sucking her thumb therefore I want her to have a good memory to hold onto in the interim.

The courtroom action in “The Measure of a Man” is pure Hollywood fantasy. There is no way a trial would have been done immediately without data being given adequate defense counsel and an experienced prosecutor instead of forcing Picard and Riker into the roles. The JAG’s demand for an immediate trial without lawyers or Data is automatically subject to disassembly would be grounds to overturn a decision against him anyway, so the set up is false drama. But I can overlook that because of the fascinating question at the heart of the story and a major parallel for a Supreme Court case three years after this episode aired.

The plot is straightforward. A cynernetics expert named Maddox wants to take Data apart to study him. Data refuses because Maddox has not perfected his work, so he does not believe he can be put back together again properly. Maddox insists Data cannot refuse because he is a machine and therefore the property of Starfleet. The dispute results in a trial to determine whether Data is a sentient being who can make his own choice or a machine with no more rights than a toaster.

Riker as the prosecution makes a convincing case, even doing the proper lawyer move of automatically requesting summary judgment because Data is unquestionably a machine. Riker subsequently removes Data’s arm and finally huts him off completely. Picard is dejected during recess until he speaks to Guinan. She tells him that if ignoring Data’s right to choose would be tantamount to slavery.

Picard goes back to the courtroom to argue that people are also created by their parents, yet are not owned by them. This being trek, there is no room for the theological argument for free will granted by God, but since iam a good Calvinist who understands free will and God’s omniscience cannot be reconciled, I will let that slide.

Under cross examination, Picard dissects Maddox’s criteria for sentience. Maddox declares the three criteria are intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. Data is clearly intelligent. He knows what and where is is as well as his current predicament, so he is self-aware. That leaves consciousness.

Consciousness is a metaphysical term that philosophers have debated from the beginning. What one believes about the nature of consciousness is a matter of personal philosophical or theological leanings regarding the existence of the soul. The JAG recognizes such a decision is beyond the ability of the court to determine to determine whether Data or anyone else has a soul. It has to remain a personal choice, therefore Data should get to choose for himself. He does by refusing to be disassembled, but opts to work with Maddox in other ways.

The logic of this fictitious case reappears three years later when Planned Parenthood v. Casey was ruled upon by the Supreme Court. Casey was the last best chance to repeal Roe, but as what is possibly an urban legend goes, a law clerk convinced Justice Kennedy to change his mind at the last minute. But that is not the relevant point.

The majority decision was written by Justice O’Connor. You can read decision if you wish. the gist of O’Connor’s argument is the metaphysics of when life begins is beyond the scope of the Court to determine just like the JAG ruled in “The Measure of a Nan.” However, the result went tragically in the opposite direction. Since when the existence of the soul is beyond the Court’s determination, the freedom to kill unborn children should continue. You see, it is good to err on the side of caution for fictional androids, but aborting unborn children can be done without conscience.

I am going to come back to the moral of this episode and Casey because of Snodgrass’ second script for TNG, “Up the Long Ladder,” which I hinted at above as holding a special animosity for me. Snodgrass has gone on the record as writing that script as a love song to pro-choice advocacy. In that episode, clones of the crew are made without their consent. In spite of them being alive, they are destroyed with a my body, my choice argument. Bear in mind what she advocated about data’s consciousness versus what she is going to advocate then and you will figure out why I despise the latter so much. Wait for that review. It is a dozy.

Rating; ***** (out of 5)

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