Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Ship in a Bottle"

***1/2

Air date: 1/25/1993
Written by Rene Echevarria
Directed by Alexander Singer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

In the process of making repairs to the holodeck, Barclay inadvertently uncorks the program of Professor Moriarty (Daniel Davis), the holodeck character that somehow achieved self-awareness in second season's "Elementary, Dear Data." Moriarty says he has been aware of the passage of time during his program's state of hibernation and demands to speak to Picard, who promised to investigate a way to free Moriarty from the confines of the holodeck.

Moriarty, however, remains a mysterious miracle of technology, and Starfleet's best programmers have not figured out a way to regenerate a holodeck matrix outside a holodeck. But Moriarty is so sure of his existence that he demonstrates mind over matter — and to everyone's astonishment, steps right off the holodeck and into the corridor of the Enterprise.

"Ship in a Bottle" is a fun ride that takes the "holodeck runs awry" motif and puts a welcome and original spin on it, with some cleverly brilliant twists of the plot. The results are as sly and imaginative as "Fistful of Datas" was tedious and forgettable. This is a bona fide sci-fi outing that considers the nature of existence for a character who is genuinely curious about the universe and is looking for a way to appease that curiosity — and who will not be fully satisfied until someone finds a way to get him off the Enterprise, along with doing the same for his beloved companion, Countess Regina Bartholamew (Stephanie Beacham), who is still trapped in the holodeck. "No" is not an option.

But things are not as they seem. Data discovers that Moriarty didn't actually step off the holodeck, but instead used clever sleight of hand to make it appear so. Picard, Data, and Barclay are actually still on the holodeck, trapped in an elaborate simulation of the Enterprise that Moriarty devised in order to manipulate the entire situation (Picard unwittingly gives his access codes to the holodeck version of the computer, which in turn gives them to Moriarty, who uses them to take control of the ship.)

If there's perhaps an unsung moment in this episode, it's the reaction of the simulated Geordi as he listens to Data explain to Picard that the entire engineering deck is a simulation — including Geordi. It's simultaneously funny, sad, and weirdly eerie. It's like watching holo-Geordi as he falls through the rabbit hole; surely he wasn't designed to be self-aware, but merely an elaborate copy of Geordi based on personnel files and carefully programmed responses. And yet in this moment, it's like he has become self-aware by being informed he's not real, because the program is forced to deal with a reality it wasn't designed for. Holo-Geordi's reaction is one of confused, disquieted silence — as if that's all the program can do once confronted with this feedback loop. LeVar Burton sells it.

Apart from the interesting philosophical dialogue about Moriarty's state of existence, "Ship in a Bottle" (a great title, by the way) is just a plain good time, using storytelling trickery to good effect. While I will always resist the unlikely notion that the holodeck is so flawless that it is utterly indistinguishable from reality, this episode takes that conceit and executes it wonderfully, establishing some narrative rules that it then doesn't break. (Note how the editing rhythm never cuts to the typical external view of the Enterprise in between scenes as long as we remain inside the holodeck.)

And I liked the appropriate turn of tables where, once Picard and Data realized they've been duped by Moriarty's illusion, they then use the same trick on him, creating a holodeck within a holodeck, and then giving him exactly what he wants — an escape to a "real world" by creating the illusion of a world outside of the holodeck, even though he never leaves it. Ultimately, Moriarty and the Countess (who also achieves self-awareness, somehow, thanks to Moriarty — a point the story unfortunately never adequately deals with) are able to tour the cosmos inside the confines of a computer program that runs inside a little cube. Picard's closing line on the nature of reality provides the story a perfect note of whimsy, suggesting our own reality may simply be built upon perspectives stemming from the knowledge available to us: "All this might just be an elaborate simulation, running inside a little device, sitting on someone's table."

Previous episode: Chain of Command, Part II
Next episode: Aquiel

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15 comments on this review

Patrick - Fri, Jun 22, 2012 - 12:06am (USA Central)
This is a damn fun and clever episode. I like how Barclay is used as a side character rather than the main focus and still remain just as effective presence (certainly more than in "Realm of Fear" and "Genesis"). I think this had something to do with him having an memorable cameo in Star Trek First Contact.

I was sad that Moriarty didn't mention Dr. Pulaski by name at the beginning. The last time we ever hear her mentioned by name is in season 3's "Who Watches the Watchers"--and then that's all she wrote. No reunion episode or cameo in any subsequent seasons.
Latex Zebra - Fri, Jun 22, 2012 - 2:48am (USA Central)
I usually hate most Holodeck episodes but this is great.

