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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Elementary, Dear Data (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season (and a tiny bit of the second), episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

If you needed more evidence of the improvement of Star Trek: The Next Generation between the first and second seasons of the show, Elementary, Dear Data certainly provides it. Like Where Silence Has Lease directly before it, Elementary, Dear Data works so well because it takes a couple of ideas hinted at and teased in the first season and then develops them just a little bit further.

There’s a sense that the universe of The Next Generation is slowly expanding. While the first season treated our main characters as masters of all they surveyed, Elementary, Dear Data hints that the universe still has more to teach them and that they have a lot to learn.

Unfortunately, the trend would not continue into the next episode, but Elementary, Dear Data proves that the writing team (and the cast) are learning to play to the show’s strengths and that the pieces are all positioned to allow for a solidly entertaining hour of television.

Things take a turn for the better...

Things take a turn for the better…

I’m prone to blame the year’s misfires on the Writers’ Guild of America Strike of 1988, but to credit its successes to the cast and crew learning and improving. The second season has more than its fair share of problems, and one of the most glaring is that the show is nowhere near as consistent as it would eventually become. The low points (and we’re approaching one) are about as bad as the worst episodes of the show’s first year, but the high points of this sophomore season transcend the best of the earlier year. Even the average has been raised.

Elementary, Dear Data is, I’d argue, is as good as the best episodes of the first season. The Next Generation has yet to produce – in my opinion – a bona fides classic piece of television, but we’re getting closer all the time. Elementary, Dear Data comes closer than any earlier episode, and it’s probably the first episode of The Next Generation to pass what I deem the “outsider test.” Would I, the test asks, show this episode to a person with little or no familiarity with Star Trek as a whole?

Adventures of note...

Adventures of note…

Elementary, Dear Data is the first episode of The Next Generation I would recommend to a person with no real knowledge of the show, and there are a lot of reasons for that. The most obvious is that it has a great science-fiction premise. I argued a lot that the first season tried to escape the shadow of the original Star Trek, with many episodes feeling like they could have been recycled from an aborted fourth season of the show. (Or sixth, if you count the animated series.) By this point in its run, The Next Generation is slowly finding its own voice, and that voice is – I’d argue – more abstract than that of the classic Star Trek.

The Next Generation is typically concerned with broader philosophical questions than its predecessor was. I don’t mean to dismiss the social conscience of the original Star Trek, but The Next Generation typically worked better when it served as a vehicle to explore abstract moral quandaries. And Elementary, Dear Data has a doozy of a moral quandary for the crew. It deals with one of those “big” questions, and does so in a remarkably engaging manner. Confronted with a sentient Moriarty, Picard finds himself asked to define what alive means.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

It’s a fertile and profound question. Indeed, the first genuine classic episode of the show, The Measure of a Man, would address the issue in greater detail when Data’s right to personhood was called into question. Indeed, Elementary, Dear Data seems to almost foreshadow that plot as Moriarty raises questions about whether Data is alive to argue in favour of his own right to exist. “Does he have life?” Moriarty challenges Picard. “He’s a machine. But is that all he is?”

Indeed, as Moriarty is a guest character, the issue doesn’t necessarily carry as much weight as it would when Data’s own sense of being alive is eventually called into question. The fact that he didn’t exist before the episode means that questions about his right to exist seem relatively abstract. When people asked the same questions about Data or the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, it served to pull the rug out from under us a bit, because we accept their personality at face value – it’s only when challenged that the issue really hits home.

Drawn from memory...

Drawn from memory…

That said, it is great that the show did eventually bring back Moriarty for Ship in a Bottle in the sixth season. Apparently the idea was delayed by the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sent a letter following Elementary, Dear Data that objected to Paramount’s use of the iconic fictional detective. Eventually the issue was resolved, with Jeri Taylor noting that external factors were at play:

Apparently the Arthur Conan Doyle estate was irritated with Paramount because of Young Sherlock Holmes and they said no more, ever. Well, as in many walks of life it was never say never again; to my amazement they were willing to give us the characters for a very reasonable license fee.

Not only way it great to see Daniel Day in the role again, it also served to give Elementary, Dear Data a bit more importance by actually developing the ending. Star Trek was so episodic that ending an episode with a promise to do something in the future often feels like an anti-climax.

Make yourself at Holmes...

