Across seven seasons of television and four feature length films, Patrick Stewart has portrayed one of the most beloved and iconic characters in all of science fiction.
Noble, courageous, always in search of new life or Earl Grey tea—Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation is an aspirational figure. He is the Fully Automated Luxury Space Communist dad we can only hope to one day become.
Picard has endured as a character due to his boundless curiosity and immediate willingness to embrace anything new, unusual, and unknown. It seems only fitting that the new Star Trek: Picard reflects these qualities by focusing on Picard's most unusual friendship with an android named Data.
Lieutenant Commander Data is a 24th century Pinocchio yearning to be a "real boy," hyper-intelligent, but often puzzled by human emotion and social cues. Picard becomes something of a father figure to Data, gently guiding him as he makes his first steps towards navigating human society as an individual with an identity and personal rights. Their relationship is epitomized in the classic Next Generation episode, "The Measure of a Man."
The episode follows Data and Picard's battle against Dr. Maddox, a scientist who visits the Enterprise with the intent of disassembling and studying Data's inner workings in the hopes of creating more artificial beings. While Maddox's proposal doesn't appear to have drawbacks, Data protests, insisting that Maddox cannot 100% guarantee that his inner workings wouldn't be irreparably altered. Data worries that Maddox's work could possibly damage his memories and personality.
But when Data refuses to participate, pleasantries fall by the wayside. Maddox insists that Data is in no position to refuse, as he is legally considered property of Starfleet and therefore must submit to the procedure. It is at this point Data goes to Picard for help.
This is where Picard's character shines through most brightly. He is immediately outraged on Data's behalf, and since Data is a character incapable of physically expressing emotion, it's especially satisfying to see Picard channel the righteous anger that we feel watching Data's basic right to bodily autonomy be denied. Picard insists on bringing the question of Data's rights to court and personally acting as Data's defense.
In court, Dr. Maddox provides three criteria that an individual must meet to be considered sentient: Intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. But while the prosecution makes broad assertions, Picard persists in asking probing questions. Obviously Data is intelligent. But how does one qualify self-awareness? Consciousness? Can Maddox prove whether he, himself, is sentient? The scientist scoffs at such an absurd idea, but the point has been made: How can you legally enforce the status of an individual's rights based on criteria you can't even prove? His conclusion is wise and bold.
"What is he? I don't know. Do you?"
At the end of "The Measure of a Man," open-mindedness wins the day. It's a neat and tidy ending that fits Star Trek's idealistic and utopian setting. But however briefly, we have the chance to see these characters unearth an injustice lying just beneath the surface.
In the real world, injustices constantly occur at the expense of individuals' rights to freedom and autonomy. People are denied the most basic essentials for a quality of life that is guaranteed to privileged others based merely on background, citizenship, and location. Women are denied basic rights to bodily autonomy when the government controls how and when they choose to procreate. Police profile and incarcerate minorities with extreme prejudice.
In light of all this injustice, it's sobering to witness an aspirational figure stand up against it and fight against oppression without a moment's hesitation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard may be a fictional character from an early '90s television show, but his admirable actions still hold real-world value for encouraging a constant vigilance against injustice.
At his core, Jean-Luc Picard is a fighter. Sometimes being a fighter might involve lacking certain social niceties. He might come off as a curmudgeon. He might appear like he's repeating the same talking points over and over and over. He definitely sucks at interacting with children. But Picard's unflinching commitment to ideals, friendship, and justice mark the true measure of the man.