Friday, February 17, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 6: Ship In A Bottle

The Next Generation, Season 6
"Ship In A Bottle"
Airdate: January 25, 1993
137 of 176 produced
1367of 176 aired


When the holodeck malfunctions and Lt. Barclay investigates the cause, he stumbles upon a piece of old data - the Moriarty program from Data's last holodeck masquerade as Sherlock Holmes. Moriarty is miffed and demands satisfaction - release from the confines of the holodeck world and the freedom to determine his own destiny in the real world. And he will stop at nothing to get it...

Dr. Crusher remains unimpressed by Barclay's cube.


Matthew: I guess when I evaluate a trek story like this, there are a few ways to look at it. First is as an entertaining story, purely and simply. Second is as a piece that fits in among other episodes. And third is as a coherent sci-fi tale. On the first axis, I think it's fair to say that this is quite entertaining. Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty are classic characters for a reason - they're interesting and well-developed. So to have one or more of our principals putting on their garb and acting out a story is fun. But then of course things change and we get a twisting tale of double and triple crosses, in which antagonists try to trick each other with holodeck ruses. Outside of whether I think the ruses make complete sense, they're fun to watch, either way. I am also an avowed Barclay fan, and I think he's used very well here. He is not simply comic relief, he brings his expertise and past history into play. So overall I was quite entertained by this story.

Kevin: I agree. The episode strikes a good balance between seriousness and humor, and for the gears within gears of the plotting, it never felt leaden or out of control. That may be due to the skill of the actors, but still, the episode had a definite energy and vitality that really make the finished product as whole quite enjoyable. I also agree Barclay was a fun choice. He was apparently added later in the process as the writers felt someone involved should not be completely aware of the Moriarty story. Not only does Barclay add some great humor, but it's also a nice inversion of his past stories. Instead of retreating to holodeck, he's now trapped in one.

Matthew: Now, as a piece of a greater Trek tale, I think this both succeeds and fails. The Moriarty program was a huge dangling thread left from "Elementary, Dear Data," and I am quite gratified that it is picked up here. There was a nice oblique reference to Pulaski's kidnapping,   On the other hand, there is yet another series of contradictory aspects of holodeck function depicted here. Firstly, in that previous show, Moriarty was perfectly aware of the starship status of the Enterprise after conversations with Mr. Computer. Here, he is either unaware or uselessly feigning a lack of knowledge, asking what sea the Enterprise sails. When Picard throws the book out of the holodeck, this contradicts not one but two other depictions - one, that simple objects like drawings or snowballs can escape the holodeck and interact with normal matter; two, that objects (or persons) from the holodeck fade slowly into oblivion. Here, a simple object like a book is annihilated instantly. Which is it? Then, we have all sorts of holodeck questions raised by the conceit of the episode, that there are three real persons being duped by a simulacrum of reality while still on the holodeck. How can they be in different portions of the Enterprise, when in fact they are in a small room? Then, when they turn the tables on Moriarty, things get weirder. This is a conscious entity capable of defeating Data, who is directly interfaced with the ship's computer, and somehow he does not realize that he is still in the holodeck? These questions did not necessarily have to be answered to maintain the enjoyment of the story. But they are raised, and abandoned, to my personal chagrin.

Kevin: As a Trek tale, I think there are things to recommend it. First, I think the characterizations and responses are spot on. Like I said above, it's great to see Barclay react to being trapped on a holodeck. I like Picard's ultimate solution, as it is a very Picard and very Federation response. Moriarty certainly acts desperately and cunningly, but he's certainly not malicious, and it's definitely in keeping with his first appearance. So, therefore, it's nice to see Picard respond with the same measured approach, doing his best to give Moriarty what he wants. That all being said, you raise some very valid points on the fuzzy holodeck logic. Not just from a Trek perspective, but from a basic storytelling perspective, it is deeply annoying when the technology morphs to fit the story and not the other way around.

Matthew: How well does it work as science fiction? Well, it is a nice development that "the safeties being off" is not a source of "tension" (big scare quotes there) in the story. The tension is a good sci-fi sort of tension centering on artificial life, what sorts of rights that life might have, what sorts of responsibilities we might have in creating or not creating said life, and so on. The whole method of creating that life is a giant, too-easily-exploited can of worms, simply asking the computer to create an adversary of X skill. What's to stop anyone from uttering that phrase, even accidentally? How many of these adversaries can the computer create and maintain at once? A minimum of two, apparently. If the computer is capable of creating a conscious being of ability X, isn't the computer then a conscious being of at least ability X+1? And how are these conscious beings transferred to a different computer, probably one one hundredth of the size, without any difference as far as they are concerned? Either the Enterprise crew cruelly downgraded Moriarty and the Countess' existence, or even a tabletop computer "enhancement module" is also capable of maintaining such an intelligence. Yikes. I won't even get into the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy suggested by the notion that Moriarty had "brief terrifying moments of consciousness" as some sort of disembodied mind. Where? In which portion of the computer do disembodied minds hang out? Or can the computer also create "souls" that float around the cosmos?

