Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Next Generation 5x19 "The First Duty"

rating: ****

the story: Wesley becomes embroiled in a quagmire at Starfleet Academy.

similar to: "Homefront"/"Paradise Lost" (Deep Space Nine)

my thoughts: This is the best Wesley Crusher episode.  It has nothing to do with the Traveler, nothing to do with potential love interests, nothing to do with his mother, Picard, or even Wesley saving the day.  And it couldn't have been done with anyone else.

Since "Ensign Ro" early in the season, the series had made a concerted effort to present a more nuanced look at life in Starfleet.  The idea of visiting Starfleet Academy had been kicking around for a long time.  At one point Star Trek VI was supposed to be a reboot, with Kirk at the Academy (hello Star Trek 2009!), and that was about as recent in franchise history as was possible at that point.  I'm sure no one thought that when we finally saw Wesley at the Academy, after his early seasons hyping just how brilliant an officer he was destined to become, that he would be in any kind of trouble, let alone moral trouble.

I mean, Wesley was about as emblematic of Next Generation's early years as you could get, young and idealistic, one of the closest to the Roddenberry ideal any of these characters ever got.  I mean, he was Gene Roddenberry, for all intents and purposes.

His situation is a little complicated.  He's joined an elite squad of cadets.  He's not even its leader, but clearly he's one of the most important members.  The leader is the one who causes the problem.  Well, eventually, because the whole squad had to agree to screw up in the first place.  So "The First Duty" becomes a study of hubris, of, more or less, the kind of conceit that allowed Roddenberry to envision his perfect future in the first place, eventually settling on a hothead maverick in James Kirk to represent it, Kirk the contradiction at its center.  Next Generation went out of its way to present itself as different from Kirk as possible.  His surrogate, Riker, was the first officer, not the captain, drawn from Kirk's rival in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Decker, the man who totally disagrees with Kirk's mindset and resents him at every turn. 

Got all that?  "The First Duty" is a kind of mission statement, then, five seasons in, two seasons after the series found its voice, and deep into the season where it was confident enough to express exactly what it thought.  Kind of like how Wesley needs to find the confidence to do the right thing.  Usually Star Trek is all about doing the right thing without considering the consequences at all, flying in the face of the vaunted Prime Directive, the rule that the franchise is always the exception to.  Because life can be tough.  But being able to face that fact is usually a problem for the other guy.  Except this time.

"The First Duty" was clearly a watershed moment for the franchise.  We meet the gardener Boothby for the first time.  He shows up in two Voyager episodes ("In the Flesh" and "The Fight").  Actually, "The First Duty" is a kind of origin for Voyager in general, in that Robert Duncan McNeill, who later plays rogue officer Tom Paris, appears as the similar Nick Locarno here.  Fans tends to complain that Voyager squandered its potential by becoming a clone of Next Generation instead of following its own premise.  The producers never made any bones about setting Voyager on a ship instead of a station like Deep Space Nine because it wanted the franchise to get back to its exploring roots.  The premise wasn't a ship being lost in space.  It was about second chances.  Like what Tom Paris embodied.  Voyager was a second chance for a generation of Star Trek creators, who got to lead with their own voices.

Anyway, there's also the Bajoran cadet Sito Jaxa, who shows up again in the episode "Lower Decks," following her own thread from "The First Duty."  Out of everything else worth taking away from the episode, her journey is worth following, too.

It's an episode that's worth thinking about in even more ways than I've already presented.  It's compelling.  It's a classic.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher)
Robert Duncan McNeill
Ray Walston (Boothby)
Shannon Fill (Sito Jaxa)

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