Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Elementary, Dear Data”

“Elementary, Dear Data”
Written by Brian Alan Lane
Directed by Rob Bowman

Season 2, Episode 3
Original air date: December 5, 1988
Star date: 42286.3

Mission summary

The crew of the Enterprise has absolutely nothing to do for a few days, so La Forge and Data decide to cosplay as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the holodeck. Things seem to be off to a great start: The holographic recreation of the drawing room at 221B Baker Street is incredibly detailed, and the friends soon settle into their roles. But as soon as Inspector Lestrade arrives with a case, Data instantly recognizes the scenario as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “solves” the mystery immediately. La Forge storms out, annoyed that Data has spoiled the ending of a story published 474 years earlier.

Dr. Pulaski revels in La Forge’s predicament, citing this as further evidence that Data is a mere machine, incapable of Holmes’ amazing intuition and deductive reasoning because he lacks insight into the human soul. Challenge accepted! La Forge attempts to prove her wrong by instructing the holodeck to create an original mystery in the Holmes style. The poor computer does the best it can, but it only manages to blend elements of several stories into an unlikely mystery, like a hack writing a pastiche. Once again, it is all too easy for Data to anticipate the solution to the simple puzzle set before him.

La Forge doesn’t give up easily. Third time’s the charm, and he thinks he knows how to present Data with something entirely new to truly test his metal friend’s mettle.

LAFORGE: Computer, in the Holmesian style, create a mystery to confound Data with an opponent who has the ability to defeat him.
COMPUTER: Define parameters of program.
PULASKI: What does that mean?
LAFORGE: Computer wants to know how far to take the game.
PULASKI: You mean it’s giving you a chance to limit your risk.
LAFORGE: No, the parameters will be whatever is necessary in order to accomplish the directive. Create an adversary capable of defeating Data.

Well, what could possibly go wrong?

On the Bridge, Lt. Worf detects a brief surge in power which is surely nothing to be concerned about. Best forget it ever happened, really, and go about the incredibly important business of standing around watching Riker’s beard grow. Coincidentally, at the same moment, a holodeck character who has been studying Data, La Forge, and Pulaski as they access the computer’s control arch suddenly gains a new awareness. It turns out he’s Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ arch nemesis — no doubt because it seems he, too, can call up the arch. Pretty sure holodeck characters shouldn’t be able to do that. The game is afoot, indeed.

In no time at all, Dr. Pulaski has been abducted, with Data and La Forge fast on her trail. They encounter a random murder along the way, which Data easily solves through careful observation and deduction—but he also realizes that this less interesting case has nothing to do with Pulaski’s disappearance. Data sees Moriarty, realizes who his adversary is, and follows the man to his secret hideout. The villain knows that they are not Holmes and Watson and shows Data a paper that sends him running from the holodeck: a crude drawing of the Enterprise. Yeah, holodeck characters really aren’t supposed to know about that.

Data is unable to override the program that is running, so they seek advice from Captain Picard, who decides to call one of his famous meetings.

PICARD: All right, tell me from the beginning exactly what happened.
LAFORGE: Well, Dr. Pulaski and I had a discussion about whether Data could solve an original Holmes-type mystery.
PICARD: Which you asked the computer to provide.
LAFORGE: Yes, with a worthy opponent.
PICARD: Worthy of Holmes?
LAFORGE: Oh, my God. I asked for a Holmes-type mystery with an opponent capable of defeating Data. That got to be it.
PICARD: Merde.

A moment later, Moriarty shakes things up, literally; he’s managed to gain control of the ship’s navigation system, and he jostles them all a bit, just to get the captain’s attention. There’s no other choice: Picard will have to dress up too and play the program through to its thrilling conclusion.

Sherlock Holmes and Ebenezer Scrooge walk into the holodeck and confront Moriarty, who it turns out is actually a decent sort of chap, if somewhat misunderstood. Now that he’s become sentient, he wants to live. He also wants to leave the holodeck, which Picard assures him is impossible. The criminal mastermind with a computer-generated heart of gold-pressed latinum takes the captain at his word, possibly because he sounds English, and relinquishes control of Enterprise. In an indulgent moment of sentimentality, Picard promises to save the Moriarty program in case one day, perhaps five years from now, they might be able to give him what he wants. Or maybe they’ll just forget all about him, who knows.

