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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Hollow Pursuits (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Hollow Pursuits is another demonstration of just how far Star Trek: The Next Generation has come in its third season. It’s a show comfortable enough with its cast and setting that it’s willing to look at the Enterprise from a completely fresh angle – to examine what it must be like to work on the Enterprise in the shadow of Geordi and Riker and Picard, getting none of the glory and making none of the decisions.

Hollow Pursuits is the first time we’ve really seen a dysfunctional member of the Enterprise crew, with Dwight Schultze showing up as Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Reginald Barclay. Barclay is a character unlike any the franchise had produced to date, and Schultze is incredibly charming in the role. It’s no wonder that he went on to become one of the franchise’s most loved guest stars, recurring several times over the course of The Next Generation, popping up in Star Trek: First Contact and even visiting Star Trek: Voyager a few times.

Straight to the point...

Straight to the point…

In many ways, Hollow Pursuits really represents a departure from the norm for The Next Generation. Most notably, it is aware of just how hyper-functional our leads are. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the first couple of seasons of The Next Generation was the sense that the Enterprise was staffed by perfect people. The senior staff never seemed to meet a problem they couldn’t work around; nobody was ever tired or angry; nobody was ever frustrated or upset; everybody was sharp and eager.

Seth MacFarlane frequently joked that the Enterprise was the most professional workplace in the history of television, and he’s correct. Watching the first two seasons, it seemed like everything on the ship ran like clockwork, as if everybody on the ship was always on top form all of the time, and never missed a step. Even the show’s resident teenager was quite capable of saving the ship in a pinch. While this was quite unsettling in a way, creating the impression that 24th century humanity had purged any sort of dysfunction or any human flaws.

Raising a glass...

Raising a glass…

Hollow Pursuits plays with this idea, wondering what it might be like to be a perfectly average person serving on the Enterprise, surrounded by all these incredibly smart individuals. This is a ship so well-oiled that a warning to a junior technician immediately sets off alarm bells for the captain. “I’m not accustomed to seeing an unsatisfactory rating for one of my crew,” Picard remarks, giving us a sense of just how rare this sort of thing must be.

And it’s worth noting that Barclay isn’t exactly a bad officer. He’s not negligent or incompetent. He’s just not particularly energetic or enthused. He’s perfect middle-management material, the kind of guy who settles into a little niche and makes himself comfortable – never exerting himself any more than he has to. “I just don’t know what to do with him,” Geordi complains. “The guy’s always late, he never gives his best effort, just slides by. I’m telling you, I can’t deal with it anymore. I mean, how does a guy like that make it through the Academy?”

Crossing swords with the captain...

Crossing swords with the captain…

While these are hardly professional traits, it’s worth noting that Barclay isn’t a particularly serious problems. He’s not loud or obnoxious, he’s not endangering others, he’s not expressing racist views or acting aggressively; he seems to be familiar with his work and is respectful and capable of following orders – if not acting under his own initiative. And yet, for some reason, this attitude seems to get under the skin of all those around him.

“I hate to say it but, I always thought I could work with anybody,” Geordi explains. “But I just don’t understand this guy. Broccoli makes me nervous, Captain. He makes everybody nervous.” It’s rather creepy. Whatever the problems with Barclay showing up late for work, which is a legitimate complaint, there’s something very disconcerting about the crew’s attitude towards him, which seems to amount to a dislike of Barclay because he’s “different” or “strange.”

He'll tell you when he's had enough...

He’ll tell you when he’s had enough…

It’s a rather harsh criticism of the Enterprise crew, but one that doesn’t feel entirely unfair. After all, how frustrating must it be to work on a ship staffed by those sorts of hyper-competent individuals. One brilliantly effective scene has Wesley, with typical social tact, politely ripping each and every one of Barclay’s suggests to shreds at an Engineering staff briefing. This is a teenager who hasn’t even graduated the Academy. In contrast, Barclay is a forty-something lieutenant (junior grade).

(One of the nicer touches of the episode is that Barclay is so awkward and uncool that even Wesley picks on him. Given that the first thing Michael Piller did on The Next Generation was to establish Wesley as dysfunctional in Evolution, this is quite a telling touch. It’s Wesley who (unintentionally) humiliates Barclay in the briefing and then has to have Geordi explain what he did wrong. It’s also Wesley who gives Barclay the rather insulting nickname “Broccoli.”)

