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[Comments] (7) Star Trek Nerd: Look away if you can. This entry's more geeky than the Baroque Cycle one I posted a couple days ago. That at least had news value. This is just stuff that crystalized in my head recently.

The first Star Trek I ever saw was the original series' "Court Martial". I was maybe 8 or 9 and I saw it in grainy black-and-white at my grandparents' ranch. Recently it was on the TiVo so I gave it another watch.

It was not that great (I think that most of TOS, when taken on its own terms rather than vs. what else there was at the time, is not that great), but I was amazed at the new meaning it gave to one of the best Next Generation episodes, "Measure of a Man".

There's a good case, which I will now make, that the TNG episode was consciously structured in homage to the original series episode. The basic plots are the same: one of the major characters gets put on trial and a friend of his must do the prosecution. There are also stylistic commonalities. Each episode has a guest star playing an old flame of the captain. There's a moment in "Measure of a Man" where the defense has the computer read out all of Data's commendations and medals. It turns out that's a reference to a scene in "Court Martial" where the computer reads out Kirk's service record.

It was the second season of TNG, when they still did this kind of nod to TOS. But "Measure of a Man" is vastly superior to "Court Martial" as a piece of drama. In "Court Martial" Kirk is on trial because Starfleet thinks he killed one of his crew through negligence. Not a bad premise, but not noticably science-fictional. In "Measure of a Man" Starfleet decides that they own one of their officers, and he has to sue to prove otherwise. Just on the level of the premise, it's more interesting.

In "Court Martial" the prosecuting attorney just happens to be Kirk's old girlfriend, in one of the first examples of what quickly became a very tiresome Trek tradition of the guest star being somehow related to one of the regulars. Instant, yet unsatisfactory tension! On the other hand, in "Measure of a Man", one of Data's friends is compelled to prosecute him so the suit can even proceed. This is a lot more satisfying dramatically.

When the computer reads out Data's record it's a rhetorical device on the part of the defense, to create the impression that if he's not sentient he's really, really good at faking it. The corresponding scene with Kirk has the same form but serves no real purpose because we already know Kirk is a big hero, and as Data would say, that is not in dispute. You can be a galactic hero and still hit the wrong button on a horribly designed instrument panel and kill someone. In the TOS episode it's just the computer doing what it does whenever someone is sworn in.

That's the other thing. For a television show about humanity finding a better future in the stars, TOS is pretty paranoid and mistrustful of the machines people build to take them there. It's always the insane supercomputer or the malfunctioning space probe or, in this case, the computer whose records have been tampered with and can't be trusted. The centerpiece of "Court Martial" is Kirk's defense attorney, a card-carrying technophobe, giving a speech about how humanity (of whatever species) must always be the master of cold machinery lest we lose our own humanity (of whatever variety). This argument is the direct ancestor of the argument used against Data in "Measure of a Man": that because he's a piece of technology, he does not partake of humanity and must be owned and administered by it. "Measure of a Man" puts one of the underlying themes of TOS on trial and shows that it hasn't held up well.

I still think there are big philosophical problems with the defense in "Measure of a Man", but I won't go into them because I'm afraid if I do I'll create some sort of nerd singularity which will destroy this website. Best to leave well enough alone.


Comments:

Posted by Susie at Wed Jan 12 2005 10:35

I suspect that the reason the original series is so paranoid and mistrusting of machines is because that's what people back then really thought, and as much as they were excited and imaginative about the opportunities to explore space, they were scared to death and didn't think it was really possible.

Posted by Sumana at Wed Jan 12 2005 11:52

I demand the Muppets! Which is to say, I demand you expound on the problems in the defense of Data!

Posted by Leonard at Wed Jan 12 2005 12:27

Susanna, yeah, TV of the sixties was filled with that stuff. Star Trek lacked a lot of the other shows' blind spots but not this one. And now we know you can go into space but we don't bother anymore.

Actually, while I was looking up the script for my complaint about the defense of Data, I discovered that Picard said basically what I thought he should have said (and I thought I remembered him saying), but it was cut for syndication! Argh! Anyway, here is the speech that greatly improves the case for the defense:

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

So that's good. Riker's whole prosecution was suspiciously lame, just "Look, I can turn him off and on, how can he possibly be sentient?", and that paragraph was all Picard needed to kill it off. However at the end the defense kind of falls apart when dealing with whether or not Data has "consciousness". They've already established he's "self-aware", and as far as I know "self-awareness" and "consciousness" are the same thing. But Picard can't answer whether Data has "consciousness" and ends his defense on a hypothetical, which is unneccessarily weak. Then Starfleet didn't even learn their lesson and came after Data's kid a couple seasons later. The guy can't get a break.

I hope this has answered all your questionsa bout--aieee!!!!! 4jmkl3534kopy5opk 404 Website Not Found

Posted by Greg Knauss at Wed Jan 12 2005 17:38

If going into extensive detail about Star Trek episodes could disappear sites, the Web would be a tumbleweed strewn desert, occasionally spotted with porn.

Like Las Vegas, say.

Posted by Brendan at Wed Jan 12 2005 22:06

So that's what happened.

Posted by Brian Danger Hicks at Thu Jan 13 2005 21:32

Wasn't it even the same dude who came after Data's kid?

Posted by Kristofer Straub at Fri Jan 14 2005 19:02

I would have liked to see the same episode redone for Vic Fontaine, except he would have said "settle down, 'squares!' I know I'm a 'lightbulb,' so let's go 'cool it' with a two-olive martini. Crazy!"


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