“We too are machines, just machines of a different type”: The Measure of a Man (TNG) vs. Author, Author (Voyager)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Measure of a Man” (season 2, episode 9)

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Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass; directed by Robert Scheerer; first aired in 1989

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise is docked at a new starbase, and while Commander Riker schools Data in poker, Captain Picard runs into the local JAG officer, Captain Phillipa Louvois, an old flame of his who also, awkwardly, prosecuted a court martial against him ten years earlier. Their bittersweet reunion is interrupted when Picard is introduced to Commander Bruce Maddox, a cybernetics expert who has come to “work on” Data, by which he means disassemble Data and inspect his insides, in order to figure out how to make more androids like him. Intrigued by the idea, but not convinced that Maddox can successfully put him back together again, Data declines. But Maddox, who originally opposed Data’s entry to Starfleet Academy and refers to him, coldly, as “it,” reveals that Data has no choice: he’s been transferred to Maddox’s command, and can’t even get out of the procedure by resigning, as Maddox disturbingly declares him “property” of Starfleet. Desperate to save his second officer, Picard asks Louvois to call a hearing, in which Picard himself will represent Data. But Commander Riker, the next-highest-ranking officer involved, must agree to argue Maddox’s case against the personhood of his friend, and if Louvois thinks he’s phoning it in, she’ll rule summarily against Data. Riker reluctantly agrees, and argues to the court that his friend is simply a machine, which he dramatically demonstrates by hitting Data’s off-switch. Picard is almost convinced himself, but with some gentle nudging from Guinan, he realizes that the issue at hand isn’t just Data himself, but all the other androids Maddox might make in Data’s image – androids who, if Maddox wins, would be an entire race of “property.” Picard concedes to the court that he can’t prove Data is a sentient life-form (any more than he can prove his own sentience), but points out all the ways Data seems sentient, and asks what precedent Starfleet would be setting by denying Data’s basic rights if there’s a chance he is sentient … and how they would be judged for it. Louvois, convinced, declares that Data is no one’s property, and even Maddox seems moved, finally referring to Data as “he.” Back on board the Enterprise, Data assures an ashamed Riker that there are no hard feelings, and that he won’t forget Riker’s willingness to put his own feelings aside to help his friend.


Star Trek: Voyager – “Author, Author” (season 7, episode 19)

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Teleplay by Phyllis Strong and Mike Sussman; story by Brannon Braga; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 2001

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

With Voyager finally in contact with Earth, the crew draw straws for communication time. Kim’s parents want to know why he hasn’t been promoted; Torres reconnects with her estranged father, while Seven of Nine reconnects with her pre-Borg family; and the Emergency Medical Hologram contacts a publisher about his holo-novel, Photons Be Free. Lt. Paris tries out the program, and finds himself in the role of an EMH on the starship “Vortex,” where he’s bullied and mistreated by its very familiar-looking but badly-behaving crew (all played by the show’s regular cast), who include cartoonish womanizer “Lt. Marseilles,” and the ice-cold “Captain Jenkins,” who straight-up murders a patient in sickbay, just so the EMH will be available to do what she wants. Other members of Voyager’s crew try the program for themselves, and while Neelix gets a kick out of it, everyone else is hurt by the negative portrayal of characters so obviously based on them, and they worry that people in the Alpha Quadrant will think it reflects what’s really happening on Voyager. The Doctor insists the exaggeration was necessary to make a statement about the plight of other holograms back in the Alpha Quadrant, but after Paris adds an insulting version of the Doctor himself to the program, the EMH sees his point, and tells his publisher he needs time to rework the characters. The publisher refuses, and goes ahead with distributing the holo-novel as is, since holograms have no rights under Federation law. Voyager’s communication time is then used to hold a hearing, in which the Doctor’s crewmates argue that he is a sentient individual, and should be treated as such. The arbitrator on Earth upholds the Doctor’s individual rights as an artist – allowing him to have the holo-novel recalled, and to re-write it – but isn’t yet willing to rule that holograms are persons under the law. The episode closes on a Federation mining operation, months later, where holographic workers identical to the Doctor toil in the mines, and one hologram suggests that another might find Photons Be Free “provocative.”

