[7.5/10] You can’t think about “Elementary, Dear Data” too hard or the whole thing falls apart. Thematically, the episode hinges on a challenge between Data and Dr. Pulaski, over whether the android could ever solve a Holmes-ian mystery he hadn’t already memorized. The catch is that Data’s already had a hand in solving scads of interstellar mysteries and weird happenings on and around the Enterprise without having a script to pull from, so whether or not he can unravel a nineteenth century English murder mystery is a moot point.
More practically, the holodeck computer is downright absurd here. To test Data’s mettle, Geordi instructs the computer to create a challenge and an adversary capable of beating Data, and it decides to make a holographic Dr. Moriarty self-aware. That alone is bonkers and should be out of bounds, but then it gives him access and even control of the ship! After only three outings, I don’t know why Picard doesn’t just jettison the whole damn thing, since each time they’ve used it since the upgrade, the crew’s been in danger.
The plot of this episode is like setting a video game to the highest difficulty level and discovering that the console’s tapped into your circuit breaker, cut the lights, and started an electrical fire in the kitchen. You can handwave it a little bit as cutting edge technology where all of the parameters and kinks haven’t been worked out yet, but (a.) Why is this all even possible for the holodeck to accomplish and (b.) Why doesn’t Starfleet shut the whole thing down the second time a malfunction nearly gets a crew member killed?
Nevertheless, I am a firm believer in willing suspension of disbelief, especially for a good story, and “Elementary, Dear Data” delivers one. If you can set aside those legitimate objections to the premise and setup, the notion of a conscious hologram, with a sterling intellect and an 1800s bearing, positioned to challenge his flesh and blood counterparts is an endlessly fascinating one.
If there’s one thing the episode does well, it’s steadily ratchet up the challenge and the threat. A friendly wager between Data and the doctor leads to increasingly unique and challenging scenarios. Eventually, Pulaski herself is kidnapped, forcing Data to grapple with sudden dead ends and a hostage situation. And finally, things get even hairier when Professor Moriarty himself presents a drawing of the Enterprise and even rattles the ship to get our heroes’ attention. That steady build adds to the sense of urgency and shock about this whole thing.
It wouldn’t work, though, without the stellar talents of Daniel Davis as Moriarty. Davis carries the self-described nefarious figure with the right combination of gentility, menace, and characteristically for Star Trek, curiosity. His interactions with Pulaski are particularly engaging, as she strings him along despite his reasoning out the nature of his situation. He alternatingly charms and chills her, and Pulaski plays coy but defensive. They make for good scene partners, and Davis sells the unmooring epiphanies Moriarty is experiencing extraordinarily well. He’s the anchor that holds the episode together.
The most laudable thing about his journey is that the episode doesn’t stoop to making Moriarty just as evil and obsessed with besting Holmes, only now more dangerous due to his self-aware upgrade. Instead, the episode gives him desires beyond the game, to keep existing, to be able to have as robust and liberated a life as Picard or Data has beyond the confines of the “arch.” He’s not just a villain testing his limits; he’s a new form of life trying to ensure his continued survival, with so much left to discover.
That becomes doubly impressive when the resolution of the episode doesn’t stem from a physical stand-off or a technobabble fix that renders Moriarty inert. It comes from the intellectual acceptance by this man of science that what he asks isn’t possible, at least not yet. (Hello Voyager fans!) Moriarty releases his hold on the ship when Picard is upfront with him about where they are, but also about their own limits, with the balm that they can save his program and revive him if more should ever become possible. (Spoiler alert: more becomes possible.)
As ludicrous as the setup that leads there is, it’s a surprisingly well-built episode. Dr. Pulaski’s cybernetic racism and declarations of fraud for the holodeck’s Arthur Conan Doyle remixes believably leads Geordi to push the limits of the computer’s parameters to come up with a true challenge for Data. Pulaski’s hostage situation provides a good excuse for why the senior staff needs to proceed delicately here, lest harm come to her with the safety protocols switched off. And Moriarty’s control over the ship, or at least access to it, creates a growing threat that Picard and company cannot simply wait out.
My only complaint beyond the bizarre things the holodeck is allowed to do (give or take Levar Burton’s laughable attempt at a British accent) is the fact that we never really get an answer to the central question. Pulaski de facto challenges Data to face a mystery and a challenge where he can lose, in an effort to prove he lacks that Holmesian spark of inspiration and innate understanding of human nature.
Maybe he wins the wager, by sniffing out Moriarty and recognizing the gravity of the threat. Or maybe he loses, admitting that the professor bested him and having to call in Captain Picard to resolve the situation. “Elementary, Dear Data” never really circles back to the question of whether Data is more than just rote memorization and plain deductive reasoning, in Pulaski’s eyes or anyone else’s. (Save for Picard, who defines his second officer as “something more” when Moriarty rightfully challenges that Data is artificial and still considered alive by some.)
Or maybe it does. While Pulaski’s challenge hinged on Data specifically, her broader supposition is that no machine, no artificial intelligence, can match the ingenuity and ineffable creativity of the human mind. But the Computer does just that, taking a simple statement and, in essence, creating life, in the form of a conscious hologram.
More to the point, that hologram thinks, it feels, it knows what it is and has a desire to preserve its own existence, hallmarks of what we consider sapience. He learns about things like interstellar travel and how to control a space vessel, far beyond his knowledge as a nineteenth century intellectual. He even seems to take a shine to Dr. Pulaski and she him, with a promise to stuff her with crumpets whenever he’s revived.
It takes a lot to buy this as something that could happen, even in the imaginative, futuristic world of Star Trek. But if you can get that far, this very happening works as a rebuke to Pulaski’s provincialism -- a revelation that the spark of humanity she’s so invested in may yet be expressed in ones and zeroes, in ways that surprise even her, and join her for tea.