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28 Years Later... It's Still "Elementary, Dear Data"

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It was December 5, 1988, or 28 years ago, that the fan-favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Elementary, Dear Data” debuted. And it remains one of TNG's most-entertaining episodes. A second-season outing, it focused on Data, Geordi and Dr. Pulaski, who got caught up in a Sherlock Holmes-style holodeck mystery involving a quick-thinking, fast-learning and (arguably) sentient Professor James Moriarty (Daniel Davis). Director Rob Bowman shot it inventively, lending it tremendous visual appeal, all of which was complemented by Robert Blackman's colorful costumes, as well as the impressive Victorian sets, and, of course, the fun performances by Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Diana Muldaur and guest star Davis.

Brent Spiner as Data in Star Trek: TNG

A few intriguing factoids and anecdotes about “Elementary, Dear Data”:

  • Brian Alan Lane wrote “Elementary, Dear Data.” It was his one and only TNG episode. 
  • The story builds on the idea of Data’s fascination with Sherlock Holmes, first referenced in "Lonely Among Us."

  • The TNG writing staff mistakenly believed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes universe to be in the public domain. But it was not. The author’s estate informed Paramount of such in no uncertain terms and stated that further use would require a usage fee. There was more to the story, involving the Paramount feature Young Sherlock Holmes, but a compromise was reached and Moriarty (and Daniel Davis) eventually returned a few seasons later in “Ship in a Bottle.” 

  • Rob Bowman talked about the episode in an interview with with StarTrek.com, saying, “We were on that set and there was a two-shot of LeVar and Brent. Brent’s process was usually to bark a little bit about what he had to say before he said it, and it wasn’t necessarily reflective that that was written wasn’t good. That was just part of his process. ‘I can’t say this stuff.’ ‘I can’t do this.’ Then you say, ‘Action’ and it’s like that person vanishes and his perfect version of Sherlock Holmes shows up. The switch alone was mind-boggling. Then you’d say, ‘Cut,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, that was no good. I can’t make this stuff any good. It’s just not fun to do.’ I’d say, ‘Actually, Brent, it was brilliant. Thank you very much.’ The whole journey of ‘Elementary, Dear Data’ was just so memorable, walking in the night before and seeing the set completed, pre-smoked, houselights on, and feeling as a very young man, that I was standing on the stage of a major studio looking at a huge Sherlock Holmes set. I was so grateful. And it was great fun, with all the costumes and everything. It was as fun as you might imagine it would be and it lived up to everything you wanted it to be."

Anne Elizabeth Ramsay as Ensign Clancy in Star Trek: TNG

  • Making her first TNG appearance as Ensign Clancy in this hour was Anne Elizabeth Ramsay. The actress reprised the role in “The Emissary,” also in season two. Ramsay went on to a busy career as an actress. She co-starred as Lisa Stemple, the dysfunctional sister of Helen Hunt’s character, in 123 episodes of Mad About You, recurred on Six Feet Under, Dexter, The Secret Life of The American Teenager and Hart of Dixie, and most recently appeared on Animal Kingdom.

Moriarty in Star Trek: TNG “Elementary, Dear Data”

  • Daniel Davis, in a conversation with StarTrek.com, discussed the development of Moriarty in “Elementary, Dear Data”: “He’s usually depicted as a real villain, as a real melodramatic, mustache-twirling villain. And in this Star Trek incarnation of it he’s someone who starts out that way, as the computer was programmed to create a villain who could match Data’s intelligence, so that solving the riddle of that episode would be more difficult for Data and Geordi would have more fun as Watson. But then the character becomes, very quickly, a sentient being and aware that he is involved in some sort of a game. He’s aware that he’s not real, but he feels real and he begins to experience real feelings and real emotions. So it was a very clever episode and it depicted Moriarty with the power of a villain, but the mind of a human being who wants to be real. It was like Pinocchio; he just wants to be a real boy. And it was interesting how they solved the dilemma and put him in a computer chip.”
  • “Elementary, Dear Data” earned two Emmy Award nominations, one each for Outstanding Costume Design for a Series and Outstanding Art Direction for a Series.
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