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Star Trek may be set in space among alien cultures, but it has always, at its core, been about what it means to be human. We can revel in the world-building around Trek’s alien civilizations, because it’s fun; and we should critically consider the implications of Trek’s tendency to depict those civilizations as mono-cultures (the warrior Klingons, the greedy Ferengi, etc.), because it’s important to do so. But it’s worth acknowledging that Trek tends to treat all its aliens as, essentially, human. Even those rare life-forms-of-the-week who appear truly alien – like that adorable pizza-monster, the Horta, from one of The Original Series’ best episodes, “The Devil in the Dark” – are usually introduced precisely so they can be shown not to be as alien as they seem. The Wrath of Khan would make this explicit, when Captain Kirk says of the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most … human.” Setting aside the biological definition of humanity this way – taking for granted that any sentient life can be considered “human” – turns humanity into something aspirational. To be human, in the Star Trek universe, is to be not just alive and intelligent, but also compassionate, and curious, and principled. Or, at the very least, to be human in Trek is to genuinely want to be those things, and to work seriously towards that goal.

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The Next Generation would see Spock’s “human” soul and raise it, giving us Data, the android who aspires to be more than the sum of his parts and programming. He was clearly positioned as TNG’s answer to The Original Series’ iconic half-Vulcan, though right from his first appearance in “Encounter at Farpoint,” Data’s heart-on-his-sleeve desire to be human stands in stark contrast to Spock’s snarkier, more adversarial relationship with his own humanity; it’s hard to imagine Spock saying, as Data does in “Farpoint,” that he would “gladly” give up his “superior” abilities in order “to be human.” But as we are with Spock, I think we’re meant to take Data’s “humanity” as a given, in the same way that most of the main characters do. For all the teasing Spock takes from Kirk and Bones, for all the digs at his coldly logical perspective, I don’t believe he’s ever presented to the audience as anything less than their equal. And for all the gags on Data’s guileless naivete, for all his awkwardly earnest misunderstandings of human customs, I don’t think his status as a person, as a sentient life form deserving the same respect as any other, is ever seriously in question for the audience. This is, to my mind, one of the challenges TNG faced in getting the more skeptical Dr. Pulaski to gel as a member of the main cast for its second season, before she was replaced by a returning Dr. Crusher in the third. For as much as I like Pulaski, and wish she’d been given more than one season’s worth of character development, it would be hard for any character to seriously, consistently question Data’s personhood, as Pulaski does, and still endear themselves to the audience. I get what the writers were going for, making Pulaski the Bones to Data’s Spock, and I can see how that would make sense to a brainstorming writers’ room. But Spock and Bones worked so well together because of their equal power dynamic, which couldn’t quite be recreated between Data and Pulaski. Where Spock gives just as much snark as he gets, Data’s guilelessness prevents him from being Pulaski’s match in that way, and his social naivete, coupled with the earnestness of his hope to be human, makes anyone who might dash that hope – however philosophical their reasons – look less like a philosopher than a bully.

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Which is why I find it odd that Pulaski gets almost no screen time in “The Measure of a Man,” given the question at the heart of this episode: should we need proof that someone is a person before we treat them like one? The answer, ultimately, is an unequivocal “No.” The episode argues, in the authoritative voice of Captain Picard, that sentience – or “humanity,” in that broader, non-biological sense – is, by its nature, impossible to prove. After Commander Riker is, heartbreakingly, forced to make the obvious arguments against Data’s “humanity” – he was built and programmed, his parts can be removed and reattached, he literally has an on/off switch – Picard says:

Commander Riker has dramatically demonstrated to this court that Lieutenant Commander Data is a machine. Do we deny that? No, because it is not relevant. We, too, are machines, just machines of a different type. Commander Riker has also reminded us that Lieutenant Commander Data was created by a human. Do we deny that? No. Again, it is not relevant. Children are created from the building blocks of their parents’ DNA. Are they property?

