Tuesday, May 12, 2015

“For The Great Mouse Ancestors”: The Nth Degree

Here's another episode I never caught during Star Trek: The Next Generation's original run. In fact, I kind of went out of my way to avoid “The Nth Degree” because I always thought it sounded completely ridiculous, a suspicion not helped by the fact it's always represented in magazines and reference books by stills of the final effects shot; that of the Cytherian ambassador. An effects shot which calls to mind descriptors such as “amazing” and “incredible”, except not in their original unironic contexts. So the other night, I actually sat down to watch this episode critically for the first time.

It's actually not bad. But I was right about the effects shot.

“The Nth Degree” is in a lot of ways a response to the third season. There's Barclay back, of course, but it's also another “Let's Do” episode, much like “A Matter of Perspective”. In both cases, the tack the show takes this time around is a little bit more nuanced and appreciable than it was last year. We'll talk about Reg later, but the story we're “paying tribute” to this time is the award-winning science fiction short story Flowers for Algernon, about a janitor who undergoes a special treatment to rapidly raise his IQ, but it doesn't take. We've actually already looked at Flowers for Algernon once before, in the context of the Dirty Pair TV episode “The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie”, which was likewise an “homage” to the original story. The thing about the Dirty Pair episode though is that it was, charitably speaking, a gigantic shitshow, with excruciating forced wackiness, horrible characterization of Kei and Yuri, casual racism and a plot so overblown and dense it forgot to actually be about anything.

“The Nth Degree”, thankfully, isn't, and from a plot perspective this is largely due to how it approaches its source material. “The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie” tried to show how anyone who undergoes the same kind of procedure Charlie does in the original story would naturally try to take over the world, believing themselves to be superior to others (as Yuri memorably puts it, “Listen. All intelligent beings eventually grow tired of taking orders from idiots.”), but it ultimately gets lost in its own central conceit of having a fascist regime ruled by a clan of hyper-intelligent mice before it can actually take the ethical stand it needs to, which should have been a commentary on the privilege of education and the elitism that so frequently accompanies it. The show almost gets there, but I had to bring in Avital Ronell's reconceptualization of stupidity eighteen years ahead of time to redeem it enough to make its own point.

“The Nth Degree”, by contrast, drops all of the troubling connotations that would go along with a fixation on intelligence quotients to hone in on a different angle. It uses the Flowers for Algernon plot to explore what happens when a person undergoes a life-changing, transcendent experience...and then what happens to them afterward. This ties in tightly with very uniquely Star Trek: The Next Generation themes, in particular how we learn and grow through the experience of travelling and voyaging as part of a community. So Barclay is almost the perfect character for this setup, seeing as how overcoming anxiety and neurosis is such a part of who he is. And Dwight Schultz is unarguably brilliant here, pretty much stealing the show from everybody else hands down. And that takes a lot when you're dealing with this cast. But I was focused on him all throughout-The way Schultz portrays Barclay's “bad acting” through impossibly great acting is a masterclass of recursive performativity (and how cool is it that it's alongside Gates MacFadden's Doctor Crusher and her diegetic theatre?) and the way he conveys his steadily growing confidence and understanding is absolutely mesmerizing.

It should be said, however, that neither “The Nth Degree” nor “The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie” truly engages completely with Flowers for Algernon. One of the major cruxes of the original story was the way people treat and act around neuroatypical people, or at least that was the idea. Trying to equate Barclay with Charlie in this regard strikes me as inadvisable, so it's a good thing “The Nth Degree” doesn't exactly do that. Instead, it tries to use the idea of greatly enhanced intellect as a metaphor for shamanic experiences: Barclay understands things nobody else can and tries to convey what he's learned to his friends and colleagues, with mixed degrees of success. There's a risk that in doing this here the story will put him above the rest of the Enterprise crew, and truth be known it is something of an inelegant affair: The rest of the crew alternates between being scared, suspicious or holding the idiot ball.

The most egregious scene is probably when Captain Picard freaks out when Barclay finds a way to bend space-time with his mind to instantaneously transport the Enterprise anywhere in the universe, even though The Traveller has already proven that this is possible, although a case could be made Barclay didn't do a good job explaining himself and what he was attempting to do. This reveals another angle we can approach this theme with, which ties into what the text itself seems to want to be about: The whole thing about shamanic experiences is that they're only the first step. The trick is how to incorporate them into your day-to-day life to sublimate our material existence in the physical world. Sometimes it takes us our entire lives to come to terms with this, and Deanna says as much in the denouement. This is something that comes naturally to the Enterprise, and while maybe it hadn't to Barclay before now, he's been healed by it and the point of his character has become to convey this on a textual, diegetic level. It's another recursive performance; a play-within-a-play that sheds greater light on how Star Trek: The Next Generation works, and it's very fitting that Dwight Schultz be the one to convey that.

The original Flowers for Algernon only looked at this in a fleeting, more prosaic sense. What Star Trek: The Next Generation brings to the table is a greater awareness of spiritual thought and its connection to the mind-expanding experience of travel. It's a far better way to engage with a pre-existing text than the stock “Let's Do”-type stories the show might toss out in its weaker moments. Meanwhile, the Dirty Pair episode got hung up on totalitarian mouse cabals, so it's telling progress that we now have an episode like “The Nth Degree”.

