With three days to wait for a rendezvous with another Federation ship, the crew of the Enterprise has some time to relax. Geordi suggests that he and Data do so by playing out a Sherlock Holmes mystery on the holodeck. The initial results are a disappointment, leading to a wager with Dr. Pulaski as to whether Data truly possesses the ability to solve an original mystery requiring deduction and intuition. But in Geordi's efforts to create such a mystery, he unintentionally asks the computer to create a nemesis capable of defeating Data (not Holmes). A sentient Professor Moriarty is conjured up, aware of the world outside the simulation and a threat to take control of the Enterprise.
Perhaps the "bottle show" nature of the previous episode ("Where Silence Has Lease") was intentional after all; maybe the production was saving money there to spend on this lavish episode. The sets created to present the holographic world of Holmes' London are extraordinary. The level of detail is remarkable, especially for a television series, especially for 1988. The Baker Street apartment is filled with curios. Moriarty's lab is in a large storehouse complete with visible rafters. And much of the action takes place on a perfectly realized forced-perspective "outdoor" set, complete with an actual horse and carriage.
Not to be outdone, the costuming department also rises to the occasion. Dozens of background performers are clothed in London commoner rags, and the main characters are all luxuriously costumed. Data and Geordi absolutely look their parts; Pulaski's outfit is particularly striking; Worf's suit is perfectly matched for the joke of him wearing it; Picard is dressed to the nines, complete with a collapsible top hat that provides the episode's best sight gag in Worf's reaction.
The acting is of a similarly high quality. Guest star Daniel Davis plays a compelling Moriarty, though it's Levar Burton and Brent Spiner who really command the episode. Each does a wonderful job of showing their character pretending to be someone else -- and giving over to that performance to varying degrees at different times. Both put on British accents at times, appropriately less than authentic, but what a non-actor at play would use. And Data's take on Holmes is fun, with a bit more zest and bombast than many of the more staid performances of the character over the years.
Even Diana Muldaur's performance of Katherine Pulaski is solid in this episode, as the character tries to stay cool in a crisis and reveal nothing to her captor, Moriarty. And yet the writing of her character is still just as flawed as ever. In her first scene of the episodes, it seems like Pulaski might finally be softening a bit, as she genuinely tries to explain to Data the value of losing and the thrill of an earned victory. But then that earnest attempt to enlighten reverts to more mindless insulting of Data. Why does she get so deeply invested in belittling his capabilities? And weirdest of all, why does she seem to show such genuine tenderness to Moriarty at the end of the episode? She's able to imbue Moriarty in her mind with some sense of humanity; why can she have none of that empathy for Data?
Of course, this entire plot hangs on a notion that's a bit hard to swallow. By a simple misspoken instruction on Geordi's part, the holodeck is able to create a sentient life-form. That the computer would somehow even be capable of doing that poses an interesting question, both technological and philosophical. Will humans ever engineer a device capable of more invention than its own creators? (If so, is that going to be the day when Skynet nukes the world?)
The question gets even murkier if you ponder the original ending of this episode as written and filmed. Earlier in the hour, Data realizes that Moriarty has become self-aware when the Professor sketches an image of the Enterprise on a piece of paper... a paper he then brings off the holodeck to show Picard, despite the well-established fact that holodeck matter can't exist in the real world. In the episode as aired, this seems like an oversight to nitpick. But in the script, it was actually a clue. Picard and Data realized that the rules had somehow changed, and that the existence of the paper outside the holodeck meant that Moriarty too could have left its confines. In the final scene, where Picard tells Moriarty that he will be saved in the computer until such time as the means can be found to bring him into the real world, Picard was actually lying. He knew Moriarty had the power to leave all along.
Gene Roddenberry ordered the final scene to be trimmed, deleting this revelation. He did not approve of portraying Picard as a liar. I think he made the right call for the wrong reasons. For me, the question is, why would Picard lie here? Moriarty had quite clearly evolved beyond his storybook villain roots, and had agreed to release his control of the Enterprise. He posed no further threat. So Picard was essentially denying a thinking person his right to exist! That would have been the greater compromise on Picard's character, in my view. And the ending only would have put it more in the audience's faces: how did the computer manage to solve a technological problem (taking matter off the holodeck) that humans themselves hadn't managed to solve?
- Picard slips in a French curse that never would have been allowed on the show in English: "Merde."
- When they're trying to figure out how to rescue Pulaski from Moriarty, how does no one think of just beaming her off the holodeck?
- Troi actually claims to be sensing Moriarty's emerging consciousness, which seems completely nuts to me.
- In a brief exchange with Picard, Moriarty challenges whether Data is "alive," and we get the tiniest sneak preview of Picard having to actually defend that fact in court in the upcoming episode "The Measure of a Man."
- As with costumes and sets, the props department goes all out too. The model of the old sailing vessel Victory is a truly impressive, detailed item.
- Composer Dennis McCarthy strays a bit from his "musical wallpaper" norm, serving up some fun music of a different style to score the Holmes segments of the story.