Being Shy on the Enterprise

Season 3, Episode 21 – “Hollow Pursuits”

I loved this episode. It’s a character-driven short story with a protagonist we’ve never seen before – some shy guy who everyone (even Wesley Crutcher) calls “Broccoli.”

Lieutenant Barclay pisses Geordi and Riker off by being late to his post, and delivering his engineering analysis in stumbling sentences. He spends his time on the holodeck hanging out with variations of the crew – a much shorter and squeakier Riker, Troi – goddess of empathy in flowing robes, and a wonderful caricature of Wesley as Georgie Porgie.

But outside the holodeck the ship is crumbling, and Barclay’s creativity is needed to solve the mystery of the sudden ship malfunctions.

The previous episode, “Tin Man”, also dealt with an outsider. A prodigy empath, who seeks the solace of alien creatures that communicate at Ent-like speeds so that he won’t be overwhelmed with their voices inside his head.

But while the main character in “Tin Man” was too far removed from the rest of the crew to evoke empathy from the audience, Barclay is a Starfleet officer. He’s what many people – including myself – would probably be like if transferred from real life onto the Enterprise. Picard would be terrifying as a boss. And even if given the chance to show your skill, then Wesley pipes in, telling you your half-spoken idea is incorrect.

So it’s no surprise that Barclay’s perilously close to holodiction. Geordi’s the only person in the real world who feels as real to Barclay as the projections on the holodeck. But Geordi surprises Barclay with an admission:

“Listen, I know how you feel. I fell in love on the holodeck once, but you’ve got to know when to let it go.”

Anytime there’s holodeck shenanigans it can be easy to brush off the episode as silly. Look – there’s Picard, Geordi, and Data as a very rowdy set of Musketeers! (Everyone on the Enterprise looks better with long, flowing locks, apparently.)

But if you look back through the crew’s use of the holodeck, Barclay really isn’t that different.

Remember Riker’s perfect woman, impossible to replicate without the complex interactions of the Bynars?

And what about that moving scene between Worf and K’Ehleyr, when he proposes marriage after they’ve made love in the rush following a satisfying holodeck battle?

And of course Geordi falling in love with a woman he’ll never meet, the holodeck representation of his intellectual peer. Together solving an engineering quandry that’s nerdy, sensual foreplay.

So we might expect for the crew to understand Barclay’s desire to escape. If there weren’t holodecks on board, he’d be reading books. I bet he’d have great discussions with Picard.

Early on in the episode, when the stakes are low, everyone’s taking potshots at Barclay. Geordi forcing himself to be civil to a crewmate – it isn’t a scenario I had expected. It’s interesting, and it opens up space for this exchange:

Barclay: Being afraid all of the time, of forgetting somebody’s name, not, not knowing…what to do with your hands. I mean, I, I am the guy who writes down things to remember to say when there’s a party. And then, when he finally gets there, he winds up alone, in the corner, trying to look comfortable examining a potted plant.

Geordi: You’re just shy, Barclay.

Barclay: Just shy…Sounds like nothing serious – doesn’t it?

Watching episodes of The Next Generation, especially in sequence night after night, the Enterprise can begin to seem like a perfect environment, where the threats are almost always from external forces. The crew will come through in the end, thanks to teamwork and individual competence.

But I like having life on the Enterprise be a little less perfect. It makes the crew feel more open to failure, more vulnerable to even small dangers. After all, they’re out in the far reaches of space, often very alone.

The world they live in is made more realistic by showing that it is a place from which people need to escape.

Barclay on the holodeck, after deleting all but one of his programs
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