In the nineteenth episode of the fifth season of The Next Generation, Wesley’s graduation from Starfleet Academy does not go as planned. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Well, color me surprised. I did not expect that at all.
I know that part of the reason I loved “The First Duty” so much involves the direct contradiction of the pattern that always seems to follow Wesley Crusher. Hell, I complained about it back in season three, and lo and behold, this episode does the exact opposite of that one. But is that the sole redeeming factor of this episode?
I don’t think it is. I think it’s a strong episode because it’s so relentlessly uncomfortable. It’s a story about peer pressure, arrogance, and duty, and I think it was brilliant to give this to Wesley. He’s such a saccharine character on this show, and I don’t mean that I need him to be edgy or anything. Truthfully, I don’t even really like that word all that much because it usually means someone writes a plot or character as dark or grim just for the sake of it. But he’s a character surrounded by positive outcomes, deus ex machina, and power fantasies. He can do no wrong, he makes no mistake that can’t be overlooked, and he gets the heroic narratives more than anything else. But he’s also a teenage boy who is, more or less, going to college for the first time. Away from the influence of the Enterprise, his mother, and Captain Picard, does he remain the same person? How might he change?
I think that because Wesley had never really gotten in trouble prior to this, there’s a sense of dread that pervades “The First Duty.” It’s pretty damn clear that these kids did something wrong that resulted in Joshua Albert’s death. Why else would they be so interested in hiding the truth? What had they done that was so bad that omitting the truth was worth it to them? So this episode wasn’t a matter of whether or not they’d misbehaved; it became a matter of degrees. How badly had they fucked up?
I think the biggest key to the degree of awfulness of their actions was in Locarno. Y’all, that was one manipulative motherfucker. Look how quickly he tries to guilt people for things he’s done. He takes any issue of ethics and makes it about the “team” and their glory. It’s creepy to watch him do it because I can see why these people flocked to him. It’s nice to have positive attention directed your way, and it’s nice to be desired and wanted. Locarno provided the means for them to get popular, essentially. There’s nothing wrong with that act, and there’s nothing wrong with showing off, and there’s nothing wrong with team unity. The combination of these things with reckless abandon, though? That’s not good.
But since we never see Joshua or learn anything about him other than what we hear from his friends, it’s impossible to tell what kind of person he was. I think it’s easy to imagine, however, that he truly wasn’t ready for that Starburst maneuver, and that Locarno pressured him into doing it. Does that absolve the other three members of the Nova Squadron of responsibility? No, and that’s one of my favorite parts of this episode. Granted, we see all of this through Wesley, and in particular, his moral struggle with the truth puts him at odds with Captain Picard. That fight that they have, though – which really is just Picard destroying Wesley with his words – is such a great example of the kind of moral center Picard is for the entire show. There’s no hesitation on his part, unlike Wesley, who spends the entire episode in a state of reluctance to do what he knows is right. Shit, I don’t know how he lasted as long as he did, especially after talking to Joshua’s father.
In the end, though, Wesley chooses the truth and duty over the desire to be cool and popular. Surprisingly, this doesn’t come across as an after-school special, and I think the brutal nature of the punishment given is part of the reason for that. No flying privileges, a formal reprimand, and AN ENTIRE YEAR OF SCHOOL CANCELLED OUT. I think it’s a good disciplinary action because, as Picard puts it, these three kids have to remain on campus and face the shame of what they’ve done. Everyone will know them as the cadets who contributed to Joshua’s death, and public shame is a hell of a thing. There are no easy, comfortable platitudes offered to him in the end, either. This will be a difficult journey for him, and it should be.
And lord, I did not expect this as an ending.
The video for “The First Duty” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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