Spoiler Level: High
One of the all-time classic episodes, easily in Next Gen's Top 10. This episode is written by Melinda Snodgrass, who also wrote one of my favorite Trek books, Tears of the Singers. Yet another example of how Trek novelists tend to make great episode writers. :)
Data is instructed by Starfleet to report to Commander Maddox to be disassembled and studied. Maddox feels he's close to a breakthrough in replicating Noonian Soong's work and that this is a necessary step; Data disagrees, and feels too much of himself will be lost in the process. The question becomes, is Data his own person, or property of Starfleet? Does he have the right to choose his own fate?
The debate takes place on the newly established Starbase 173 (not to be confused with Starbase 179, which we visited in the previous episode). As a result, the JAG department isn't completely set up yet, and Picard is chosen to argue for Data's rights, and Riker gets drafted in to the unenviable position of arguing against them.
What we get is some fantastic acting from everyone involved. Patrick Stewart's is obviously what had been the most memorable to me, but in rewatching it I was also struck by Jonathan Frakes' performance, as Riker gets many fantastic scenes. First, when he's faced with having to take on the argument against his friend and vehemently tries to reject it; secondly, when he's researching and compiling his argument-- in a scene with almost no dialogue, Jonathan Frakes conveys Riker's reluctance to be doing the task, his momentary excitement at being caught up in a puzzle he may have just solved-- and then immediate guilt at what that solution would do to Data. His presentation is truly well delivered with reluctant determination of doing one's duty to the best of one's ability. But best of all is the final scene between Frakes and Brent Spiner, when Riker is dealing with his guilt alone, and Data comes to him and tells him that Riker allowed himself to be hurt to protect Data, and he'll never forget that. You can tell from Riker's anguish that he was barely expecting forgiveness from Data, let alone gratefulness, and his smile that comes at the end of the scene feels sincere.
And not to take anything away from Frakes, but as I mentioned earlier, it's Stewart's delivery of Picard's argument that really takes this episode up to a whole new level. As we watch Picard start off slowly, coming back off the ropes from Riker's presentation, building up his case for Data as a sentient being with more and more conviction, trapping Maddox in his own definition of what sentience is until finally bringing it home with his heartlfelt closing statements of "The Starfleet charter is to seek out new life, well there it sits!"... it's what Star Trek is all about, and you can't help but be moved by Stewart's performance.
And then of course there's the great scene between Guinan and Picard, where she brings Picard around to see what Data's really being turned into: a slave.
I had completely forgotten this show had a subplot about Picard and JAG Captain Phillipa Louvois had once had a relationship. Their love/hate relationship provides for some interesting banter as well.
It's also interesting to note, with all the scenes between Pulaski and Data this season where Pulaski is arguing this very topic-- that Data is nothing more than a machine-- Pulaski is never once a part of the main action now that it's the central part of the story. She gets a scene at the beginning where we see the long-time Next Gen staple of the poker game get started, but that's it.
Now... if I may geek out a minute about Starbase 173!
While it's obviously a reuse of the Regula I research station from Wrath of Khan, Regula I itself was a reuse of the Starfleet orbital station in The Motion Picture flipped upside down with a few of the nobbley bits removed. The fact that it's a reuse isn't that big a deal; this were the pre-CGI days, where they relied on models (ahhhh, models), and it would take so long to create a new model that re-using the old models was often a necessity. And storywise, it would make sense that Starfleet would frequently use the same designs. No, what gets me is two things-- first off, that the "upside-down" Regula I became the rule and the original design became the exception, and episodes like this one are what set that standard. And secondly... I have to wonder about the scale. Now, the impression I got from Wrath of Khan was that Regula I was fairly close to, or even smaller than, the Enterprise. The following two shots are similar, but in the case of Regula I, the Enterprise appears to be coming up behind it, and in the case of Starbase 173, the Enterprise-D appears to be coming up in front of it.
And then of course, there's the fact that the 1701-D is over twice as big as the original 1701. So even if both ships in both of these pictures are exactly at the same spot, Starbase 173 has to be at least twice as big too. But the implication is that Starbase 173 is way bigger than the Enterprise-D. Take a look at these front shots:
Both space stations are approximately the same size, but the camera is farther out-- we're seeing much more of the 1701-D than the 1701. And since the D is bigger, then Starbase 173 has got to be even bigger. And then there's this shot:
Now if I remember right, didn't we see people inside that top window in Wrath of Khan? And in the opening titles of Next Generation, we always see people walking through the back windows of the saucer of the Enterprise-D. But it looks like you could dock the D's entire saucer in that upper window here, and since both are moving at about the same speed I don't think it's just the perspective. So a person in that same window of Starbase 173 would be very tiny. So really, even though it looks the same on the outside, Starbase 173 has got to be huge compared to Regula I.
There's no real point to this... I just thought it was cool.