Star Trek The Next Generation: Elementary, Dear Data

"I do not want to die."

Geordi finds watching Data recite Sherlock Holmes solutions on the holodeck a bit boring, but his attempt to spice things up has unexpected consequences.

'Holodeck-gone-wrong' episodes have a bit of bad reputation in some quarters, partly as a result of over-exposure over the years. I'm rather fond of them myself, mainly because I like the way they offer a chance to play with costume and setting and bring about a change of pace from the usual - perhaps not as effectively as, for example, a time travel episode, but reasonably well. Granted, they're fairly predictable (characters enter holodeck, holodeck malfunctions and the safeties get switched off, hi-jinks ensure), and the fact that it's possible to turn off the safety settings continues to bemuse (yes, some things may be more exciting without the safeties on, but you'd think Starfleet would tell their officers that if they want genuine danger they can go find it on their own time and on whatever planet they're spending shore leave on, not on the ship) but they offer a change of pace and a variety to the feel of the show while providing a more familiar setting than an alien planet (eliminating the need for alien planets that look mysteriously like 1920s America or a 20th-century version of Rome).

The world of Sherlock Holmes is a particularly effective setting for a holodeck story. Since the great detective is out of copyright, the writers can use precise, well-known characters, rather than the vaguely Chandler-esque gangsters of season one's 'The Big Goodbye'. Any kind of crime-story setting also provides an opportunity to do a whodunnit, though this particular episode goes with a more well-known opponent. Holmes is well known enough that most viewers will have some idea of what to expect even if they've never read the books, and the Victorian London setting is far removed from the sterile, space-set world of Star Trek, so the episode provides that sense of a change of pace. I also loved the little touches that get some fun out of blending the futuristic Star Trek with Holmsian period drama, like Geordi wandering around in a Victorian costume and his VISOR, or Pulaski being apparently completely unfamiliar with the process of making tea with milk and sugar.

One of the problems with early Next Generation holodeck episodes, though, is that they're so excited by the entire concept of the holodeck that it takes ages for any kind of serious problem to emerge. In both this and 'The Big Goodbye', we get cold opens that essentially consist of characters deciding they fancy a break on the holodeck, and extended scenes of everyone explaining how it works to each other and expressing general amazement at the technology (which is apparently new to Starfleet at this point).

Luckily, once this episode's particular holodeck malfunction gets going, it's one of the most interesting. When Geordi orders the computer to create an adversary capable of defeating Data - an artificial lifeform - it creates an intelligent hologram. Whereas most characters on the holodeck are illusions who can be shot, turned off, reprogrammed etc. without worrying about it because they are not 'real' beings, when the computer gives Professor Moriarty artificial intelligence, it allows him to think - and therefore, presumably, he *is*, in a way that other holodeck characters are not. If Data is to be respected as a lifeform, then so must Moriarty be. Picard tells Moriarty that he's not alive, and insists that Data is more where Moriarty is not, but between Moriarty's insistence that he thinks therefore he is and that he has a will to survive, and the fact that Troi can sense him, demonstrating that he has an individual consciousness, it certainly seems that he is a lifeform, albeit one with limited capability to move around.

Add to that the element of danger presented by the fact that this particular form of artificial intelligence has been designed to be power-hungry and ruthless, and you have a cracking concept for an episode. Of course, the problem with Pulaski as Moriarty's kidnap victim is that, since she doesn't believe Data has any individuality, she certainly doesn't believe it of Moriarty, so it takes her ages to work up any kind of alarm, but still, it's a great idea.

The ending feels like a little bit of a cop-out, as Moriarty voluntarily gives up control over his very existence to Picard, who simply puts him in storage until they can work out a way to give him more of a life. I feel like one of literature's greatest villains should have put up more of a fight, but the episode had run out of time - less telling everyone what a holodeck is and more Moriarty would have been good.

Bits and pieces

 - Does it worry anyone in Starfleet that their ships' computers are capable of creating lifeforms with individual consciousness in seconds? Have they *seen* 2001: A Space Odyssey?!

 - Pulaski is still being horrible to Data. Bones was often rude to Spock, but he never treated Spock as less than a person - Pulaski talks over Data to Geordi on a regular basis. It's annoying and makes her highly unlikeable - which is a shame, because she's a strong character in other ways.

 - When Picard and Data come in to talk to Moriarty, Pulaski is readjusting her clothing and claims to be "crammed full of crumpets". I think she's fonder of artificial lifeforms than she pretends to be.

 - Picard wears a dark Victorian suit and top hat. I didn't know this was something I needed in my life, but it was. (Though I could just watch the 1999 A Christmas Carol, of course).

Quotes

Geordi: It's human nature to love what we don't have.

Picard: Merde. (I'm keeping out a Merde!-watch - this one is soft and horrified, lacking in the exclamation mark. Picard must be the only Star Trek character who gets to have 'Oh shit!' moments in which he actually says "shit").

Pulaski: It may be a long time - time won't pass for you but I may be an old woman.
Moriarty: I'll still fill you with crumpets. Oh really?...

Great concept, a little iffy in the execution. Three out of four crumpets.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

3 comments:

Monophylos Fortikos said...

Count me among those who hate most holodeck episodes. The Dixon Hill material especially always made me cringe, partly because it was such a clumsy and transparent attempt to give Picard an approximation of a personality trait--and yet, despite his supposed love of hard-boiled detective stories, all he ever wants to do when we see him in a Dixon Hill scenario is push a hat down on his head and sleep in his office. He always looks so annoyed when anyone actually shows up with a case. But I digress...

But I still have some weird liking for this episode. I'm not sure why. I find it almost impossible to utter one definite word in its defence, but I still kind of like it.

drnanamom said...

Thanks for the review Juliette - it made me laugh more then once. I sometimes find the holodeck episodes a bit wearing and that often starts off with a - seriously, you wouldn't have an ultimate over-ride on every piece of machinery? If one wrong word can put the whole ship in danger I think they need another way to get some recreation. I also think I've watched so many excellent Holmes take-offs lately that this just didn't manage to get my interest.

Carolyn said...

I like those holodeck episodes too- wish I could watch one now actually. It gives you a chance to see how the characters would cope in a different setting.