Sunday, September 18, 2011

4-19. The Nth Degree

The Enterprise at the Argos Array.


The Enterprise heads to the edge of Federation space to repair the Hubble Space Telescope... er, to find out why the Argos Array has stopped transmitting data. The ship discovers a probe of unknown origin. Geordi and Lt. Barclay head out in a shuttle to investigate. When the probe releases a sudden flash of light, Geordi's visor protects him, but Barclay's optic nerves are overwhelmed. He is knocked unconscious.

When Barclay awakens, he finds himself possessed of a confidence he never had before. But that isn't the only change. Dr. Crusher finds that Barclay's brain is working in overdrive, making him "the most advanced" human in existence. He is an acting prodigy. He argues physics with Einstein on the holodeck (and wins). And he comes up with an idea to direct repairs on the Array in a way that will not monopolize the Enterprise crew for weeks on end.

When the Array is minutes away from self-destructing, Barclay stops the explosion and saves both Array and ship. But at a cost - He is able to do this only by fusing his mind with the Enterprise computer. Effectively, Barclay is now the computer!


Capt. Picard: Though concerned about Barclay's progression, he refuses to treat him with suspicion simply because of his newly advanced intellect. When Barclay joins his mind with the computer, Picard clearly wants to resolve the situation in a way that will leave both Barclay and the ship intact. But when Barclay stops obeying orders and prepares to take the ship into a spatial anomaly he himself has created, Picard authorizes Worf to do whatever is necessary to stop him.

Geordi: Has been trying to increase Barclay's confidence by granting him steadily increasing responsibilities. In the teaser, he refers to Barclay as one of the ship's "top engineers," and Barclay seems to be responding well to the trust Geordi is showing him. Geordi is the first to really notice how much Barclay changes after the probe, and insists on consulting Dr. Crusher out of concern for Barclay as much as for the ship. Even when Barclay's progression runs off the rails near the end, Geordi continues to talk to him with openness, showing himself to actually be the friend that Picard once ordered him to be.

Troi: Gets the most amusing moment of the episode, when she reports that Barclay not only made a pass but "a good one," something she reports with evident surprise and appreciation. She is quite happy to tease Riker with this bit of information, carefully not telling him whether Barclay's pass was "successful." When Barclay fuses himself with the computer, Troi attempts to reason with him one-on-one. When she fails to get through to him, she is blunt in telling him that Picard will do "whatever it takes" to stop him.

Barclay: Dwight Schultz's second appearance in this role. Whereas Barclay's first episode focused on his extreme shyness, this episode highlights his lack of confidence. Not by aggressively hammering home his self-doubts, but instead by curing them entirely, allowing him to act as someone completely confident in his own abilities. To an extent, this creates a bit too much similarity with Season Three's Transfigurations, but fortunately the third act turn of joining Barclay with the computer takes the story in a radically different direction. Schultz's ability to present a character who is just a bit "off" without actually doing anything threatening pays dividends here, as the transformed Barclay is genuinely creepy, even though he's trying at all times to be helpful.


To help Barclay gain confidence, he is encouraged to participate in dramatic productions. That makes sense, as far as it goes... but why would someone who really hasn't acted before and who is known to be horribly shy be cast as the lead - let alone the lead in a genuinely challenging production! Surely it would make more sense to give him small roles, then increase the size of the roles as his confidence increased? The method on display in the teaser would seem more likely to drive him back into his shell through sheer embarrassment than to lure him out of it.


The episode may open with Barclay playing Cyrano de Bergerac, but what he undergoes is more akin to Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. Though I suppose Cyrano has some relevance, too. In that story, a young man romances a woman using the brilliant words of the title character, passing them off as his own. In this story, Barclay is made into a super-genius... but he's actually fulfilling someone else's program, his thoughts being led to a predetermined end point. Deanna can't get through to him, neither can Geordi - because by that point, the program is more in control than Barclay. He may be transformed into a genius. But it's someone else's genius at work, not his own.

This is a particularly well-made episode. Director Rob Legato uses some well-judged framing and lighting to raise the tension in the last part of the episode. When Geordi talks to the Barclay Computer in the Jeffries tube all the while attempting to work against Barclay's control, there are definite shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey permeating the scene. The model work for the Array is some of the more eye-catching of the series, as well. And, of course, who can forget the visual of Barclay, interfaced with the computer, sitting mutely in what looks like a cross between a throne and a torture device while his disembodied voice speaks around him?

For all that is good about The Nth Degree, it never quite breaks through to me to the first rank of episodes. I think the shift from Barclay's acclerated genius to Barclay fusing himself with the computer may blur the episode's focus. Or perhaps I was less engaged in Barclay's dilemma than I would have been had this same story occurred with Geordi or one of the other regulars as the focus. Whatever the case, I did find myself at a distance from the action here.

It's an above-average episode of the series, certainly. But what wants to be compelling is merely interesting, leaving The Nth Degree well short of the quality its clearly aiming for.

Overall Rating: 6/10

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1 comment:

  1. I can certainly see the "Flowers For Algernon" comparison, but for me it's really more of a riff on TOS's "Where No Man Has Gone Before" - being attacked by a probe that increases intelligence, and how that intelligence breeds insubordination, etc...