“The world of fictional things”: Hollow Pursuits
I never liked “Hollow Pursuits”. I still don’t. Make of that what you will.
I would seem to be in the minority, as I am with literally everything else in my life, up to and including Star Trek. Apparently, a whole lot of people relate to Reginald Barclay on a very profound level, some even going so far as to claim he is the *only* relatable character in the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation cast. Now, I like Barclay too, even though I manifestly do *not* share the same connection with him that so many others have: He’s an interesting character and obviously Dwight Schultz is massively talented, no argument there, but, knowing as I do what a sizable subset of Star Trek fandom looks like, I have to wonder about precisely what so many people see in Barclay, what that says about Trekker culture and whether or not that’s even a reading “Hollow Pursuits” can support. And furthermore, there are some structural and creative quibbles I have with this episode that give me pause as to whether it’s actually sending the proper message it ought to be sending in the context of the situation it’s trying to examine.
The thing about Barclay is that, thanks to his awkwardness and sense of isolation (emotions that are not by themselves shameful or problematic, it should be noted) it’s altogether too easy to read him as a more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Nerd Culture than what Wesley Crusher affords: He’s an engineer, he suffers from crippling social anxiety such that his only recourse is to escape into a world of make-believe and is constantly and unfairly bullied and alienated by his peers, peers who are even described by Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann in their writeup of this episode as “the cool crowd”. Indeed, they even go so far as to say
“Rather than mixing with the cheerleaders and the football stars at hot weekend dance clubs, those kids are more likely to spend their time at home reading a little sci-fi, or playing games online, or attending a Star Trek convention.
Barclay’s a nerd who’s good at solving engineering puzzles, but not at making conversation. he works in a world where sci-fi is reality, online games are life and death and conventions-like baseball-are a thing of the past. So he finds something even better. He finds the holodeck.”
And I’m sorry, but no. No, no, no. This is wrong. So very wrong, and on so many different levels. First of all, it should be stressed, that this was absolutely not the intent of anyone in the creative team. Director Cliff Bole makes it perfectly clear that this episode was not meant to be about Star Trek fans, he would have heard about it if it had and he certainly didn’t see the episode that way himself. Michael Piller has his own take on the episode I’ll talk about a little further on, but the real reason Block and Erdmann are so spectacularly off the mark here has nothing to do with issues of authorial intent. After all, I’ve maintained on this blog for a long time that intent is merely one aspect of a work that informs meaning, and if a text can support a particular reading, well, authorial intent be damned. No, “Hollow Pursuits” absolutely can be read the way Block and Erdmann read it, and I suspect a significant majority of Star Trek fans do as well, and that’s the whole problem with it.
“Hollow Pursuits” offers a bad 1980s teen movie championing version of Nerd Culture. This is Nerd Culture as depicted in War Games, Revenge of the Nerds and every John Hughes movie ever made ever. The Nerd as the shy, unassuming social outcast who is never recognized for being ahead of his time due to his love of electronics and is constantly tormented by programatically irrational bullies and snobby “popular girls” who never go for “nice guys”. Yes, there’s a very slight Star Trek: The Next Generation twist on this structure when it’s revealed Barclay’s holodeck addiction is becoming detrimental to his health and (natch) productivity and the rest of the crew springs in to help someone who’s obviously troubled (I’m not even going to touch how this episode lays the groundwork for retroactively ruining “Booby Trap”, by the way), which would otherwise have been a nice way to redeem this kind of structure, but I don’t think this manages to take at all. Because the fact of the matter is, even though they sort of turn around at the end, this episode still casts the *Enterprise crew* of all people as Barclay’s bullies for the majority of the episode. A ship that Q could once describe as “home for the indigent, the unwanted, the unworthy” has now become textually coded as “the cool crowd”.
This isn’t just character assassination, this is character mass murder.
And I’m sorry, I have to point the finger at Ira Steven Behr’s influence. Only he would think to treat a ship that’s meant to represent an antiauthoritarian, anti-hegemonic progressive utopia as a bunch of snotty prep schoolers reduced to name-calling and gossip. Even Captain Picard can’t believe what’s going on here, except then he starts doing the same things himself. It’s in *this* season with episodes like *this* and thanks to people like Behr that Star Trek: The Next Generation has the reputation it does for being whitewashed, snobby and clinical. It never had that before now (I mean except I guess in “Samaritan Snare”, but can’t we just pretend most of that episode didn’t happen?), and it never *would* have had more people who actually fucking understood what this show was trying to say been working on it and didn’t have their hands tied all the bloody time. This hurts the show, this hurts Star Trek at large and it’s nothing less than an abject rejection of utopianism.
But *it gets worse*.