I hope his box didn't get blown up with the Enterprise D and that Moriaty and the Doctor (Voyager) are now drinking buddies.
Peter H - Fri, Jun 22, 2012 - 1:30pm (USA Central)
This episode always tickles me. I confess there are few episodes I care to rewatch, even for nostalgia's sake, but this is one of the few I'm happy to come back to as I genuinely seem to enjoy every time.
Jeremy Short - Sun, Jun 24, 2012 - 9:35am (USA Central)
I also really like that Moriarty makes a classic Holmes bad guy move, claiming to do something impossible or super natural. This is done a lot in Doyle's stories. You even see it in the first Robert Downey Jr. film. We also get Data cast in the Holmes role again. The one big difference from the Homes stories is that they were always written from Dr. Watson's POV, so you never knew that Holmes had figured it out until the end.
mathane - Mon, Jun 25, 2012 - 1:14pm (USA Central)
All I can do is echo what everyone else has said. There aren't many holodeck episodes I like, but this was great.
Grumpy - Mon, Jun 25, 2012 - 6:45pm (USA Central)
Not that 3.5 isn't a bad rating, but I didn't read anything that indicates why this isn't a 4-star episode. When I watch "Ship In a Bottle," I don't skip scenes like I do with all the non-torture stuff in "Chain of Command part 2". As far as I'm concerned, the only weak point is the minor blooper of Picard changing clothes inside the holo-trap; based on the logic of this episode, his holo-uniform should've evaporated the moment he stepped outside.
Elliott - Mon, Jun 25, 2012 - 8:10pm (USA Central)
I cannot get behind this episode. I LIKE it, but the ideas in it (and especially its predecessor) are too serious to justify the mood and focus of the dialogue. The Moriarty character's plight is fascinating stuff which would eventually lead to fantastic episodes of VOY featuring the Doc. That such a rare use of him would be a "good time" as you put it, is inexcusable.

I have the same reaction to nearly every seen, at first glance, I LIKE it, but when I stop to think about what's been said, it's empty.

Take, for instance :

PIC : "I have come here to prevail on your intelligence and your insight."
Countess : "But not apparently on my humility!"
PIC : "Credit where credit is due, madam. I can see you are a woman not only of breeding, but of whit and sagacity"
Countess : "And you, sir, are a man of charm...and guile. You remind me of Viscount Oglethorpe (he was a man who could bewitch any woman who breathed)."
PIC: "And do you suspect that that is my intent?"
Countess : "I cannot be certain of your intent, but I am certain you're the kind of man who usually gets exactly what he wants."

The tenor of the language clearly shows the writer knew he was writing for two Brits of high manner, and it's really lovely to listen to, but what on earth are they TALKING about? Are they flirting? Is Picard manipulating a hologram? Given especially the way (aptly pointed out by Jammer) holo-Geordi behaves and speaks, this dialogue is utterly pointless and, by extension, aggravating.

Still present are the charm and performances, lamentably absent are the wonder, the whit and the profundity of "Elementary, Dear Data." 2.5 stars from me.
Brendan - Tue, Jun 26, 2012 - 2:16am (USA Central)
A clear rip off of Inception.
William B - Tue, Jul 3, 2012 - 4:31pm (USA Central)
It's worth noting that the reference to "a box sitting on someone's table" at the episode's end is not just a comment about our difficulty having certainty about our perception of reality, though that is its primary meaning. It's also simply a joke -- because Picard et al. are all sitting in a television on our table. I think this interpretation is less interesting, but a lot of fiction writers become interested in the nature of the inner life of their characters partly *because* writing sometimes involves characters "coming alive" on you. It'd be interesting to talk about how the Holodeck episodes are partly a way for the main cast to be recast as writers, with their own fictional entertainment universe turning on them.

