With Its Most Thoughtful Episode, Star Trek Leveled Up And Was Never the Same Again

In the beginning, The Next Generation struggled to find its voice. But one pivotal episode changed everything.

Brent Spiner as Data in "The Measure of Man."
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Remember The Next Generation episode where Data learned to swim? In the first draft of one of the most pivotal Star Trek episodes of all time, “The Measure of a Man,” things were originally very different. Instead of having Data playing poker with the crew, writer Melinda Snodgrass imagined the themes of the episode could be foreshadowed by Data struggling with a swimming pool. But, because the budget didn’t allow for the swimming pool, Snodgrass created the poker scene. And with that one decision, the entire direction of Then Next Generation was changed forever.

On February 13, 1989, The Next Generation dropped what is still considered its greatest courtroom episode, “The Measure of a Man.” This ethical critique at the center of the story is obviously why the episode remains so classic and beloved. But, at the same time, the small details of this episode were harbingers of the kind of show that The Next Generation eventually became. Mild spoilers ahead.

Star Trek loves legal dramas. From the 1967 classic two-parter, “The Menagerie,” to the 1991 film The Undiscovered Country to the recent fan-favorite Strange New Worlds episode, “Ad Astra per Aspera,” the contemplative philosophizing inherent in Star Trek’s DNA often works very well when those ideas are put on trial. This isn’t just a classic trope, it's an expedient way to drill down on a science fiction story. Even the very first episode of The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint,” in 1987, framed the entire series as the trial of humanity.

Data and Maddox in "The Measure of a Man."


But, “The Measure of a Man” is easily Trek’s best courtroom episode. Briefly, the set-up is this: When the Enterprise arrives at Starbase 173, a zealous Starfleet roboticist named Maddox demands that Data be dismantled to further android research. This forces Captain Picard to create an ad-hoc trial, administered by Starbase 173’s resident judge advocate general, Captain Louvois. The logistical question of whether or not Data is the property of Starfleet initially elides the moral imperative: Is Data actually alive? And if he is a sentient being, does that mean he has the right to choose the path for his own life?

Unlike the droids in the Star Wars franchise, when Data’s off-switch is used in “The Measure of a Man,” it feels like a violation of his rights. In a sense, for longtime science fiction fans, this episode wasn’t just the trial of Data, but, in a way, the trial of Asimov’s robots, and the Replicants from Blade Runner, too. With this episode, The Next Generation, in a sense, began to take itself more seriously, not just as a mainstream drama, but as a serious work of science fiction.

When somebody says Star Trek: The Next Generation is the greatest of all of the Trek series, that statement almost always comes with a caveat. If you binge TNG from the beginning, starting with Season 1, you’ll find a deeply uneven show. And, while conventional wisdom holds that Season 3 is where the true classic era of TNG begins, many — including Brent Spiner — have long maintained that the seeds for the greatness of this version of Star Trek began in Season 2, specifically, with this episode.

Written by former attorney Melinda Snodgrass — a close friend of George R.R. Martin, and co-creator of the Wild Cards series with him — “The Measure of a Man” succeeded in 1989 for the same reason it resonates today; it was both allegorical about human rights in general but specific enough in its sci-fi premise to create a bit of doubt in the mind of the viewer. For strange legal reasons, Riker, Data’s friend, is required to be the prosecutor, an ethical wrinkle that makes the viewer wonder whether or not Data is a true living being. Riker has to be good at his job as a prosecutor, allowing us to follow the logic of his arguments, which are, at times, compelling!

Data and Picard try to prove Data is “alive.”


The title of the episode comes from a quote from Martin Luther King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” As pointed out by authors Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann, this means the episode title does not reference Data himself, but instead, the behaviors of humankind relative to the questions that the episode raises. How Picard, Riker, Maddox, and Louvois will judge Data is really what’s on trial.

This emotional arc is best seen in the journey of Maddox, someone who, at the beginning, couldn’t imagine Data as a person, and by the end of the episode, changes his mind. In the 2012 Blu-ray commentary track for this episode, Melinda Snodgrass noted of Maddox: “I wrote him as a true believer because I wanted him to change.”

This is the first episode of TNG in which the crew plays poker.


Canonically, this change of heart later resulted in another classic, the season 4 episode, “Data’s Day,” in which Data narrates his entire day in the form of a letter to Maddox. Additionally, Star Trek: Picard Season 1 used Maddox’s admiration for Data as the entire foundation for a season-long mystery, as well as the creation of even more intelligent android-esque lifeforms. This notion eventually resulted in Jean-Luc Picard being reborn in a “Synth” body, pushing the envelope of Trek’s definitions of “new life” even further.

And of course, there’s that poker game that begins the episode. This was the first time we saw members of the Enterprise-D crew playing poker, an image that became the last shot of “All Good Things...” in 1994, and the final episode of Picard, “The Last Generation” in 2023. From the journey of Data to the warm feelings about this Enterprise crew to great allegorical science fiction for TV, the best of The Next Generation started right here.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2, Episode 9, “The Measure of a Man” is streaming on Paramount+.

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