When I first read a blurb about this episode, I thought maybe the ship’s computer would develop an attitude and say, “I’m tired of taking your orders and shutting down systems and whatnot; I want to star in an adventure all about me!”
In the cold opening, a costumed Data delivers Prospero’s speech about giving up his art towards the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Picard bardsplains the significance of the speech for those who need it, and I kind of got chills, as I’m aware I’m just a few more episodes away from the series finale (which I only saw once, almost 30 years ago). So I’m attuned to the possibility of endings, and this is why I got excited thinking that maybe the ship’s computer would get her own Ariel story arc. (Ariel as in Shakespeare’s supernatural indentured servant who earns his freedom; not the Disney mermaid.)
A train shows up in the Shakespeare simulation, and other glitches start happening. The ship jumps to warp unexpectedly, and we learn the sensor logs detected a rise in plot contrivance particles, which would have fatally technobabbled the jimberjam had the ship not spontaneously warped to safety.
A very low resolution, TV-friendly graphic illustrates that neurons in the human brain, circuits in Data’s positronic network, and technobabble things happening in the Enterprise all share a similar structure, which is enough for the nerd squad to theorize the ship is developing sentience.
Much of the story takes place on a holodeck simulation of the Orient Express, Where various stock characters, allegedly taken from the crew’s personal files and the ships cultural database, interact in a stiff, awkward simulation that we are told has some kind of symbolic meaning.
Given to the Enterprise is supposed to have representatives of many different species aboard, it’s a little disappointing to see that all of the holiday cultural programs are completely Earth-centered. There is no Klingon mythology, no Betazed or Bajoran or Vulcan content, but there’s an Old West gunslinger, a knight in shining armor and a flapper, an overall-sporting hayseed, and of course the train setting (which exoticizes a trip to “The Orient”).
I think we are supposed to be impressed by the strange 3-D shape that starts to form in a cargo bay, but because the object was clearly added in post production, and the actors never interact with it in any meaningful way other than looking in its general direction, and because the object itself seems way too simple to be the complex organic shape the plot requires it to be, this supposedly dramatic big reveal kind of seemed like a budget-friendly waste.
Picard is very on brand when he suggests that, instead of assuming this emerging intelligence is hostile, they might instead try to help it acquire the resources it needs. How many times in the world of Star Trek do the characters have to learn the hard way just to play along with whatever simulation has taken over the holodeck, and see what happens?
In previous episodes, Troi is typically offering vague impressions that ramp up the tension, leaving it up to Picard or Riker to decide what to do with her observations. So, props to the creative team for following up on the “Troi gets promoted” plotline and showing her making command decisions on the away team that’s exploring the strange new world of Eurocentric storytelling tropes.
This mediocre episode is consistent within the world of Star Trek, and it would’ve been a relatively strong first or second season story; but the “Troi investigates a symbolic murder mystery on a train” angle isn’t enough to make so many familiar tropes fresh enough to be interesting.