Tuesday, September 27, 2016

ST: TNG - The Measure of Picard Squared

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Sometime a decade and a half ago-ish I watched a bit of this adaptation of Moby Dick and was somewhat disappointed by Patrick Stewart over-acting every single scene. Then I actually tried reading Moby-Dick and realized that, ummm... nope. He wasn't. The book itself really was that self-gratifyingly purple. I'm not one to complain about the classics being boring normally, but come on, how does anyone stay awake through the first half of that thunderous ode to cod-netting and harpoon-polishing?
Anyway, the point being: not Stewart's fault. Back to the future.

Seriesdate: 2.09
The Measure of a Man

"With the application of a little care, Wes, the paper can be utilized again."

Another one of my favorite TNG one-liners, right up there with Guinan's "You're a droid and I'm a-noid." I mean, okay, the 24th century's supposed to be a post-scarcity society where you feed any waste matter into the replicator to be repurposed as hot dogs, so Data really would not be concerned over wasting so simple a material as wrapping paper. Still, it's such a welcome scene to all of us uptight nerds.

A roboticist wants to chop our favorite android's brain up for study, which is ok since he's not a human... I mean person... I mean sentient, free-willed individual. Look, the basic premise here's actually pretty weak. It's the 24th century. These people live under the Prime Directive. Their best neighbours have three hearts and detachable eyes. Nobody would bat an eyelash at any of Data's inhumanity and they should be much better equipped mentally to call Riker out on his bullshit show-stopper argument.

Though ostensibly centering on Data and his claim to personal agency as a sentient being, this entire plot served more as a vehicle for fleshing out other characters and the Federation setting. We get one of those always welcome scenes of Guinan playing the wise old hero's advisor behind her bar, a bit of the natural kinship between the ship's engineer and the ship's mechano-man and a decent bit of social commentary on Riker as the duty-bound devil's advocate forced to work against his own comrade.
Hey, hey! Put that back you jackass!
By the way, wasn't that robot arm scene so much more badass in Terminator 2?

Prick us, do we not quote? Given the central role of personal freedom in the whole sub-genre of robot-themed SciFi, as soon as the word robot was coined by Karel Capek back in 1920, then so masterfully by Isaac Asimov in 1950 and yet again by Philip K. Dick in 1968 and so many others in between, I think TNG's writers must've realized they could add little to the central question of robots' rights. So the episode instead deals mostly with Picard standing up for Data's already assumed right to exist.

Up until this point in the series, the general consensus seems to have been to build Picard up as a larger than life father figure: a war hero and stern disciplinarian who holds great respect for sentient life of all kinds. Here, however, we get to see his relationship with his own crew. Humble enough to take advice from the bartender when necessary and intellectually capable of reasoning through his defense of Data's personhood instead of adopting some idiotic all-purpose "life is sacred" stance. The central theme had been done to death. The devil's in the details and this episode yammers through some details, among its somewhat heavy-handed references to slavery.

Seriesdate 2.13
Time Squared

Double your cue-balls, double your fun.
Look, we just had an extra captain's uniform to fill so we cloned him why not.
This ship ain't big enough for the two of me.
He's dead, Jim... lucky we made a backup copy!

The Enterprise runs into a shuttlecraft containing a duplicate Picard... from the future! Well, a mere unimpressive six hours into the future. Hilarity ensues, and also total party wipeout unless the good captain can negotiate a solution with himself. Amusingly, this episode plays on the question of continuity of the self which was addressed more explicitly in The Measure of a Man: a copy of yourself is not yourself. It's later addressed from the opposite viewpoint (the moronic viewpoint) in another season 2 episode, Up the Long Ladder, but I don't want to get ahead of things. I'll comment on that when I discuss Pulaski. Of course the whole thing really gets heated once you run into the Star Trek transporter debate, but anyway. Thankfully, the writers once again manage to dodge the trap of dwelling too heavily on this issue.

It's also not much of a time travel story. Time travel plots tend to knot themselves in notoriously convoluted mazes of causality. Gerard Klein's Les Seigneurs de la Guerre, Robert Sheckley's A Thief in Time, even Robert Heinlein's All You Zombies managed to cram several different events and timeframes into what... five pages of very short story? This ain't that.

The episode's plot would be disappointingly linear, but then again this is more of a character study of Picard himself. Attempts had previously been made to define him as a strong-willed leader, most notably Where Silence has Lease, but that was such a cheap, ham-fisted caricature that it hardly counts. It portrayed Picard as pig-headedly determined to self-destruct the Enterprise instead of making Sophie's choice. If he'd lacked that basic capacity to make a hard decision he would've tripped over himself before clearing Neptune's orbit, much less any galaxies far away.

Here instead is a grimly determined but rational captain willing to die for his ship, willing to kill his own duplicate for his ship, and more importantly capable of maintaining a cool enough head under fire to see which of those alternatives might logically work best.


I don't particularly like either of these episodes. Star Trek was at its best when it managed to nail down the SF short story appeal of mind-twisting gimmickry. New life and new civilizations, that sort of thing. Creature episodes, futuristic technology episodes, nonsensical physics technobabble, etc.

However, for those better episodes to truly work, the basic setting and core cast had to be developed. Episodes had to be dedicated to revealing how exactly the Federation functions and what might threaten it, how each character acts and interacts with the others. Throughout season 1, characters had stumbled around nonsensical slapdash plots possessed of no coherent behavior patterns or personalities. It helped a lot I think that unlike the original series which was more ham-pered than helped by Shatner, TNG managed to land itself a pretty good actor in Stewart, capable of carrying off the strong leader role while still leaving room for nuance. A lot of other characters were later developed in relation to him.

Gradually throughout season 2, Picard's role shifts from delivering cliched speeches on the value of life to arguing and fighting for valuable lives, from simply reacting to or presiding over events to truly directing his subordinates on the best course of action. He starts acting more like the central figure of the cast he's meant to be, instead of merely an overbearing figurehead de jure.

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