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From there, Picard challenges Commander Maddox to prove that Picard, himself, is sentient, while Data is not, and Maddox admits that this is “exceedingly difficult” to prove. Rather than purporting to answer the “exceedingly difficult” question of whether an AI as advanced as Data could truly be considered alive and sentient – a question which will only become more relevant, and probably no easier to answer, in our own real world – the episode insists, instead, that if we find ourselves seriously wondering whether Data is sentient, the only humane course of action is to assume that he is, and treat him accordingly. And through both Picard and Guinan, the episode offers two separate, but equally compelling, reasons for this conclusion. The first is rooted in that crucial question Picard asks about human children, biological machines created by their parents much as Data was created by Dr. Noonian Soong: “Are they property?” (A question which, importantly, is put in his mind by Guinan, as we’ll discuss further below.) It’s presented not just as a philosophical question, but as a matter of legal precedent, a question whose answer will affect not just Data, but any other Datas Maddox manages to make, as well as any other non-biological life forms the Federation may encounter. And it’s a question of precedent drawn directly from the history and present of our real world, where questioning the humanity of others is often justified as simply a philosophical exercise, when in fact those questions are – or will inevitably be used in – an attempt to deny those “others” their basic rights, to justify treating them as ownable property or inhuman enemies; either way, to justify treating them as disposable. If we grant that any individual is disposable, then that treatment is inevitably expanded to others, to whole groups of others, because there will always be those who assure us that we’re justified in doing so, just as Maddox tries to assure Picard of the great scientific advancements he could make, if only he were allowed to treat Data as disposable property. Picard responds to these justifications just as we should in the real world, to claims that some people aren’t safe to have around, or can’t be trusted to make their own decisions, or haven’t earned the same rights as the rest of us. He insists to the court that nothing justifies the precedent such treatment would set:

Now, sooner or later, this man, or others like him, will succeed in replicating Commander Data. And the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?

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Which brings us to this episode’s second argument for giving Data’s sentience the benefit of the doubt: as Picard says above, aside from the implications for Data and any future Datas, the court’s decision “will reveal the kind of a people we are.” How we treat others isn’t just about them; it isn’t just a matter of how they deserve to be treated, or what the effects of that treatment will be, or even what precedent that treatment sets, though all those things do matter a great deal. But it also matters what our treatment of others says about ourselves, about who we are, and about how we hope to improve on what we are (which is, after all, one of the foundational elements of Star Trek – a hope that we can someday be better than we currently are). Given that, it’s perhaps less important for us to always be right in our actions than it is for us to be able to justify those actions to ourselves, to honestly reconcile our actions with who we believe we are, or who we would like to be. This is why Picard essentially opts out of the philosophical dilemma of Data’s personhood. Instead, he disputes the very premise of that dilemma, by pointing out that his own personhood isn’t in question, and asking Maddox why not – to which Maddox has no satisfying answer. Picard is pointing out that we don’t, and shouldn’t, grant people their personhood on the basis of philosophical arguments, not really. We do it because it feels like the right thing to do. Maddox can’t prove that Picard is or isn’t sentient, because he feels no need to – he’s willing to grant Picard personhood without needing to be sure he’s on the right side of some philosophical debate. Picard argues that we should want to be the kind of people who don’t see personhood as conditional, to be granted only to those who remind us of ourselves, and denied to those who don’t. And he cleverly ties that argument to the stated goal of Starfleet, and to those iconic words which should resonate with any Trek fan: “Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits. Waiting.” Starfleet has no business seeking out alien life only to deny personhood to those aliens who are too alien, and we, here in the real world, have no business telling or consuming stories about alien life if we aren’t open to examining our own assumptions about who counts as a person, and who doesn’t.

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This powerful argument, along with excellent performances from all actors involved, an early example of Picard as an impassioned moral authority, and our first glimpse of poker night on the Enterprise, makes “The Measure of a Man” one of Star Trek’s foundational texts, a can’t-miss episode for any fan new to the franchise. It’s not perfect, mind you: as I’ve already mentioned, Dr. Pulaski’s near-absence from this episode – she gets maybe a dozen words during said poker game – feels like a missed opportunity, and I would have liked to see her reaction to Picard’s final courtroom speech, which even Maddox finds convincing. And as much as this episode does to cement the TNG trope of Picard as the defense attorney to humanity’s better nature, the sub-plot of his contentious reunion with Captain Louvois feels unnecessary and out of place, a holdover from the first season’s crustier characterization of Picard. I like Louvois herself, but this sort of two-character dynamic across opposite sides of a courtroom was already done better, I think, in The Original Series’ “Court Martial,” and there are exchanges between her and Picard (“If we weren’t around all these people, do you know what I would like to do?” “Bust a chair across my teeth?” “After that.”) that feel like they were written for a completely different character than the more familiar Picard we see in the final scenes of this episode, and would continue to see through most of the rest of the series.