Eliott's points are interesting. It's been too long since I've seen the episode to comment, but I do think that the episode is more puzzlebox with a few hints of philosophy rather than puzzlebox as a mechanism to explore philosophy. Puzzlebox stories -- stories whose primary pleasures are about the surprise and joy of seeing characters dupe one another -- are often fun but can feel a little empty afterward. That said, I think that what helps the episode is the fact that Doyle's Moriarty himself is a character who specializes in this type of plotting. Though the episode doesn't articulate this, the fact that Moriarty continues using deceit and death threats in order to get what he wants may actually be an argument that he is still constrained by his original programming, still the person he was written to be. I'd keep this at 3.5 stars, I think.
mephyve - Mon, Sep 2, 2013 - 10:56am (USA Central)
Enough time had passed for me to have forgotten the twists and turns of this episode. "Bravo" I say, it was quite enjoyable. I was quite upset to see Moriarty walk of the holodeck without dissipating. So I was equally pleased to find out that it was a ruse.
I am already uncomfortable with the notion of holodeck characters gaining sentience. Too many icky possibilities. Certainly don't need them walking among us.
I have no problem with Moriarty being unable to tell a simulated reality from a real one. He's never experienced the real world. But I can see it being elaborate enough wherein someone like Data would realise it before a normal human.
William B - Thu, Sep 5, 2013 - 11:51pm (USA Central)
There's a lot to say about this episode, but one major thing that occurred to me is this. In "Elementary, Dear Data," at the end of the episode, Moriarty, after having begun to use his newfound powers and sentience for megalomaniacal power grabs, and after taking Pulaski as a hostage, acquiesced to Picard at the episode's end, and agreed to wait on others, to release Pulaski and, essentially, to be good and wait, relying on the goodwill of others to (eventually) hope to enter the real world. This willingness to comply with Picard showed a genuine potential for growth in Moriarty, that he had overcome his programming and Doyle's writing. In this episode, realizing that other methods have failed, Moriarty hatches a brilliant, evil scheme in order to force the crew to pay attention to his needs and to allow him to go into the real world. Early in the episode, it seems possible that somehow Moriarty could leave the holodeck, and in these scenes he articulates to Picard that his past as a villain is entirely behind him -- that he is not the man that Doyle wrote, but a new man, capable of making his own choices. But later on we find that, no, Moriarty could *not* leave the holodeck, of course, and that realization comes at the same moment in which the full extent of Moriarty's evil scheme becomes clear. That moment of realization of Data's, that they had never left the holodeck, that Moriarty could not do the impossible and take on human form, really does argue something profound: in the end, Moriarty is still limited by his nature, and despite being a sentient, living being, a point the episode does not, I think, dispute, he does not simply *stop* being the man he was written to be.

And that is how the whole episode is structured. This and "Elementary, Dear Data" are quite the pair, and they come at the problem from different angles; actually I think that they are reflections of each other, "EDD" starting small and ending big, and "Ship in a Bottle" starting big and ending small. "Elementary, Dear Data" begins with Pulaski arguing that it is not possible for a computer to overcome its programming, even Data, and ends with the possibility of genuine hope that Moriarty may one day leave the holodeck, and the possibility that he is a changed man. This episode moves in the exact opposite direction, beginning with the revolutionary idea that Moriarty can, through force of will alone, walk off the holodeck, and ending with Moriarty's chances to live out in the real world ended forever: he is given a comfortable illusion, and will stay there the rest of his days. The episode's last reveal works opposite to the first "reveal": we initially see Moriarty leaving the holodeck, and finally see him permanently confined to the memory cube. In some senses, then, the episode is the somewhat conservative counterpart to "Elementary, Dear Data," all about placing limits on the boundless imagination of that story. In some ways, that strikes me as a tiny bit sad; that Moriarty will never be able to leave the holodeck, and that he is still a villain after all this time, feels a little reactionary. "Elementary, Dear Data" was more optimistic, and maybe truer to the Trek spirit as a result. And yet, this episode also says something true about human nature even in addition to the themes about technology, fiction, and reality itself, which is that in the end, old patterns do resurface; a person who once was a villain sometimes will return to that role when they have no more options.

(Given that in "Elementary, Dear Data," I was a little disappointed that Data was not more involved in solving the problem, thus leaving the beginning of the episode's story -- the wager between Data and Pulaski -- unfinished, I'm glad that it's Data who discovers, through quick thinking, observation and "deduction," i.e. being Holmes-esque, that they are still in a simulation, closing off one of the threads from that episode that I found a bit loose.)

So, Moriarty's brilliant, evil plan comes down to: pretend that his sentience, his inner life, can give him physical form; use this paradigm shift to convince the crew that it is possible to do so, and hold the ship hostage until they do. I really wish I could go back and see this episode for the first time, because the audacity of what Moriarty does is something that is hard to pull off: have a character do something that seems to be impossible, but then convince the audience that it's possible, because the audience is willing to believe that the fictional rules can change; then pull the rug out from under the audience and reveal that, no, of course the character didn't do this and it was a trick. It relies on our understanding of genre conventions, our knowledge that the internal rules of a universe should remain constant, and yet that they are sometimes broken. (My favourite instance of this in television is from an episode of FIREFLY, but I've said too much.) But anyway, Moriarty knows that he does not have physical form, and knows that the idea that he can just walk off the holodeck is ridiculous, but he also knows how much power an idea has. At the same time he's lying, he's also acting out of a belief that the reality he creates in which he can walk off the holodeck is so powerful, it will completely transform Picard, Data and Barclay until they are able to come up with an actual idea that can get Moriarty off. And I think that's part of the trick to this story, that makes the episode such a delight: the recognition that our perception of reality matters almost as much as reality itself runs through the whole show.

