Nutshell: A terrific character study and a big moment for the Voyager crew. Very well executed, and well played for its emotional content.
It's nice to break format every once in a while. "Pathfinder" breaks the usual format, places much of the emphasis on guest characters, takes place almost entirely in a setting away from Voyager, features two guest stars from the TNG days ... and does it all without any of it seeming like a calculated ratings stunt. There's real substance here.
Sure, this story will probably resonate more with TNG fans (particularly fans of Lt. Reginald Barclay), but this is still a Voyager story, with a main character whose loneliness might symbolize the loneliness of the Voyager crew. (Or not, seeing as the Voyager crew has rarely been characterized as lonely but instead as a group with implausibly eternal optimism, but, hey, I won't be an ass about it.)
Barclay. I've always liked this guy. Okay, not always (the stories didn't always serve him well), but usually. There's a certain affection you can't help but have for a guy who struggles the way Barclay does. He's sort of a bumbling goof when it comes to talking to other people, kind of like Rom on DS9 ... except likable, believable, and with genuine depth. He's got that klutzy personality, and consistently falls apart when he's trying to explain what's going through his mind. His brain is always racing ahead; verbal conveyance just can't keep up, and his anxiety nearly brings everything else crashing down.
Barclay is the center of a remarkably fresh-feeling premise that's relatively rare for this series: a reversed perspective where the starship Voyager is the object rather than the subject. (A couple other episodes with this characteristic that come to mind are "Living Witness" and "Distant Origin.") Barclay is part of a project called "Pathfinder"—run by a Starfleet Headquarters-based science team devoted to researching methods and technologies that might permit communication with Voyager in the Delta Quadrant. But Barclay has found himself obsessing over the project, obsessing over Voyager itself. He has conjured holodeck re-creations of the crew, and interacts with them, ostensibly because he needs someone to "bounce ideas off of," but really because he has grown attached to these fictional representations of a stranded crew.
With the Enterprise in orbit around Earth, Barclay has contacted Counselor Troi, hoping maybe she can help him. He insists his problem isn't a relapse of his holo-addiction. On more than one occasion he assures other characters, "It's not what you think." Unfortunately, it probably is. It's not exactly a relapse, because the situation is different from the last time: In "Hollow Pursuits" it was about fantasy and escape. Here it's more about need.
On any given day at work, Barclay's inability to convey what he's thinking is a problem. He has devised a complicated procedure that might be able to allow two-way real-time communication with Voyager. It would require dedicated use of an elaborate Federation communications device known as MIDAS (the Mutara Interdimensional Deep Space Transponder Array; you can figure out how that becomes "MIDAS" on your own). The procedure involves long-winded technical explanations, but sometimes Barclay can barely get four words out before he trips over himself.
Barclay's boss, Commander Pete Harkins (Richard McGonagle) isn't hard-headed, but he has followed Barclay's over-exuberant suggestions in the past, ending up with results that were, well, a waste of time. Harkins is skeptical of Barclay's newest plan, which seems way too complicated to work. But Barclay is certain it will work and absolutely dead-set on trying, and he sends himself down a path that vaguely resembles the exhausting, bothersome determination of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy.
"Pathfinders" is easily the best character study since B'Elanna's complex outing in "Barge of the Dead." Most of that can be credited to Dwight Schultz's exceptional performance. Barclay is full of quirks, nervous gestures, and a tendency to suddenly raise his voice when he feels he isn't being listened to. Schultz is able capture these nuances without them coming across as over-performed. The performance creates a sympathetic person when it could've come across merely as a quirky comedy routine.
I felt a great deal of sympathy for Barclay; we can see that deep down what this guy has to say makes sense, but at the same time we recognize every step along the way where he slips up and reveals his obsession and instability, which drags down his own cause. Sometimes it's downright painful to watch Barclay as he tries so hard and so unsuccessfully to express his thoughts, teetering on the edge of desperation. The scene where he first offers his idea to Admiral Owen Paris (Richard Herd) is a perfect example, as he stammers his way through a barely coherent argument, then forgets who he's talking to and presumes he's the only one thinking of the project in human terms. Admiral Paris is, of course, Tom Paris' father, and his interest in the Pathfinder project has a significant personal stake as well.
The only place Barclay feels comfortable is in the holodeck, interacting with the fake Voyager crew. Once inside, he's a truly different person: calm, composed, charismatic. The underlying message here is one of control: Don't we feel more comfortable in situations we can control versus those we can't? The holodeck crew, it would seem, are programmed to be Barclay's friends. He can anticipate the way they will respond to him. They tell him just what he needs to hear just when he needs to hear it. Unfortunately, that's not how the real world works, and it's hard to make any real progress in a fantasy realm.
Barclay doesn't want to admit this is a real problem. But his boss does, and we can understand when Harkins pulls him off the project and bars him from the lab and the holodeck until he seeks counseling. It's interesting to see how Barclay deludes himself into believing that his obsession is all just part of doing his job. Troi has to push him pretty hard before he admits to himself that it runs deeper than simply being overly committed to his work.
Barclay's problem ultimately boils down to the simple concept of loneliness. Leaving the Enterprise to live on Earth hasn't been easy. He hasn't been able to make new friends, because he isn't quite sure how. All he has is his work and that simulated Voyager crew. To him, Voyager is representative of his own emotional isolation. At home he lives with his cat. The cat's name is Neelix. My, what a lonely world. When Barclay finally breaks down and confesses this all to Troi, it's an affecting moment we can understand. The Enterprise served as Barclay's unified friends-and-family. And when you lose that, where do you turn? The world is there, but how do you make yourself fit into it? This is a human story that tackles a believable dilemma. No people mutating into salamanders, just honest emotions.
