Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Elementary Dear Data

Review James Hunt 3 May 2013 - 07:55

James's weekly TNG lookback finally arrives at an unequivocally great episode. Here's his joyful review of Elementary Dear Data...

This review contains spoilers.

2.3 Elementary Dear Data

The Enterprise is three days early for a rendezvous with the USS Victory, so the crew, which apparently has nothing else to do, has turned itself to thoughts of more recreational activities. Data approaches Geordi in Engineering and finds him tending to a model he's built as a gift for his old captain – a replica of the original HMS Victory. But that's not important right now! What is important is that Geordi and Data have a man-date on the holodeck where they will be starring in the roles of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes respectively. Ooh, fun!

The two enter the Holodeck in full period dress and set about giving Cumberbatch & Freeman a run for their money. But as the story begins, Data instantly solves the case, having recognised it from his memory banks. You know how it's possible to complete Myst in about two minutes if you've played it before? Yeah, the Holodeck equivalent of that. Irritated at being spoilered, Geordi runs up to Ten-Forward.

Pulling up a chair in the spacebar, the two discuss the incident and Dr. Pulaski butts her unwanted nose into the conversation to spend some time being a robophobe (again) accusing Data of basically being an automaton incapable of original thought. (It's around this point in the series that it becomes clear the attempt to replicate the McCoy/Spock relationship dynamic with Pulaski and Data has gone terribly wrong, having accidentally replicated the relationship dynamic of a casual racist and an ethnic minority instead.) However, her interruption yields a gentleman's wager between La Forge and Pulaski: they'll get the computer to create a new mystery in the style of Holmes and see if Data can solve it.

The trio enter the Holodeck once again, but Data still figures out the mystery straight away, because it's just a cut & shut job on two existing stories. In an attempt to fix the situation, Geordi askes the computer to create an opponent "capable of defeating Data". Which is what it does, imbuing the Holo-Moriarty with enough knowledge and smarts to best Data. i.e. complete access to everything.

Moriarty quickly kidnaps Pulaski, lures Data and Geordi into a confrontation, and reveals that he's aware of the Enterprise and his position on it. Data freaks out and tries to turn off the Holodeck, but it's jammed on full Victorian. The pair race to the bridge and tell Picard (in a meeting, of course. Formality cannot be rushed) and a series of ship-wide tremors make it clear that Moriarty can actually control the ship. They realise what's happened, and everyone tries not to point the finger at Geordi, who is suitably embarrassed that he accidentally asked the computer to create something capable of destroying everyone. Classic twenty-fourth century faux pas.

Naturally, rather than simply pull the power cords out, Picard decides to go in and negotiate (well, it's not like anyone had anything else to do for the next three days) and they find Pulaski alive and well, stuffing her face with Moriarty. As it happens, though, he's not actually evil. He just wanted an audience so that he could ask to be allowed to continue existing outside the Holodeck. Picard explains that they don't really know how to do that, and Moriarty is smart enough to accept his word. Picard agrees to save the program and return to the problem at some nonspecific point in the future (season six sounds about right).

With the problem solved, Geordi returns to repair his model ship, which was damaged by Moriarty's tremors. Picard tells him that no-one blames him for all the trouble he caused, and the episode ends with the Victory finally arriving.

TNG WTF:  In this episode, several characters make reference to the Holodeck's "mortality failsafes" having been deactivated. For a start, a failsafe that can be accidentally turned off doesn't sound like much of a failsafe to me, but furthermore, this raises the age-old question of why they exist in the first place. Isn't it a bit like having a setting on your toaster designed to administer a fatal electric shock? It's not exactly original to point out how stupidly unreliable and dangerous the Holodeck is, but come on. This is the second time its "failsafes" have switched themselves off for unconvincing reasons.

TNG LOL: Discussing ways to erase the holo-constructs, Geordi suggests some technobabble: a particle beam will clear the entire room. "What about Dr Pulaski?" asks Picard. "The Particle beam will tear apart human flesh as well" says Geordi. Er, what? That's your FIRST suggestion? I know she's annoying, but steady on!

Also, it's hard not to laugh at the explanation for how the Holodeck works. Apparently it uses false perspective to make the room look bigger than it is, and also "fools you in other ways". Yep, that's how it works. Forced perspective and other, vague stuff. Probably best not to dwell on it.

Mistakes and Minutiae: This episode has a famously major gaff in it. To prove that he knows about the Enterprise, Moriarty draws a picture of the ship and hands it to Data. Data quickly leaves the Holodeck carrying the paper with him. And it doesn't disappear. The resolution to this episode relies on the idea that Holodeck creations can't leave the Holodeck! Apparently the original ending for this episode involved Picard realising that this drawing had left the Holodeck and so might Moriarty, but it got changed somewhere along the way but the drawing leaving the Holodeck was left in by mistake.

Of course, it also begs the question of whether Pulaski, who spends the episode eating crumpets, finds herself suddenly empty when she leaves the Holodeck. (My Fanwank explanation is that the Holodeck replicates what it can – food and paper, for example - and only uses holograms for things like people.)

Time Until Meeting: 28:20. This episode is remarkable in that it features almost NONE of the main cast besides Data, Geordi and Pulaski until this point. There's a few seconds featuring Worf and Riker about fifteen minutes in, but this meeting is the only time Troi is even in the episode.

Captain's Log: You know what? This episode is utterly great. It only took twenty-seven instalments of mostly-dreck but we've finally got an interesting idea which is also well-written and well-executed. There's a big idea at its heart – whether a computer can be "alive" – but the character material is just as good.

Geordi and Data's friendship was a great part of TNG once it became established, and although they've had material together before, this is the first episode that really establishes some actual chemistry between them. It probably helps that the episode's sets and costumes are great, and Burton and Spiner act the hell out of their roles with their faux-Victorian mannerisms and accents. It is, quite simply, great fun to watch.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum Diana Mulduar seems mostly bored and uninterested throughout, and while this episode does have some good moments for the character, they're more than cancelled out by her poorly-written insistence that Data isn't really "alive" (for the third episode in a row.) It's no surprise she never caught on, given that she spends most of her time insulting the series' most popular character while failing to have any endearing traits of her own. Not exactly a winning formula.

Still, despite that, this is proper Star Trek in all the ways that count. A big philosophical idea, small and familiar character interactions, and a resolution that involves talking a computer into giving up its plans. You don't get more Star Trek than that! It's a small thing, too, but I also enjoyed the symbolism of Geordi's model ship having been damaged. It's not exactly subtle, but it gives the episode some narrative focus and circularity which is pleasing (and which has been largely absent, up until now!).

Watch or Skip? 100% Watch. A fantastic episode.

Read James' look-back at the previous episode, Where Silence Has Lease, here.

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