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Maybe a bigger issue with “The Measure of a Man,” though, is Maddox’s automatic acceptance of Louvois’ ruling, to the extent that he suddenly refers to Data as “he,” rather than “it,” mere moments after being told he can’t perform the experiments he’d thought would make his career. This sudden change of heart is nice to see, of course, and is also understandable, given the highly episodic, wrap-everything-up-in-45-minutes format of The Next Generation. But it sadly doesn’t ring true for me; in reality, it takes a lot more than one speech to change someone’s deeply-held beliefs, even if that speech were delivered by Patrick Stewart. And at any rate, the fight for human rights isn’t actually won by changing individual minds, but by changing systems. “The Measure of a Man” sidesteps this reality by making the challenge to Data’s personhood essentially a one-man crusade by Maddox (much as another can’t-miss TNG episode, “The Drumhead,” does with Admiral Satie’s paranoid witch-hunt); the system, here – Starfleet – is shown to be both neutral and fair, backing Maddox’s agenda for as long as the facts seem to be on his side, but abandoning it as soon as a more convincing argument is made by Picard. The systems in our world, though, are rarely that fair, and never neutral. Maddox’s real-world counterpart would have institutional power behind him, and those institutions would have a vested, material interest in his work continuing, however convincing the arguments against it. To its credit, Voyager is sometimes more willing than TNG to address this reality through its own AI character, the Emergency Medical Hologram, and while “Author, Author” isn’t an instant classic like “The Measure of a Man,” I appreciate its acknowledgement that the EMH can earn respect from the individuals around him and still be denied his basic rights by society at large, because society has a vested interest in denying those rights.

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Again, “Author, Author” isn’t operating on the same level as “The Measure of a Man.” Aside from the brief amount of time it spends on its tacked-on romantic sub-plot, “Measure” is impressively focused on a single story and theme, where “Author” suffers from the recurring Voyager problem of starting an episode on one story, realizing it can’t be stretched to a full 45 minutes, and then switching, blatantly and abruptly, to another story, mid-episode. (I don’t want to sound too curmudgeonly about this, but it’s something I’ve noticed throughout the run of the series – in episodes like “Coda,” “Displaced,” and most infamously, “Threshold” – and the fact that it’s still happening here, in the nineteenth episode of the seventh and final season, is, frankly, embarrassing). “Author, Author” is a fun episode, for sure, but that fun causes some tonal confusion when the episode pivots, maybe two-thirds of the way through its running time, from light-hearted holodeck shenanigans to very serious questions of legal personhood, complete with loaded comparisons to real-world slavery. “The Measure of a Man” makes those comparisons too, of course, but wisely allows Guinan to be the first to bring them up. Whoopi Goldberg brings a perfect, subtle seriousness to this scene which does, I think, give the topic the gravity it deserves, and while Guinan the character isn’t African American, Whoopi Goldberg the actor is, which matters. As a white person myself, I’m certainly not the judge of when comparisons to slavery are or aren’t appropriate, but when it comes to treating Data as property, the comparison at least feels fair to me – perhaps because, as mentioned above, TNG has consistently treated Data as a person, an individual who deserves his autonomy. Viewers of Voyager likely see the EMH the same way, thanks to Robert Picardo’s endearing performance and the knowledge that this particular hologram has been operating outside his original programing for years, at this point. But we know very little about his “brothers” in the mines, and given that these former Emergency Medical Holograms’ use as laborers originated, essentially, as a throwaway joke from an earlier episode about their poor bedside manner, comparing their situation to real-world slavery feels like it’s in poor taste … especially in an episode which has spent so much of its time getting laughs out of adding bad mustaches and comb-overs to the holo-novel versions of Voyager characters.