Kevin: I can suppose that if Moriarty can process experience in the cube on the desk, then I don't have as big a problem with Moriarty experiencing the passage of time, as it seems possible the program can process input without expressing the output in a holographic form. I also tend to debit the problems you outline to "Elementary, Dear Data" rather than this one. This episode was simply operating inside the confines of the previous setup. As for a science fiction angle, I enjoy the discussion, however brief, of the question of whether a simulation of sufficient veracity becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

Matthew: I like the overall structure of the reveals. It was clever. But I don't like that the "catching things with your off hand" was the means by which the humans became aware of the simulation. I catch things with my left hand all the time. I type with my left hand frequently, too. The notion that catching a box of matches or a small tool with one's left hand is enough to disprove the fabric of reality is absurd. I would have liked it better if holo-Geordi had been unable to recite some piece of personal information, or had failed a Turing test, or something. That would be better sci-fi in my book.

Kevin: I suppose what bothers me most is the fix is so easy, even if you want to keep the hand thing going. It made sense for the Holmes mystery, since that is such a Holmes-style reveal that it would work in the confines of the mystery. For Geordi, it could have been something as simple as manipulating his padd with the stylus in the wrong hand. I may catch with my right hand, but I don't write with it.


Matthew: When you have guest stars of the caliber of Daniel Davis, Dwight Schultz, and the delightful Stephanie Beacham, a lot of minor story sins can be forgiven. I can't imagine anyone more perfectly cast in their roles than these three. Davis is exquisite yet again as Moriarty, portraying a cool menace along with his (faux) British charm. Beacham is a handsome woman who portrays the character's complexity in an interesting way. I totally believe that she is both a prim society maven as well as irresistibly attracted to the dangerous Moriarty. And Schultz? Another great Barclay turn. I wish he had been used as frequently as, say, Chief O'Brien.

Kevin: Agreed and then some. Everyone attacked their roles with vigor and enthusiasm and it pays dividends. Especially for such characters, there's a risk of it veering right into silly or over the top, and both Davis and Beacham skirt the line with skill. And come on...who could deliver the last line "Computer...end program" with Schultz nervous energy?

Matthew: LeVar Burton deserves some praise for playing a character who doesn't know he lacks reality. I'm sure that is an acting challenge they rarely cover in improv class. Patrick Stewart does a fine job sussing out the mystery, and Brent Spiner is back to his steady ways as Data, without any scenery to chew here.

Kevin: I particularly enjoyed the final scene. Everyone ending up feeling good for Moriarty felt very authentic to the characters' approach to new life. And I agree, LeVar Burton should have gotten an Emmy for just that look on his face when he walked away from Data after being told he wasn't real. So much packed in just a facial expression.

Production Values

Matthew: The Baker Street drawing room looked practically identical to the original in the older episode. Which is actually quite an achievement, given that the set was completely struck and had to be rebuilt from scratch. The period costumes were great yet again, especially Moriarty's dapper suit, and the Countess' elaborate Victorian gear.

Kevin: I particularly can't wait for the Blu-ray of the Countess' get-up. The only difference in the drawing room is the wall paper which was apparently discontinued. The mere fact that they checked warms the cockles of my nerd heart.

Matthew: I thought some of the effects of the transport enhancers looked a little off in terms of lining up perspective. On the other hand, the holodeck dissolve effects were pretty good. The planetary collision looked passable, while the Okudagram depicting it looked very nice. Overall this was at least an average outing for visual effects.


Matthew: Fun story beset by some logic issues. Excellent guest cast and competent principal cast. Good period costumes and passable visual effects. It sounds to me as though everything here is either average or above. And I think the guest cast in particular is far enough above average to justify a 4 for the episode overall.

Kevin: What cements this as a four for me is that even given the plan within a plan, I never felt lost or that they were glossing over things. Each plot got just enough time to breath to make just enough sense to sustain the scene but not so much time it started to unravel. Combine that with the acting job by a stellar guest cast, and you have a solid above average episode. That makes an 8 from the both of us.


Joining us on this one are Kelly, Matt's sister Elizabeth, and occasionally Matt and Kelly's newborn son, Teddy.

1 comment:

  1. I comfort myself by remembering that the slowly-dissolving Cyrus Redblock/Felix Leech duo and the errant snowball that smacked Picard were both before the Bynars worked their holodeck upgrade magic. Of course, this doesn't explain a dozen other inconsistencies, but I can pretend that Geordi tinkered and made improvements/screwed stuff up each time.