Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Nth Degree

Barclay! Super-brains! Walks around the arboretum! Here's our latest look-back at Star Trek: The Next Generation season four...

This review contains spoilers.

4.19 Nth Degree

The episode opens as Lt. Reg Barclay and Dr. Crusher perform some AmDram in front of the crew, whose enlightened 24th Century dispositions allow them to appreciate even the most stilted and awkward performance. And that’s just from the D-list ensigns they have to shove into every episode now that Wesley’s gone. Everyone congratulates Barclay’s progress even though he’s terrible, and Data even learns a pithy lesson about being polite (and with that box ticked, he basically disappears for the rest of the episode.)

Barclay still isn’t feeling confident, but is happy when Geordi picks him to go on a mission to examine a probe that has disabled the Argus Array, a subspace telescope that has been disabled and needs to be fixed. Geordi and Barclay are just getting into their scans when the probe gives Barclay 10,000 watts to the face, knocking him out completely.

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Back on the ship, Barclay awakes and is instantly more confident in his mannerisms. In fact, he’s even coming up with solutions no-one has thought of before. When the probe turns on the Enterprise he manages to reconfigure some techno-nonsense so that they can blow it up and save the ship, to the obvious surprise of everyone involved. Troi looks on suspiciously.

After suggesting a radical way to fix the damaged Array, Barclay returns to his acting class where he gives a performance so moving that Dr. Crusher weeps openly. Meanwhile Troi looks on suspiciously (again). She eventually speaks to Barclay in Ten-Forward and confronts him about his newfound confidence. He responds by trying to chat her up. She rejects his invitations, but she’s clearly surprised that he felt he could even try.

The next morning, La Forge goes to find Barclay when he fails to make a meeting on time (the ultimate crime on the Enterprise, as we well know) and discovers that he’s arguing string unification with holographic Einstein (who is ploughing his time into theory with only 10 spatial dimensions, the idiot). Barclay apologises, but La Forge is sick of this nonsense and forces him to visit a doctor. It turns out the probe gave him superbrains, and he’s getting smarter all the time.

Of course, not everyone thinks this is particularly great, and the senior staff try to decide whether or not to let him roam around or confine him to quarters. Eventually they decide he’s caused them no obvious harm, so he should be allowed to continue his work. Then he almost instantly plugs his brain into the Enterprises computer and takes it over. Bad call, everyone.

Using the brain-link he designed, Barclay’s consciousness replaces the Enterprise’s computer. Since he no longer responds to orders (or even a friendly chat with Troi) it’s decided that he should be forcibly removed, but that doesn’t work either because he had the foresight to erect forcefields. A diabolical strategy!

As the Enterprise crew run out of options, Barclay uses the engines to warp subspace and transport them 30,000 light years away, to the galactic core. Here, they meet a giant floating head alien who speaks like he was bussed in from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Apparently the race in this star system are so lazy that they like to explore by bringing ships to them, so Barclay did exactly what they want. The Enterprise crew stick around to share information, and try not to think about the array they failed to repair.

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Unfortunately, Barclay is now back to normal and lacks the super-genius skills that made everyone invite him to their meetings. But he’s feeling slightly more confident in himself, and Troi takes him for a walk around the arboretum as a reward.

TNG WTF: I know Barclay’s a bit weird, but it takes a LOT of time before anyone starts going “hey, maybe being zapped in the face by an alien flash bulb did something to him.” It’s not like this isn’t a regular occurrence on board the Enterprise. They can’t do five missions without someone being elevated to a higher level of consciousness, or transcending this plane of existence, or being taken over by an alien race.

TNG LOL: Jonathan Frakes really goes to town with his facial expressions in this episode. He’s not given a lot of lines so watching his frankly bizarre choice of reactions to other people’s dialogue had me hypnotised. There’s not a single choice that makes sense.

To Boldly Go: The Enterprise’s all-important mission of exploration sees them sent to fix a broken telescope. Incidentally, they do not complete this task.

Mistakes and Minutiae: A fun little touch that you couldn’t possibly know if you’re watching them in order, but Jim Norton (who plays Holo-Einstein) reprises the role in Season Six. I’ll probably forget to mention it then so I’m mentioning it now

Who’s That Face?: Aha! Not a face this week, but a voice. Ensign blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Brower is David Coburn, the voice of Captain Planet. Yeah, THE Captain Planet. Look impressed because it is impressive.

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Time Until Meeting: 15:42. Barclay is invited to sit in on the meeting about how they might fix the Argus array.

Captain’s Log: Maybe it’s just because I like Barclay, but I’ve been really looking forward to this episode, and it did not disappoint. Perhaps my favourite thing is that it didn’t just go full Flowers For Algernon, which would’ve been the easy way out of the plot. Nope, the Enterprise crew completely loses control of the situation and basically they would’ve died if the circumstances had been less benevolent. In narrative terms it’s probably not particularly satisfying for the lead characters to be passive observers to the story’s climax, but as a sci-fi nerd I enjoyed the exploration of an idea through to its natural conclusion.

Dwight Schultz is great, though. This crew is stuffed with hyperconfident, best-in-class types, so it’s always refreshing to get clumsy, bumbling Barclay on stage (in this episode, literally) so that we can watch the characters’ obvious irritation with him. By all rights he probably shouldn’t be on the Enterprise at all, but he’s got such personality that you can’t help but want him in every episode.

Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, Identity Crisis, here.