The plot, which serves the characters well and vice-versa, does a good job of moving along at a good pace without unnecessary distractions. And it's particularly nice that we have a stake in the plot as it unfolds on its own terms. We didn't have much stake in the actual plotting of episodes like "Alice," "Riddles," "Dragon's Teeth," or "Voyager Conspiracy" because they all played out in ways that were more or less inevitable, so the value to be found was strictly within the characters. But "Pathfinder" has a storyline that's about something important to the Voyager crew, so in addition to characters we have a plot that holds its own. I cared very much how this hour would play out.
For Barclay, obsessions do not simply go away. He needs to test his theory. He goes over his commander's head, straight to Admiral Paris, who isn't thrilled with Barclay's persistence but listens to him. When that doesn't result in immediate action, however, Barclay waits until the lab closes and breaks in to carry out the procedure on his own. Barclay ups the stakes and risks his career, but little of that matters to him; contacting Voyager is what matters. One of the most memorable details has to be when Barclay finally sends his message. The agonized expression on his face, a bizarre cross between sheer terror and relief, says it all: "Here I am at the moment I've been waiting for ... but what if it doesn't work?" He looks like he could burst from emotional overload at any moment.
The episode also has a clever "action" sequence when Harkins comes with two security officers to arrest Barclay for breaking into the lab. Barclay, who has obviously planned ahead, still needs to send a second message to Voyager, so he transfers the computer controls and makes a dash into the holodeck, where his resourcefulness and talent for holodeck games give him the advantage. But what I particularly liked was Harkin's approach to ending the game—rigging the simulated Voyager to self-destruct—and the idea of Barclay backing down and ending the program at the last moment rather than seeing the crew blown up. This is an interesting action scene because it also addresses the psychology of the characters.
Of course, since this is a feel-good episode of Trek, Barclay's theory is a remarkable success that reaches the Voyager crew, who are able to establish a live communication and talk back. This saves Barclay in his hour of peril, and supplies the Voyager crew with a moment they've long been waiting for. All of this is quite well-played for its awe factor.
What makes this such a good payoff isn't just the fact that Voyager finally has a live communication with home, but also the use of Paris as a brief but integral part of the equation. He finally gets to hear from his father, who has come to accept his son and put the uneasy past behind him. There's no actual dialog between them—the episode shows some remarkable restraint—but Tom's silent reaction is on the money and his toast later indicates some closure that rings all the way back to the series' beginning.
This ranks as one of the more comfortable feel-good episodes on Voyager's record, featuring a tidy, happy ending. I have nothing against feel-good shows, particularly when done this well. Everything works out for Barclay, who finally seems able to move on with his life. I only hesitate to think where he'd be had the communication effort failed. It's a good bet he'd have been crushed by such a failure, possibly beyond recovery, in addition to his career very likely being over. Things ultimately worked out fabulously, but Barclay's path to personal salvation isn't exactly one I'd recommend.
Some other thoughts:
- Boy, they sure rebuilt San Francisco and Starfleet Headquarters awfully fast. As much as I liked seeing Earth, it might've been nice to have some indication, however slight, that Starfleet is recovering from the Dominion War. If and when Voyager does get home, I certainly hope we don't get a Federation that's completely healed, as if the final two years of DS9 didn't happen at all. (I know—this isn't relevant to "Pathfinder," but it was something that came to mind.)
- This week also reminded me how I wouldn't mind seeing the Voyager crew switching to the current, better-looking Starfleet uniforms. Just a thought (albeit not a particularly relevant one).
- I enjoyed the brief Seven/Neelix exchange about the singing lessons. What I particularly found amusing was Seven's way of insulting Neelix with a statement that would be sarcastic from anyone else (telling him he should perhaps restrict his singing attempts to the shower), except that Seven really means it and delivers it as a 100 percent neutral fact with no intended malice. Hee. (Last week Seven assimilated the Borg implant labeled "Richard Belzer." In addition to turning her into a conspiracy theorist, apparently it also helps her deadpan humor technique.)
- I also was hoping there might be some mention of Doc's connection to Barclay as evidenced in second season's "Projections." According to that episode, Barclay was on a team that helped test the EMH's original program. That might've also been a nice touch to figure into his obsession. Ah, well. I suppose that might've been cluttering up the story a bit.
- Of course, I must mention the story's one noticeable plot hole. In predicting Voyager's course, there's no way Starfleet can take into account the fact that since Doc's communication almost two years ago in "Message in a Bottle," Voyager has made several jumps amounting to anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 light-years ("Night," "Timeless," "Dark Frontier," last week's "Voyager Conspiracy"). Based on Starfleet's prediction (and Barclay's own dialog about Voyager being 60,000 light-years away), the entire effort would be rendered ineffective, methinks. Just once I'd like to see the writers accurately represent the distance remaining in Voyager's journey, which I'm inclined to believe is less than 30,000 light-years at this point.
- I liked the lighting techniques in Barclay's apartment—the way it went from bright afternoon to sunset to darkness in between the flashback scenes. Not a big surprise, since the director is Mike Vejar, who I'm inclined to call Trek's current best. (In DS9's "The Changing Face of Evil," also directed by Vejar, I was similarly struck by such a technique used to show the sun setting on Bajor in various scenes throughout the episode.)
I've droned on long enough. "Pathfinders" isn't perfect (that one plot hole regarding the distances is a bit of a nag), but it's an episode where I really cared, was really entertained, and really liked the characterization. That's what counts. This is a real keeper, easily among Voyager's best.
Next week: Rerun. "Does Jason Alexander want Seven of Nine for her mind or her body?" Direct quote, people. Further proof that no road is too low for UPN promos. But it made me laugh out loud, so I guess it's not all bad.
Have a safe and happy rest of the millennium. See you in 2000. (And if you say, "The new millennium isn't until 2001," I will vaporize you.)