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All that being said, though, “Author, Author” has a few interesting ideas to add to the argument put forth by “The Measure of a Man.” As mentioned above, it acknowledges that, if and when we succeed in creating actual artificial intelligence, the challenges to its personhood will be institutional, and won’t be overcome just by changing the mind of the occasional jerk. And in tackling the institutional aspect of discrimination head-on, in a way that “Measure” doesn’t, “Author” updates Star Trek’s take on artificial intelligence, and its place in society, in another important way. The Next Generation depicts Data as the unique technological achievement of one lone scientist working outside the institutions of the Federation, and as Guinan and Picard point out, what’s at stake in “Measure” is the chance to determine Data’s legal status before he can be mass-produced. But in Voyager, the Emergency Medical Hologram has already been mass-produced by the time anyone stops to wonder whether he’s sentient, which seems closer to the way AI might develop in our own decidedly non-utopian real world – not as a passion project in one person’s private lab, but as an improvement to Siri on the latest iPhone, or a new algorithm YouTube can use to drum up clicks and advertising dollars. While “Author, Author” has the EMH fight for his own legal rights as the author of a holo-novel, his stated reason for writing that holo-novel is to advocate for the rights of his fellow EMHs, who are considered property of Starfleet, and have been for some time. When the arbitrator delivers a verdict on the Doctor’s own legal rights, he acknowledges that, unlike Louvois, he isn’t willing to rule that the other EMHs aren’t property, presumably because he’s reluctant to tell Starfleet to change how it’s already using the EMHs, not just how it might use them in the future:

The Doctor exhibits many of the traits we associate with a person: intelligence, creativity, ambition, even fallibility. But are these traits real, or is the Doctor merely programmed to simulate them? To be honest, I don’t know. Eventually we will have to decide, because the issue of holographic rights isn’t going to go away. But at this time, I am not prepared to rule that the Doctor is a person under the law. However, it is obvious he is no ordinary hologram, and while I can’t say with certainty that he is a person, I am willing to extend the legal definition of artist to include the Doctor.

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And in having the Federation treat the Doctor, and the other EMHs, more the way they might be treated in our world, “Author, Author” does something else that Star Trek doesn’t do very often: it makes an argument I strongly disagree with. In his closing statement, above, the arbitrator takes almost the exact opposite of Picard’s position in “The Measure of a Man,” after agreeing with most of the points Picard makes. As Picard says of Data, the arbitrator grants that the Doctor displays “many of the traits we associate with a person,” and admits that he doesn’t know what that makes the Doctor. And like Picard, the arbitrator acknowledges that this uncertainty about the Doctor carries implications for how other synthetic life forms should be treated, and that any ruling as to the Doctor’s personhood could set a precedent with far-reaching implications, when he notes that “Eventually we will have to decide, because the issue of holographic rights isn’t going to go away.” But unlike Picard, or Louvois for that matter, he would seemingly rather set the precedent of waiting until we know for sure that someone is a person before we treat them like one. Star Trek in general gets a lot of credit from many fans, myself among them, for its unapologetically progressive politics, even if we can and should be critical of the fact that those politics haven’t always been reflected in its representation of different kinds of real-world humans, in front of and behind the camera. But “Author, Author” actually seems to be making a pretty conservative argument, erring on the side of disturbing the status quo as little as possible, and ultimately keeping the question of human rights focused on how individuals should treat each other, not on how powerful institutions do and should treat large numbers of people (which it does, weirdly, after going out of its way to acknowledge the systemic, institutional nature of discrimination more explicitly than “The Measure of a Man”).

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Even if we don’t take the arbitrator’s view as the episode’s view – and we should never immediately assume that one character’s opinion is meant to be the moral of the story – this conservatism can be seen throughout “Author, Author,” in the way the Doctor’s crewmates respond to his holo-novel, and to the ways it reflects his concerns about the treatment of potentially sentient holograms. They respect his rights as an individual, because they know him, work with him, live in close proximity to him. But they become immediately defensive – Captain Janeway and Tom Paris in particular – when he and his holo-novel raise those larger questions of holographic rights. They want the Doctor to be free and valued by society, yes, but not at the expense of their own feelings or reputations, and are indignant and dismissive toward the notion that good people like them might play any part in the injustice he’s describing. Basically, they’re rejecting the notion of systemic injustice – which is, by its nature, unwittingly perpetuated by otherwise good people – and focusing, instead, on how fairly the Doctor is treated as an individual … and how fairly he should treat them. Where Voyager is sometimes accused of simply recycling episode ideas from The Next Generation, “Author, Author” isn’t just an imitation of “The Measure of a Man,” but a counterpoint to it, an argument against Picard, who would have us err on the side of granting rights, rather than potentially denying them. I strongly agree with Picard, and am not convinced by the (admittedly more rushed and less considered) counter-argument “Author, Author” is making, but I can still appreciate its willingness to take its own stance, rather than just echoing that of “The Measure of a Man.”

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