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The Trek Nation - Elementary, Dear Data

Elementary, Dear Data

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 19, 2007 - 6:55 PM GMT

See Also: 'Elementary, Dear Data' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: After LaForge gets frustrated playing Watson to Data's Holmes because Data can solve all the mysteries so quickly, Pulaski suggests that this is because Data plots like a computer, with no real risk of failure. She accompanies LaForge and Data to the holodeck, where LaForge asks the computer to create an adversary capable of defeating Data. Because he has worded the order in this way, the computer turns off the safety controls and turns Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty into a sentient hologram capable of accessing the holographic interface. Moriarty kidnaps Pulaski and takes over of the holodeck, drawing Picard's attention by briefly seizing the ship's attitude controls as well. The captain accompanies Data back to the holodeck's version of Holmes' London, where he finds Pulaski well cared for and Moriarty insisting that he has evolved far beyond his initial programming. Data tries to concede victory to end the program, but Moriarty won't allow himself to be turned off. He asks Picard to allow him to leave the holodeck. But he believes Picard when the captain explains that the ship does not have the technology to convert holographic matter into permanent matter and accepts Picard's promise that his program will be saved and reactivated once the crew gains that ability. Moriarty lets Pulaski go and Picard stores the program in the ship's computer.


Analysis: "Elementary, Dear Data" gets better every time I watch it. On a purely superficial level, it has so many little details that I love: Geordi working on a scale model of the HMS Victory as a gift for the captain of the USS Victory, Pulaski's calm when facing down Moriarty, Worf scowling in the clothes of Arthur Conan Doyle's era. There are dozens of beautiful character moments, all worked into the story - the writers finally seem to have the notion of showing rather than telling us things about the characters well in hand, as we don't have any clumsy attempts to hear humor explained to Data, for instance. There are dribs and drabs of backstory that come through, like LaForge's previous posting on the Victory and Picard's familiarity with British naval history, but nothing lobbed at our heads the way things were the first season. The character interaction is smooth and witty and lovely.

Then there's the device of going into the past to comment on human nature in the future. Of course, Conan Doyle's Victorian era is a fictional projection of human nature, but we get a glimpse of the harsh life of historic London versus the pristine corridors of the Enterprise, and we get to see how much Moriarty changes when he's reconstructed as an adversary for an android with 24th century values. As he points out, he could hurt Pulaski or he could make a much greater effort to harm the Enterprise, but those aren't his priorities. He doesn't even particularly want power, though he demands respect. He wants to live, to be considered a full human - much the way Data does. And though Pulaski repeatedly questions whether Data is a full human, she asks him, directly. She doesn't evade or condescend, as she does with Moriarty, until she recognizes that he has real feelings. In accepting Moriarty as a sentient being, we take for granted that Data is as well. No more feeble attempts to make him understand human humor or human sexuality; this is where Data becomes a real boy.

As a costume drama, "Elementary, Dear Data" finds it pace and theme more easily and quickly than last season's "The Big Goodbye," which toys with similar ideas about holograms discovering that they're constructs and wishing for more. The sequence where Data demonstrates his knowledge of Holmes lore is a bit overlong, though personally I love it - the emerald tie pin presented to Holmes by Queen Victoria, Data playing Holmes' violin (that and the HMS Victory now give me Patrick O'Brian nostalgia). The crew works together exceptionally well here, and Picard is always particularly commanding in battles of words as opposed to space skirmishes.

But the costume drama here is secondary to the science fiction theme. What if computer programs are capable of achieving sentience? Will they absorb the interests, values and ethics of the people who created them? What, then, is the responsibility of the creator to the creation? Moriarty seems willing to accept "Mister Computer" as a godlike being, and when he is told by its controller Picard that he cannot have an independent existence, he accepts this dictum without struggle, at least for now. He trusts Picard not to delete his program, and true to his word, Picard saves the independent program. Moriarty will return, as will other forms of sentient life on the holodeck, and eventually this will lead to the creation of Voyager's EMH and the question of the rights of computer programs. It makes sense that these issues first come up in an episode where Pulaski is questioning whether Data is human, for the core issue of what constitutes "artificial" life is the same.

At the end, when LaForge is still fretting over his poorly worded command that allowed the holodeck to override its own safeties, Picard says that his model of the HMS Victory is a wonderful testament to simpler times. Of course, those times weren't simpler at all; they simply had different issues to straighten out about the rights of various humans and how they would relate to one another. She and the Enterprise may both be shipshape and Bristol fashion soon enough, but the holographic genie is out of the bottle now, never to return. It's one of the best story developments in a generation of Star Trek, and what a stylish, clever, touching introduction to the theme.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.