Star Trek: The Next Generation – The First Duty [5.19]

Wesley Crusher is becomes involved in a cover-up regarding the reasons for a fatal space fighter accident at Starfleet Academy.  Eventually it is revealed that this is due to Wesley and his fellow members of an elite squadron attempting to do a dangerous and forbidden piloting exercise in order to essentially show off during a commencement exercise.  Wesley eventually reveals the truth, and is disciplined, but his squadron leader takes the majority of the blame, salvaging the careers of Wesley and his other comrades.

Written by Ronald D. Moore & Naren Shankar. Directed by Paul Lynch.

Previous Episode: Cause and Effect • Next Episode: Cost of Living

The First Duty is an outstanding episode of Star Trek:  Next Generation.  Extremely good character work marries solid pacing and the result is a dramatically compelling drama that definitely takes our heroes into uncharted territories.  It is easily the series’ best exploration of Wesley’s character, choosing to define him not by his great intelligence, but by his struggles, mistakes, and victories in the face of a deep personal failure. Wesley, of course, has desperately needed a story like this all along, although he couldn’t have had this particular story without at least a few of those “Wesley saves the ship” episodes.

The First Duty carries itself forward via a series of well written and well directed “duets” – strong dramatic encounters, often between just two characters. We get Picard & Beverly, Wesley & Locarno, Picard & Boothby, Wesley & Commander Albert, Picard & Boothby again, Wesley & Picard, and Wesley & Locarno again.  The most memorable might be the ones with Picard and Boothby, simply because Ray Walston is such a treat to have involved.  Casting him, a brilliant old actor who looks like he could about 150, and has a strong science fiction pedigreem is a bit of a masterstroke. The guy doesn’t have all that much to do, but a few well read lines about gardening and a few hints dropped about Picard’s backstory speak volumes, and help to produce one of the more memorable guest characters the series has had.  His scenes are critical, as they help anchor this episode as a story about Picard and how he’s become the man he is, as much as it is about Wesley.

But as fun as these moments are, the high point of the story, and of all these two-person moments, is the confrontation between Picard and Wesley, which is brilliantly written, directed, and performed.  The betrayal that Picard feels, the righteous anger and the deep disappointment are all powerfully brought to life. Along with this, Wesley Crusher’s inner turmoil, his conflicted emotions over where his loyalty lies, and his confusion are all brought forth as the perfect counterpoint. This is a story about who Wesley was always meant to be, and the understandable but still egregious error in judgment that he makes which almost completely derails that destiny. Whether we love or hate him, we as viewers have shared Picard’s expectations for the young man, and we feel and share the Captain’s shock and sense of betrayal.  The scene between them is expertly directed, powerfully written, and wonderfully performed.

I can’t speak highly enough about Wil Wheaton in this episode.  He does a great job showing Wesley as a growing young man coming face to face with his failures and limitations.  Wesley has often been unpopular, and Wheaton has often shared that, but we see here that given decent material, Wheaton is as capable a member of the ensemble as the rest.  The rest of the guest cast is also very good, which is helpful since they feature so prominently in the story.  It is easy, for example, to see why the producers thought of Robert Duncan McNeill when they were outfitting Star Trek Voyager.But as usual it’s Patrick Stewart, even in the midst of good company, who stands out above the crowd and delivers the goods.

Guest Cast:
• Ray Walston plays Boothby.  He’s a very well known and respected character actor who starred in the TV series My Favorite Martian and was a key part of the ensemble in Picket Fences.  He also appeared in the great movie from 1960, The Apartment, as well as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and it’s TV spin-off Fast Times.

• Robert Duncan McNeill plays Nicholas Locarno.  He of course went on to play the very similar character, Lt. Tom Paris, regularly on Star Trek: Voyager.

• Richard Fancy plays Captain Satelk.  He has had a lot of other roles, including as Elaine’s boss Mr. Lippman in several episodes of Seinfeld.

Shout out to the Past:
Ligonians are mentioned.  They were the race who appeared all the way back in Code of Honor.

There is direct reference to the events involving Wesley in both Encounter at Farpoint and Where No One Has Gone Before.

Setting up the Future:
Both Boothby and Ensign Sito will reappear.  Boothby will show up as an alien duplicate in Voyager, and Sito will be a feature guest star in one my favorite episodes of the 7th season, Lower Decks.

Of course, we will see Wesley again, specifically in the 7th season episode, Journey’s End.

• Troi seems surprised that Picard knows Admiral Brand.  Considering Picard’s rank and experience, it seems like something that would not be surprising at all.

• Picard graduated class of ’27, in case we were curious.

• The whole episode is well directed, but I especially like the way that the camera pans over to Captain Satelk in the midst of Wesley’s deposition.

• Good line from Boothby:  “And you could explore space on a holodeck instead of a starship.”

• It’s great how Locarno does not back down in his confrontation with Wesley.  The guy is genuinely disturbing.

Dialogue High Point
The whole scene where Picard confronts Wesley is amazing, but the highpoint is this line

The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth. Whether it’s scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth. It is the guiding principle upon which Starfleet is based. If you can’t find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened you don’t deserve to wear that uniform.

Previous Episode: Cause and Effect • Next Episode: Cost of Living

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