A bit of a fix...

A bit of a fix…

Indeed, in what becomes a recurring theme of episodes taking the focus off the senior staff, Riker is apparently quite the jerk to those outside the command clique. He rather publicly calls out Barclay, who is too terrified to make eye contact, and seems more interested in the ship’s reputation than with the well-being of the socially awkward junior office. “I don’t know what you got away with at your last posting, but this is the Enterprise,” he warns Barclay. “We set a different standard here.” Later on, he muses, “I guess the issue is whether Mister Barclay is Enterprise material.”

To be fair, this is apparently consistent with how military vessels tend to operate. The executive officer’s job description is results-orientated. He’s charged – as the name implies – with executing the orders given by his commanding officer. As Saul Tigh noted on Next Generation writer Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, “If the crew doesn’t hate the XO, then he’s not doing his job.” So Riker’s portrayal makes sense, and I quite like that Riker does have some sizeable character flaws that remain consistent throughout the show.

It's like kicking a puppy...

It’s like kicking a puppy…

At the same time, the Enterprise is a vessel that puts a therapist on the bridge, with her own special chair. Starfleet is typically portrayed as a sensitive and understanding institution, with a great deal of sympathy for those dealing with personal problems. After all, this modern Enterprise was built to accommodate families, suggesting that it was intended more as a floating community than a military craft.

And while Barclay is clearly dysfunctional, Hollow Pursuits remains pretty sympathetic to the engineer. Geordi spends the whole episode whining about how tough it is to have to extend common courtesy to this weirdo, only to have Guinan put things in context. Applying the “crew-as-family” metaphor that would become a feature of the show’s fourth season, Guinan describes “the family misfit.” Geordi offers, “He just doesn’t fit in here.” Guinan responds, “The idea of fitting in just repels me.” After all, isn’t Star Trek about celebrating diversity?

On the fence?

On the fenc(ing)?

Indeed, Guinan rather squarely holds the crew to task for their attitude towards Barclay, and how that undoubtedly shapes his own difficulties. “If I felt that nobody wanted to be around me, I’d probably be late and nervous too,” she matter-of-factly states, even as Geordi continues to make excuses for why nobody likes being around Barclay. It’s a rather wonderful twist on what we’ve come to expect from The Next Generation, a chance to view the cast from another (altogether unflattering) angle.

Of course, Hollow Pursuits is hardly too flattering in its portrayal of Barclay, as sympathetic as it remains towards the under-achieving lieutenant. Veteran character actor Dwight Schultze is wonderful in the role, and it’s easy to see how the character became a recurring guest star. (As a matter of fact, Schultze actually appeared more times in Voyager than on The Next Generation.) Still, there remains something a little uncomfortable about Barclay.

Grabbing life by the throat...

Grabbing life by the throat…

For one thing, Barclay feels like a conscious effort to evoke Star Trek fandom. In a way, this is only natural. After all, The Next Generation has developed to the point where it can be self-reflexive. The Bonding was an episode that deconstructed the whole “red shirt” phenomenon, an aspect of Star Trek that has become part of the cultural lexicon. Booby Trap played with the idea of the holodeck, much as Hollow Pursuits does.

Star Trek fandom was not anything new by the time that Hollow Pursuits aired. Indeed, the franchise had been kept alive through the seventies by conventions and fan fiction and fanzines. Roddenberry had worked hard to cultivate these fans and to maintain ties with them. The Cage used to tour with Roddenberry, long before it was broadcast on television. Geordi LaForge was named for a disabled Star Trek fan. Several of the writers on staff were fans.

She's the goddess of his desire...

She’s the goddess of his desire…

Indeed, Melinda Snodgrass has talked about how she had conspired with Richard Manning and Hans Beimler to write a sequel to A Piece of the Action, revealing that the planet of Sigma Iotia II had been cultivated into a culture of Trekkies in the wake of Kirk’s visit. It was shot down, but the idea was so interesting that Moore suggested reviving it for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s contribution to the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations.

Fans were a part of the show’s cultural identity. The media had begun paying attention to the fan circuit in the early seventies, as large numbers attended conventions to celebrate the show. William Shatner’s infamous “get a life!” sketch was broadcast on Saturday Night Live in December 1986, making fun of obsessive fans on the highest profile comedy show in America. The same month, Newsweek ran a less than flattering cover story on Star Trek fandom.

