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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.


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