For once, the Enterprise isn't dinking about on some far-away planet, instead parking its aft at a newly established starbase for crew rotation and resupplying/offloading. Data gets his first taste at 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. After bleeding out some bad blood and sexual tension between them (seems like 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 confronted by a Starfleet admiral and a slimy-looking commander, the latter of whom has an unhealthy interest in Data.
Apparently, they have some bad blood between them as well; the commander, named Maddox, was the only one on the Starfleet board to oppose Data's admission to Starfleet, 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. Interestingly, both Picard and Data are actively interested in this proposal—until they determine that Maddox doesn't have a lick of the mechanical ingenuity needed to avoid harming Data during his dissection. They refuse, but Maddox, being the dick that he is, anticipated their refusal and whipped up transfer orders forcing Data into his negligent care.
Torn, Picard is forced to swallow his pride and ask for help from Louvois, first asking for a way out of the transfer (Data resigning, which results in an unusually poignant argument about why Cybernetics Eat Your Soul), then demanding a hearing be held after the out provided turns out to not be possible due to laws set three centuries ago that confirm that Data is "Starfleet's property." Because of a lack of staff on-hand, Louvois assigns Picard as the defense and Riker as the prosecution, completely ignoring Riker's protests over the apparent conflict of interest by threatening to stand on her ruling if he doesn't, or if she ever gets the impression he's not trying his hardest to win. Then, during the trial, Riker argues that Data is not sentient by making clear that Data is a robot, including having him bend a steel bar (while Louvois ignores Picard's justified objection that there are organic, sentient beings with the strength to bend the bar just as easily). Riker then shuts Data off, proclaiming "Pinocchio is broken; its strings have been cut."
Picard is about to give up, when a talk with Guinan convinces him to start anew—by countering Riker with the argument that Data being a constructed being is not relevant, since all beings are constructed "from the building blocks of DNA," showing that Data does have consciousness, intelligence, and sentience, the marks of a legal person who thus cannot be property, and further that creating a legion of Datas for labor use would bring about Unfortunate Implications that the Federation is sanctioning slavery, a profound affront to its most basic ideals. Convinced, Louvois decides to rule in favor of Data, and the show ends with Data refusing the procedure (though encouraging Maddox to continue his research, to make it safer), and thanking Riker for doing what he had to do to ensure Data's personal freedoms.
This episode contains examples of:
- 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!
- 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 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:
- 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?
- Breaking Speech: 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: 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.Riker: Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut.
- Continuity Nod:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Easily Forgiven:
- Subverted, but in an unusually positive way for this kind of trope. It seems like Data is just forgiving Riker, but Data explains why Riker's actions still saved Data, by allowing a trial to give him a chance.
- Data is also quick to forgive Maddox after the trial and encourages him to continue his research. 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.
- Note, also, that Data is an emotionless android, and is therefore incapable of an emotional response such as holding a grudge.
- Graceful Loser: Maddox shows no desire to contest Louvois' ruling, and it's clear that the trial has caused him to reevaluate some of his assumptions about Data's being.
- "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.
- Mood Whiplash: When Picard asks Data about his hologram of deceased crewmate Tasha Yar, you'd expect a big sentimental moment to prove Data's humanity. What do you get? Data reminding everyone of... that one time they were both high on an alien virus and did the nasty, although that still comes across as touching, since he obviously cared for her.
- The sentiment is there, though understated: Data is reluctant to kiss'n'tell on Tasha, and has to be assured that she would not mind under these circumstances.
- 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 he didn't have a 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."
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, There! It! Sits!"
- 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.
- 10-Minute Retirement: Played with. Data decides to resign from Starfleet to avoid Maddox' 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.
- 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 of this trope, 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's gently Breaking Speech.Guinan: Whole generations of disposable people.
Picard: [horrified] You're talking about slavery!
- 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.