Christmas and Easter nihilists

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Burl Bird
    March 6, 2015 @ 2:12 am

    But I'll own them,
    because those mistakes were mine (well, those
    of other-me at any rate), not anyone else's.

    Beautifully put Josh. I can personally relate to this essay, both from present-I and past-me perspectives. Not to mention the whole "Godess of Empathy" episode (I'll continue to call it that way) – I remember Barkley much better from his later appearances, and this episode always felt a bit… hollow 🙂 Fact is, hypocricy seems to be the worst thing that can happen on Enterprise-D, and when it does happen it really strikes low. Be it general hostility, ridicule or irritation (!) in contact with what is said to be a different culture (from Bringloidi to Pakled to Klingons), the crew shows surprisingly little capacity to actually live up to ideals so easily proclaimed. And while I can live with Worf being rough and Riker being impulsive, it hurts seeing lack of empathy and tact with Geordi and Troi. And when it shows up in episodes like this – with interpersonal relations within the crew – I'm not sure how NOT to dismiss the whole story as being off-track and out-of-character (the whole show, not just individual portrayals).

    Well, it could be that most of this episode actually happens in another simulacrum-within-simulacrum… Maybe the program Barkley saves at the end IS a holographic version of an Enterprise hostile towards him – a simulacrum that a masochistic character might enjoy?


  2. gatchamandave
    March 6, 2015 @ 8:02 am

    When this episode was first broadcast I really identified with Barclay, not because I was a nerd in high school but because I was a poorly trained part qualified surveyor working in an office where the more experienced fully qualified surveyors loved nothing better than pitting I and my fellow trainees to compete for brownie points.It was, in short, a bullying culture.

    Now I recognise that the idea of the Enterprise crew being positioned as bullies is an uncomfortable one. But it's worth reflecting on the possibility that they could be seen that way to someone not terribly good at his job who finds himself in a community of folks who are incredibly good at theirs. From experience I know that, rightly or wrongly, one does start seeing oneself as a victim, and interpreting everything as another dig, another boss unfairly focussing on your faults whilst there are others, management favourites and suck-ups so they are, getting clean away with their shit…

    So I think Burl Bird's suggestion. It's how Barclay views the ship and crew, a crew so twisted that when Wesley comes up with a nickname for him everyone goes " hurr, hurr, good one" rather than, say, pointing out that Lieutenants outrank Ensigns and he should shut the fuck up and show some damn respect.

    Are nerds priviliged in the USA then ? I didn't know that. Thanks, it does explain some things such as how they can afford so much stuff.


  3. Daru
    March 8, 2015 @ 10:29 pm

    Really thanks for this post Josh, great writing and good to hear your thoughts on this story. I'll be up front and say that I have a different experience of this tale, though in no way would I ever say you are wrong, or even that I am am "right", as really in the end for me my responses are more emotional rather than a definitive thing needing defended. Basically I always enjoy hearing your views when they are counter to my own as you present them so entertainingly.

    Barclay, then as you may guess, is a character I have a lot of affection for. I agree that he is not a depiction of a nerd, I never saw him as that either, but I have always seen him as the quiet, skilled outsider – not in the overtly tragic Camus sense – but as one of those unassuming folk who plods away in the background.

    That's the thing I love about him, that he was an unseen background guy, then suddenly he was just there, in the stories and becoming part of main plots. For me he fits in perfectly with the utopian aims of the Enterprise as he represents the desire for growth, inner and outer. I can imagine as we move towards utopia, or any kind of growth there is a resistance and Barclay embodies that as he holds onto the habits of this age – distractive addictions to things like TV, internet pornography, adoration of celebrity – I think there is a subtext that if you have holodecks, then there are places you could go with it that relate to our more unsavoury patterns.

