“Elementary, Dear Data,” the third episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s second season, premiered on December 5th, 1988, and as well as being a classic TNG adventure, the show also gave us another early glimpse at Data’s journey of discovery as he discovered more and more about the intricacies of humanity. It’s a fan-favorite for good reason. Adding a touch of 19th century flair to the 24th century adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D, we entered the smog-laden, dangerous world of Victorian London in the late 1800’s.
Visiting the holodeck, Data and Geordi embarked upon a classic Holmes mystery as they waited for a rendezvous with the U.S.S. Victory. However, Data, with his encyclopedic memory, made short work of solving the mystery. Geordi left the holodeck in frustration, a move that confused Data. The engineer explained in Ten Forward that the fun is in solving the unknown, a conversation that Dr. Pulaski overheard. She challenged Data, claiming that he would be incapable of solving a mystery that he didn’t already know the outcome of. Data accepted, and on the holodeck Geordi created an original holographic Sherlock Holmes mystery with an adversary capable of besting the android.
The first curveball was thrown as Dr. Pulaski was kidnapped and Data soon learned that Professor Moriarty – Sherlock Holmes’ mortal enemy – was responsible. The second curveball arrived when they learned that this Moriarty was well aware that he was a holographic character in a computer simulation, accessing the ship’s computer and showing them an image of the Enterprise he had drawn. Geordi and Data left the holodeck, and the engineer realized his error. Moriarty wasn’t created to just beat Holmes, but to be equal to the intelligence and abilities of Data. When the professor took control of the ship’s stabilizer controls, Picard joined Geordi on the holodeck.
Moriarty showed that he had evolved well beyond his programming, capable of surviving in the world beyond the walls of the holodeck. Picard made it clear that wouldn’t be possible but pledged that if a way were ever discovered to convert holodeck material into a permanent state able to exist outside the holodeck, they would bring him back. The program was ended as the U.S.S. Victory arrived.
The writing of the episode was inspired by Data’s experiences in “The Big Goodbye” and the season one episode “Lonely Among Us,” which revealed that Data had a fascination with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation Sherlock Holmes. “Elementary, Dear Data” was the first detailed investigation of his interest, and more episodes were planned. However, a misunderstanding regarding the stories of Sherlock Holmes being in the public domain put paid to that for another five seasons… until the sixth-season episode “Ship in a Bottle” saw Moriarty return.
One of the most visually appealing episodes to that point in the show’s run, “Elementary, Dear Data” earned two Emmy Award nominations, one each for Outstanding Costume Design for a Series and Outstanding Art Direction for a Series. The sets for the episode were built from the ground up, giving the show a lavish, unique look. The final scenes, in which Picard and Moriarty went head to head with the fate of the Enterprise hanging in the balance, saw significant changes and unresolved plot threads, according to Maurice Hurley, the late TNG producer.
“In that ending, Picard knew how to defeat Moriarty,” Hurley told The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion. “He tricked him. He knew all along that Moriarty could leave the holodeck whenever he wanted to, and he knew because when Data came out and showed him a drawing of the Enterprise, if that piece of paper could leave the holodeck, that means that the fail-safe had broken down. In turn, this means that the matter-energy converter which creates the holodeck, now allowed the matter to leave the holodeck, which was, up to that point, impossible. When he knew that paper had left the holodeck, he knew that Moriarty could as well, so he lied to him."
Interestingly, given his pitch-perfect British accent, Daniel Davis, the actor behind Professor Moriarty, is from Arkansas in the United States and nowhere near 221B Baker Street in London. He would return as Moriarty five seasons later, as would the increasingly regular and very welcome visits to the holodeck, which became a staple of TNG and, later, Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager .
Director Rob Bowman was pleased with the episode, believing that there was enough in the scope of the plot to get two episodes out of it. “The original draft of that script was so eloquently written; absolutely beautiful, but it was probably a two-hour episode at least and was written way, way down, but that was a wonderful script,” he said. “We pulled the episode off."
They certainly did. So, here’s to “Elementary, Dear Data." Thirty years old -- and it’s looking as sleuthful as ever.
Mark Newbold has been an avid Trek fan since the 1970's, when TOS was shown on UK TV, but it was the original cast movie series and TNG era that sealed the deal. Mark is a writer for Star Trek: The Official Magazine, is editor-in-Chief of Star Trek: The Neutral Zone and was a stage host at Destination Star Trek Germany in 2018. At heart, he's a Niner. Follow him on Twitter.