The Legal Misunderstanding That Held Back Star Trek’s Best Villain

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

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Weirdly enough, one of the most popular and influential villains in Star Trek is Moriarty, the Sherlock Holmes foe invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After he appeared in season two of The Next Generation, fans had to wait four long years to see him onscreen again. The initial delay was due to not wanting to deal with the angry estate of Doyle’s family, but Star Trek producers brought Moriarty back in season six after realizing all of this legal drama had been a misunderstanding.

Elementary, Dear Data

The drama in question goes back to the season 1 episode “Elementary, Dear Data.” Early on, Geordi La Forge is frustrated that Data’s perfect android memory is helping him instantly solve all of Sherlock Holme’s classic adventures on their holodeck recreation.

Things go south in this Star Trek episode when La Forge asks the computer to create a new mystery with a foe worthy of Data, a simple request that unleashes a fully sentient and fully deadly replica of Moriarty on the Enterprise.

Not So Public Domain

When first working on the episode, none of the Star Trek producers reached out to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate because they assumed his stories (including iconic characters like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty) were public domain and could be included at no extra cost.

They were very wrong, and after the episode aired, the estate wasted no time writing a letter to Paramount. That letter made clear in no uncertain terms that the estate still owned a percentage of the rights involving these characters and that if Paramount wanted to use the characters again, they would have to pay a usage fee.

Young Sherlock Holmes

At this point, you might think that Star Trek could have brought Moriarty back relatively easily by just paying the fee. However, producers were nervous about reaching out to the estate for an entirely different reason. That reason centered on Paramount’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes.

While she didn’t specify exactly what their main issue was, Star Trek producer Jeri Taylor later said that Doyle’s estate was “irritated with Paramount because of Young Sherlock Holmes” and because of that had issued an edict: “they said no more, ever,” to the idea of working with Paramount again.

Between that and their earlier flub of using Doyle’s characters without permission, Star Trek’s writers and producers had every reason to believe they could never bring Moriarty back.

Ship In A Bottle

star trek ai hologram

However, Taylor wryly noted that “as in many walks of life it was never say never again.” To her “amazement,” the estate was “willing to give us the characters for a very reasonable license fee.”

It probably helped Paramount’s financial position that The Next Generation was so successful at the time, and after paying the fee, they were able to bring Moriarity back for the season 6 episode “Ship In a Bottle.”

Star Trek: Picard

As great as the villain was, Star Trek fans had every reason to believe that Moriarty would never return. However, a recreation of this infamous hologram appeared in the Picard episode “The Bounty,” allowing Daniel Davis to briefly reprise the role of the franchise’s most intelligent villain.

Considering that it has just one more season left, we can’t help but cross our fingers that the character pops up again in the hilariously irreverent Lower Decks.

Of course, that may depend yet again on how well Paramount negotiates with the Doyle estate, which last made media waves by suing Netflix for making Sherlock Holmes too nice in “Enola Holmes.”

Could all of this be about the money instead of honoring one of history’s greatest writers? We’ll leave you sleuths to figure that one out for yourselves.