Or The (First) One With Barclay
It's hard not fitting in. Everyone knows this; we all have some time in our lives when we felt like we weren't in step with the group no matter how hard we tried. But there's a special kind of hell reserved for being stuck in a group of nice, friendly folks who make every effort to make you feel welcome, and you still keep stuttering and tripping and generally making a fool of yourself. Assholes are never fun to be around, but at least when they treat you badly, you can tell yourself they're the ones with the problem. What do you do when the ones holding you down are blameless? What do you do when the only person you can really blame for your misery is yourself?
If you're Reginald Barclay of the USS Enterprise, you create a holodeck simulation that features some of your crew-mates, allowing you to mock the ones that terrify you with their self-confidence, and win the hearts of the ones you wish to woo. It's not a very good solution, seeing as how poor Reg is still late half the time, and can't speak more than three words without nearly choking to death on his embarrassment. But that's the fun thing about social humiliation: it makes you so desperate for any kind of love or respect, you cling to any response that lets you feel even a little less miserable. At the start of "Hollow Pursuits," Barclay is clinging as hard as he can, and he's inches away from getting a transfer to another ship. It's the first time on the show I can remember seeing Geordi actively frustrated with someone under his command, and it's also the first time we've seen our main characters from the perspective of someone who doesn't neatly fit in to their group. It's an interesting experience, and while "Pursuits" has its problems, it's also a telling look at how even a utopian society can still have its share of losers.
Before we get into that, though, can we all agree that Barclay's holodeck programs are utterly ridiculous? I don't mean ha-ha ridiculous, although they have their moments; Riker's diminutive double is funny, and the actors clearly enjoy getting a chance to spoof themselves. What I mean is, there is no way any of this should be possible. Allowing a crew-member to use the likenesses of his fellow crew-members in this kind of elaborate, detailed simulation, while everyone is stuck together on a space ship hurtling through the void--well, I'm not sure it's a good way to relieve stress (one of the points of the episode is that Barclay's fantasies let him hide from his problems, which means he doesn't ever deal with them in a constructive way, which means he's never going to get better), and it's definitely an excellent way to create uncomfortable situations.
I can't remember which psychologist first discussed this (I think it was Jung), but there's a danger in having imaginary conversations with the people in your life. Everybody has them; it's a way to feel more in control, a way to rehearse difficult moments before they happen, a way to try and determine the best way to elicit the desired reaction out of someone without actually having to deal with them directly. (And yes, it's a way to find comfort from a person who will never give you what you need.) The problem is, if you do this too often, it gets difficult to tell the difference between what you've really said, and what you've only dreamed of saying. Not necessarily in a "psychotic break" way, either, but in a very down-to-earth, it's happened to all of us deal. It's subtle, but it colors your perception of a relationship when you've fantasized about telling so-and-so how much you hate it when they do such-and-such. Even though you've never worked up the courage to deal with them directly, part of you remembers all those fake confrontations, and becomes resentful. Interactions are difficult enough as it is, and the more you can focus on dealing with someone when they're actually around, they better you'll be in the long run.
Now, imagine this with the holodeck involved. Barclay is the most harmless possible iteration of a disturbed personality--he's basically just a shy, nerdy teenager who has the misfortune of being stuck in an adult body. The greatest sins we see him committing in his electric dreams are making time with Troi, and winning fights against his betters, and going by the reactions of Geordi and the others when they discover his programs (all right, so the holodeck just allows anyone to wander inside, mid-routine? I can understand a senior officer being able to override a lock, but at the very least, you'd think there'd be some kind of warning to Barclay that he was no longer alone), this is all a completely new experience for them. That's part of TNG's whole perfect-future kick, that everyone's problems are solvable; Barclay's troubling because his solution isn't readily evident, not because he's dangerous or upsetting. But like I've said before, I have a hard time believing in a future like this, and I have an even harder time accepting that no one would realize the potential psychological havoc the holodeck could wreck. Imagine if Barclay had become convinced the real Troi had feelings for him, and that all he had to do to win her was take care of that stooge Riker?
This is a conceptually intriguing episode because it deals (even in an incredibly polite and unconfrontational fashion) with misfits on a ship that's designed to make everyone feel at home. We get to see how unpleasant it might be to have to deal with these people if you weren't on their wave-length, and Geordi's inability to understand that someone could just be insecure and over-worked doesn't speak very well for him as a boss. I've heard the Barclay gets more intolerable with each successive guest appearance, but I like Dwight Schultz, and I like that Barclay is legitimately awkward and not just nervous. It just seems so obvious that he's overwhelmed and unsure of himself, and Geordi's complete bafflement (especially considering that it's, y'know, Geordi, aka, "Not Mr. Cool") speaks to how ill-prepared anyone on this ship is for dealing with anyone who's not strictly normal.
