Realm of Fear (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season 6, Episode 2) When transporters reveal Barclay’s muppet-mouthed eels, that’s a-facepalm

Rewatching ST:TNG

When the Enterprise-D locates the missing science vessel Yosemite, twitchy Lt. Barclay makes a technobabble suggestion that’s so good, LaForge adds him to the away team. But when it comes time to beam over, Mr. Smarty yeets himself to the counselor’s office instead.

We learn that Barclay is afraid of the transporter, but Troi assures him that transporter accidents are rare and encourages him to join the landing party.

After first sympathetically sharing a long story about his fear of spiders, O’Brien beams Barclay over. On the Yosemite, the away team finds fragments of an exploded sample container and the burned body of an engineer, but no sign of four other crew members. The Space Thing has totally wiped out all the ship’s logs — but all the other systems are just fine.

As he beams back, Barclay sees a floating muppet-mouthed creature that bites him in the arm, but he convinces himself he was just hallucinating.

The mystery deepens, as the dead engineer from the Yosemite shows brief signs of life during an autopsy — a heartbeat and a breath, but nothing else.

This episode shows off a new entrance that connects engineering to the Jeffries tubes, and features some lovely tracking corridor shots (as Barclay power-walks through the ship to tire himself out before bed).

Barclay is acting so agitated that Troi relieves him of duty. He tries to relax, but his arm starts glowing. Having had a technobabble inspiration, he calls O’Brien to the transporter room in the middle of the night to tell him the technobabble, with the result that while in transit Barclay again perceives creatures floating in the transporter matter stream.

A confident Barclay orders O’Brien to wake the senior staff. Though Crusher can’t find anything wrong with his arm, a skeptical Picard decides to trust Barclay, which is a good thing, because now suddenly Crusher thinks up a technobabbly way to look harder, and yup, now she can clearly see the plot contrivance particles that the Space Thing put in his arm.

Data and LaForge beam aboard a sample of the Space Thing, and after they take the precaution of “setting up a level five containment field,” they start a routine scan process, which causes the sample to go kaboom. Nobody is hurt from the blast, but Barclay collapses; Crusher says there’s life in the Space Stuff — microbes that exist as both matter and energy, and some of those microbes are in Barclay. 

The thing to do is reprogram the transporter so it can recognize and filter out the matter-energy microbes, which will require a longer than usual transporter cycle. Once again Barclay must face his fears, not only of the transporter process, but also the muppet-mouthed energy slugs, which turn out to be something completely unexpected, thanks to the magic of TV script writing.

This is the weakest Barclay episode so far.

While it’s nice to imagine a future in which employees can take a personal mental health moment whenever they need it, refusing the order to join the landing party and fabricating an order from LaForge aren’t momentary quirks.

The episode goes to some length to establish that a Space Thing will making this this particular transporter trip rougher and more uncomfortable than most, which in-world is supposed to be enough to spark Barclay’s fears, but I didn’t buy it.

If Barclay had started out this episode as his usual self, accidentally offending O’Brien by making smalltalk about transporter accidents, and the teaser ended with his encounter with muppet energy eels, then the story would be about how the others at first think he’s overreacting; then, and later think he’s hallucinating. In the denouement, a bit of technobabble from Crusher could have established that the plot contrivance particles emitted by the energy microbes must have excited the fear-response receptors in his brain, which would explain why his transport-o-phobia flared up. Troi could assure him that he showed extra-super bravery by facing his energy-microbe-enhanced fears. 

I expect that the extra time with O’Brien, and a throw-away scene in which Picard and an admiral discuss the Cardassians, were part of TNG’s efforts to set up Deep Space Nine (where O’Brien will become one of the leads, in a setting where the Cardassians are the recurring baddies). 

The episode also features Nurse Ogawa, full-body burn makeup for a dead engineer, and some long tracking shots that show off the length of the corridor set — a set full of extras. There’s also a very brief scene in Ten Forward, which is packed with extras. The crew of the Yosemite, Worf’s security team, the aforementioned floating energy muppets, and a small but nifty set for the Yosemite and our first look at the path from the engineering room to the multi-level Jeffries tubes.

While the production values for this show were great, it’s a shame the script was such a mess. The dead engineer taking a sudden breath and the energy slugs were obviously supposed to be creepy, but the comic tone of the episode (and the muppet mouths of the slug puppets, which move exactly like they are worn on someone’s arm, curving in just one direction) nerfs the creepy parts.

More important, we don’t have any emotional connection to the missing Yosemite crew, so the mystery storyline is kinda sorta Shaka when the walls fell. If the Yosemite had been carrying a war criminal that the Cardassians demand as a condition of a peace treaty, or even Barclay’s secret Academy crush, then finding out what happened to the crew wouldn’t seem like following a random string of technobabble clues that lead to more technobabble plot twists.