Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The First Duty"/"Cost Of Living"
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Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The First Duty"/"Cost Of Living"

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Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The First Duty"/"Cost Of Living"

Season 5, Episode 19
B

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The First Duty"/"Cost Of Living"

Season 5, Episode 20

"The First Duty"

Or The One Where Wesley Stands Up

It's difficult being the best. Because when you're a kid and you're smarter than most other kids around... well, sure, it has its moments. Your parents are probably going to be super proud of you, and school work won't ever pose much of a challenge, at least not for a while, and you get to read the really good books sooner than anybody else. On the down side, being smart also means you tend to be more self-conscious from an early age, because you think before you act, which is a sort of social death. Children your age at best won't understand you, and at worst will punish you for standing out of from the crowd. So you work harder, and you get used to being lonely, because hey, this is your gift and your privilege, and you're special, right, you're some kind of genius or something. And if you don't go through the regular motions of hanging out and if you have a hard time meeting people, that's just the price you pay for your talent. You're going to make everyone proud someday. You're going to show all them and then that will make up for a lot. 

Everyone knows this part of the arc. It's very sad. But there's more! As you get older, the work gets harder, and maybe you didn't learn the right lessons when you were young: how to study when the lessons weren't immediately obvious, how to pace yourself, how it's okay if you don't get it all on the first try. Or hey, maybe you did learn these lessons. But even still, the work gets harder, and it becomes more and more important for you to be the best, the golden boy. So much is riding on your shoulders. Everyone has put their expectations on you, and you've been perfect so long, so you can't fail now. Worse, the same old successes aren't quite cutting it the way they once did. Just getting perfect grades? Eh, we've seen it. Tops in all your classes? Filling your plate with extra-curriculars? Getting into the best college, making the best friends, joining the best teams? Not bad, right, but what have you done for me lately

Wesley Crusher returns in "The First Duty," and while his situation isn't quite as dire as all that, he's clearly struggling with some of that golden boy pressure. He's doing well at Starfleet Academy, and Picard has been invited to give the commencement address for this year's class. (Which would be remarkable, wouldn't it? I don't even remember the name of the guy who gave my commencement address. He was a business mogul and terribly bland, although that may just be my goofy ass liberal arts major brain talking.) Before the Enterprise arrives at Earth, however, there's a grave accident: Wesley, although with the four other cadets that make up the "Nova Squadron," is involved in the accident while training for a planned maneuver around Saturn for graduation ceremonies. One cadet, Joshua Albert, is killed when five single-pilot ships collide mid-flight, and now, Wesley and the others will be called on by the head of the Academy, Admiral Brand, to explain the circumstances that lead to the accident. 

"Duty" is a fine episode, probably the best Wesley-centric episode I've seen, in no small part due to the fact that it never really feels like a Wesley-centric episode. His dramatic arc from guilt to lying to questioning to confession and repentance is the spine of the story, but much of the episode is built on the mystery surrounding exactly what happened out there around Saturn, so much of the episode, the Boy Blunder is held at arm's length. Instead, we see events unfolding largely from Picard's perspective, and that is never a bad thing. It seems like ages since we've had Picard as the central figure of a storyline (he was the hero of "Power Play," but that was more ensemble driven; the last time we got some real Patrick Stewart greatness was, what, his argument with Matt Frewer in "Matter of Time"?), and it's great to see him do more here than simply sit on the sidelines, handing down vaguely paternal advice. Oh sure, he does that, but this isn't some mildly pleasant, live-and-let-live captaining; when Picard realizes what Wesley and the others have done, he goes into full on Old Testament God mode, and it's terrific. 

This episode also marks the first appearance of Boothby, the groundskeeper whom Picard recommended Wesley seek out and befriend back in "Final Mission." Ray Walston plays Boothby, and while the character skirts up against cliche, Walston's performance is low-key enough to make it largely work. He and Stewart play off each other well in their scenes together, which is good, since Boothby only ever appears on screen with Picard. Despite Picard's recommendation, there's never any real sense that Wesley has connected with the groundskeeper; Boothby knows his name and knows a fair bit about the Nova Squadron (including the highly motivated Nicholas Locarno, played by Robert Duncan McNeill, who would later go on to play Tom Paris on Voyager), but we never see Wesley going to Boothby for advice, nor do we ever get a sense that Wesley has done so in the past. Which means that when a moral crisis arrives, Wesley doesn't have a gruff, stern paternal figure on hand to come in and point him in the right direction, so Picard has to step in.

While Picard is using Data and Geordi to determine what caused the accident and reminiscing with Boothby over his own mistakes, Wesley is slowly panicking. He's doing it in a controlled fashion, which is just what you'd expect from someone whose spent his whole life on the straight and narrow, but he's not happy with what's going down, and it takes repeated reassurances from squad leader Locarno to keep him believing that silence is the best way to go. See, it wasn't just an accident that took Josh's life. The Nova squadron are school champions, and as befits champions (as is required of them, even, to keep impressing everyone), they decide to bust out a flight routine that's been forbidden at the Academy for over a hundred years, the Kolvoord Starburst. It's a showy, incredibly risky move, and when they tried to rehearse it, they screwed up. So now, Locarno is pushing for everyone to lay the blame on Josh's door. He's dead, he won't care, so say he was getting nervous and twitchy at the controls, and no one has to know about the real mistake. 

