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.