This is an episode that I think isn’t talked about much, and I have to ask why. It’s well-crafted, and it has a great premise.
Before I start talking about this episode, I have to talk about a couple episodes that precede it. First is “Elementary, Dear Data”. In that episode, Data and Geordi are playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck with Dr. Pulaski, who replaced Dr. Crusher for the second season. Geordi got sick of Dr. Pulaski constantly ribbing Data about his only following the script of what normally happens in a Sherlock Holmes mystery and not doing actual detective work. (Dr. Pulaski, just because Data doesn’t have emotions doesn’t mean he has to put up with your attitude. I can totally understand why Geordi was annoyed with you. Man I hated Dr. Pulaski) So to prove a point, he asked the computer to create an opponent based on Professor Moriarty for Data to defeat. The result is a completely self-aware version of the brilliant criminal. He’s like the Holodeck on God Mode. The only reason he stops is that Picard convinces him that it would be in his best interest, that someday they may learn a way for him to leave the Holodeck. This would lead some elements that would be explored with Star Trek Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram.
Another thing I have to talk about first is Lt. Reginald Barclay, an engineer played by Dwight Schultz (best known for his role as “Howling Mad” Murdock on The A-Team. He was first introduced as a socially awkward engineer with an imaginative mind that can arrive at solutions that others seem to neglect considering. (Go watch his first appearance “Hollow Pursuits” and tell me he doesn’t seem like he’s on the autism spectrum) In fact, the only one who does understand him is Guinan, the ship’s bartender. At her suggestion, Geordi spent time trying to be his friend and came away understanding his coworker in a way he never had before. By “Ship in a Bottle”, he had grown a lot, and I loved his imaginative approach to problem-solving, especially on this recent rewatch.
But what makes this episode so much fun is the replay value. You don’t realize it at first, but the whole episode takes place on the Holodeck. There are clues that are easy to miss on the first watch. That’s brilliant. There was even a theory that the whole reason the Holodeck was malfunctioning in episodes that aired before this one is that Moriarty was a glitch in the Holodeck’s programming and was making it malfunction in those episodes (I firmly believe this theory).
This is one of the few “Malfunctioning Holodeck” episodes I like, and it’s because it’s so well-written.