Not the Starfleet Officer I Wanted, but the One That I Needed

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, here’s part of my own story.

Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired the same year I started school, and continued through about sixth or seventh grade. I was aware of TNG before the original series. And no, I didn’t think to ask why it was called “The Next Generation.” I was five.

I will not say I watched it religiously. It was on our ABC affiliate, which aired it at 10:30 on Saturday night, just after the news. When I was younger, I couldn’t always stay up to watch it. When I was older, its time-slot put it against Saturday Night Live, and I was in that developmental stage when I was trying to persuade myself that every minute of that show was comedy gold. But somehow, between these two realities, I was able to watch a whole heck of a lot of TNG growing up. That’s probably thanks to my older brother, who would frequently set up the VCR to record new episodes so he could watch them at a more reasonable hour.

The point is, it was on all through my playground years and, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men, was part of the roster of imaginative games my friends and I would play. We would make up our own stories in real time on the playground, and the most crucial part of this was calling your character at the beginning. You had to do it quickly, you see, or your more charismatic friend would good-naturedly assign everyone a role. Of course, that doesn’t mean that He Who Called Picard Got Picard, because tiny squabbles could and would break out between those who felt that Picard (or whomever) was their character, and those who felt this kid had been Picard a lot lately, and needed to give someone else a chance.

In my group of friends, Data was not particularly sought after (he was, after all, weird), so I knew I could usually play him without any kerfuffle. I usually chose my characters this way, in part from my appreciation of the odd, and in part from a burgeoning awareness of the Black Jellybean Rule (“If you learn to like black jellybeans, you’ll have all the jellybeans you ever want”). But even Data was, from a certain perspective, cool. After all he was super-strong and knew practically everything. He had things to recommend him–just as Worf had his strength and warrior ethos, Geordi could see energy, Picard was in charge, and Riker got to go on all the away missions.

But one character who never showed up–other than any of the women–was the character who would eventually become my hands-down favorite. I’m talking about Reginald Barclay.

Oh yeah. Him.

It’s not that Barclay was particularly hated–either among my friends or on the show. It was more that he just wasn’t thought about. Like Chekov on the Original Series, Barclay was a late addition to the cast. Also like Chekov, he was sometimes used as the show’s punching bag. You need someone to freak out about the transporters? Barclay’s your dude. Hey, someone has to be the first poor slob to catch this terrible virus that’s going to devolve the entire Enterprise crew. How about Barclay? You want to do a creepy-coworker story about the Holodecks? I know just the guy!

And he didn’t really have anything to recommend him. No super strength, no psychic abilities. He didn’t even have an Irish accent! He was (though this was not a word any of us knew) a schlub. Just a step above a nondescript extra. And nobody’s going to all the trouble of setting up a 1980s VCR to record Schlub Trek. People talk about Wesley Crusher ruining the show for them, or at least being the leading cause of all eyerolls. But that was never the vibe in my group. We rolled our eyes at Barclay. It wasn’t that the character was boring–Dwight Schultz managed to make him quite funny at times. It wasn’t that the character was dead weight–when he showed up, the story was usually centered on his actions. But TNG was a show about intelligent, strong, attractive people having really confident adventures in space. And here we have nervous, stammering Barclay, completely stressed out to have one of the coolest jobs in space, apologizing for his existence, a source of annoyance to all the better-loved characters. In our minds, he just didn’t fit.

Despite my compassion for the weird, I was no exception. I did. Not. Like him. And though I have since reflected on this (obviously), at the time I was not particularly inclined to to figure out why I disliked him. I just know that my reaction to him was something beyond annoyance. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t have an immediate sense of why this was the case, and since this show was on well before I had regular access to the internet, I didn’t have loads and loads of internet commenters telling me what The Consensus was on him and why. It wasn’t until I was older and the show was in reruns that I understood that initial reaction. And it wasn’t until I was older still, and the show was streamable, that I came to really appreciate his presence in the Star Trek canon.

