Data is ordered to transfer to the command of a robotics expert who intends to dismantle Data in order to study him and duplicate him. When Data refuses even to the point of resigning his commission, he becomes the center of a legal battle to determine if he has the rights of a sentient being. Picard vehemently argues for this, while Riker is forced by law to argue against it. In the end, Picard’s arguments win the day, and Data is allowed to choose not to undergo the procedure.
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass. Directed by Robert Scheerer.
As much as I like A Matter of Honor, the previous episode, this installment might be the first truly great Next Generation episode to turn up. The story of the argument over whether Data is person or property is exactly the kind of story that Star Trek is well equipped to tell, and contriving the situation as it is in this story gives our lead cast ample opportunity to shine. Brent Spiner in particular manages to make Data extremely compelling and sympathetic without betraying the character concept at all. It is the actor’s particular strength in this role, but this story gives him the best situation to work with.
Of course there is something a bit ridiculous that this argument needs to be had. After all, Data is not only a member of Starfleet, but he is a Lt. Commander and second officer to the Federation flagship. Nobody expects anyone to take orders from any other Starfleet property, such as the ship’s computer or a toaster, but they have to take orders from Data. But at the same time it’s easy to imagine that the situation of Data wanting to resign has never arisen before, and that the inconsistency we see here is not on the part of the series but is telling about Starfleet itself. Apparently, humanity has outgrown racial prejudice and various other social ills, but is not above acting out of pure selfishness.
The power of the story lies in the way that it continually pulls the curtain back in an attempt to get at the real issue. When you look at where it all ends, it’s almost shocking that at one point Picard is almost willing to allow Data to be coerced to submit to the procedure, for “the interest of Starfleet.” The real turning point comes with Guinan’s conversation with Picard – easily the best use of Guinan so far. Having an African-American actress play the character who points out to Picard where all this is going (“Whole generations of disposable people.” You’re talking about slavery.” “I think that’s a little harsh.”) brings it all an obvious but compelling relevance, and Whoopi Goldberg plays it very well.
The courtroom scenes are of course not as long or developed as you’d expect them to be in real life, but that’s fair enough for a 40+ minute TV episode. Patrick Stewart knocks it out of the park with his argument, establishing clearly not that Data is sentient, but that simply we don’t really know.
There are a few imperfections to the story. Some have argued that the contrivance that Riker is forced to argue against Data’s personal independence is one of them, but I don’t agree. I thought that was all right. For me the biggest weakness is the character of JAG Captain Philippa Louvois with her confused antagonistic / sexually tense relationship with Picard. I found the character to be weird, unappealing, and a bit annoying. Still, as low points go, it doesn’t rob the story badly.
One final note – Data at one point identifies that the issue at hand is his “right to choose.” At the time that I first saw this, when I was in college, I could not help but to connect that line with the ongoing abortion debate, as that was the only context that I had ever heard that phrase connected to before. I have no idea if this was intentional or not. For me at the time, it was easy to assume (by the use of the phrase and by the fact that it’s coming from an American TV drama) that intent was to liken Data’s plight with that of women who may be denied the right to choose whether to abort their pregnancies or not. Watching it now, however, I find that if I were going to draw a parallel, that it’s much easier to do so in other ways – as the story is about someone being forced against their will to experience a harmful invasive procedure. At the time that I first saw this, my views were a bit uncertain, but it’s amazing what 24 years can do to bring some clarity.
Shout Outs to the Past
There are references to the Stargazer (seen in The Battle), Lore (from Datalore) Romulans, and Tasha Yar and her relationship with Data (from The Naked Now).
Setting Up the Future
Commander Maddox will be referred to at least one other time in the series, in Data’s Day.
The situation which is going on here foreshadows the discussions about holographic rights that we’ll see in many episodes of Voyager. Too bad nobody at the time seemed to remember Picard’s speech here, or the final ruling.
The Poker Game amongst the ship’s officers will be seen many more times over the series.
• Clyde Kusatsu will play Admiral Nakamura two more times in the series, and also has made tons of TV appearances
• As mentioned, we have here the first example of the poker game amongst the ship’s officers. Participating this time around are Riker, Data, O’Brien, Pulaski, and Geordi. O’Brien’s presence signifies the way the production team were viewing the character at this point – definitely a consistent presence in the series.
• My Mom has pointed out the humor of seeing these futuristic Star Trek people using very ordinary looking props from time to time – like Kirk’s suitcase in an episode of the original series. Here, the ordinary looking prop are the cards they are using in the poker game. Data’s suitcase, on the other hand, is an odd and impractical-looking thing.
• This is Guinan’s third appearance. This time, she is having her sagely moment with Picard.
• The scene between Picard and Data about Geordi’s eyes is very good. Overall, the progression in tension in this episode is very good, as things get worse and worse. It’s particularly impressive from an episode with no external threat.
• Riker’s refusal to serve as prosecutor is well done.
• There’s a nice moment where Riker congratulates himself as he develops his case against Data before remembering what he is trying to do.
• Hmm, I don’t really buy that that rod Data bent is really as tough as it is supposed to be.
• Data’s hand comes off pretty easily
Dialogue High Point
There are lots, but the best is the climax of Picard’s courtroom argument.
Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well there it sits!