(The audience figures for “Emissary” were, in case you were wondering, through the roof. There's no question that in January, 1993 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the biggest and most popular show on television.)
And “Ship in a Bottle” is precisely that. It follows on from the intense symbolic power of “Emissary” and while it may be a lower-key and smaller-scale manifestation of it, that power is still there. This is a story about the lasting influence of ideas and fictional concepts and even reveals a subtle hint at the nature of reality itself. We've finally wrapped up any anxieties we might have had left over from “Time's Arrow”...and shown how inaccurate the title of that episode really was in the process. And just incidentally, I find it somewhat interesting that immediately following “Emissary” we get a story about a supposedly forgotten person from Captain Picard's past who holds a bitter grudge against him. However, the narrative never gives Moriarty the high ground here; his grudge against Captain Picard is never shown to be anything other than sadly misguided. Grudges and lingering bitterness are not constructive emotions.
Professor Moriarty is understandably upset at being shoved into cold storage for four years. But it's not Captain Picard he should be upset with, but the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Although the Sherlock Holmes stories were in the public domain in the US in 1988, they were still under copyright in the UK, and the Doyle estate sent a sternly worded letter to Paramount saying that if they wanted to use the characters and setting again they'd have to ask permission and pay a licensing fee. The letter was more in response to the Young Sherlock Holmes TV series and not “Lonely Among Us” or “Elementary, Dear Data”, but it was enough to spook the Star Trek: The Next Generation production team into not using the consulting detective again until now.
The legal backstory is worth delving into a little further, because it actually runs up against the major themes “Ship in a Bottle” is trying to convey in an interesting way and, in doing so, it reveals where Star Trek: The Next Generation stands at this point in time in terms of a broad culture-scale ethical position. “Ship in a Bottle” is, on at least one level, about the agency and lasting power our literary and mythological artefacts embody and take on. It's right back in noösphere territory (or, for you comic book fans, Alan Moore Ideaspace territory if you prefer) with the notion that humans and human fiction have a dynamic and symbiotic relationship that allows them both the shape each other. This manifests in the episode in lots of ways, only the most obvious being the incredible and incredibly delightful trick of Captain Picard and Professor Moriarty outmanouevring one another with nested holodeck simulations of reality. It's a Holmesian logic puzzle kicked into warp drive.
The only problem with this premise, however, is the material existence of copyright. It's a physical product of human laws that poses a legitimate threat to the thought sphere as it imposes a capitalist hierarchy on human creativity through a system of artificial scarcity and intellectual rent seeking. In ancient times, societies were held together through oral history, where sacred and sublime knowledge about the world was passed down from generation to generation through stories. All stories are, in fact, some variation on this way of knowing and communicating that has existed as long as creative sentient thought has. What capitalism does is appropriate this and charge an entry fee, setting arbitrary rules and regulations about who is allowed to participate and under what conditions. Though this may be wildly unnatural and entirely counterproductive to human endeavour, capitalism then normalizes this and would have us believe this is just the way things are, the way they have always been and the way they will always be. It's not, and it need not be.
Through copyright and intellectual property, capitalism dehumanizes stories in the same way it dehumanizes land and water (and other people) by rendering them property that can be bought, sold and fenced off from others. Just as with land and water, which used to be a shared commons belonging to everyone and everything as part of nature, turning stories and mythology into property selfishly takes them away from the rest of the universe and stifles their power. This is especially dangerous for stories like Sherlock Holmes, or indeed Star Trek due to their long history and status as iconic and ubiquitous polyauthored cultural artefacts, because it actively keeps them from filling the role in society they're plainly meant to play.
But with “Ship in a Bottle”, Star Trek: The Next Generation takes a firm and clear stance against this. Finally fulfilling the potential he hinted in “Elementary, Dear Data”, Professor Moriarty is freed from the shackles that bound him to Sherlock Holmes (and by extension to the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and allowed to remake himself as a new person with a new identity all his own. He does this with help from the Enterprise crew (regardless of whether or not he perceives it as such: We all have bad habits we're at risk of regressing into, after all), but also through the personal epiphanies afforded to him through his own agency. It is, when looked at a certain way, a profoundly radical statement: Stories and fictional characters have a life of their own. They don't belong to anyone except themselves and it is they, not we as writers (or lawmakers), who get to dictate how they're remembered and what stories will be told about them. This may actually be the most bluntly, openly and straightforwardly anti-capitalist progressive statement Star Trek: The Next Generation has made since “The Last Outpost”.
And more to the point, it even speaks to the sorts of issues Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has raised: The challenge and question has always been, how do you live as a mystic in a material world? It's a reality Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax are now going to have to face on a day-to-day basis. Deep Space 9 is a literal crossroads between the mythic and the mundane; an allegorical concept made real and given form, much like Professor Moriarty. The animist shaman's solution is to point out how there is no spiritual/material binary, that the world of the spirits and the physical plane are actually two perceptive manifestations of the same underlying reality. But these are issues the Enterprise crew has been dealing with, at least implicitly and metaphorically, their whole lives. No-one is better poised to make a statement about these sorts of things than them. And so in "Ship in a Bottle" we have an abjectly fluid reality constantly being reshaped by consciously aware actors. "Canon"? What does canon mean in a world that exists solely within the eye of the beholder? The Enterprise sublimates its reality and deals a death blow to the tyranny of intellectual property at the same time all through remembering the ancient truths.
And in this episode's closing moments, Star Trek: The Next Generation produces one more ace from its sleeve. “Ship in a Bottle” ends with what may be the most blatantly meta scene in the entire series with Captain Picard's offhand observation that
What better way to end this story? The implications are obvious. The Enterprise crew is following in Moriarty's footsteps, and have broken free of television itself. Star Trek: The Next Generation declares its immortality.“In a sense, who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs. All this might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone's table.”