In the third episode of the second season of The Next Generation, THIS IS SUCH A FANTASTIC THING. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Look, if this episode was just Data and Geordi pretending to be Sherlock and Watson, I would have loved it. My two favorite characters cosplaying and roleplaying for forty-five minutes? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP. And I think the show knew most people would be on board with that, but instead, the writers take this in an UNREAL direction by forcing us to consider whether or not a computer creation is life. In a sense, it’s a staple of the genre, since science fiction has often explored the blurred boundaries between artificial life and human life. Hell, this very show has already done so with Data, but this felt so exciting and refreshing y’all. SO GOOD.
Look, there’s just so much joy in the early scenes of this episode. I think that The Next Generation had improved upon the worldbuilding of the Enterprise itself in increasingly rewarding ways, and this is a fine example of that. There’s nearly ten minutes of this episode devoted to showing us two crewmembers having fun. We didn’t see much recreation in the original series, and that’s far more a part of the fabric of this show. It gave me a better sense for what life was like onboard the Enterprise, you know?
Knowledge vs. Experience
So, I was really confused when Geordi stormed out of the Holodeck in the midst of Data’s mystery. NOOOO, EVERYTHING WAS SO GREAT, YOU WERE A WONDERFUL WATSON, WHAT’S HAPPENING??? The turn that this episode takes is so satisfying, though. As brilliant as Data is, his work within the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is nothing more than a recitation of the facts that he easily memorized from the original stories. It’s through this that Dr. Pulaski’s bias against androids is also brought to the forefront. We’d seen pieces of it before in the past two episodes, but it’s on full display here. And for the record, “bias” is a fairly tame term for what we witness. She’s borderline cruel in how she speaks of Data, and she does it TO HIS FACE.
On top of that, she issues a challenge, one that speaks to the issue at hand: can Data actually solve a mystery all on his own? The first test fails, though, because the Holodeck’s computer just shuffles the details of every Holmes case like a deck of cards. They’re details Data is still able to recognize even when they’re divorced from their normal context. So how can you possibly test Data’s deductive skills without invoking Sherlock Holmes in any recognizable way.
By creating Professor Moriarty.
It’s not lost on me that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Moriarty in order to pit Sherlock against someone who truly could defeat him. The Next Generation references this explicitly here, since the computer does the same thing. Of course, the computer onboard the Enterprise is just as literal and analytical as Data is, so it imbues this version of Moriarty with the one thing it needs to be able to defeat Data: consciousness. WHICH IS SO FUCKED UP AND COMPLICATED AND I LOVE IT. This episode would not have been as good as it was without this very specific aspect to it. There NEEDED to be a moral conundrum that was difficult and painful to deal with. Namely, can Picard morally extinguish the “life” of Moriarty to save his ship? Is there even a life there?
In the midst of all of this, my brain basically melted because HOW COULD ANY OF THIS HAPPEN? A character created by the ship’s computer was aware of his creation, the artificial nature of his surroundings, AND the fictional roles that Geordi, Data, and Dr. Pulaski played. H O W. It hurt to think about it, but the writers clearly didn’t let this deter them from making this shit so odd and uncomfortable. Seriously, Moriarty just wanted life, one that was separate from programming or code. When you get down to it, that’s not really a terrible thing to ask for, is it? I think that Picard eventually realizes that, which is why he comes to the decision that he does. Maybe there was not a solution aside from termination at the moment, but there might be one in the future. It’s a wistful ending because the show found a way to make one of the most intimidating fictional villains INCREDIBLY SYMPATHETIC. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him!
But this show came up with a solution that not only saved lives, but hinted toward progress. That’s what Moriarty represents in one sense, you know? One day, he’ll be the next step in human evolution. But that time was not at this specific moment.
So, did Data fail or succeed? Personally, I think he’s demonstrated his ability to solve complex problems already. Couldn’t you view many of the mishaps on the Enterprise as miniature mysteries? He’s helped solve a great deal of them, no?
I LOOK FORWARD TO YET ANOTHER EPISODE LIKE THIS.
The video for “Elementary, Dear Data” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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