In the twenty-first episode of the third season of The Next Generation, I LOVE SO MUCH ABOUT THIS EPISODE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of anxiety, social anxiety.
It baffles people when I tell them that I used to be perpetually shy.
Social anxiety is a strange thing to discuss when people see me being social in public on a regular basis, but the truth is that at one time â€“ and during certain moments of my present life â€“ I am Lieutenant Reg Barclay. I could not have conversations at parties or kickbacks. I would rehearse extended conversations in front of the mirror in the bathroom or while in the shower, and then not a single one of those imagined exchanges would ever see the light of day. I would avoid raising my hand even if I knew the answer because it meant that people might stare at me.
Early in life, I discovered that if I sat by myself during recess or lunch, often with a book just inches from my face, most people would leave me alone. Not all the time, and I had to always be prepared for someone to bother me or make fun of me or call me a freak because I didn’t fit in. But those books provided me with an easy escape, and I got lost in the worlds of Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, Roald Dahl, and Beverly Cleary. I obsessed over these adventures consistently and frantically. The thing is, I always knew they were escape. It’s not like I could ever fully disappear into these worlds. The bell would ring, and my peers would clamor back to their classrooms, and I’d trudge slowly until I had to put my book away until my next respite. I’d have to go back into a world where I wasn’t a hero, where I wasn’t confident, and where nothing seemed to work in my favor.
That fantasy life was my consolation, but I was also deeply aware of how flawed it was. It didn’t make me feel better in my real life, and I couldn’t seem to translate the things I learned in those books into any sort of significant change. That’s the hard part. So all I did was disappear into universes where I could imagine justice and fairness. As I got older, that happened with more and more frequency, especially once I mastered the library at my elementary school and got my first public library card.
I imagine that there’s a lot in this that sounds familiar to many of you. So how did I get over it? Truthfully, I didn’t fully cure myself, so I don’t want to frame it that way. I still find my anxiety creeping into my veins at every event and panel that I do. I’ve merely learned how to deal with it and how to get better at thinking and speaking on my toes. In high school, I started forcing myself to read in class, to sign up for public speaking, and to learn how to get over many of the common fears that are a part of social anxiety. I learned that for me, preparation was key; while I can do improvisation in videos and readings, I found that any time I needed to provide all of the speaking content myself, I had to prepare it beforehand. (That practice was a godsend for me once I started getting invited to give lectures two years ago.)
I still get horribly nervous; I still doubt myself; I still rehearse conversations in my head. But like Barclay, I found a way to shine, and I think that’s one of the most redeeming factors in “Hollow Pursuits.” Barclay is not demonized by the end of this episode, despite that he is a flawed person who undoubtedly messes up. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most faithful representations of social anxiety that I’ve ever seen, and that’s because it’s done respectfully. That’s not to say that the episode is unwilling to criticize what’s on the screen, but we are not meant to believe that Barclay or anyone like him is hopeless, worthless, or broken. Does Barclay need work? Absolutely. His reliance on the world constructed within the holodeck is a massive obstacle for him, and it’s clear by the end of “Hollow Pursuits” that he has to eventually live entirely in the real world.
But there’s a value in the fantasy, just as much as there’s a possible harm. A fantasy world can provide therapeutic release; it can also create unfair perceptions of people. We see how this world helps Barclay find confidence. And in the same breath, we also witness how it skews his idea of the people around him. Deanna and Dr. Crusher are objectified to serve his needs, and the rest of the crew are made to be buffoons, as if their behavior as crew members was always inappropriate to begin with. But it wasn’t; Barclay’s fantasy exaggerated the people around him.
And yet, Guinan doesn’t give up on him; Picard even orders Geordi to do the same. It’s not long before Geordi is eager to help out Barclay as best he can, and I adore that. I adore that he tries to recognize all the ways in which he and the other crew might be preventing him from feeling like he can contribute. Does he get it right the first time? Of course not, but he’s willing to learn. And he’s willing to understand Barclay and his holodeck world instead of immediately criticizing it.
Ultimately, I think it was bold as hell of the writers to introduce an entirely new cast member, all so that we could see the Enterprise through this lens. It’s a hell of a story, and perhaps the most intimately human of the bunch. There’s an overarching plot that provides some of the suspense, but this episode is solely about Barclay and his fantasy. It’s funny, awkward, and utterly revealing. I want more stories like this, y’all, because it shows the unreal capabilities of The Next Generation as a human drama.
Just Y E S.
The video for “Hollow Pursuits” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
Mark Links Stuff
– I am now on Patreon!!! MANY SURPRISES ARE IN STORE FOR YOU IF YOU SUPPORT ME.
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