Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Hollow Pursuits

James looks back at one of season three's best Star Trek TNG episodes, introducing hapless Lieutenant Barclay...

This review contains spoilers.

3.21 Hollow Pursuits

The episode opens in Ten-Forward, where a character we’ve never seen before – Lieutenant Reginald Barclay – is causing a scene. He beats up La Forge, then Riker, then is about to sweep Troi off her feet when he’s interrupted and called to the cargo bay by… La Forge! Turns out he’s actually on the holodeck. Like M. Night Shyamalan if he directed an episode of The Twilight Zone, you did not see it coming.

When Barclay gets to the cargo bay he’s given a dressing down by Riker and La Forge for his lateness and generally neglectful behaviour. They lament how such a loser managed to make it onto the Enterprise anyway. Although a better question might be how he made it to Lieutenant when he’s basically incompetent. It certainly wasn’t his firm handshake. Meanwhile La Forge’s team discovers a seal on one of their canisters has broken, sewing mystery dry ice everywhere. It’s probably not important.

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Barclay is given the honour of repairing a malfunctioning anti-grav platform, while Riker and La Forge head up to Picard’s office to see if they can secretly get him transferred to a different ship. Given that the Enterprise doesn’t appear to be on a mission right now, Picard decides that they’ll deal with the problem rather than pass the buck. He insists that La Forge become Barclay’s best friend and help him out of his shell. It’s like a futuristic Pygmalion or something.

La Forge, clearly taking his task seriously, heads immediately back to Barclay, because it’s not like the Enterprise is on a mission right now so he basically can do whatever he likes. He invites Barclay to come along to the morning meeting of important staff members, which an anxious Barclay agrees to do. Of course he arrives late, but he starts to give his report before Wesley shuts him down. Barclay returns to the holodeck to deal with his anger, which involves getting weird with Holo-Troi (which is probably a shade less insane than repeatedly snapping a Holo-Wesley’s neck would be, admittedly.)

As the malfunctions stack up throughout the ship, Barclay’s investigation starts to become more urgent. After some helpful counsel from Guinan (I say helpful. It’s mostly about her.) he decides to give Barclay a change, only to find him on the holodeck fighting musketeer versions of Data, Picard and La Forge while an empathic-love-goddess version of Troi wanders around wearing nothing but a sheet.

When he’s found out, he’s suitably embarrassed and offers to leave, but La Forge tries to help him past it, referencing the time he fell in love with his own demented holo-creation (in the episode Booby Trap). Barclay agrees to quit, but La Forge orders him into counselling anyway.

As you might expect, given how Barclay regards Troi, her counselling does not go down well and he runs off before she can help him with his problems in any serious way. The bridge is expecting Barclay to come and give a powerpoint presentation about his findings but he doesn’t show up. Annoyed, Riker, Troi and La Forge head to the holodeck, where they run into their own insulting holo-doubles and find Barclay asleep.

Barclay’s about to get in trouble, but the ship’s malfunctions start to get serious: the accelerator’s jammed in the on position, which will quickly tear the ship apart. La Forge needs his entire Engineering braintrust (never seen before or since) to help. They start trying to figure out solutions and eventually Barclay comes up with the leap that saves them: the problem isn’t systemic, it’s being transmitted from person to person. The canister from the start of the episode had some magic science in it that has caused all of the malfunctions. With the theory confirmed, they fix the ship’s broken warp drive and no-one has to die.

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The final scene involves Barclay saying goodbye to the Enterprise bridge crew, explaining his decision to leave as they remind him he’ll always be welcome on the Enterprise. And then he says “Computer, End Program” and it turns out he’s on the holodeck, and he was saying goodbye to his holo-crew. That’s right! They used the same twist at the end of the episode as the start. Now that’s narrative circularity.

TNG WTF: One big question about this episode: why doesn’t the holodeck have any locks? Sure, it’s nice to see an episode where the holodeck doesn’t malfunction and threaten to kill everyone inside, but surely Barclay should be allowed his privacy even if he is using it normally?

Speaking of which, I find it funny that he just went to sleep in there. Is there a booking system for holodecks? Is it first-come, first served? Do people have to run for the sign-up sheet every second Monday? We need to know these important details.

TNG LOL: Basically all of Barclay’s holodeck fantasy is as brutally funny as Star Trek: TNG ever managed to be. The hammed-up musketeers. The diminutive Riker. The brat Wesley who spends the entire time stuffing his face. Troi telling Holo-Troi to “muzzle it.” There’s not a single part of it that isn’t downright amazing.

The actual funniest thing about the holodeck fantasy, though? No Worf. Barclay’s clearly just THAT scared of him.

Mistakes and Minutiae: Barclay refers to the “Flux Capacitor” instead of the “Flow Capacitor”. Deliberate reference, a mistake that got left in deliberately, or a mistake that wasn’t caught? Either way, if the Enterprise had one of those the series would be slightly different (only slightly, though. They already don’t need roads.)

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Time Until Meeting: 6:54. La Forge and Riker have a HR meeting with Picard over Barclay’s failure to hit his quarterly targets for isolinear chip repair. Or something like that.

Who’s That Face?: Dwight Schultz! That’s Murdock from the original A-Team! He was basically a prototype for the style of character Jim Carrey would later perfect (or run into the ground, depending on your point of view).

Captain’s Log: Oh, Barclay. You may be the greatest secondary character in all of Star Trek. Not least because you’re exactly like the people watching: weird, socially maladjusted and more wrapped up in the Enterprise’s bridge crew that their own lives. But in the end you manage to sort yourself out just enough to keep from getting fired. A man after my own heart.

In fairness, I have a specific fondness for this type of episode, which focuses on the periphery of the main cast. It’s particularly interesting to see Riker through the eyes of his subordinate. Suddenly you realise that this uber-charming ladies’ man probably would be insufferable if he was your boss. Especially given how terse he is when you’re not his best mate.

It’s not at all surprising, given this episode, that Barclay returned again and again. It’s almost a shame that, given how familiar the character became, it’s hard to experience that opening scene in the manner it was intended. The majority of viewers come to this episode knowing that Barclay is not the hard-drinkin’, hard-fightin’ guy he’s pretending to be.

As episodes go, it’s probably one of the best yet. An interesting character study with plenty of good moments for everyone in the cast, an intriguing mystery with a satisfyingly non-obvious resolution, an original perspective on the show and more laughs than the rest of the series has had combined. Season Three undoubtedly has its misses, but when it hits, it hits big.

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