    I think the main thing that made Barclay a character I could relate to were his issues around a lack of confidence, which mirrors in a lot of ways my experience from my teens into my late twenties. Now I don't think this relates at all to nerd culture, but simply some of us have at points in our life can have real crippling self-esteem issues, and part of what I enjoyed about Barclay was seeing the journey of someone who, to a degree, through their own patterns of behaviour (like myself) excluded themselves as they wrongly believed they were not good enough, take the journey towards integrating with the wider community.

    As you've said before, the Enterprise seems more of a utopian ideal than Starfleet, and it could be that the semi-militarised structures inherent within Starfleet could lead to stratification that wouldn't help someone like Barclay connect. What's great though is that he's on the Enterprise, and that journey towards community can be taken here.

    About the bullying – I always felt that the story was coming from his point of view, and I know myself that even when it's not present, the imagined or perceived bullying can be just as real. It could indeed be the case that the whole story is indeed set in a recursive series of holodeck simulations (or more, realities, as we know the ship is sentient) as Barclay works through both his fantasies about the crew and his perceived slights from them. Using the place of his habits to heal himself?

    I know I have waffled on a lot and I did love your essay as ever, and thanks for triggering all my thoughts above!


  4. K. Jones
    March 9, 2015 @ 8:06 am

    I identify strongly with Barclay. At certain points of my life I'm sure I could've identified specifically with whichever readings can be read from him. The embittered outsider. The escapism addict. The socially awkward adept. But effectively what I really identify with is Barclay's anxiety. To a person with an anxiety disorder, nice, normal people can seem oppressive and insular. The task of getting out there into the world can seem a task so daunting that retreat into escapism or hobbies seems like a far more reasonable choice, and ignoring the fact that it's damaging your growth as a human gets easier and easier as you go deeper into your own little headspace rabbit holes. Self-image and confidence are certainly part of the problem but they can be rebuilt and rather quickly, actually, and typically by feeling useful (which is exactly what this episode pulls off in its hour).

    Barclay is not bad at socializing. He's not inept at his job. He's a highly trained, highly talented individual and incredibly good at thinking outside-the-box (that comes from standing outside it a lot look around at what's happening in it, and what isn't). In fact Barclay is quite charming before his nerves fail on him. But once they do it's really hard to build them back up again. It's not even that he's thin-skinned, either. It's not as if the "Broccoli" slip from Picard was what spun him into immediate regress in itself. Assuredly this is a guy who can take a joke.

    He just can't take a perceived anti-Barclay conspiracy from his co-workers.

    This episode doesn't do many favors for the a-listers. I like it because they obviously come around in the end but more specifically because it sort of captures what's going on in Barclay's perception rather than necessarily a proper portrait of our heroic and understanding travelers.

    So I don't know if reading so strongly into this story for accurate representation of anxiety disorder comes purely from my own unique perspective or not, but since it's a perspective that informs my experience with the more cliched "escapism trap" or "nerd outcast" tropes. I mean god only knows I feel like a living cliche when I fall into traps of addictive behavior, retreat into my own headspace, et al.


  5. gatchamandave
    March 10, 2015 @ 12:36 am

    K Jones has put his finger on what I was trying today, and did it far better. Kudos


  6. Daru
    March 15, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    "But I got better. I figured things out. I don't take pride in the actions of my past lives, and I still regret some of those things to this day in spite of my constant attempts to remind myself that I was another, different person then. But I'll own them, because those mistakes were mine (well, those of other-me at any rate), not anyone else's.

    Can you do the same?"

    Thanks as ever Josh for such an honest point in your essay. I love your work for this reason. I have since I read the end of this post, been thinking and reflecting back on similar behaviours in myself where in my other past lives, out of my desire to basically be liked, I made some pretty awful mistakes that affected people around me and myself. Some of those times affected my partner (who I am still with) and I have had as a result of those times some real facing up to myself to do and had to really grow up.

    I will add that essentially, I feel all the stronger in my core, and much more grounded in ways than I ever have in my life and feel grateful for the lessons learned.


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