This is a review of the nineteenth episode of Season 4 of TNG, “The Nth Degree.” This is an important episode to me because it is the 363rd episode of Trek series I’ve watched since beginning this Boldly Going project. Not counting the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, there were 725 episodes of existing Trek programs, including the original series and the animated Filmation series. After watching this episode of TNG, I have just crossed the halfway threshold.
Of course, if we’re counting DSC (which I also watched), I’m well over the 50% line already.
I have enjoyed this project so far. But, I know I will feel a sense of relief when I get to the end of it, also. If, like me, you get satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment through checking things off of a list, you understand what I’m saying. While I’ve been entertained by the shows, there’s more than just a tinge of obsession involved in the project as well. It pays to know your own psychoses.
Incidentally—and this compulsion to reduce things to math problems is probably another psychosis—if I continue watching these episodes at the same rate, I will finish the Boldly Going project on June 22, 2019. The last time I calculated my progression, the completion date was July 19, 2019. We’re ahead of schedule.
“The Nth Degree” is one of those rare TNG episodes that I have no recollection of having seen before. And, yet, at the same time, it seems familiar. The teaser features Reg Barclay and Dr. Beverly Crusher performing a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, with Barclay as the big-nosed one, of course. After their scene, which receives polite applause, Deanna Troi compliments Barclay on getting out of his comfort zone and putting himself on display in front of a group of people, something he would have been unable to do when he was isolating himself with his own fantasies on the holodeck. The back half of the teaser involves the Enterprise arriving at something called the Argus Array, a giant subspace telescope. The array’s reactors are going critical, and a strange probe of unknown origin is located near the array. Riker determines the probe is the cause of the array’s malfunctions because proximity indicates causality. By that same logic, the Enterprise may also be the cause of the malfunction. Anyway, Geordi La Forge chooses Barclay to join him on a shuttle mission to investigate the probe. While they are examining the probe, it emits a flash of intense white light and La Forge discovers Barclay unconscious on the shuttle deck. End of teaser, roll opening credits.
Not a terrible teaser, but also similar to every other teaser. By this point in the series run, there seems to be a definite, comfortable formula to the story construction. This one is unique mainly in that it seems to center around Reg Barclay, our favorite misfit Starfleet lieutenant.
The Enterprise has a false showdown with the alien probe, with its never-before-seen technology, and some surprising modifications by Barclay to the shield strength allows Enterprise to emerge victorious in the confrontation. It’s obvious at this point that the focus of the story will be about whatever caused the sudden increase in Barclay’s confidence and intelligence. The probe was merely the catalyst for the story. Oh, I hope this isn’t another Roddenberry-esque “Starfleet crewmember gains god-like powers” story.
Barclay attends Captain Picard’s briefing about repairs to the Argus Array. Unsurprisingly, after Barclay single-handedly saved the ship from the probe, Barclay offers an ambitious plan that will cut weeks off the repair time needed. Yes, everyone’s beginning to sense that there’s something different about Reg Barclay now. After a much-improved performance by Reg as Cyrano in Dr. Crusher’s acting workshop (will this continue to be a thing?), Troi meets up with him in Ten-Forward. The ship’s counselor remarks on his sudden improvement, and Barclay admits that recently he’s found a confidence he didn’t know he possessed. He goes on to prove this by coming on to Troi quite strongly. She doesn’t take that walk through the arboretum with Reg, but I think she’s tempted. He’s a new man, after all.
The next morning, Barclay is late for his meeting in Engineering. Geordi tracks him down to Holodeck 3, probably assuming that Barclay is up to his old tricks. Barclay, however, is in a holodeck simulation with Albert Einstein himself, correcting the old physicist on his grand unified field theory computations (or somesuch stuff). Geordi, who’s been acting more than a little jealous of Barclay since he saved the ship, correctly surmises (along with everyone else on board the ship and in the viewing audience) that there’s something different about Reg since his encounter with the probe. He takes Barclay to sickbay.
A quick checkup by Dr. Crusher reveals that Reg Barclay may be the “most advanced human being who has ever lived.” Reg calculates his new IQ somewhere between 1200 and 1450. First observation: Dr. Crusher has never shown any particular medical expertise herself, in my opinion, so her suspiciously quick findings are questionable. Second: Geordi seems even more jealous of Barclay, which seems out of character to me. I would expect Geordi to be intrigued, even concerned for Barclay’s health, but the jealousy doesn’t make complete sense. I think it’s lazy writing, and I have to subtract points because of it.
