Friday, September 23, 2016

The Next Generation 7x20 "Journey's End"

rating: ****

the story: Wesley Crusher finally discovers his destiny.

what it's all about: Some fans accuse Star Trek: Insurrection of being an unnecessary duplication of the earlier seventh season episode "Homeward."  Which is ridiculous.  It actually has more in common with "Journey's End," a true forced relocation story.  (But they're still pretty distinct, and you don't have to think of them in relation to each other at all.)

There's a lot of stuff going on here.  One is the more subtle Voyager groundwork episode of the season (the later "Preemptive Strike" actually features the Maquis, rather than "just" problems with Cardassians demanding things of the Federation).  The other is that this is a Star Trek episode about Native Americans that takes them much more seriously than "The Paradise Syndrome" from the original series.  Usually Star Trek metaphors use something other than what they're actually talking about, but because "Journey's End" features another attempt at forced relocation, it works perfectly well, and is allowed to properly resonate with history, as Picard points out (which actually makes Insurrection resonate quite well with this episode, too, thank you).

But you can put all that aside.  This is the last real appearance of Wesley Crusher.  After becoming a scapegoat among fans for the wildly inconsistent quality of the early seasons, this former series regular left and then only made sporadic return appearances.  Blink and you'll miss his only movie appearance (at Riker and Troi's wedding reception in Star Trek Nemesis).  But then, after "Journey's End" it would have been very difficult to pull off anyway without making it the whole focus of the story.  Fans made it clear they didn't like anything but a happy cheery follow-up when Kes finally returned in Voyager's "Fury," for instance.

No, this is a whole culmination for the character, and the payoff for "Where No One Has Gone Before," when we first meet his spirit guide, the Traveler.  Wes's journey was always about discovering his unique destiny.  Everyone tried so hard to just make him a Starfleet officer, a legacy he would've shared with his mother, Dr. Crusher, and his dead father, but he always seemed pointed in a different direction.  (Jake Sisko very quickly made a similar decision in Deep Space Nine).

What makes this episode so interesting is that it suggests a whole alternate version of Next Generation, where Wes was the lead character, and the point was to help him reach this exact point.  His last two appearances before this, "The Game" and "The First Duty" all the way back in the fifth season, very clearly set him up this in how poorly he seemed to be fitting in with Starfleet culture in his later years.  His inability to tell right from wrong in "First Duty" might have made Wes seem uncharacteristically like something other than the golden boy image he'd cultivated for so long, but the truth is, all it did was prove that he was meant for something else, something bigger.

All this sounds absurd to anyone who still hates Wes with a passion.  Good for them.  The rest of us can revel in the nuances of this character as they emerged over time, and how everything finally makes sense in "Journey's End," which is kind of the ultimate Next Generation philosophical rebuke of the original series, where a character in a similar situation would have been bad-guy-of-the-week.  Where Q, especially in the series finale, went out of his way to do much the same, having Wes do it, too, and with far less bother, just the basic human decency embodied by his mentor Picard, was also the ultimate affirmation of everything this season tried to accomplish, which was to make a final statement about the series itself, how tragedies in our past can still lead to a better tomorrow.  Isn't that the Star Trek message in a nutshell?  The decisions we make, if we make the right ones, make the future a better place, in big and small ways. 

If Wes goes off and becomes a superbeing, what else is there to say about that without making it the whole focus of the story?  Again, Kes serves as textbook example for this.  She ended up becoming very confused.  But she didn't have a guide anymore.  That's Wes's big advantage.  For all the time he seemed like he didn't have anyone who could understand him (least of all the audience), he really did always have someone to help him.  Picard hated to love him.  The Traveler never stopped believing in him.  In "Where No One," it's Wes who understood the Traveler because he didn't take his eye off him.  Well, you can bet it became the reverse.

Anyway, for an unpopular character, Wes certainly got the best possible sendoff anyone had in this series.  This is only fitting.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Rebukes the original series, in a good way.
  • series - Finishes out a longstanding arc in the series.
  • character - Wes's best episode.
  • essential - It ties everything together!
notable guest-stars:
Wil Wheaton (Wes)
Richard Poe (Gul Evek)
Natalija Nogulich (Admiral Nechayev)
Eric Menyuk (the Traveler)

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