Make yourself at Holmes…

Picard’s promise to investigate Moriarty’s situation seems a bit meaningless because we suspect it will never come up again. “You will not be extinguished,” Picard vows. “We will save this programme, and hopefully, in time, when we know enough, we will bring you back in a form which could leave the holodeck.” However, we already know the show well enough to guess that we won’t get a few episodes of Geordi ignoring the bold new wonders of the galaxy in order to fix an issue that came up a few weeks earlier. The Next Generation is simply not that kind of show. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would probably have struggled a bit.

It was very clever to actually make that lack of development a plot point in Ship in a Bottle, and it retroactively strengths the conclusion to Elementary, Dear Data, which might seem like a bit of a cop-out in and of itself. Indeed, the ending is one of the weaker points of the episode – and the follow-up helps mitigate that. The episode also suffers because the plot sort of switches half-way through.

I bid you good day...

I bid you good day…

It begins as a Data-centric episode, and progresses as Pulaski challenges Data to solve an original mystery. In the process, Moriarty is created, at which point he becomes the episode’s driving force and Data’s solution of the original mystery feels almost like an afterthought. It feels as if we never get the satisfaction of having Pulaski concede that she might have been wrong about Data’s ability to reason when presented with an unfamiliar situation.

Which, of course, raises another issue. Pulaski continues the trend from The Child, where she is downright mean to Data. It feels like a conscious attempt to evoke the dynamic between McCoy and Spock, but Data’s childlike innocence prevents him from responding to the banter in kind. To be fair, Pulaski isn’t quite as offensive here. She seems genuinely curious about Data and is at least willing to be proven wrong.

Data and Geordi's attempt to spearhead a casual Friday never caught on...

Data and Geordi’s attempt to spearhead a casual Friday never caught on…

However, the scene in Ten Forward still feels a little awkward, as she seems to make a point to avoid acknowledging or talking to Data. Instead she addresses Geordi about his “android friend.” It’s a manner that is much less grating than her cheap jabs at a defenceless Data, but it still feels a little awkward – as if we’re watching a scene featuring a racist grandparent who doesn’t quite realise how ridiculously offensive they are being as they share their own knowledge and experience. This point would be remedied if we got pay-off on the Pulaski and Data dynamic (now or ever), but it remains a dangling thread.

Still, these aren’t fatal flaws, and Elementary, Dear Data is smart enough and sharp enough that it stands out as one of the best instalments of the show to date. Outside of Moriarty himself, there are lots of reasons the show works, and those reasons speak to more fundamental aspects of the show than the failures mentioned above. There’s the notion of “big idea” science-fiction, which it’s great to see on the show, but there’s also the decidedly personal aspect to the show. Elementary, Dear Data effectively unfolds between missions and features the crew relaxing.

Up to snuff?

Up to snuff?

Already we know this ensemble a bit better than we ever knew the peripheral figures on Kirk’s ship. So there’s considerable geeky charm to seeing Geordi working on his model ship, or Data indulging his affection for Holmes. It’s absolutely amazing to watch two of the central characters on The Next Generation indulge in what amounts to fandom. Data might not have emotions, but many of us will recognise the tone of his voice as he strolls through 221B Baker Street, spotting various pieces of memorabilia:

The emerald tie pin. Presented to Holmes by Queen Victoria after he solved the theft of the Bruce-Partington Plans. A copy of Whitaker’s Almanac, which provided Holmes the key to the secret code in The Valley of Fear. The snuff box of Wilhelm Gottsleig Siegesmann Van der Romstein.

Data is a fan, and it’s always fun to get so intimate a peak into the private life of a character. More than that, though, Spiner throws himself completely into the role and has a great time raising and dropping the Holmes persona. “Data, Holmes really talked like that?” Geordi asks, and – to be honest – I don’t care. Spiner creates the impression that Data is enjoying himself, even if he doesn’t quite realise it. As my better half noted, watching this, the irony of The Next Generation is that Data is the most human of them all.

Now he looks right at home...

Now he looks right at home…

More than that, the episode shrewdly turns a logical plot hole into a driving plot point. Of course Data knows every Sherlock Holmes, so re-enacting a mystery sort of takes the mystery out of it. However, Geordi instantly spots this, and we get a nice bit of the humanities that The Next Generation was so fond of:

Data, what was the point in going to the holodeck?

To solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Exactly, but, you’ve got them all memorised. The first time someone opens their mouth, you’ve got it solved, so there’s really no mystery. If there’s no mystery, there’s no game. No game, no fun.

Even watching the crew at rest, there’s a sense that there’s some exploration at work here. Unlike the first season, the second season seems to realise that you need stakes and consequences for drama to exist. Indeed, it’s a bit of a plot point, and it’s not too difficult to imagine a similar argument unfolding behind the scenes over the direction of the show, and the need to bring the “fun” into the show by adding stakes and branching out.