Riker acts like a hard-ass, as though Barclay's repeated tardiness is a malicious or blatantly irresponsible act--but of course Riker would go the tough love route, the guy is probably champing at the bit to get a chance to play lovable army sargeant. And Picard, well, Picard has never been much use in trying to deal with people; he's not inept, exactly, he's just enough of a social deviant himself (albeit in far more productive, easier to manage ways) that this isn't his field. But Welsey? Freakin' Welsey Crusher comes up with a nickname for Barclay, and interrupts him during a staff meeting, and then doesn't understand why the guy is a little on edge. Even Troi is a waste. For a supposed empath, her ability to read that Barclay is infatuated with her and, because of this, intensely nervous around her is bizarre. I can accept that she's used to men (and the occasional woman) on the ship finding her attractive, but her attempts to relax him by turning down the lights and getting physically closer are not the actions of someone who understands what their patient is feeling.
Right, I haven't really gotten much into the plot, have I? I have notes, but let's face it, this all boils down to: Barclay needs to find someway to prove himself. So there's a crisis on the ship, and Barclay's the one who figures it out, after we get some amusing holodeck sequences, and have to squirm our way through the humiliation of Riker and Troi finding out just what the poor guy thinks of them. Everything else is just a science fiction MacGuffin designed to make Reg's redemption possible. There are good ideas here, and Schultz give an performance just the right side of creepy, but in the end, this plays too much like a children's show. That's always a tendency with TNG. The best episodes ignore it or subvert it by refusing us easy answers, but here, everybody worries about Barclay, Barclay hates himself, then Barclay ends up okay. There's a lovely scene at the end that at first plays like the poor guy is transferring off the ship, but instead turns out to be him saying good bye to his simulations; it's nicely done, but I wonder if the episode might not have been better if Barclay really had left at the end. Sometimes we forget that just wanting to be a part of a group doesn't make that group the right one for us.
- I like how there are only two possible women on board the ship that Barclay could have a crush on. Both this and "The Most Toys" feature characters who could easily be fictional versions of accepted nerd stereotypes--here we have "The Guy Who Keeps Writing Fan Fiction."
- "Have you ever been with a counselor before?" Yeah. It was over in five minutes, but she still charged me the full hour! Woo! Okay, moving on.
- Nice reference to "Booby Trap."
- All right, Troi claims they need to leave Barclay's holodeck program running when they go looking for him so they can get a glimpse into his psyche. I can sort of buy that. But the instant Picard calls and tells them he needs them back at work, why doesn't Geordi just turn off the simulation? Did the writers forget that none of this was actually real?
"The Most Toys"
Or The One Where Data Is A Valuable Collector's Item
There are sometimes shows that run under the surface of our favorite shows--well, maybe not shows entirely, but suggestions of deeper motives and darker implications than the surface level allows. As a critic, my biggest fault (well, okay, one of my biggest faults) is my tendency to over-think things. With some series or books or movies, this can be a liability, as I'll either give credit where it isn't due by seeing something that doesn't actually exist; or else I'll over-consider a concept until I can no longer remember why anyone would enjoy it in the first place. But in reviewing Trek, in all the iterations I've seen so far, over-thinking has served me well. That's part of the fun of watching genre television, after all. They give us the worlds, and the barest of trappings to color them, we provide the minutia.
For instance, "The Most Toys" is arguably just a variant on "The Measure of a Man." It is an excellent variant, no question, and it stands quite well on its own, but we are dealing here with concepts of ownership and sentient property, and we already know the answers to these questions. Thankfully, this time the antagonist is a non-Federation man, which means we don't have to worry about Starfleet suddenly forgetting the lessons it should've already learned. Data's conversations with the horrible Mr. Fajo (played by the not horrible, and in fact quite excellent, Saul Rubinek) take us down familiar semantic paths, but they remain satisfying, for all their familiarity, because it's good to see Data standing up for himself. Fajo is a particularly nasty villain; TNG doesn't always do nasty bad guys, and it's a pleasure here to see one who's both fully drawn and completely reprehensible.
There's something else going on here, too, and it's much more subtle. For a call-back, it mostly reminds me of one of the final scenes of "The Ensigns of Command," when a pretty young woman tried to put the moves on Data, and got, well, exactly what you'd expect. Nobody flirts with Data in "Toys," but there is that same fascinating glimpse of Data's alien nature, that same peek below the surface of a being who appears charming and harmless, but has a good deal more depth to him than anyone, even his friends, really realizes. It makes me wonder if maybe there's an episode that never got filmed, that told some darker story about our favorite android. It makes me wonder just what the hell he gets up to with all those countless hours he spends aboard the Enterprise, not sleeping, not eating, just being there.
