Fair warning – I am about to get my geek on and talk about Star Trek yet again. What can I say, I like Trek.
Not too long ago I read an article on startrek.com that was Jordan Hoffman’s rather negative take on the character Lt. Reginald ‘Reg’ Barclay III, or just Barclay for short. For those of you who perhaps aren’t quite so obsessed with Star Trek (ST) as I am, Barclay was a character first introduced in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Hollow Pursuits. Barclay is a very different sort of fellow from what we had gotten used to in ST. Unlike the legions of perfect people, Barclay is flawed. He is shy, he is anxious, he has phobias. He is awkward, he stumbles over his words, he is deeply unsure of himself especially in terms of interacting with other people.
Hoffman views the Barclay character as a Mary Sue; not as an authors wish fulfillment character, but as the writer’s idea of what sort of character ST fans could or would relate to. “whether it was true or not, the whole endeavor seemed like a network exec was making fun of me. By which I mean us – the Star Trek fans. “Oh, those dweebs who never get picked for the soccer team, man, they’re gonna’ love this guy. A holodeck addiction? He’s one of them!” “ He views Barclay as an insult – especially early Barclay, in his first introduction.
As will probably come as no surprise, my take is rather different. Though I will initially admit – I could, right away, identify with Barclay and his troubles. I, too, am shy and anxious and awkward.
A good, though brief, explanation of some of Barclay’s troubles, and mine, can be found in a conversation Barclay has with Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge:
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? You can’t know.
I know what it’s like to feel those things, and I know what it’s like to have people judge me for them. While he was certainly a rather extreme characterization of these things, it was still nice to see something like this amidst all the hordes of Perfect People we had gotten so far. This is a point I will return to later.
Hoffman comments, regarding the first time he saw Hollow Pursuits, “I instantly knew that the episode was going to end by, basically, everyone giving Barclay a big hug and letting him feel good about himself.” While the episode can certainly be viewed that way, I see it as an over simplification. Throughout the episode we also follow the rest of the crew and how they react to Barclay. Mostly, the react with derision and mockery. They call him “Broccoli” behind his back and at one point, Captain Picard accidentally does so to his face. Clearly, no one knows what to do with this guy, so they treat him as beneath them. As lesser, as unworthy of the basic respect and decency they extend to everyone else. If we are going to talk about character flaws, that sort of behavior definitely qualifies. They are being cruel and at some points, outright bullying.
Much of the episode is also, therefore, devoted to various members of the crew needing to overcome their own prejudices, and learn to look at other people with more compassion and empathy. This is shown beautifully in a conversation that takes place between Guinan, the ship’s bartender/listener and the aforementioned Geordi. (If you’re feeling particularly obsessive, you can read the entire conversation here, scroll down to section 14A)
GEORDI: Maybe I didn’t make myself clear… Barclay, he’s always late… he’s nervous… nobody wants to be around him…
GUINAN: If I had the feeling that nobody wanted to be around me, I’d probably be late and nervous too.
GEORDI: *frowns* Guinan, that’s not the point…
GUINAN: Are you sure?
I think that particular bit of conversation really exemplifies what is going on here. Geordi is looking for reasons to judge Barclay. To take his personal dislike of the man and make it “right” and that Barclay is “wrong,” and Guinan is pointing out the problems with that. So while the episode certainly did show Barclay struggling with and overcoming certain select parts of his own issues, it also shows his crewmates struggling with their own biases and reactions to him. And yes, the episode does end with the crew basically giving Barclay a big hug, but the journey to get there took place on both sides and everyone, even the esteemed Captain Picard, had to take a look at themselves and see the harm that they were doing.
Overall, I like this look at anxiety and social awkwardness. I like the open admission that the blame cannot fall entirely on the person who is anxious, that it is only good and right to meet people halfway, and that even “perfect” people can have prejudices that they need to overcome.
And speaking of Perfect People, at the end of the episode Barclay has made steps forward, but he is not “fixed.” He stays anxious and shy and awkward, and while he matures and improves throughout his future appearances on The Next Generation and Voyager, he is always different and somewhat apart from everyone else. He is also, importantly, brilliant at what he does and whether we like it or not, a valuable member of the crew. I appreciate the nod ST gives to the fact that you do not have to be a Perfect Person to be able to meaningfully contribute to society and those around you. You can have a strong society, a strong crew, without it being made up entirely of those Perfect People. There is room for all of us, and we do not necessarily have to be forced to Be Like Everyone Else.