Worf is not a merry man...

Worf is not a merry man…

There are dozens of lovely little touches. For example, I love that short scene of Riker and Worf on the bridge when the computer brings Moriarty to life. “An odd surge of power, sir,” Worf notes. “It’s gone now.” However, there’s a nice lingering shot of both Riker and Worf looking sceptical, as if to imply that they’ve finally picked up on the fact that random power surges on the ship always have dire consequences.

I also like how Data uses the law of conservation of detail when confronted with a dead body. Figuring out that the holodeck would not generate extraneous elements, he notes, “There is nothing here of relevance. I do not see how this connects with the disappearance of the Doctor.” Naturally, he’s correct. It has nothing to do with the disappearance of Pulaski, and it’s a wonderful indicator that things have gone wrong. Data seems to be applying “meta” rules of narrative to figure out what is and isn’t material, which is actually a clever example of deductive reasoning.

Foul play?

Foul play?

We also get Moriarty’s steampunk mechanism of attacking the Enterprise and the sight of Worf in period garb. Really, there’s a phenomenal amount of stuff to love about the episode. I should also note that the show features a completely non-violent solution to a disagreement where both sides are portrayed with legitimate motivations. It represents a bit of narrative nuance often absent from the first year of the show, and it’s a nice expression of the ideals we associate with The Next Generation. “Let’s see if we can’t beat Professor Moriarty by giving him everything he wants,” Picard suggests.

Moriarty himself is not presented as a bad guy. He’s just drawn that way. Indeed, though he claims to be capable of violence, his reluctance to resort to it demonstrates his evolution and actually gives him a sense of pathos. “You or someone asked your computer to programme a nefarious fictional character from nineteenth century London and that is how I arrived,” he explains. “But I am no longer that creation. I am no longer that evil character, I have changed. I am alive, and I am aware of my own consciousness.”

If the shoe fits...

If the shoe fits…

After all, if the version of Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories found himself wielding that sort of power, there’s no limit to the damage that he could do. There’s something very optimistic about the idea that Moriarty’s evolution and enlightment led him to effectively forsake violence. “Whatever I was when this began, I have grown. I am understanding more and more. And I am able to use the power at my fingertips.”

When Picard asks what he wants, he replies, “The same thing you want for yourself. To continue to exist.” It’s very easy to understand. Indeed, his interactions with Pulaski are strangely touching – it’s a shame she wasn’t around when Moriarty returned to the show. When she states she’ll get older, he responds, adorably, “But I’ll still fill you with crumpets, Madam.” Either that is the cutest thing ever, or it’s the creepiest innuendo I ever heard.

Mast-er and commander...

Mast-er and commander…

In writing these reviews, I feel I’ve been somewhat negligent in never really delving into the directors too much. Rob Bowman, who would go on to be a major creative force on The X-Files, does sterling work here. He did the stand-out Heart of Glory from the first year, and would go on to direct one of the year’s two classics in Q Who? Bowman is a great director, and the early years of The Next Generation owe him a massive debt.

Unfortunately, Elementary, Dear Data is perhaps the point where Bowman started to drift away from the show. Quoted in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorised Complete Trek Voyages, he explains:

Here was a show where we had all this great production value. Brent Spiner was about to do the best work I’ve ever seen him do. We had all these sets and they said seven days. I think that show is when I started to pull away from Star Trek, because I felt that it was a great opportunity to make a wonderful episode, and there was an arbitrary decision because the sets cost so much – I think $200,000 – where they said, ‘We’ll save money by taking a day off the schedule.’ It’s like, ‘Wait a minute guys, first you have to take a day out of the script. You don’t just take a day off the schedule to save $60,000.’ As you can tell, I was pretty angry about it, and still have a little hostility towards what I went through on that show to make it happen.

His work here is exemplary. He keeps the episode moving at a brisk pace, and there’s a reason that great shot of Geordi and Data turning on their heel (with the camera at a dutch angle) seems to appear in every trailer for The Next Generation ever. It’s an iconic image.

Arch foe?

Arch foe?

Elementary, Dear Data is a joy from start to finish, and gives the second season a pretty solid batting average three episodes in. Sadly, that’s about to take a bit of a dent, but it’s still a great hour of television.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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One Response

  1. Holmes and Star Trek go so mysteriously well together. I don’t know what it is exactly, but when Spock quotes Holmes and Data plays him, it just fits.

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