I think that explains some of the scenes like the one Elliott mentions, between Picard and the Countess. What is the point of having Picard spend time flirting with a holodeck character? Well, first of all, the Countess, unlike holo-Geordi, is sentient; Moriarty "made her so," somehow, maybe (by analogy with the way he was created to outwit Data) by making her an opponent capable of being classier than Picard. And second, I think the point is: Picard needs to find a way to control Moriarty's perception of the world. The way he does this is to play out, as carefully as he can, what he would do if indeed he *had* found a way to get Moriarty off the holodeck, in order to set up the final twist in which Moriarty "gets off the holodeck" in a way that keeps him there forever. So Picard flatters her, slightly overdoing it, as if buttering her up for the final request wherein he asks her to get Moriarty to release the ship. He needs to make it so real for her that she believes it, so that Moriarty believes it entirely, to the point where Moriarty has no doubts as he is "beamed" away into another part of the holodeck (within the holodeck!), and he sees the world there with fresh, believing eyes. Picard plays the role here because that is the way to make the simulation real for Moriarty, just as the role Moriarty played throughout the first half of this episode was to make the possibility of bringing the Countess into the "real world" real to Picard, Data and Barclay.

In its own way, the ending is both happy and sad. Moriarty and the Countess are together, and will be forever, and they are both real and sentient. They are in a reality which in certain respects is as "real" as the outside world; certainly, Moriarty and the Countess themselves are as real, and if they can't tell the difference, does it really matter? And yet, every person that Moriarty and the Countess meet, every experience they have, is only a facsimile. Moriarty had aimed higher. The reason that he is given this simulation, which is a type of prison, albeit an extremely benign one, is that, in the end, he proved that his sentience and life did not lead him to break free of his programming entirely. He's still willing to do evil; when an unpredictable evil genius takes a starship of a thousand people hostage if he doesn't get what he wants, and what he wants still seems to be impossible, there is little that can be done but to convince him that he has what he wants and to keep him from having the power to kill others again. Moriarty and the Countess have the opportunity to live out their lives in the only way that holodeck characters, even sentient ones, can at this stage; the Doctor would be horrified, and Voyager's complex take on the holographic rights issues are several leaps forward from this, not in quality of writing per se so much as in the amount of "rights" "granted" to holographic characters, to the possibility that a being which existed only in computer memory really can some day hope to step out into it. This episode closes that off for Moriarty, but it's also the best solution that Picard et al. can give for a man like Moriarty, who has clearly demonstrated that he is no longer willing to wait. And there is the consolation that what Moriarty wanted most, to be with the Countess without being limited to a fictional London, he got.

I really like the use of Barclay here as a normal guy -- still neurotic, but whose neuroses don't drive the episode. He also is, of course, the perfect person to deliver the final line.

I think 3.5? Maybe 4, though. I did enjoy this a lot, and I think I only scratched the surface talking about it here. Reality is inscrutable!
Cheyne - Fri, Nov 1, 2013 - 11:15am (USA Central)
While I can't claim to be as eloquent as William B, I must say that this episode is one of the very few that enormously improves on later viewing... I really did enjoy it much, much more on later viewings, and especially knowing about Moriarty's ruse... I think that helps a great deal, and perhaps should have been hinted at earlier, so that the audience was in on the deal and Picard et. al. weren't.
Jack - Wed, Nov 13, 2013 - 11:39pm (USA Central)
Imagine Captain Jellico in this scenario...he'd be no match for Moriarty.
Jay - Sat, Nov 16, 2013 - 10:45pm (USA Central)
How is it that we are expected to accept that Moriarty is capable of programming the "holodeck within a holodeck" simulation in the first place? Is it because he essentially *is* the computer? In both EDD and here, so much is shrugged off as simply being because Moriarty is "brilliant in any century", but that's rather a cop out.
Andrew - Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - 1:28am (USA Central)
Definitely a 4 star episode.

I can imagine a follow up to this episode where they enter the simulation with Moriarty & his lover and give them a choice - leave the simulation and finally be in the real world, or stay in it.

That would be a great story. If they had made lives for themselves inside the simulation, would they choose to leave it?

"Imagine Captain Jellico in this scenario...he'd be no match for Moriarty."

Jellico talking to Moriarty: I prefer a certain... formality on the bridge.

Jellico to Riker: Oh and... get that damn holodeck character out of the ready room.

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