the story: The holographic Professor Moriarty is inadvertently reawakened, and plots to have his revenge and freedom, too.
similar to: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "Latent Image," "Flesh & Blood, Parts I & II" (Voyager)
my thoughts: This unexpected follow-up to the second season episode "Elementary, Dear Data," in which Geordi and Dr. Pulaski inadvertently created the sentient Professor Moriarty hologram to compete with Data, is arguably one of the finest hidden gems of the franchise. Where fans will be familiar with the name Khan and to a lesser extent Harry Mudd, the twice-appearing Moriarty, while on the surface seeming to be a less distinctive creation for having been based, at least originally, on the famous Sherlock Holmes villain, may in fact prove to be among the most sophisticated antagonists ever to appear in Star Trek.
After all, when one think of Next Generation, it's as the most sophisticated series in the franchise, right? Fans typically think of the series' answer to Wrath of Khan as either Star Trek: First Contact or Star Trek Nemesis, and sometimes find it easy to dismiss one or the other for that very reason. Yet, "Ship in a Bottle" is the Next Generation version of Khan. It's just that simple. Foe you thought you'd dealt with returns. Where I've always found Khan's intellect lacking, the same can't be said of Moriarty's. This was a character literally created to be brilliant, and so the writers are forced to produce something brilliant for him.
Which is to revisit, once again, the idea of artificial intelligence. Putting aside Data, who was the usual recipient of such explorations in this series, it's worth noting that there's another Star Trek regular who spent a good deal of time getting examined in this way. By far the most nuanced such occasion for Voyager's holographic Doctor was "Latent Image." It's ironic to note that the Doctor eventually gained the very autonomy Moriarty craved, and that it still didn't mean a happy ending for him (all the way to "Author, Author," we find him struggling still).
Also from Voyager is the two-part "Flesh and Blood," which similarly examined what actually happened to what seemed like a clever solution, from the earlier two-part "Killing Game," in which the crew gives the Hirogen holographic, rather than organic, prey, in hopes of reducing their bloodthirst. While "Flesh and Blood" isn't the achievement of "Ship in a Bottle," it's a reminder that things don't always work out as smoothly as you'd think.
Even "Ship" ends ambiguously, when you think about it. "Elementary, Dear Data" ended the Moriarty question with the proposal that the crew would further examine his plight, in much the way "Space Seed" in the original series saw Kirk leave Khan behind on a planet of his own. Moriarty returns and reveals that he has experienced every excruciating moment of the interminable wait. Did the crew purposely forget about him? And what of the conclusion of "Ship," where they trick him into a simulation?
One imagines that he eventually figures it out. Would this have been something worth actually seeing? But one equally must assume this, all things considered, reflectful Moriarty wouldn't repeat the mistakes of Khan before him. Essentially, "Ship" concludes his story in the original mold of "Space Seed," with Moriarty in exile, but an exile he can be happy with.
This is what happens when Star Trek doesn't rush to judgment for the sake of making the good guy look good. If the good guy is good, then it isn't necessary. If the bad guy isn't bad, then once again, it isn't necessary. "Ship in a Bottle" is exactly that, a ship in a bottle, the message of Next Generation, where a Klingon serves in Starfleet for the first time, in a nutshell. That makes it a classic. It's the franchise's most concise explanation of what constitutes existence, without making too fine a point on it.
Philosophical, cerebral, intelligent: that's everything you want from this crew.
criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)
Daniel Davis (Moriarty)
Dwight Schultz (Barclay)