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The Trek Nation - The Nth Degree

The Nth Degree

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at March 13, 2009 - 11:41 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Nth Degree' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise is sent to repair the massive Argus Array, a space telescope that appears to have been damaged by a mysterious probe. When LaForge and Barclay take a shuttle to investigate, the probe sends out an energy surge that knocks Barclay out. He comes to and immediately saves the ship from the probe's energy beam with brilliant engineering of which LaForge hadn't known Barclay was capable. Then Barclay develops a complex strategy to repair the Array - while also making medical breakthroughs, discussing cosmology on the holodeck with Einstein, teaching violin though he has never previously studied the instrument, and flirting with Troi. Crusher examines Barclay's brain and finds that since the probe shocked him, his brain has developed greatly. The ship's computer is unable to keep up with Barclay's programming and the reactor begins to go critical, but Barclay wires himself directly into the computer and saves the Array. He is then unable to disconnect, however, for his brain's development becomes integrated with the computer's systems. Picard orders him to give up control of ship's systems, but Barclay insists that he can now warp space and time to allow easier exploration. Though LaForge tries to disconnect him and Troi begs him to stop, Barclay takes the Enterprise 30,000 light-years away. An alien head appears on the bridge just before Barclay himself walks out of a turbolift, explaining that the probe transformed his brain so that he could bring the Enterprise to this spot and allow this civilization to meet its inhabitants. Picard agrees to a transfer of information with the aliens. Meanwhile, Barclay laments the loss of the genius granted him by the probe. Troi tells him to hold on to the newfound confidence and perspective instead.


Analysis: People tend to talk about Barclay as the doofus of Starfleet, but to be fair, that's only because everyone else on the Enterprise is written as so multi-talented, gifted at dealing with difficult situations and difficult people as well as performing their very complicated jobs. At the start of "The Nth Degree," Barclay is giving a passable amateur performance of Cyrano de Bergerac, but he's upstaged by Crusher, his drama coach (who has one of the funniest lines of the episode asking Worf when he's going to come to her workshop). Let's keep in mind that Patrick Stewart, Gates McFadden, and the rest are all first-rate stage actors, but Picard and Crusher shouldn't be, even though the writers have used their Shakespearean and dance training in previous stories. Watching Barclay, Picard is pleasantly bored, Riker is politely condescending, Data can't understand why everyone is being so encouraging when Barclay clearly hasn't studied Method acting, which personally I find to be a relief - I come out of improv training - though that's neither here nor there. My point is that when Barclay isn't being written as a borderline scary sociopath like in "Hollow Pursuits," the episode that introduces him, he has a certain nerdy charm. I love the fact that even after his brain gets rewired for genius, the tics that make him so remain, like his tendency to burst out like an excited kid when he has an idea no one else has suggested. If he hung out with junior engineers instead of senior officers, he wouldn't be such an easy target.

In terms of scope and pacing, plus performances which are all too easy to take for granted on this series, "The Nth Degree" is a terrific episode. Story-wise, it gets somewhat bogged down in its own grand ideas. There are staggering segments of technobabble, first where the Array is concerned - LaForge and Barclay have a conversation about positrons that make about as much sense to me as LaForge says Grand Unification Theory does to him - and later when Barclay's methods of altering subspace to get the ship across the galaxy sound mystifying even to Data. Visuals, too, are uneven: the imagery of Barclay wired into the ship's computer is fantastic, one of the series' most enduring, but the Giant Alien Head that appears on the bridge is just plain comical. What's a giant humanoid head doing yanking people across the galaxy, then discussing them like they're insects? To Barclay's credit, he's a less terrifying near-god than Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner were in "Where No Man Has Gone Before," but because that comparison can't be avoided, the episode isn't as scary as it might have been had he actually hurt someone...electroshocked LaForge to stop him from interfering with ship's systems, locked Picard in his quarters to stop him from giving orders Barclay didn't want to hear. The whole story feels very Next Gen, like Flowers For Algernon with a happier ending because the situation is less grave to begin.

I recall that when "The Nth Degree" first aired, it seemed very timely. The Hubble Space Telescope was having problems, and we were just getting introduced to the spate of brain enhancement meds that are everywhere now for ADHD, for OCD, for depression...all the things that get diagnosed for kids who are quirky, like Barclay, so that nearly 1/4 of school-age boys are medicated. Somehow that makes it seem a bit depressing now even with the cheerful conclusion. There's a lot of comedy in the episode, but a bit too much of it is laughing at Barclay, not with him; some of his worst qualities (immaturity, narcissism, pigheadedness) are magnified right along with his brilliance. If the probe is capable of turning him into a brilliant actor and musical genius, you'd think it would also affect his temperament for the better. And here's one of the reasons this episode doesn't quite achieve the level of brilliance for me that Barclay himself achieves for a brief, shining moment: a probe may be able to convey a complex sense of music theory, or dramatic irony, but that's not the same thing as being able to play an instrument or perform on the stage. No matter how much innate talent someone may have, the ability to move one's fingers across the strings or to modulate one's voice to convey emotion comes only with a certain amount of practice. I'm surprised the actors in the cast didn't object more to the idea that any idiot could be a great actor with a bit of cleverness, without the physical training and sense of one's own body as instrument that I'm sure they all studied.

Barclay becomes more and more detached from his physical sense as his genius grows: he doesn't become more accepting of the form he was given, with all its weaknesses, instead he wants to evolve beyond it. I have some niggling questions about Barclay the Superbrain once he's wired into the ship's computer, for hours or even days: no matter how advanced his gray matter, his muscles should be atrophying, sitting motionless in that chair, and even if no one on Star Trek ever needs a bathroom, his brain and body require food to survive. Perhaps he's had some more systems built on the holodeck than the brain interface - perhaps he has tubes running in and out of his digestive system that we can't see under his uniform, and something stimulating muscles whose movements we don't witness - but he's certainly as out-of-touch with his physical self as any human being can be, so what's with the extraordinary fine motor skills that allow him to play an instrument he's never played before? Perhaps that's nitpicky, but it's also distracting. So is the utter calm among the crew; doesn't anyone off the bridge notice that the voice of the computer has been replaced, inexplicably, by that of Reginald Barclay? My sense of wonder at Barclay's achievement, taking the ship where no one has gone before, can't fully develop with so many questions crowding in. There are holes in "The Best of Both Worlds," yet the dramatic tension makes them all recede and seem truly trivial; that's not the case here.

One thing I really do love about this episode: Deanna Troi. She's the one person on the ship who isn't scornful of Barclay's stage performance at the start, but genuinely entertained by his effort. And she doesn't treat him any differently before and after his transformation, because to her, he's the same Barclay. Unlike Dehner on the original series, she isn't tempted when he approached godhood, yet neither does she seem afraid when she tells him that he's frightening the crew. He is, of course, and she must be able to feel that, but she also seems certain of his benevolence and confidence; she wants to help Picard regain command without causing Reg any psychological harm, let alone physical harm. Plus she's delightful teasing Riker, refusing to say whether Barclay scored with her. Troi really comes into her own this season.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.