A Matter of Perspective
It's Rashomon - in spaaaaaace!
Oh noes! Riker done a-'sploded a stereotypical old antisocial mad scientist after raping his wife. Except maybe he didn't. Except maybe he did. The only way to get at the truth is by making up diverging plausible stories in the holodeck.
I said it's the only way, damnit!
Sure we could follow the engineering crew subplot in the background concerning that weaponizable chandelier behind Mr. Wizard, but the real point of the episode is watching several different characters sitting around saying "computer, run program." Weirdly enough, it works. Yeah, you kinda know they cheaped out on sets, costumes and rehearsal and fed you three different takes of the same three scenes for most of the episode. You don't care, do you? There's a phaser, a chunky-style explosion, arguments about Federation legality, a fistfight and enough technobabble droning in the background to drown out your logic circuits.
Both episodes I'm discussing tonight manage to roll surprisingly gracefully through what could have been dull material if handled incorrectly, probably thanks largely to Cliff Bole's experience directing action series. Due to firm transitions and some decent writing for once, the holodeck finally finds its place aboard the Enterprise, no longer monopolizing plots or used for incongruous or extraneous period pieces but mediating the crew's interactions with the larger Star Trek universe. It's one of those cool-sounding futuristic technologies which keep elbowing each other for primacy on Star Trek, each one mind-bendingly overpowered under scrutiny: teleporting, synthesizing pork chops out of thin air, force fields, artificial gravity, Data, etc. When you see the laughably Tron-like graphics on control consoles on the bridge, you have to wonder why all information processing isn't simulated on the holodeck.
So anyway, yeah, spoiler alert: Riker didn't rape or murder anyone, which is probably just as well since Frakes, in all fairness, doesn't quite conjure up the same haunted wild-eyed menace on screen as Toshiro Mifune did. This being the main divergence (phasers and teleporters aside) from Kurosawa's classic, begs the question: why doesn't every mention of this episode begin with "in this Rashomon rip-off, our valiant space-samurai investigate" - ?
I know I usually start these off by a sardonic take on the episode, but for once the gravity of the subject at hand demands my most sober and tactful analysis. To delve into the somber realm of addictive escapism we witness the lurid holodeck fantasy life of one Reginald Barclay, and weep we must at his plight for there is nothing funny about grown men in puffy shirts and feathers in their caps boisterously mangling period jargon while measuring epees.
Okay, so maybe there's plenty funny about it.
|Dwight Schultz as Barclay|
Hollow Pursuits may not be on everyone's list of top TNG installments but even at ten years old I felt an immediate kinship with Lt. Barclay the social anxiety basket-case who prefers to live imaginary lives. I suppose that might stem from me having grown up as one of those solidly introverted kids who fill entire notebooks with meticulously logged and detailed monsters, spaceships, castles, giant robots, imaginary expeditions and maps of Never-Neverland. That I would get into Star Trek in junior high seems only logical, captain, and there seems to have been some debate on whether Lt. Broccoli hit so close to home because the creative team knew their fans or because they actually were those fans. Trekkies are after all one of the prime lotophagous examples of the television age... but then again TNG's crew itself consisted to a surprising extent of Original Series Trek fans and embodied many of the characteristics of SF fans in general. See Michael Piller as quoted here:"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."
Now as to my views on trekkies, see my commentary on Spock's death a couple of years ago. Escaping humanity in one way or another is vital to any mind peeking above the crass morass of dumbass comprising humanity, but need not involve surrendering one's dignity, much less intellectual integrity. Hollow Pursuits works as well as it does for maintaining a consistent sympathetic position vis-a-vis its otherworldly protagonist while nonetheless denouncing fixation. I don't agree with the insistence on dragging poor Reginald back to the "real" world by the scruff of his neck but still... when it stagnates, escapism loses its intellectual superiority.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't like the holodeck. Unless it's a core concept, the notion of a game within a game or a movie within a movie comes across as a cheesy postmodern sophistic gamble writers pull out of their asses when they're low on funding and/or ideas. It breaks immersion more than it helps it and tended to monopolize TNG whenever it came up.
Still these two shows make quick work of the costumes and old-timey slang belabored in past episodes and instead manage a much better integration of this discordant element by focusing not on the holodeck itself but on how the Enterprise's crew uses said deck. How does such technology help or interfere with that seeking out of strange new worlds and new civilizations which is supposed to be the show's point? How does an unimaginably powerful interactive environment like that figure into the neuroses of what is for all intents and purposes a cabin-feverish submarine crew?
If you can get past the shallow novelty of dressing your characters in poofy skirts and fedoras, there's some storytelling value to be garnered by holo-decking. The Rashomon routine benefited from a medium within their universe onto which witnesses could project their subjective interpretations. The character interactions in Hollow Pursuits come across as much more natural than usual Star Trek fare, with all-too-human bickering, commiseration, concern for both efficiency and individual well-being. All the more so for the various crew members being juxtaposed with their cartoonishly goofy holodeck eidolons, which to be honest could fit perfectly into most of TNG's first- and second-season cesspit of bad writing.