An engineering group...

An engineering group…

There is some debate over whether Barclay was consciously intended to evoke Star Trek fandom. As Lincoln Geraghty notes in The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture:

He consequently articulates many of the contradictions by which Star Trek fans have come to be understood. Intelligent and creative, yet socially awkward and emotionally erratic, Barclay initially compensates for his supposed inadequacies through a fantasy world in which he imaginatively reshapes existing crew members to boost his self-esteem. He is consequently reprimanded for using their images for his own ends (precisely the activity Jenkins terms as “poaching,” activities which are continuously threatened by electronic copyright laws in terms of appropriating characters supposedly owned by Paramount).

Barclay is an underachieving socially-awkward middle-age white man who escapes to a world of fantasy to avoid his own inadequacies. There’s certainly enough material to warrant a comparison.

Taking a stab at some creative work...

Taking a stab at some creative work…

Writer Sarah Higley, interviewed in The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine, confessed the similarities were intentional.  “Barclay is a Star Trek fan,” she argued, “making these wonderful Star Trek characters in the Holodeck say and do whatever he wants them to do.” Although she writes under the pen name Sally Caves, Higley is a Professor of English at the University of Rochester. She has a fascination with on-line culture and virtual reality, even building and maintaining a copy of the Rossell Hope Robbins Library in Second Life.

Given Higley’s fascination with virtual reality and on-line culture, it seems quite reasonable that Barclay’s escape to the holodeck was intended to evoke the emergence of on-line Star Trek communities. After all, the net.startrek discussion group was founded in 1982, so it was hardly new in mid-1990. While fan culture had developed through newsletters and conventions, it really blossomed on-line, and so Barclay’s holodeck addiction (“holodiction”) seems like a nice metaphor for that aspect of fandom’s relationship to the show.

Getting his hands dirty...

Getting his hands dirty…

Even Schultze himself sees Barclay as a stand-in for the fans. interviewed by Star Trek Monthly, he suggested, “I think they thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we write a character who is just like the rest of the Human race and put him on the Bridge. I bet our fandom will identify with him.'” Of course, members of the production were quick to argue that Barclay was not intended as a parody or a satire on fandom. In Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, Michael Piller argues:

It really was not intended directly at Star Trek fans. It was certainly about fantasy life versus reality. More than any other character in the three years I have been at Star Trek, the character of Barclay was more like me than anybody else. My wife watched that show and saw what was going on, and said that’s [me] because I’m constantly in my fantasy world. Fortunately, I make a living at it. I have an extraordinary fantasy life and use my imagination all the time. It’s real life that I have the problems with. I was delightfully happy with the episode.

It is worth noting that this rings true with Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr’s recollections of Piller. In particular, Barclay’s heartfelt monologue about his awkwardness in social situations – “I mean, I’m the guy who writes down things to remember to say when there’s a party… and then when he finally get there, he winds up alone in the corner trying to look comfortable examining a potted plant” – evokes Moore and Behr’s tales of Piller’s social difficulties. (It’s also just a wonderfully moving piece of dialogue in its own right, delivered beautifully.)

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

However, Barclay is still presented in a context that evokes fandom – making Hollow Pursuits something of a companion piece to The Most Toys. The villain of the next episode, Kivas Fajo, is the stereotypical “collector”, obsessed with owning the things that excite him. Barclay exerts his ownership in a rather different manner, using his own interest in the characters to tell his own Star Trek stories.

Barclay has engaged with fictional creations to an extent that they are his friends and companions, even though they cannot exist as real people. Trying to explain the situation to Geordi, Barclay argues, “You know, the people I create in there are more real to me than anyone I meet out here.” That’s a pretty sensitive depiction of obsessive fandom, a touching portrayal of a character more engaged with a simulated reality than the world they live in.

A waking dream...