Even though La Forge royally screwed up and created a new life form that could have killed them all, Picard decides to look the other way. This case is closed.

Or is it?


When I was in junior high, I was heavily into two things: Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes. I loved the stories and I was a huge fan of the Jeremy Brett Granada television adaptations of them. So this episode was basically written for me, and it was always one of my favorites of the series.

It seems that since then, I’ve become a little more discerning in my tastes, and I now realize that as far as the series goes, this is a terrible Star Trek episode, and it doesn’t work very well as a Holmes story either. There is still a certain thrill to seeing elements of the Holmes canon represented on the screen so lovingly; there is a fair amount of detail, and the sets and costumes are beautifully rendered. But Brent Spiner, for all his many talents, is not even a passable Holmes—which doesn’t make any sense because Data would easily be able to mimic any of the master actors who have performed the role over the years: Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch. The less said about La Forge’s Watson, the better.

The basic premise, if you can accept the inherently flawed idea that the Enterprise computer could allocate enough resources to create an artificial intelligence, especially with only a brief power surge, could be compelling. But the story of a computer-generated entity gaining awareness, perhaps even a soul, yet remaining confined to an artificial environment, is simply squandered here. Moriarty doesn’t end up being much of a threat, and he is mollified far too easily. The concept of holograms becoming sentient crops up again and again on Star Trek, but it really only works as an intellectual exercise. Leave your skepticism at the holodeck exit.

The episode is also hurt by the fact that it essentially reboots the whole concept of holodecks and what they can and can’t do, and treats even those rules inconsistently. I’ll be generous and accept that Data can take a piece of paper outside the holodeck grid, if it was somehow replicated as a physical prop. But Moriarty seemed to be aware of the computer arch before they ever programmed him to be more than a program, and we already saw another character in “The Big Goodbye” confront the idea that he doesn’t really exist. So what makes this special?

However, the real saving grace of this episode is the fine performance of guest star Daniel Davis as Professor Moriarty. While he may not be a good Moriarty per se, he is every bit the English gentleman, obsessed with knowledge and wrestling with a rather unique identity crisis. Programmed with the intelligence of the fictional genius, or at least as smart as Data, he is also struggling against the evil nature he was programmed with and a very basic desire to live a fulfilling, meaningful life.

And yet, this episode is mostly enjoyable, even if it doesn’t attain the success of the humorous installments of the original series, like “The Trouble with Tribbles.” You can tell that the cast, crew, and writers all had fun making this episode. I wish they could have taken this opportunity to conceive of an original Holmesian mystery to challenge viewers as much as Data, or at least adapt something from outside the canon that would be less familiar; but like the Enterprise computer, they were either unable or unwilling to put in the effort to do more than simply rearrange the furniture.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: This episode actually has some terrific costumes; in fact, it was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design for a Series. However, even though Worf’s suit is fine, he looks absolutely ridiculous in it. Maybe it’s the gloves. I’m sure that was the intended effect, but still. Ridiculous.

Best Line: Moriarty: If I destroy these surroundings, this vessel, can you say it doesn’t matter to you? Interesting pun, don’t you agree, for matter is what I am not.

Trivia/Other Notes: In the original filmed ending of this episode, cut by Roddenberry, Picard lies to Moriarty about him being able to leave the holodeck, after realizing that the disabled fail-safes had allowed Data to take a piece of paper out with him. Right… Because paper is as complicated as a human being.

The producers used the Sherlock Holmes characters without permission, believing that they had reverted to the public domain, but the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate still controlled a percentage of the rights and told Paramount they would require a usage fee for future episodes. This prevented TNG from revisiting the character until the sixth season episode “Ship in a Bottle.”

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 2 – “Where Silence Has Lease.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 4 – “The Outrageous Okona.”

About Eugene Myers

E(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He has published four novels and short stories in various magazines and anthologies, most recently 1985: Stori3s from SOS. His first novel, Fair Coin, won the 2012 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF and Fantasy. He currently writes for the science fiction serial ReMade from Serial Box Publishing.