Retro Review: Realm of Fear

Reg Barclay discovers that just because he’s paranoid, it doesn’t mean that something isn’t out to get him in the transporter beam.

Plot Summary: The Enterprise finds the U.S.S. Yosemite trapped in a plasma field and cannot make contact with the ship’s crew. Lieutenant Barclay offers a suggestion that enables LaForge to configure the Enterprise transporters so that the crew can beam through the plasma interference, but when Barclay learns that transport will take longer than usual, he refuses to join the away team, telling Troi that he has always been terrified of being disassembled during the beaming process. The rest of the away team find a dead engineer on the Yosemite but no indication about the whereabouts of the rest of the crew. When Troi calms Barclay sufficiently that he is able to join the team, he beams over in time to learn that the crew has also discovered a shattered plasma container. The crewmembers must beam back one by one, and Barclay encounters a terrifying slug-like creature during transport. He convinces O’Brien and LaForge to test the transporter systems, but neither can find any anomalies. Barclay also discovers that is arm is glowing blue where the creature made contact with it, which he believes must be a hallucination and self-diagnoses as transporter psychosis. Meanwhile, Crusher performs an autopsy on the dead Yosemite engineer and discovers that plasma energy is still animating his body’s systems. LaForge and Data guess that the plasma in the shattered container must have exploded and infected the engineer. Barclay works with them to understand how this could have happened, but he is so distracted that LaForge orders him to rest. When Troi’s meditation techniques fail to soothe him, he wakes O’Brien and asks to beam to the Yosemite again. He sees the creature and wakes the senior staff to tell them that this time he is certain it was no hallucination. Picard orders an investigation and Crusher asks to examine Barclay’s arm. Sure enough, LaForge and Data discover that there are microbes living in the plasma, and Crusher finds some of the same microbes in Barclay’s tissue. She hypothesizes that the life forms, not the explosion, killed the Yosemite engineer. The save Barclay is to suspend him in a transporter beam to remove all the microbes. Though still terrified of the transporter, Barclay agrees, and again is approached by the creature while dematerializing. Determined to face his fear, he grabs the creature. O’Brien discovers that Barclay’s mass has doubled and they beam him back – along with one of the missing crew members from the Yosemite. Barclay reports that several others are trapped in the matter stream, having tried the same technique as the Enterprise to save themselves from the microbes. Worf leads a team to rescue the others. Having saved several lives, Barclay can better face the prospect of using the transporter, but he isn’t happy when O’Brien asks him to watch his pet spider.

Analysis: “Realm of Fear” is my favorite Barclay episode by a long stretch, and that’s including his attempts to rescue Voyager a few years and a couple of Trek shows in the future. Instead of portraying him as a nervous clod in need of hand-holding to perform his duties as in “Hollow Pursuits,” or a self-aggrandizing wannabe hero whose attempts to help the Enterprise and Voyager often led to more problems than solutions, this episode turns what appear to be his weaknesses into strengths; it is only because he refuses to dismiss a very troubling situation that the crew is able to figure out what went wrong on the Yosemite, and only because he stands up to his fears at a critical moment that the Yosemite’s crewmembers’ lives are saved. It’s understandable why the Enterprise crew would be skeptical of listening to Barclay when their initial investigations don’t show anything wrong with him or with the transporter, yet they’re still quick to dismiss his experiences as exaggerated even after Crusher finds proof that something did happen to Barclay during transport. LaForge tells him the gigantic creature he saw in the transporter matter stream was probably a microbe that looked unnaturally large from the effect of the beam. In fact, the opposite is true — what Barclay sees is only a small part of a human being, which is why he doesn’t recognize it as such.

The structure of this episode is very similar to that of The Twilight Zone‘s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a man who has just been released from a mental institution sees – or believes he sees – a gremlin on the wing of the plane committing an act of sabotage, yet no one will listen to his insistence that something is really wrong because of his recent nervous breakdown on a plane. The man in that episode was played by William Shatner, whom Dwight Schultz at times seems to be channeling in “Realm of Fear” to comic effect. Even though the audience sees what Barclay sees, just as the audience saw what Shatner’s Bob Wilson saw, we’re not entirely certain that we’re not sharing a hallucination, even though LaForge assures both Barclay and viewers that there hasn’t been a case of transporter psychosis since they perfected the pattern buffers or something like that. To quote my husband, “Would you really want to trust your atoms to something called a Heisenberg compensator?” Usually on this show, when someone claims something’s wrong but it doesn’t show up on the diagnostics, that just means that the diagnostics are missing something important, which turns out to be the case here. It seems odd to me that Crusher doesn’t pick up on the matter-energy microbes earlier, and I don’t understand the science by which Barclay sees as matter a human being converted into energy, whose mass doesn’t seem to exist as such until he makes contact with another body, but again, in a universe where someone can build something to calculate position and momentum without any error, thus making the transporter possible, this is a quibble.

I don’t love the scenes with Troi, who seems more condescending to Barclay than I’d expect from a counselor; from anyone else, it would be understandable, yet LaForge seems to talk to him more as an equal, despite the differences in rank and temperament. But I do love the scenes with O’Brien, whom Barclay outranks, though the lieutenant only speaks to the transporter chief as such when he doesn’t want to be questioned about his reasons for concern about the transporter. O’Brien is very patient with repeated requests for additional diagnostics, even though the equipment is working within every specification he’s studied, and although he probably knows more about the device than anyone on the ship, he’s sympathetic to Barclay’s irrational terror, sharing his own fear of spiders and how he overcame it by having to work among Talarian hook spiders which have meter-long legs. Though defensive of his machines, O’Brien keeps his frustration largely to himself, even when he gets the unpleasant task of waking the captain so Barclay can explain what he thinks he saw during transport.

If there’s a red herring in the episode, it’s the summons Picard receives from Starfleet, warning him that the Ferengi claimed to have been attacked by a stealth Cardassian vessel and suggesting that perhaps the Yosemite might have been, too. A cloaked Cardassian vessel seems less improbable than a gremlin in the transporter, and LaForge and O’Brien’s arguments – that beaming is the safest way to travel, that shuttle accidents are more common – sound a lot like the things people say to friends who have an irrational fear of flying in airplanes. Though the rest of the crew is distressed to learn that Barclay was exposed to the same plasma that killed the Yosemite’s engineer, Barclay is quite calm once he learns there’s a quantifiable threat, even though it’s much more likely to kill him than any transporter mishap; he doesn’t like the method for the cure, yet he’s relieved to be told that what he thought might be hallucinations are real and truly scary. Perhaps it’s the revenge of William Shatner, whose character was dragged off in a straightjacket at the end of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” even though that crew, too, later found evidence that his “hallucinations” were real. To quote that story, since the closing narration could apply to Barclay as well, “[he] has that fear no longer…for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.”

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Michelle Erica Green


Michelle Erica Green

Writer, mother, reader, traveler, teacher, partner, photographer, activist, friend, fangirl, student, critic, citizen, environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, enthusiast. TrekToday staffer for many years, former news reporter, current retro reviewer.

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