The Enterprise is parked at a newly established starbase for crew rotation and resupplying/offloading. Data gets his first taste of poker (which he fails at, due to Riker's impenetrable bluff), while Picard meets and catches up with an old friend/foil of his, Captain Phillipa Louvois, currently assigned as a JAG officer on the station. They immediately bleed out some bad blood and Belligerent Sexual Tension between them. It seems that Louvois was Picard's love interest before she tore him apart during the court martial hearing held for him losing his previous command. They're interrupted by a Starfleet admiral and a Commander Maddox, who has some history of his own with Data.
Maddox was the only member of a Starfleet board to oppose Data's admission, out of his insistence that robots aren't alive. However, now he's interested in learning Data's secrets, determined to use him as a template to build more androids like him for manual labor and use in dangerous situations. Picard and Data are intrigued by Maddox's work, but once Maddox explains his plans in detail, they realize that his understanding of cybernetics is still spotty, and his plans will likely kill Data. Picard refuses to allow it, but Maddox is prepared for this eventuality and whips up transfer orders that go beyond Picard's ability to refuse.
Forced to choose between Starfleet and his life, Data reluctantly chooses to resign. The bridge crew throw a going-away party, and Geordi takes Data's departure particularly hard. But before Data can leave, Maddox argues that Data is property of Starfleet and therefore doesn't even have the ability to resign. Louvois reviews his case and agrees with him, but Picard lodges an official complaint, forcing Louvois to hold a summary trial. Because she has no staff yet, Picard will take charge of Data's defense. Louvois forces Riker against his strong objection to to play prosecutor, warning him that she will dissolve the trial and uphold her original ruling if Riker sandbags his prosecution.
Riker reluctantly but effectively presents his case by proving that Data is a man-made machine with a computer for a brain, robot limbs, and an off button. The display of Data's inhumanity proves very persuasive and leaves Picard calling for a recess to regroup. He confides in Guinan, who notes that if Maddox gets his way, it will certainly benefit the Federation to have thousands of new Datas as a subservient worker race. Picard realizes that she's effectively describing slavery. He leaves with a new strategy.
In court, Picard dismisses Riker's arguments about the properties of Data's physical construction as irrelevant. He goes on to argue that Data does have sentience by Maddox's own definitions. Sentice makes Data a legal person who thus cannot be property. Further, he argues that creating a legion of Datas for use as a labor force would be tantamount to Federation-sanctioned slavery, a profound affront to its most basic ideals. Convinced, Louvois decides to rule in favor of Data. Free to choose his own destiny, Data remains in Starfleet and officially refuses to participate in the procedure. Now questioning his beliefs, Maddox rescinds Data's transfer and allows him to return to the Enterprise. Data encourages him to continue his work. Back onboard the ship, Data alleviates Riker's guilt for his part in the trial by noting that Riker only did what he had to do to ensure that Data got the chance to achieve his freedom.
This episode contains examples of:
- 10-Minute Retirement: Played with. Data decides to resign from Starfleet to avoid Maddox's order, and has a retirement party and everything. Not one to give up easily, Maddox opposes this resignation, and argues that a machine legally can't resign. So instead, we get the legal hearing. Either way, in the end, Data's definitely sticking around.
- Androids Are People, Too: The main point of the episode. Captain Louvois's final judgment is that she doesn't know whether androids are people, but that Data deserves the chance to find out.Picard: Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. [points to Data] Well there it sits!
- Apologetic Attacker: Riker was basically drafted into serving as the prosecution, being the next most senior officer after Picard (who's defending Data). If he hadn't done it, Louvois would have automatically ruled against Data and provided no chance for a counterargument. When he goes to remove Data's arm to support his argument, he quietly whispers, "I'm sorry," and looks absolutely miserable after he rests his case.
- Armor-Piercing Question:
- Data breaks Picard's first view — that perhaps The Needs of the Many could be served with this procedure and Data should volunteer — with one simple question:Data: Sir, Lieutenant La Forge's eyes are far superior to human biological eyes, true? Then why are not all human officers required to have their eyes replaced with cybernetic implants?