Because there’s another half to the John Hughes Glorification of the Nerds Master Narrative: It’s ahistorical and incredibly dangerous. Life does not work the way it does in high school movies. Hell, high school does not work the way it does in high school movies. Nerds do not behave they way they do in John Hughes movies. They’re not an oppressed minority, in spite of how much they like to think they are. They are, in fact, incredibly privileged and tend to be incredibly hostile and bigoted. And if you give people predisposed to an ego complex reason to think they’re special and persecuted, as these movies do, then you give them even more weaponry with which to go out and behave even more horrifically. Reginald Barclay is *not* a realistic depiction of a Nerd character; he’s not even a depiction of what that character would look like in a utopian setting (at least maybe not yet: He’s got some good stories coming up, including a personal favourite of mine). Nerds are not entitled to Reginald Barclay. No, the real Nerd character on Star Trek: The Next Generation is and always will be Wesley Crusher, in particular the Wesley of, say, “The Vengeance Factor”. Not just in spite of being hated, but because of it: The only reason Nerds loath Wesley Crusher with the fervor they do is because he hits just a little too close to home for them.
If “Hollow Pursuits” is about the danger of disappearing into a fantasy world. let’s all remember what happens when entire cultures spring up around “cinematic” works of representationalist media that pretend to be “realistic”, but are in truth the exact opposite.
There’s one more thing here. I mentioned earlier that Michael Piller had is own reading of this episode and that it was worth parsing out, and it is. This is what he said about “Hollow Pursuits” as part of an interview in 1991:
“It really was not intended directly at Star Trek fans. It was certainly about fantasy life versus reality. More than any other character in the three years I have been at Star Trek, the character of Barclay was more like me than anybody else. My wife watched that show and saw what was going on, and said that’s [me] because I’m constantly in my fantasy world. Fortunately, I make a living at it. I have an extraordinary fantasy life and use my imagination all the time. It’s real life that I have the problems with. I was delightfully happy with the episode.”
Now this, this begins to get at the stuff that really interests me and, as is usually the case with Michael Piller, it ever-so-fleetingly touches on esoteric notions of imagination and artistic expression. Because I think I know what Piller means here: He’s talking about walking around absorbed in your own thoughts and your own memories, your imagination constantly giving you half-formed glimpses of different realities and different possibilities. We’re both creators, and this is something creative people of all stripes will recognise: You’re always coming up with new ideas for projects or finding different ways of looking at things. That’s why some of the best advice I ever got and that I always pass on to others is to always have a notebook of some kind with you to write down the musings and observations that blink in and out of time.
But Michael Piller was also, I think, someone who was very in tune with a greater, more holistic conception of things, whether or not this is something he would ever admit in person. Artists and storytellers are modern shamans and this is something I think Michael Piller knew implicitly. When he talks about having problems with the “real world” as opposed to the fantasy one, he’s actually talking about the duality of the physical world and the spirit realm. What he’s articulating is the age-old dilemma of the mystic: When you’re a liminal figure who exists as a master of two worlds, you in a sense belong to neither. You can travel to the ends of the universe and back to learn from the gods and spirits, but how do you impart what you’ve seen to the people back home without sounding like a complete raving lunatic? Is that even possible? It’s a struggle I think we as artists face every day, or at least I do. Can I ever really convey my thoughts, my experiences and my emotions through my work? Or is it all an ungainly pantomime that’s not even worth the effort of bothering to begin with?
Indeed, if I were inclined to get a bit more creative with “Hollow Pursuits” I might try to read the holographic Enterprise along these lines. It takes the themes of “Booby Trap” to the next level by having Barclay ask the Enterprise to craft a simulacrum of itself *within* itself. It’s Barclay’s vision of how he sees Star Trek: The Next Generation dictated to and translated by the ship, a collaboration between two creators that naturally will produce something infinitely less then their individual imaginative confluences by virtue of being a collaboration A fitting metaphor for television, an art form shaped by an impossibly large and conflicting number of creative figures (and creative egos) that is by necessity never going to be what any one of them sees it as. The only problem is that there’s an episode coming up down the road that I think handles these concepts even better, so I don’t want to get too deeply into them here.
But this is certainly not a paean to Nerd Culture and its endorsement of forsaking society and your peers to obsess over bits of pop culture ephemera from your childhood and adolescence. Were I a different sort of person maybe I’d be more inclined to read this story that way and project onto Barclay, but…I’m not. In fact, Guinan’s line here, “The idea of fitting in just…Repels me”, well, it repels me. Look…I’ve lived my life belonging nowhere and to no-one. I love music and video games as passionately as I do hiking, camping, surfing and parkour. I’ve never thought, say, “reading a little sci-fi” and “mixing with the cheerleaders” were mutually exclusive activities. Cheerleaders are awesome: They’re such incredibly talented athletes, I have such respect for them. I love “hot weekend dance clubs”-A lot of my favourite memories have been made there. And who decided convention-goers weren’t allowed to dance? In direct contrast to the philosophy of John Hughes, my interests overlap with those of both “Nerds” and “Jocks”, which I guess means I can’t be either. That’s far from the only way liminality defines my life, by the way.
And that’s not all: I was homeschooled for most of my life and had practically no social contact with any peers who weren’t at least 5-10 years older than me until I was in high school. And, while that did a lot of good for me in some ways, it definitely stunted me in others. So I get not getting social norms. I get not fitting in. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t occasionally *wanted* to fit in somewhere, and I’ll freely admit those years when I was still playing catch-up I made a lot of really bad mistakes that hurt my social life and, rightly, I might add, drove people away from me. 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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
March 10, 2015 @ 12:36 am
K Jones has put his finger on what I was trying today, and did it far better. Kudos
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.