A pre-Law and Order courtroom drama set in space? Let’s get into this!
As much as I love The Next Generation, its first two seasons are, well, not particularly great. The first season is a disaster. It borders on the unwatchable. The second season improves, but there are still a lot of clunkers along the way. “The Measure of a Man” is one of the great exceptions to this two-season blunder. Here, we see a researcher from Starfleet Command, Commander Maddox, have Data reassigned to him so he conduct invasive research in the hopes of creating more androids like Data.
Picard is apprehensive in the beginning, but being a military man, he understands Starfleet’s interest in advancing the number of Datas in the fleet. Yet from the onset, Data objects. He cannot refuse Starfleet’s orders to be reassigned to Commander Maddox, so Data resigns in order to preserve his will as an individual.
The issue is, Commander Maddox objects to the resignation. He protests, and argues that Data cannot resign because he, as an artificial lifeform, is Starfleet’s property. What ensues is a courtroom drama over the legitimacy of Data’s individuality and his status as a unique entity.
Here, Picard serves as Data’s lawyer. And for the first time in the series, we truly see the level of friendship and care that exists between Picard and Data. In his defense of Data, Picard is taking on Starfleet command and its judicial representative, to whom Picard apparently has a long, tumultuous relationship with. As we see in later episodes, particularly “The Drumhead”, Picard will stand in solidarity with those being unjustly tried. In this case, Picard is a revolutionary. He’s arguing for the rights of a machine on the basis of personhood (sentience, intelligence, self-awareness), and drives his argument to its logical end: creation of more entities like Data without granting individual autonomy is the commencement of slavery of a new race.
From early in the series, Picard is willing to stand with his crew and the oppressed. While a man of his stature certainly calculates the odds, the numbers do not dissuade him from aligning with rightness. Picard’s moral compass, his grounded principles, will guide his decisions. While not a rebel captain like Kirk, Picard will stand against his organization if his organization is indeed in the wrong. It’s what makes him an admirable leader and starship captain. It’s his principles that make us as viewers follow him confidently through the years.