Elementary, Dear Data is a basically horrible episode that I’ll gladly sit through again because it’s so much fun.
This is the one where Data’s silly obsession with Sherlock Holmes really gets off the ground. And I hate this obsession, I have to say. I love Sherlock Holmes, and I love Commander Data, and Brent Spiner is a truly talented actor, so it’s not a problem with any of the components. It’s more a problem with the parochial nature of the show. As I’ve said before, “the Next Generation writers have holodecks, and they use them to talk about Lt. Barkley‘s self-confidence problems.” The show just doesn’t find anything interesting to say about an android who likes Sherlock Holmes (other than that Holmes is pretty cool), and in any case every minute they spend talking about this is a minute they haven’t spent dealing in real science fiction. When I want to watch Sherlock Holmes, I know where to go.
But the real problem with this episode is that it’s just logically impossible. Quick review: Dr. Pulaski’s anti-android chauvinism leads to a challenge that Data cannot solve a real Holmesian mystery on his own because that requires thinking of a level of sophistication that is beyond a machine. Geordi asks the holodeck to come up with a Holmesian villain “capable of defeating Data.” The comptuer (oh, those wacky computers!) takes this quite literally and creates what amounts to more or less a for-real self-aware bit of artificial intelligence. It (as Dr. Moriarity) captures Dr. Pulaski to hold her hostage to secure its own release from the holodeck. In the end, Captain Picard explains that they can’t do that, but that they’ll save him in their memory banks until the technology is available.
Now, half a second’s reflection will expose all the obvious flaws here. Are we REALLY supposed to believe that DATA is a marvel of technology in a society where you can just blithely order the computer to create something even more sophisticated than Data out of thin air? Are the mortality fail-safes on the holodeck so thin that the computer issues no warnings before overriding them? Dr. Pulaski, after having been kidnapped by an AI that’s more convincingly human than Data while on the holodeck to test just how convincingly human Data is, can still gloat that she hasn’t seen any evidence that machines can think independently? Just what THE HELL is going on here, I ask you?
Conceptually, this episode is a mess. A steaming pile of poo. Space junk.
It’s still kind of fun to watch, though. Partly because Brent Spiner is such a good actor (his faux British accent can go down the tube, though). Partly because Sherlock Holmes is a lot of fun. Partly because of course we’d all really like to have something like a holodeck where we could play-act Sherlock Holmes in a mystery we didn’t know the solution to. So that’s all made it worthwhile. But notice – none of these things that make this episode fun needed to be on a science fiction show. If you want to watch a great actor play Sherlock Holmes, well, Granada’s got you covered. Brent Spiner is in all but one of Next Generation‘s 178 episodes, so there are plenty of other chances to see him at work. And while I admit it’s fun to imagine a holodeck where we could play Holmes and solve a mystery we hadn’t already read, there are ways to do that at home. Maybe the level of detail would be a bit lacking, but nothing about that means we need to spend a whole episode on how cool the holodeck is.
More to the point, none of these things make up for the absurdity of the central premise. It’s just impossible to take seriously the idea that the holodeck can wish the world’s best AI into existence during a debate about whether AI can be really smart and have no one really notice. In the real world, Picard would immediately report this back to headquarters, the Enterprise would have to return to base to do a core dump of the computer system, Starfleet engineers would study the bejeezus out of it, the Enterprise crew would all be reassigned, and by the time next week rolled around Federation society would already be so different as to be barely recognizeable. There are a lot of interesting stories to tell there, so our trepid writers decided to mash down hard on the reset button instead.
I’ll have compromised my integrity here by letting the inherent sense of fun in this episode mitigate its many and obvious flaws, but …
Overall Rating: C