The show begins with Data and members of the crew playing a game of poker. We see Data enjoying recreation with his comrades. He learns about "bluffing" from Commander Riker.
Then Picard sees an old friend, Phillipa Louvois, from the Starfleet's Judge Advocate General's office. There is still tension between them because of a court martial hearing when Picard was captain of the Stargazer.
Also arriving to the ship is Commander Bruce Maddox, a cyberneticist who wants to use Data for experimental purposes. One chilling moment is when Admiral Nakamura says to Picard, "Commander Maddox is here to work on your android."
Gee, not so much as a "Hello" or "Excuse us Sir, but we need a moment of your time." Nope. It's right down to business. There here to "work" on Data (who is referred to by Maddox as "it).
"I'm going to disassemble Data" he tells Captain Picard. He wants to "study it."
When Picard and Riker meet with Maddox and Data to discuss particulars, Maddox is very vague in what exactly he plans on doing for the experiment, but one thing is clear, he has the OK from Starfleet to take Data to the nearest starbase and become the property of Bruce Maddox for the purpose of research.
Picard is torn between his friendship with Data and his duty to starfleet. Data asks Picard, if Geordi's eyes are superior in what they can see beyond the scope of human vision, then why isn't everyone's eyes replaced with cybernetic implants?
This helps Picard choose a side. He supports Data's decision not to undergo the procedure. He enlists the help of Phillipa of JAG. "All this passion over a machine?" She says.
Maddox decides to pay Data a visit in his quarters. He enters without permission. Data relays to him that poker is a game of chance and bares little resemblance to the actual rules. The point being? "That while I believe it is possible to download information from a positronic brain, I do not believe you have acquired the expertise necessary to preserve the essence of those experiences." In short, Data's memories will likely not survive the procedure.
This fails to move Maddox and he tells Data he's under his command. Data returns with the fact that he's under no one's command because he's resigned.
Maddox seeks to keep Data from resigning. "If it were a box on wheels, we wouldn't be having this discussion," says Maddox. He tells Picard he's "sick of hearing about rights."
Meanwhile, members of the crew hold a going away party for Data. Geordi's down in the dumps for losing his best friend on the ship. "I shall miss you, Geordi" "it" tells Geordi.
Phillipa decides that Data is the property of Starfleet and therefore can't resign. Picard challenges the decision and forces Phillipa to hold a hearing. She puts Picard and Riker in charge of challenging the ruling and defending Starfleet's decision respectively.
One ridiculous thing said here comes from the JAG officer Phillipa "Data is a toaster, have him report immediately for experimental refit."
A toaster? You'd think in the 24th century, they would have used the term tricorder at least!
Riker is resolved that he has no choice but to work in favor of Maddox in the hearing. He downloads all technical scematics on Data in preparation for the hearing.
The hearing begins to determine if Data is sensient with rights, or property of Starfleet.
Riker determines Data's superior intelligence and strength, and the fact that he can be shut off like a machine, make him an automaton not possessing humanoid qualities.. A mere machine built to serve man.
"Pinocchio is broken. It's strings have been cut."
With that ends Riker's demonstration and Picard's task of figuring out how to beat him. Picard seeks counsel from his old friend Guinan.
"He's about to be ruled as property of Starfleet, that should increase his value" she says in a sarcastic tone. Picard gets the message. "You're talking about slavery?" And that's the argument Picard uses to win his case.
He puts Data on the witness stand and presents to him his belongings, possessions that remind him of friendship and service. He keeps a portrait of Tasha Yar whom he tells the court was special to him and that they had been "intimate." (that relates to the episode "The Naked Now.")
The looks on their faces at this revelation is another highlight of the show.
Picard then puts Bruce Maddox on the stand to talk about what the requirements are for sentience. Maddox says that "it" has the capacity to learn from new experiences. When asked where he is now and what's at stake, Data answers and Picard says that Data seems self-aware to him.
Picard gets Maddox to admit his purpose is to construct more androids like Data, "as many as needed."
"Won't that be creating a race and won't we be judged on how we treat that race?" asks Picard.
And suppose Data does meet the third criteria for sentience, what then?
Picard concludes that the courts decision will "determine how we regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are. The decision could expand liberties for some while savagely curtailing them for others."
"Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life, well, there it sits!"
Phillipa makes a decision that will speak to the future and decides that Data is not property and has the freedom to choose.
Data then informs Maddox of his decision not to undergo the experiment but that he will be available for help because he finds his ideas intriguing.
"He's remarkable" Maddox says to Phillipa as Data walks away.
"You didn't call him "it.""
The show ends when Data talks Riker into joining the celebration. Data acknowledges that Riker did what he had to do. By agreeing to help Starfleet, Riker helped in saving Data.
Why this episode is epic:
This episode is a prime example of what made the series great. It raises the question of who has rights and who determines who has rights. It forces us to look back to the past to our own failings as humans and face the cold reality that we weren't always an enlightened species.
As Picard noted, what they do in the hearing will determine how their race is judged in generations to come, as it has been for us. Bruce Maddox represented the worst humanity has to offer. People living today can still remember a time when men experimented on those they deemed of lesser value, all in the name of research.
Starfleet decided that Data was of lesser value, a mere machine, and wasn't entitled to choose to live his life as he chose. He didn't even have a choice at life! How many times in our history were people considered by those with more power and authority not worthy of life. We've seen it in mob lynchings and genocide committed by those who believed themselves superior to those of lesser means (or those they believed posed a threat to their way of life).
Unlike the episode "The Perfect Mate" in which Captain Picard goes along with the federation to transport a woman, who is to be a gift to a man in an opposing faction to maintain peace; here he bucks the status quo. And rightly so. This is another reason why the episode works. The man in authority chooses to stand up for the rights of an individual his superiors in his organization have deemed as merely property.
The episode was well written by Melinda Snodgrass and well acted. And as always, Patrick Stewart delivers a kick-ass speech about individual rights and the responsibility of others to respect those rights.