The purpose of fiction is to entertain us. The purpose of science fiction is to inspire us. Some of the greatest people ever known, are mere figments of imagination. This is the power of literature, to create a world unlike our own. One where things can be completely different and yet eerily similar. Take for example one of the most popular science fiction series of all time: Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This series thrives on the realism of its scenarios. Sure, the conflicts take place in space and involve aliens but they’re all relatable. Characters grow and experience new things, people fall in love, strive for greatness and some even die. It’s a show with a grand sweeping sense of scale. The USS Enterprise-D has around one thousand members. This includes the main crew, their families and several civilians. Now, on a vessel the size of small city, a lot of people are going to be swept under the carpet. The ship has a crew of about 300 members. These are not faceless drones. Every single one of them has a name and a job. Some even have whole episodes devoted to them. We are going to discuss the most important of the unimportant: Lieutenant Reginald Barclay.
Lt. Reginald Barclay is a systems diagnostic engineer on the Enterprise. That means his job is to look into and repair any problems with the ships subsystems. His job basically boils down to making sure the transporters work and the fabricators don’t start making human flesh sandwiches. He literally has one of the most boring jobs on the Enterprise. While other people fight the Borg and make love to alien woman, Barclay calibrates the ships tachyon fields. He’s the sci-fi equivalent of your everyday I.T guy, the lonely 30-something year old with no friends or life goals. How he got where he is no one can really say. He just kind of exist. Yet his humanity is what makes him so interesting.
The USS. Enterprise is the flag ship of the Federation Fleet. It contains the best and brightest the Federation has to offer: the Federation’s only functioning cyborg, the only Klingon severing on a Federation vessel, and Jean-Lu Picard, the greatest captain in Starfleet history. It is a impressive roster. This is the ship responsible for showing new species the value of the Federation. So the question is, what the hell is Barclay doing there?
In the first episode that we are introduced to Barclay (Hollow Pursuits). He is shown to be a slightly incompetent member of the crew in need of consoling. This episode shows that Barclay uses his engineering skills to write advanced holo-deck programs. For those unfamiliar with the show holo-decks are basically 3-D computer simulations you can interact with; a room in which you can create anything and interact with it. Holo-decks are used as a means of relaxation for the crew. Barclay uses the holo-deck as a means of escape. The episode’s main plot revolves around Barclay’s addiction to the holo-deck, wanting to checkout of his mundane life. In the holo-deck he is the hero he wants to be. The hero he was meant to be when he joined Starfleet. The thing that’s interesting about this subplot is that it never really gets resolved. For all intensive purposes Barclay just remains an addict. The only person on the starship who seems to get that a room that create your wildest dreams might be a bit better than ship maintenance.
The next episode that features him is “The Nth Degree.” In this episode, Barclay is indirectly contacted by a extraterrestrial entity: a probe from a distant world that shocks him and gives him god-like intelligence. With his new intelligence he gains confidence and rank. Things look up for Barclay for like two minutes before it turns out that he’s just being used. The probe needed a living person to contact and it literally just picked the first person it came in contact with. Barclay is used as a piece of machinery so that the probe can take the Enterprise to its home planet. Afterwords the alien scientist “cure” Barclay; he same species that can just give someone the entirety of their knowledge decides to take it away from him. Sure there’s a bullshit excuse about it overloading his brain, but that literally doesn’t happen until they force him to be a part of their machine. So, in the end, what does Barclay get from the experience? The knowledge that he is so infinitesimally small that he is seen as nothing more than a cog in the universe’s machine.
His story arc comes full circle with the episode “Ship in a Bottle”. In this episode he accidentally unleashes an A.I. that believes itself to be Professor Moriarty; this is a character that was introduced in a previous episode titled, “Elementary Dear, Data.” He is a program from the Holo-Deck that was accidentally given sentience. After he threatened the ship once before the crew promised to find a way to free him. When Barclay was performing a routine maintenance check he stumbled upon him and freed him once more. This makes for a really compelling story. Someone like Barclay who struggles in the real world meets someone fake struggling to be real. In trying to help Moriarty, Barclay once again endangers the ship. Though, in complete honesty, its really the crew’s fault for forgetting Moriarty. In a society where things are constantly progressing lots of people are forgotten. Barclay may be real but he is just as disposable as his holograms. A powerful statement is made at the end of this episode. When Moriarty is imprisoned once again, the rest of the crew go back to their business. Barclay, on the other hand, stays behind for a bit. Standing in the middle of the holo-deck he tells the simulation to end. This is where he questions his own existence, wondering if he is nothing more than a hologram.
This is what makes Barclay tick. He’s kinda just awful. He has his moments. There are even times when he saves the ship. This isn’t that big of a deal when you realize Wesley Crusher saves the ship about twenty times throughout the series. Wesley is about fourteen years old when he first saves the ship. Barclay is the loser who gets picked on by the universe; the nerdy kid on a ship filled with nerds. When all of society is significantly more advanced than the smartest people to ever live, what do we do with the mundane? This is where we reach the most important part of Barclay’s character. He is human. He is weak. He is foolish. He has no place being anywhere on the Enterprise yet there he is. Because he represents a simple truth: there are normal people in fiction. For every Jean-Luc Picard or William Riker there is a Barclay to even them out. He is human weakness incarnate. That is why he’s so realistic. That is why we need Barclay. Because we are Barclay.