- Picard stocked up on these before his defense of Data. For instance, as soon as Picard says this, Maddox starts looking very uncomfortable:Picard: A single Data — and forgive me, Commander — is a curiosity. A wonder, even. But thousands of Datas... isn't that becoming... a race? And won't we be judged by how we treat that race?
- Picard then uses more than one against Maddox and the judge:Picard: You see he's met two of your three criteria for sentience, so what if he meets the third, consciousness, in even the smallest degree? What is he then? I don't know! Do you? [to Riker] Do you? [to Louvois] Do you?
Picard: Are you prepared to condemn him, and all who come after him, to servitude and slavery?
- Data breaks Picard's first view — that perhaps The Needs of the Many could be served with this procedure and Data should volunteer — with one simple question:
- Artistic License Law: While Federation law is fictional to begin with, there are a few aspects to it that would puzzle any legal expert.
- For Rule of Drama, there seems to be no regard for conflicts of interest in Federation law. Riker has to serve as prosecutor despite making it clear that he is extremely biased in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, Louvois never even addresses the appropriateness of judging a trial where her love interest is serving as the defense counsel. One would think that Maddox could appeal on the grounds that the trial was doubly biased against him from the start.
- Picard calls Maddox "as a hostile witness," doing this before Maddox has given any testimony, much less testimony that would characterize him as hostile. Further, you would think that if the attorneys could summarily declare witnesses hostile when being questioned against their interests, Riker would have called Data as a hostile witness to use every tool at his disposal as required.
- By the episode's own admission, the Federation had already officially confirmed that Data is a life form and able to serve as an officer in Starfleet, yet here, a random JAG officer on a distant space station feels confident to reverse that decision on her own authority. Any normal legal system would require a higher court to reverse a previous ruling.
- Picard and Riker both make arguments while they're supposed to be questioning witnesses. Picard also begins questioning Data in the middle of Maddox's testimony. Neither of these actions would fly in most real legal systems.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Picard and Louvois. He can't quite bring himself to forgive her for prosecuting him so enthusiastically over the Stargazer incident, but is clearly still attracted to her in spite of that. At the end of the episode, he invites her to dinner.Picard: If we weren't surrounded by all these people, you know what I'd like to do right now?
Louvois: Bust a chair across my teeth.
Picard: After that.
Louvois: Oh, ain't love wonderful?
- Break Them by Talking: Guinan plays a benevolent version of this for Picard, who is still simply worried for one of his officers' well-being, and not seeing the bigger picture yet.Guinan: Consider that in the history of many worlds, there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do because it's too difficult or too hazardous. And an army of Datas, all disposable... You don't have to think about their welfare, you don't think about how they feel. Whole generations... of disposable people.
Picard: You're talking about slavery.
Guinan: Oh, I think that's a little harsh.
Picard: I don't think that's a little harsh, I think that's the truth. But that's a truth that we have obscured behind a... comfortable, easy euphemism: "Property". But that's not the issue at all, is it?
- Call-Back: Data calls back to his poker game and failed understanding of bluffing to counter Maddox's assertions that his procedure will do no harm. Data counters that, just as the game of poker is more than its rules, Data is more than the information in his brain.
- Chekhov's Gun: Bruce Maddox's work on androids becomes significant many years later in Star Trek: Picard.
- Continuity Nod:
Riker: Pinocchio is broken; its strings have been cut.
- As part of the proceeding, Picard asks Data why he keeps a portrait of Tasha Yar, who was killed in "Skin of Evil". Data states that they were close... that they were intimate.
- The loss of the Stargazer is also mentioned. Louvois was the prosecution in Picard's court martial following the incident.
- Commander Maddox is the Associate Chair of Robotics at the Daystrom Technological Institute, named after Dr. Richard Daystrom, the inventor of Starfleet's starship computer system, whom we met in TOS's "The Ultimate Computer".
- The new Starbase has been established near the Neutral Zone in response to the increasing disturbances first mentioned in "The Neutral Zone"—disturbances that are later revealed to be early incursions by the Borg.
- In "Encounter at Farpoint," when he first met Data, Riker called him "Pinocchio" after he said his dream was to be human. Here, he calls him that again after turning Data off.