A waking dream…

Of course, Barclay creates. He tells stories in the holodeck. The episode opens with a wonderful fake-out where the new guest star proceeds to tell Geordi to get lost before beating up Riker and seducing Counsellor Troi. Barclay doesn’t just evoke fan fiction writers, his opening scene evokes a very particular type of fan fiction, as Sue Short notes in Cult Telefantasy Series:

Like Sally Sparrow in Blink, diagnostic engineer Lt. Reg Barclay recalls a specific fan-produced story in which an ordinary person (known as the “Mary Sue”) is inserted into the text and granted heroic status.

Although a contentious descriptor, it is worth noting that the “Mary Sue” character originated within Star Trek fan fiction, albeit as a parody of a particular type of storytelling. The term is somewhat divisive, with some arguing that the description is sexist. Hollow Pursuits neatly sidesteps any gender issues by making Barclay male.

He's quite handy with those things...

He’s quite handy with those things…

That said, the show does open up all manner of uncomfortable issues. Most notably, the fact that the female cast members are reduced to sexual objects in Barclay’s fantasies, and that the show itself seems perfectly fine with this. Sarah Projansky argues in When the Body Speaks:

Given the parallels between the diegetic holodeck and the television text in terms of representation, when Troi and the narrative absolve Barclay of guilt for looking at women without their consent they also absolve the spectator of any any responsibility for objectifying women’s bodies in virtual (“Hollow Pursuits”), mental (“Violations”), or actual (“The Child“) rape scenes.

Still, it’s a decidedly complex issue, and while Hollow Pursuits doesn’t directly engage with these issues – it does seem directly aware of them. There’s no ambiguity about Barclay’s relationship with holo!Troi, for example, even if nobody really talks about that. It’s left to the audience to reach their own conclusions.

Troi-ing to make a move...

Troi-ing to make a move…

Again, there’s a sense that the shows is sort of tiptoeing around the creepy aspects of the holodeck that it raised in Booby Trap. Indeed, Geordi gets the hypocritical line of the episode when he remarks to Barclay, “It is kind of unusual, recreating people you already know.” Of course, Geordi. It’s much less unusual to create a hologram with the appearance and personality of somebody you have never met.

One might wonder about this. Surely Barclay’s use of the crew violates some of their privacy and image rights? Given how strongly Riker felt about cloning in Up the Long Ladder, the show seems curiously comfortable with Barclay’s appropriation of the Enterprise crew’s likenesses. Troi doesn’t seem upset that Barclay has decided to engage in a sexual relationship with a character modelled on her appearance – she is upset that she has been reduced to “the goddess of empathy”, in a scene played for laughs.

They should get to the point of their visit...

They should get to the point of their visit…

To be fair, Hollow Pursuits does concede that what Barclay does is “not okay”, and the crew’s willingness to forgive his conduct speaks to the show’s enlightened ideals – could you remain in your work place if your boss discovered something like that? However, the ending makes it all seem too easy and too tidy. Barclay deletes all his programmes (save one) and commits to live in the real world, battling his addiction after being proven a hero who saved the ship. It feels like Hollow Pursuits is trying too hard to wrap itself up in a nice little bow for the audience at home.

Here, as ever, the holodeck here strains credibility – and not in some silly nitty-gritty mechanical sort of way. It has nothing to do with phased protons or energy fields or any techno-babble like that. It’s just absurd to believe that humanity would build a device that works like that on a pragmatic day-to-day level. Barclay can make copies of his superior officers so conveniently? There are no safeguards to prevent that or at least alert the person involved? Barclay receives no warning from the computer when three of those officers decide to enter his holographic programme?

Make believe make out...

Make believe make out…

That said, at least Hollow Pursuits continues the trend of exploring the idea of the holodeck, rather than simply using it as an excuse for location shooting and period costumes. In the Resistance is Futile documentary, writer Melinda Snodgrass talks at length about her dislike of the concept, and it really seems to explain why the show felt the need to take this sort of critical approach to the material:

I got myself in terrible trouble at the beginning of the third season because we were in a meeting and I said “can we discover that the holodeck causes cancer please, and get rid of it?” What I didn’t realise is that Gene had created the holodeck and he loved the holodeck. And he was not happy with me. I found this out later from my bosses. “You know he created the holodeck! You stepped in it!” I really stepped in it.

Because I thought the holodeck made for lazy storytelling and for lazy writing. And I wanted it gone. And I remember thinking, “if you’re on a space ship and you can see the whole universe, why would you go in a blank room and play with yourself?” I mean, you’re not even playing with other people! If they would at least all go down and play in the holodeck and it was like a big roleplaying game, I could at least say “okay!”