The senior Enterprise officers meet, without Barclay in attendance this time, and debate whether they should confine Reg to his quarters since he’s obviously been influenced by an alien. Dr. Crusher suggests that it may not be influence at all, but rather more like an allergic reaction, as to a bee sting. When they determine that Reg has done nothing threatening, coupled with the fact that they need his newly massive IQ in their repair work on the array, they decide to let him continue his work. Troi admits that he made a pass at her the previous evening; she says it was a good one, too, which means Reg has some mojo working for him now. Now it’s Riker’s turn to be jealous when he asks Troi if Reg’s pass was successful and she smiles at him and walks away.
When the engineering team begins its repairs of the array, Geordi is quick to predict a massive failure as all of the array’s reactors seem to be about to overload. Reg uses his new superhuman intellect to wire himself directly into the ship’s computers, because the computers alone have not been able to react quickly enough to carry out the necessary repairs. Reg is, once again, able to save their bacon. In the process, Reg’s higher brain functions have expanded to such a degree that he’s unable to unhook himself from the neural interface connecting his body to the computer system. Any attempt to do so would mean his death, he says.
So now, roughly two-thirds of the way through the episode, we arrive at our main story problem. At least, I think we do. At first, we were misdirected by the probe MacGuffin, that served only as a story catalyst. Then it seemed like the catastrophic failure of the Argus Array that would also result in the destruction of the Enterprise was our main story problem, but then that too was easily brushed aside. Now the question remains of how to save Barclay, and will he return to the pathetic specimen he used to be if they do manage to save him.
While Geordi is attempting an ODN bypass (whatever that is) in a Jefferies tube, there is a moment highly reminiscent of HAL talking to Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t believe this was unintended. The Barclay/computer hybrid is talking about ways of exploring the universe that far surpass warp technology and is beginning to create subspace disturbances using graviton waves to experiment with this. The ODN bypass is meant to give the others on-board the ability to use thrusters to get to the nearest starbase. As Reg is further expanding and integrating his intellect into the computer, he is losing his humanity and respect for chain-of-command. In fact, he’s becoming increasingly Borg-like [a possible alternate history Borg origin story? Hmm…]. Troi offers to go to the holodeck, where Reg’s physical body is still located, to attempt to reach him. After all, she’s an empath, and he wants her Betazoid body.
Deanna discovers that this new Reg already looks upon the rest of them as children compared to him. How long before he begins to consider them insects, or even lower lifeforms? By this point, killing Reg by disconnecting him from the computer doesn’t seem like the worst thing that could happen.
Reg manages to block Geordi’s ODN override attempt. I think Deanna Troi inadvertently warned him about it when she was pleading with Reg to obey the captain’s orders.
Out of options, Picard orders Worf to take a security team to holodeck 3 and to disconnect Barclay from the computers. It’s about time. Too late, however. Reg easily fends off the security team’s attack, and then the Enterprise enters the space distortion he created. The Enterprise emerges from the distortion 30,000 light-years away from their previous location. Reg is definitely going places. To the center of the galaxy, apparently. Helm functions are restored, and the computer has returned to normal functioning, according to Data. Then, suddenly, a giant floating head appears on the bridge.
The floating head has a strange third eye in the middle of its forehead. Reg Barclay steps onto the bridge and says the Cytherians, this mysterious alien race, has reintegrated him. The Cytherians are on a mission similar to that of Starfleet, but instead of traveling from their home, they bring subjects of interest to them. The probe that disrupted the Argus array was part of this “summoning” technology, but it proved incompatible with Federation technology. Reg himself was their compatible vessel.
This is how the story is resolved. Reg Barclay was never in real danger, nor was he a real danger to the ship. It was the all-powerful new aliens we’ve never heard of, who exchange information with the Enterprise for ten days, then return the ship to Federation space and Reg to normal. There remains some doubt, as Reg solves some three-dimensional chess problem for other crewmembers, as to whether Reg is fully back to his normal self, even though he now seems nervous about taking his walk with Troi in the arboretum (which, as we all know, is code for having sex, just like having coffee is).
This abrupt deus ex machina ending is oddly unsatisfying. I’m not certain if the Cytherians ever factor into any other story in TNG, but I’ll be watching for it. I do like the actor Dwight Schultz and I think his participation in this episode elevates it somewhat, but only to 3.5 out of 5 stars. I would have preferred a better episode to mark my halfway point through this project, but at least it wasn’t one of the rotten ones. We’ll take it as a mark in the “win” column.
Now . . . on to the back half.