- Courtroom Episode: A majority of the episode is focused in a courtroom to discuss and determine Data's rights. The episode's screenwriter, Melinda Snodgrass, was a lawyer before joining the TNG crew.
- Cruel to Be Kind: Thanks to a shorthanded staff at the starbase (just Louvois and one off-screen Ensign Newbie), Riker has to be the prosecutor and has to give a strong argument, so that Data and Picard can have a platform to defend themselves. Riker hates himself for it, but Data understands exactly why Riker did what he did, and forgives him.
- Devil's Advocate: A scientist wants to disassemble Data for study, and Data refuses as a sentient being. A hearing is held to determine whether Data is sentient. Picard is Data's defense counsel, and Riker is appointed as the prosecution—so he has to argue that Data isn't sentient. He risks summary judgement against Data if he slacks off on the job. Riker feels guilty about doing it, but Data is grateful—or anyway as grateful as an android who allegedly has no emotions can be—since if Riker had refused to do it, they would have decided against Data (for if he isn't a sentient being, he lacks the right to bodily autonomy; such are the rules of procedure in the 24th century).
- Do Androids Dream?: No one can tell. Better to give them the benefit of the doubt.Louvois: We've all been dancing around the basic issue: "Does Data have a soul?" I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have! But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: An example that's Played for Drama. It's no accident that Guinan, played by a black woman, is the one who points out to Picard that having Data legally designated "Starfleet property" means consigning him (and all other androids to follow him) to a life of slavery.
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: Data has been a worthy member of Starfleet from the first second he has been on screen, and this episode makes clear that he has obtained multiple commendations because of it. But because of Maddox's insistence that he is Just a Machine, all of this is pretty much deemed worthless by the court.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- While the senior staff playing poker would become a regular fixture of the show, O'Brien would not be shown at the table again.
- The show is still a little sketchy on the economics of the Federation. While the season one finale established that humanity no longer prizes the acquisition of wealth, it's later established that money literally doesn't exist in the Federation. This makes it weird for Louvois's Running Gag of who pays for their dinner.
- While giving her ruling, Louvois says that the "basic issue" for whether Data is a person is whether he has "a soul." Later seasons would establish that Federation society no longer believes in the supernatural.
- Easily Forgiven:
- When Riker apologizes for his brutal prosecution, it seems like Data will just forgive Riker, but Data acknowledges that Riker actually made a personal sacrifice to help Data.
- Data is also quick to forgive Maddox after the trial and encourages him to continue his research. It's a fair response, considering Maddox is sporting about his defeat and seems to have had a minor Heel Realization after Picard's speech as well.
- Graceful Loser: Maddox shows no desire to contest Louvois' ruling, and he withdraws his transfer order so that Data can return to his ship. It's clear that the trial has caused him to reevaluate some of his assumptions about Data's being.
- Innocuously Important Episode: This episode ends up being the foundation for much of Star Trek: Picard, set over three decades later.
- "It" Is Dehumanizing:
- Commander Maddox refers to Data as "it" throughout the episode—until the end, when Data encourages him to keep working on his project, and his response is, "He is remarkable." Louvois immediately points the change out to him.
- Other characters' use of it or he regarding Data is informative. Riker very deliberately uses it during his prosecution when he normally never would, and Picard just as emphatically insists on he during his defense—except when throwing Maddox's own words back in his face. Louvois avoids referring to Data with pronouns altogether for most of the episode, and goes from it to he over the course of her ruling.Louvois: It sits there looking at me, and I don't know what it is. [...] Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No.
- Jerkass: Commander Maddox comes off as just a bit creepy, probably due to his evident obsession and Fantastic Racism towards Data.
- Just a Machine: Commander Maddox's insistence (and Riker's legal argument) is that Data is no different from a starship computer, which does not get to decide when to be refit, turned off, or taken out of service.
- Kirk Summation: One of the most memorable of the series.Picard: Are you prepared to condemn him, and those who come after him, to servitude and slavery? Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well, there it sits! Waiting... You wanted a chance to make law? Well, here it is; make it a good one.
- Large Ham: Both Riker and Picard have their moments when speaking before the court.
- Let's You and Him Fight: Riker vs. Picard in a courtroom case with Data's freedom as the stakes.