It's this subtle character exploration that gives "Toys" its edge. The plot is straightforward enough: Mr. Fajo collects one of a kind items. Data is a one of a kind item, so Mr. Fajo fakes Data's death and then collects him. There is then much discussion between Data and Fajo about the nature of captivity, about Data being a sentient being who is unaccustomed to ownership. It's terrific stuff, because Rubinek is nerdy without ever being likable, and Data is always the most interesting when he's in a situation where a human being would experience emotion. His reactions throughout the episode have this wonderful ambiguity to them, summarized beautifully in his final line (which is in Stray Observations, if you forgot it); he has no feelings, but it's impossible not to hear his words and feel some sense of righteous fury yourself. There is something implacable about Data. It's almost always used as a joke--his constant questions about the reasons behind illogical behavior, his explanations, his inability to understand when a conversation has reached a conclusion. Once Data reaches a conclusion, and has exhausted all other avenues, he will not weaken out of uncertainty or self-doubt or fear. That's not very funny when he turns his implacability on you.
While all this is happening, the crew of the Enterprise is dealing with Data's "death." It's always a compromise when a show has to pretend one of its characters is gone. We know Data isn't really dead, and the writers know this (and know we know it). That means the grief the characters show is essentially wasted screen-time; it's irrelevant to the plot, and as audience members, we don't experience any catharsis watching the mourning because we aren't mourning ourselves. Plus, if Data actually died, you couldn't simply deal with it in a few scenes of one episode. There would need to be some sense of impact, and since Geordi needs to suspect something is wrong almost immediately for the rest of the episode to work, there's just no time to waste on unnecessary tears. (Yes, Tasha Yar's death was given about a scene, but c'mon--it was Tasha Yar.)
So, there's a compromise. Geordi and Wesley are sad, Picard reads a line from a book he gave Data, but there's no real pretense that this is actual raw grief. It plays more like, Data's shuttle explodes, everyone assumes he's dead, and then we cut to a month later after the initial wave of shock and pain have ridden through. You could say that the reason we don't see the impact more is that Geordi "senses" that something is wrong, but that's just a cheat. I don't have a huge problem with this, really, as it's largely dictated by storytelling requirements (and you could even argue that the detachment we see is just professionalism). What I do have a problem with is how much urgency the episode loses every time we cut away from Data and Fajo. Those two (and Fajo's tormented assistant, Varia) are what this episode is really about. Geordi needs to figure out that Data's "death" was faked so that the Enterprise can arrive and beam him back to safety, but his story isn't strong enough to support as many scenes as it gets.
That doesn't stop this from being an excellent episode, thankfully, because Data's storyline is very, very good, and its conclusion is satisfying. After he's kidnapped, Data is forced into essentially passive resistance; Fajo is protected, and Data can't use physical strength to escape. But his willingness to compromise himself to protect Varia wins Fajo's assistant over, and she helps Data attempt an escape. It's not very successful. While Fajo's thugs are easily dispatched, Fajo manages to use a disruptor on Varia, killing her. The disruptor is a nasty weapon that kills slower than a phaser, causing great pain as it does so, which means things get tense when Data gets the drop on Fajo with one. Fajo is convinced that Data won't fire, but after reasoning out that he has no other choice, Data does fire. It's just lucky for the collector that the Enterprise picks just that moment to beam Data back aboard.
I'll admit it, I was a little disappointed by this. It seemed like a half-measure--let's show Data is capable of killing when given no other choice, but let's not have him actually kill anyone. (Still, he basically lies to Riker back on the ship. Has he ever lied before? I also didn't write down exactly what he said, so I'm not sure if it's a direct lie or a careful evasion. But then, why the evasion? Curious.) Thankfully, the final exchange with Fajo pays off the character's survival. As with "Ensigns," it's another case with a humanoid assuming Data will have an emotional response--here, Fajo assumes Data will gloat. The beauty of it is, Data doesn't show any sign of pleasure or triumph. Because of course he can't. And yet, there must be some reason he want down to see Fajo in the brig, some reason he explained to him that all his possessions are gone. It might just be circuits firing. Or maybe he was thinking of flung acid, a chair, and a dead woman.
- One scene that definitely doesn't work: Troi talking with Worf about his promotion to Data's position. It's pointless, because we know the promotion won't last long, and it makes Troi look nosy and confrontational.
- Spiner is really terrific in this episode. There's a great moment when he's processing his options near the end--it's like if the blinking light on a computer hard drive had a face.
- "Tell me, Data, have you killed yet?"
- "No sir, it does not. I do not feel pleasure. I am only an android."
- General question: I never really thought about it before, but someone recently pointed out to me that my TV reviews are all in present tense. I like writing that way because I like trying to capture some of the excitement of a good episode in the summary, but I honestly don't know how it reads for anyone else. Should I switch to past tense? Is this confusing?
- Next week, it's (woo!) "Sarek" and (oh sweet dear jeebus) "Menage a Troi."