But it was like Picard would go down and play by himself, or Data would go down and play by himself, and then the thing would break down and try to take over the ship. And I kept thinking, if the computer broke down and tried to take over the ship more than one time, you would rip it out! And so that was one of the points I where was coming at it from a novelist’s perspective.”

This approach would reach its climax in Galaxy’s Child in the fourth season, with Leah Brahms actually taking Geordi to task for the creepiness implied in Booby Trap. Ultimately, though, like in Hollow Pursuits, it’s all forgiven and forgotten relatively quickly.

Holo halls...

Holo halls…

Still, Hollow Pursuits is an absolutely fascinating episode, and a demonstration of just how willing The Next Generation was to take chances and play with the franchise and the audience towards the end of what has been a pretty phenomenal season of television.

Read our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

6 Responses

  1. Great review. I totally agree with everything you said. Very rare thing to happen in any review one reads. When watching this a few years I had the same thoughts about how Barcley was treated by Wesley. Wesley is a character that has come under a lot of criticism but here he deserves it. His making names for Barcley,is a example of the victim becoming the victimizer.

    Did you read my questions regarding Captain’s Holiday? I was interested in hearing your thoughts.

    • Hi Zeno!

      I did indeed get your question. Sorry, I spent the last week-and-a-bit at the Dublin Film Festival, with these posts running on autopilot. Only got around to it now. (Am still quite zonked.)

      Thanks for the kind words. The Wesley thing jumped out at me as well, and I think you’re on to it there – there is an element of a victim compensating or projecting to this. It’s very weird that nobody ever explicitly calls Wesley out on this, with Picard firmly advising Geordi and Riker to cut it out. That said, Picard’s slip of the tongue is simultaneously one of the most tragic and hilarious moments from the third season of the show. The bit where he catches himself, and knowing that he was the only crew member professional enough to realise how unprofessional it was, is just bitterly ironic.

      • The thing about that scene is Riker making the face at Picard when does it. Riker is such a jackass sometimes. To be honest I can’t stand that character. By far my least favorite character on this show. And as for Georgi,you think being a blind man he would be more understanding,but he is not until Guienan sets him straight. The dislike towards this character is just really surprising for these people.

        Another point is I am surprised that Roddenberry even allowed this to made since everyone is supposed to like everybody else.
        Do you know anything about this?

        Do not know why but I always thought the name Sally Caves was a pen name. IMDB says she only wrote two scripts. This one and a Deep Space Nine one. She does have wikipeida entry however.

      • I think Roddenberry’s influence was beginning to weaken at this point in the season.

        After all Ira Steven Behr and Ron Moore both tell stories about Roddenberry tearing into their pitches for Captain’s Holiday and Family. While Gene managed to get Holiday altered to fit most (but not all) of his criteria, he wasn’t able to prevent Family from airing as was. Hollow Pursuits is part of that stretch between those two, towards the end of the third season, where you can see Gene’s grip on the show really loosening. (I think that Menage a Troi, written in part by Roddenberry disciple Susan Sackett, is the last truly Roddenberry-esque piece of Star Trek – the last that really feels like it could have been a Roddenberry idea itself rather than something extrapolated from his vision.)

        I think Caves is better known as an academic than as a fiction writer, and I think that Hollow Pursuits benefits from being written by somebody with an interest in those sorts of scoial implications of the holodeck beyond simply “let’s do some location shooting!”

        With regards to Riker, I’ve found him really interesting revisiting the show as an adult. When I was a child, Riker was the most boring member of the ensemble to me, never as cool as the producers wanted him to be. Now, having grown up and spent some time in the real world, Riker feels like the most grounded character on the show. He’s a jerk who really enjoys his position of authority and who never seems particularly friendly to people outside his social clique.

        And it’s there from the first season (at least as early as his conversation with Data and Geordi in 11001001), even if it seemed like Frakes caught on to it quicker than the writing staff. I don’t want to imply that I think he’s a good person, but I think there’s some wonderfully subtle nuance to Riker’s character that I am enjoying a lot more on rewatch.

  2. Robert does not use the word “zonked” unless in a text posting that informs people that Robert does not use the word “zonked”.

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