- The Main Characters Do Everything: Despite the major conflict of interest, Riker serves as the prosecution, instead one of the numerous Starfleet officers that aren't currently serving on board the Enterprise.
- Moral Dissonance: It is not just Data's career with Starfleet that is at issue here, but rather his rights as a sentient being! Yet this matter is not being decided by a Federation civilian court, but rather by a Starfleet JAG officer. Most civilized societies in the real world would hold that there is a legal conflict of interest in Starfleet being asked to decide whether or not something is its own property, especially when that something is sentient. This kind of issue usually isn't under the jurisdiction of military courts either, as they generally only hear criminal cases involving service members, which clearly doesn't apply here.
- Morton's Fork: Riker being made a prosecutor. If he accepts, Data will be stripped of his rights if Riker wins. If he refuses to serve (or accepts, but does not perform his duty properly), Data will be denied the opportunity to defend himself, thereby getting stripped of his rights. Riker chooses the former (despite his misgivings), since at least that way Data would have a chance.
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- Riker's reaction after he turns Data off. Later he tries to Opt Out of the party because he very nearly won the case, but Data finds him and forgives him, knowing that he had no choice but to try his best.
- This even applies before the trial. Riker accesses Data's schematics and discovers the off-switch. He reacts with a pleased look of "Yay, I can win!" only to realize moments later, "Oh crap, I can win."
- Oppressed Minority Veteran: For all of Data's exemplary service to Starfleet, up to and including multiple awards both scientific and military, all it takes is one man deciding it would be more valuable for Starfleet to dissect him and Data has to fight for his right to exist in court, wherein all of said recognition are suddenly worth jack.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, There! It! Sits!"
- Relieved Failure: Riker makes his case very well, but ultimately loses, which he wanted to do.
- Rule of Three: The three criteria for sentience — intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness.
- Sadistic Choice: Forced on Riker by making him act as the prosecution, with a summary judgment against Data if he refuses.
- Snark-to-Snark Combat: Picard and Louvois spend a good amount of time early on just being merciless with this.
- Super Strength: Riker has Data bend a rod of parsteel to emphasize his robot nature. Picard protests that many species possess "mega strength."
- Take a Third Option: The court convenes to rule whether Data is a lifeform or is not a lifeform. Picard convinces Louvois to effectively take a third option. She has no idea whether Data is or isn't alive, but rules that the Federation should treat him as alive to maintain its morals. This is very similar to the tactic that many American abolitionists took, arguing to abolish slavery not for the benefit of the slaves, but to maintain the morality of white people.
- That Was Objectionable: When Riker demonstrates that Data's hand is detachable, Picard attempts to object to the dismemberment of his second officer, before realizing that he doesn't have a legal reason to oppose it under the circumstances.
- Villainy-Free Villain: Maddox's goal is certainly altruistic, but his blatant disregard for Data's desires and well-being make him thoroughly unlikable. He's a downplayed example, since despite his attitude, Maddox is honest and forthright during the trial, and gracefully accepts defeat. In the expanded canon, he goes on to become one of Data's most valued and best friends.
- Wham Line: The climax of Guinan gently Breaking Picard by Talking.Guinan: Whole generations... of disposable people.
Picard: [horrified] You're talking about slavery.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Admiral Nakamura disappears from the episode after introducing Maddox. It strains belief that the station's ranking officer wouldn't play a role in Data's hearing. (He's a less problematic candidate for court service than Riker, for one thing.) The rational way to organize the hearing would be to have Nakamura presiding, Picard defending, and Louvois prosecuting. But from a narrative standpoint, of course, assigning Jonathan Frakes's magnificently-played role to a guest star would have been criminal.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The plot theme, as reflected by its title.
- Whoopi Epiphany Speech: One of the most notable. Guinan gently points out to Picard that the stakes here are bigger than just Data's life and freedom of choice. If Maddox wins, and succeeds in creating more androids with that precedent, what would result is a race of artificial slaves. It's especially poignant as a black woman's saying this (never mind that she's playing an alien here).
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: At the end, Data has to remind Riker of this since his agreement to prosecute in the case when forced to was really an act of self-sacrifice that gave the android his one shot to win his rights in court.Data: That action injured you, and saved me. I will not forget it.