And actually, this is a far better way to introduce yourself to Reg Barclay than “Hollow Pursuits”, and given what an important character he's going to become over the coming few seasons, this is as good an introduction to him as exists. In spite of being an ostensible sequel and in spite of how much the writing staff talks up “Hollow Pursuits”, you don't need to see that episode at all to get into this one. It's a perfect example of how Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to work: Acknowledging the past every once in awhile, but never slavishly reiterating it or allowing itself to be subservient to it. Although that said, it is worth noting how many sequels we've seen this year, and we're about to hit the most cringe-inducing part of that trend. Funny thing for a show that supposedly prides itself on “not doing sequels”.

But even so, “The Nth Degree” itself definitely gets my recommendation.


  1. The way I remember it, the weirdest thing about that final FX shot is not the special effect itself, but the weird-ass way the Big Giant Head spends the whole time mugging.

  2. "It uses the Flowers for Algernon plot to explore what happens when a person undergoes a life-changing, transcendent experience...and then what happens to them afterward."

    Oh yes absolutely Josh, and when you say: "The whole thing about shamanic experiences is that they're only the first step. The trick is how to incorporate them into your day-to-day life to sublimate our material existence in the physical world. Sometimes it takes us our entire lives to come to terms with this, and Deanna says as much in the denouement." - you are right on the button. The one massive thing that really frustrates me about the appropriation of shamanic terminology by New Age factions is that it is often used in a transcendent way, which is *so* wrong. These practices have always seemed to be about coming fully into the world, not leaving it.

    The thing they forget about shamanic trances and practices is that as you say they were always about brining healing back into the physical 3D material world and day-to-day life. And in connection with this tale, they were also often also highly performative in nature, with sleight of hand tricks and such like being applied to heighten the drama. Additionally, the healing was often also done in in a community setting, for the whole community - as opposed to practices that so-called Western 'shamans' often do where they use a Therapist/Doctor style approach with 1:1 private sessions.

    So I love the knowing performativity in Schultz's acting here, and in Barclay as he takes the journey of learning how to fully bring his gifts back to the community.

    Deanna is amazing here to as she acts as an amazing healer and guide, the anchor need when someone journeys, and I really enjoy how she plays that role with such grace.

    Love this one - *this* is why I adore Barclay and Schultz.

  3. Nth Degree is another episode that scared me as a child. The scenes of Barclay, disembodied voice, in the holodeck were probably the first time I've ever experienced a depiction of a disembodied voice, and were just right as far as being scary for kids, but not so much for adults.

    Another nice moment this episode comes in the form of some of that Hollow Pursuits connective tissue - less the progress Troi has made counseling Barclay and more in the progress Geordi has made doing so, as when the computer informs him that Barclay is in the Holodeck, Burton gives such a soft, resigned sigh that's kind of pitch-perfect in the way of fanservice so subtle that you'd never know if you hadn't seen the prior episode. It is indeed the best kind of sequel that can be unique and unslavish and still replete with follow-up material that's broad enough and universal enough that the previous outing is not required reading to understand the thing.

    I could talk about Shultz's recursive performativity and how it skews back to the greatest moments of Shatner in TOS. I could talk about Gates McFadden getting solid comedic play here. I could talk about how finally an episode downplays Data and gives Worf (by way of Picard) a nuanced, quick, punchy ethical conundrum that we see him wrestle very, very quickly rather than being drawn into melodrama.

    More than any of that we see that Barclay hasn't just grown on us, he's grown on the entire damn crew as they've gotten to know him and understand him better. This is another element I like about the format - we really didn't need to see all the interim steps between Hollow Pursuit and now as each crewmember came to like or accept Barclay and he grew a little each time and proved himself as one of Geordi's most crafty guys.

    We can just easily take it for granted that after a year on the Enterprise, he's bettered himself, formed relationships - it wasn't Barclay's fault he was so insular and his anxiety disorder kept regressing - it was the community he was in on that Other Ship.

    People like Barclay NEED a place and crew and community like Enterprise. For their own health.

    Elsewise I like that the tense suspense of the plot is never overplayed as far as "deadly dark drama". It's tense enough without that pretext, and wonderful that in proper fashion, the elevated suspense gives way to benevolent alien contact instead of something more insidious.

    In fact I can hardly believe they never rehashed this plot in later shows with malevolence instead of benevolence.

  4. I had the kernel of a thought that this episode essentially turns Barclay into an archetropal Mary-Sue, only to then turn the Mary-Sue archetrope into a suspenseful threat, and then to deconstruct it. But it's just a mild overlap during the middle chapters when he's showing the whole crew up, and not a proper deconstruction or parody of the concept as a whole, because that wouldn't service the story or character to linger on and try to disassemble.

    But something about Shultz, and the rest of the cast's somewhat Shatnerian knowing artifice definitely sidesteps a lot of the classic things associated with Mary-Sue tropes.