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Lunch » Tags » Tv Shows » Reviews » Star Trek - The Next Generation, Episode 35: The Measure Of A Man » User review

Data is on trial for his existence

  • Nov 5, 2004
There is no question that as technology continues to advance and humans move out beyond our solar locality, some of the truths that we currently hold self-evident will be severely questioned or proven false. Science fiction in general and the many incarnations of Star Trek are areas where many of those truths are questioned. In episode three (The Naked Now) of Star Trek, The Next Generation, the android Data has a sexual encounter with the human Tasha Yar. I have always considered that episode weaker than it could have been because there was no consideration of the social, legal and moralistic ramifications of a human having sexual intercourse with a machine. That event is used in this episode, where Data is on trial for his very existence.
Commander Bruce Maddox is an expert in cybernetics who is trying to understand how Data functions. He has reached the point in his research where the only way he can advance is to study Data by disassembling him. However, when his plan is explained to Data, Picard and Riker, they are skeptical. They do not believe that the experiment can be carried out without significant risk to Data's persona, so they resist. To counter this, Maddox has orders transferring Data to his command. Data then resigns his commission in Star Fleet, and Maddox responds by stating that Data is no different from the Enterprise computer. He is the property of Star Fleet, to be used, as the leadership considers appropriate. Captain Picard challenges the ruling, and the local Judge Advocate General (JAG) convenes a hearing.
The JAG is Phillipa Louvois, a woman who was previously involved with Captain Picard. It is an intense love-hate relationship. Although it is never explained, they were clearly romantically involved years before, but that relationship changed as she prosecuted Picard when he faced a court martial after the Stargazer was lost. Picard takes the assignment of arguing in favor of Data being considered a sentient being and Commander Riker is ordered to argue that Data is little more than a toaster. At first he refuses, but when told that if he doesn't, the ruling will be immediately rendered that Data is a machine, he agrees. He is also told that he must aggressively argue the position, if the JAG believes that he is not, the immediate ruling will be that Data is a machine.
In the hearing, Riker goes first and his arguments are forceful, so powerful that the only response that Picard can make is to request a recess. After talking with Guinan, Picard argues that the facts that Data is a machine and was constructed by humans are conceded but irrelevant. Humans are also machines, albeit of a different sort and humans are made by their parents, when they engage in acts that combine their DNAs.
Picard then moves to the real issues, questioning Data about the mementos that he has collected. His tryst with Tasha is brought up, which raises the eyebrows of the JAG. Maddox is then placed on the stand and Picard asks for his definition of a being that should be accorded rights. He gives three criteria, intelligence, self-awareness and consciousness. There is no dispute that Data is intelligent and Picard easily proves that Data is self-aware. The final point is forcefully made when Picard asks Maddox to prove that he (Picard) is sentient. His response is to say that it is self evident that Picard is sentient. Picard then uses this to argue that there is no test to prove sentience. Therefore, absent a proof to the contrary, Picard argues that the possibility that Data is sentient is enough to justify that he has the rights accorded to humans. Given this uncertainty, the JAG rules that Data will be accorded the rights granted to sentient creatures.
These arguments go to the very core of human beliefs concerning the fundamentals of mind, ego, personality and the other components of the essence of being. They are handled so well that two of my colleagues in the Philosophy department at Mount Mercy College use this tape in their classes. At this time, the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has yet to produce anything that can be considered intelligent. Therefore, the debate there is still about whether AI is even possible. Given the abilities for data storage and the speed of processing that Data says he is capable of, if computing technology ever reaches that point, then the hearing depicted in this episode will eventually take place.
This is one of the best episodes in all of Star Trek, as I have said many times, the best episodes are those that challenge our ideas about the legal, moral, and ethical structure of the universe. We consider many of our beliefs to be self-evident, however there are a large number of reasons to believe that many of those beliefs are based on species-centric delusions.

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Quick Tip by . May 03, 2011
Commander Data is to be 'retrieved' by famed Starfleet scientist Commander Bruce Maddux for ... disassembly? This exceptional morality play about the nature of existence has wonderful depth for being a mere forty-plus minutes. In record time, it manages to deal with such titillating sci-fi subjects as the man vs. machine controversy, a person's right to choose, and even slavery. Brent Spiner, as Commander Data, is at top form in this episode, given perhaps the greatest story possible: …
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Charles Ashbacher ()
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Charlie Ashbacher is a compulsive reader and writer about many subjects. His prime areas of expertise are in mathematics and computers where he has taught every course in the mathematics and computer … more
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Philosophy takes center stage in this exploration of what constitutes a life form. Everybody knows that Data is an amazing machine, but is he more than that? Is he a sentient being? These questions, perfect for idle speculation, are put on trial on a brand-new starbase when Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) decides he wants to disassemble Data in order to learn "its" secrets, so that he can build many more Datas in the future. Data, however, doesn't think his science ability is up to snuff. Maddox forces a transfer so that Data must undergo the experiments, which in turn leads to Data's resignation from Starfleet. But can he resign, or is he the property of Starfleet? Is he a person, or more like a toaster? A trial is set up in front of Judge Advocate General Philipa Louvois (Amanda McBroom); Riker is called on to argue that Data is the property of Starfleet, while Picard must defend Data as a new form of life. Excellent arguments are given for both sides.--Andy Spletzer
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Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Studio: Paramount

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