Another show that was very popular when I was growing up was Roseanne. Good cast, snappy dialogue, and it was one of the few shows that really explored the hand-to-mouth existence that was normal for most Americans. Its blue-collar representation continues to be the main point of praise for the show. But I never really got into Roseanne, because I didn’t need to see that. I grew up in a trailer–or rather, one of those slapped-together debt-holes you may have heard of, the “manufactured home.” We were better off than many, but not in a great place. Dad worked at the air conditioner factory and often took the slightly-better paying night- and early-morning shifts, though this meant we didn’t see him during the week. Mom took whatever hours she could at Wal-Mart. My brother and I shared a tiny room about the size of a janitor’s closet. The bathroom floor rotted away once and had to be replaced because, as it turns out, it was made of something only slightly better than cardboard and should not have been exposed to moisture.

My point is not to regale you with hardship porn here. What I mean to highlight is that, with this being my daily reality, I didn’t want to look at it in my entertainment. Give me endless family sit-coms with the impossibly nice houses they afforded on some nondescript job that rarely, if ever, figured into the story. Give me Night Court, just one remove away from a cartoon. Give me escape.

This, I would later realize, was why Barclay made me uncomfortable: he was presenting me with aspects of myself I was not ready to face. This was the 1980s and -90s in rural Arkansas. Anxiety was not a word that got thrown around in my house, or even my hometown. Anxiety was something rich people had in place of real problems. Neurodivergence wasn’t even a word. ADD and ADHD were fairy tales concocted to sell pills. Autism was taken seriously, but was only recognized in extreme cases. And after all, there were special schools for that sort of thing, right? And because I made good grades, I thought (and pretty much everyone around me thought) that these things didn’t apply to me.

In short, my upbringing was not ideal for conversations about mental health, and I was not well-equipped to consider my own. I did know that, like Barclay, I had difficulty making friends. I knew that, like Barclay, I had a stutter–though at that time I was consistently able to hide it. I knew I could annoy people with my obsessiveness on details, that I had difficulty maintaining the balance of my real- and fantasy-life, that it took extra patience to deal with me, and–this is key–that I was always aware of and felt guilty about the extra patience people around me had to exert. These are all Reginald Barclay traits.

Now, I can look back and see that Barclay is an incredibly competent character, in the grand Star Trek tradition. He’s an amazing engineer, even though he’s not all that confident in his skills. And I can also appreciate that, despite all his shortcomings, he’s putting himself out there. Yes, there’s a transporter anomaly that freaks him the hell out, but he keeps putting himself through it, and he’s the one to figure out what’s going on and save the day because of it. Yes, he sometimes needs cajoling from his friends, superiors, and counselor to get through the episode–but that’s what having a support system is all about. And the fact that he works so hard to be around other people even though it clearly isn’t his jam is in itself a form of victory.

But when you’re a stuttering, nervous kid, and the simple act of “hanging out” is as complex as brain surgery to you, you don’t necessarily want to see an adult succeeding despite his hardships. You want to see someone with the charisma of Riker, the gravitas of Picard, the courage of Worf, or the grace-under-pressure of Dr. Crusher. And that’s all you want to see because you want to be assured that all your problems are things that you’re going to grow out of.

Barclay was my first exposure to the idea that grown-ups can have those problems, too. Although I was not ready for that revelation as a kid, I can now appreciate that point better. Of course, there’s a lot of ground between I appreciate that character and that character is my favorite, which is what I said was the case. I did a recent rewatch of TNG, mainly to have something on I didn’t need to pay attention to while I did other things (since I have now seen all these episodes numerous times). But when it was a Barclay episode, I set my other tasks down and watched. Also, I have tried on numerous occasions to watch Voyager because I understand he has a recurring role on later seasons. (This remains entirely theoretical for me.) So what precipitated the shift?

It was when I made the connection to that old chestnut that Star Trek is a semi-utopian vision of the future. This, after all, was and continues to be the big resistance to Deep Space Nine among those who do not accept it as the best of that whole era of Star Trek–the idea that showing the darker underbelly of the universe lessens its utopic import. On Star Trek, there is no more want, Earth is more-or-less peaceful, and pretty much every disease we know of today has already been cured.

And it’s that last point that really matters, because having someone like him on TNG shows there is still a place for people like him (and me) in this vision of the future. When I can glimpse into this idealized future and see myself, I know that I am not one of the problems that needed to be solved, or one of the diseases that needed to be cured. This is the value of Reginald Barclay.

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