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Star Trek The Next Generation: Ship in a Bottle

"This contradicts everything we know about holodeck physics."

I'm not into holodeck-gone-wrong episodes, but this one has to be my favorite. It's exceptionally clever, and tremendous fun.

In season two's "Elementary, Dear Data," frustrated with Data constantly ruining their Sherlock Holmes holodeck fun by figuring everything out too quickly, Geordi told the computer to create a character "capable of defeating Data." The holodeck character Professor James Moriarty received a jolt of artificial intelligence and self-awareness and of course, wackiness ensued. In the end, Picard took pity on Moriarty and stored "him" away intact, promising that at some point, Something Would Be Done.

Of course, this is episodic TV, and Nothing Was Done. Until the Sherlock program started glitching and Barclay, who knew nothing about the Moriarty incident, noticed that there was something unusual sitting in storage.

The first time I saw "Ship in a Bottle" and Moriarty stepped off the holodeck and didn't vanish, I went, "Naahhhh. They don't expect us to swallow this, do they?" Even so, the story pulled me along and by the time Data told Picard that he'd discovered the truth – that Moriarty had fooled them and they were still on the holodeck – I absolutely didn't see it coming. Terrific writing.

Never knowing for certain if we were experiencing the reality of Next Gen or more of the holodeck should have been frustrating, but it wasn't. Even with life and death issues in the balance, with a famous and deviously criminal fictional character supposedly in control of the ship, there was a lightness to this story, a thread of real fun. Picard actually enjoyed explaining starships, space and the future to Moriarty in the make-believe Ten Forward. Picard was also totally charmed by the Countess Barthalomew, whose existence kept making me think of the Bride of Frankenstein. Create me a companion like myself, or else!

I also thought there was something rather sweet about Moriarty and the Countess off experiencing adventures forever in their very own digital shuttlecraft. Although the first thing that occurred to me was that Moriarty would eventually figure it out they were in a memory cube. What would happen then?

It's rare when a sequel is much better than the original, but this one definitely is. It's absolutely wonderful that they played with reality this way and made it work. I particularly loved that moment at the end where Barclay said, "Computer, end program" and it felt like maybe, just for a moment, that we were still trapped on the holodeck. Not to mention the petite homage to 2001, A Space Odyssey, and Picard suggesting that the Next Gen universe itself was a simulation in a box on a table.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite Voyager character, the Holodoc. Was it this episode that gave the writers the idea?


— Stardate 46424.1, at the Detrian system. Although we were mostly on Holodeck 3, the B-plot of the collision of two planets becoming a star was actually pretty cool, though brief.

— Discovering that Geordi wasn't actually Geordi was suitably creepy. So were the nightmares Moriarty said he had while trapped in the computer, making him automatically sympathetic. Very Black Mirror.

— Barclay trying to beam the chair off the holodeck was a fun detail. So was the nonexistence of the transporter log as a clue.

— The left-handedness thing as a clue was brought up several times but it sort of lost me.

— According to Memory Alpha, even the Next Gen staff found it difficult to follow what was going on in this episode and had to make diagrams to track what was happening and in what universe.

— Daniel Davis did a terrific job as Moriarty in both episodes. It's not easy to play an evil mastermind that you can't help liking, just a bit.


Moriarty: "Mind over matter. Cogito ergo sum. I think – therefore, I am!"

Picard: "Professor, I feel it necessary to point out that criminal behavior is as unacceptable in the twenty-fourth century as it was in the nineteenth – and very much harder to get away with."
Moriarty: "Don't worry, Captain. My past is nothing but a fiction, the scribblings of an Englishman dead now for four centuries. I hope to leave his books on the shelf, as it were."

Moriarty: "Policemen. I'd recognize them in any century."

Riker: "Release control of this ship!"
Moriarty: "I'm afraid I can't do that."

Deanna: "In a sense, you did give Moriarty what he wanted."
Picard: "In a sense. But who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs, and all this might just be an elaborate simulation, running inside a little device sitting on someone's table."
And I'm looking at my flat screen sitting on a table, thinking, how wonderfully droll.

Barclay: "Computer, end program."

A practically perfect episode. Four out of four science fiction references,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. This episode was terrific. And the Countess, too, was charming.

  2. Wouldn't it have been fun if they'd used this episode as kicking off point for a whole new StarTrek series - the Voyages of Professor Moriarty and his loving partner as they explored their new universe. No less real in its way than that of Picard. Or perhaps, us.

  3. Since I used to see a lot of Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce at Holmes and Watson, I do have a soft spot for the detective and his stories, and Moriarty is famous and infamous, and done well is a scary character indeed, and as you pointed out, Billie, Daniel Davis was excellent as the brilliant mastermind.

    So much to ponder here, so well done despite the twists and turns, and stories that do this kind of thing don't always work so well, but here it was such a well done and entertaining episode.


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