The episode does a great job of making Wesley's situation as ambiguous as possible. What happened was awful, but it's over now, and this isn't the sort of crime that would automatically lead to other crimes. Yes, Josh's good name is getting dragged through the mud, which would be miserable for his parents (all we ever see is his father; Ed Lauter appears to have been driven mad by grief, as his eyes spend most of their time on screen trying to push out of the actor's skull, but he does apologize to Wesley for Josh's "failure," which is pretty brutal), but it's easy to see how quickly rationalization of the cover-up would take hold. Josh is dead, and he was a good friend, but a dead friend is still dead, and he doesn't have a career to worry about anymore. And he'll be dead even if they confess and put their own careers in jeopardy. It's not exactly a victim-less crime, but it's hard to see what good stepping forward and confessing will do anyone at this point. No one's ever going to know. There will be some reprimands for improper procedure and maybe a little suspicion, but who cares? 

But of course Picard cares, and of course Data and Geordi are able to piece together just enough information for Picard to figure out what went wrong. He confronts Wesley with this knowledge in his ready room, and Picard's anger throughout this scene is remarkable; I can't remember ever seeing him this angry at Wesley before (well, apart from that first Lore episode, but that was back in season one, when Picard was always pissed off), and while we in the audience can understand that this is all for Wesley's own good, that he needs someone to stop him in his tracks before he starts down the wrong path... well, it's still thrilling to see. And I don't even say this from an anti-Wesley perspective. I've taken my fair share of pot-shots at the character before, and he was never as compelling as his position on the series would seem to indicate. The precocious wonder boy never quite fit in with TNG's aesthetic, as it felt too much like a series of children's books grafted on to a (generally) adult drama. But he had his moments, and of all the Wesley episodes, this one is the most successful at making you feel for the guy. He's in an impossible situation. He's over-reached, and now, in order to listen to the dictates of his conscience, he'll have to betray his friends and admit to the people whose respect matters most to him that he failed and that he is partly responsible for a friend's death.

So the excitement of watching Picard read him the riot act near the end of the episode isn't because of sublimated desire in my heart to see Wesley suffer. It's partly because Patrick Stewart is a tremendous actor, and he's mesmerizing to watch. But it's also because this needed to happen, because after so many years of being praised and petted by a world of adulatory adults, Wesley needs to be treated like an adult who is both capable of moral decision and culpable if he fails to make those decisions well. Stepping forward and telling the truth isn't an easy decision, and it certainly won't immediately improve his life or bring Josh back from the dead. And yet, for all his brilliance and his prodigious ability, this is the one decision Wesley needs to make that can truly define his character. Everything else was a game of some form or another. Now it's time for him to take responsibility for his actions, because if he doesn't, even if there are no immediate consequences, he'll be compromised, and the next time a situation arises where the right course is a little too difficult, who knows what could happen. 

In the end, Wesley stands up and does the right thing, in front of everyone. He gets held back a year at the Academy, and Locarno gets expelled. Actually, in a nice twist, Locarno makes sure Wesley and others aren't expelled as well, by taking full responsibility for what happened; he may have been lying, but he wasn't a complete jerk. (Which adds to the ambiguity, too, because if Picard hadn't investigated further, what might have happened if Wesley had kept his mouth shut? Maybe Locarno would've turned out okay. Maybe Wesley wouldn't have gone insane with grief. Who knows?) "Duty" is the first time we've seen any of Starfleet Academy on any Trek series, and while the school isn't really a traditional setting for a space-faring sci-fi series, the lesson here is the same as it is all over the galaxy, for geniuses and fools and anybody: You make your choices, and you pay the consequences.  

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • If I had any nitpicks for this episode, it would be that Picard's threat to go public with his conclusions if Wesley stayed silent makes Wesley's choice a little less than a choice. It makes sense, in that Wesley's still fairly young, and maybe he needs this one last shove, but it might have worked better if Picard had simply said, "Look, I can't prove this, so I won't say anything if you don't. But don't expect me to give a damn about you from here on." 
  • "The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth." That whole speech was aces.
  • According to Memory Alpha, Robert Duncan was supposed to reprise his role as Locarno for Voyager, until somebody realized that, if he did, they'd have to pay royalties to the original writers of "The First Duty" for the entire run of the show. Thus, Tom Paris was born.

"Cost of Living"

Or The One Where Lwaxana Meets Alexander And I Die A Little Inside

This is an episode which stars Alexander, Worf's son, and Lwaxana Troi. Y'all are lucky I made it past the half-hour mark without clawing my eyes out. I'm going to try a slightly different format than usual here, and just give you my notes from the episode as it was happening (with, of course, some adjustments and additional notes for clarity). 

Blowing up an asteroid, Tessen III, Dangerous core is still around

Whenever I review an episode, I try and write down as many new proper nouns I can. This is where closed captioning comes in super helpful. I doubt many people come here for hard facts about TNG, but it does help make the writing easier if I don't have to keep referring to everything as "that planet over there" and "some star system or something." It's not always useful, though, as in this case; Tessen III never really comes up again. The important bit to remember here is that the Enterprise destroys an asteroid before it hits a planet, and when the core of the asteroid blows up, it releases a dust cloud that infects the Enterprise and makes a much more interesting story than the drama we spend most of the hour suffering through.

Troi, Alexander, Worf in counseling

Alexander is still insanely annoying here. He shouts all the time. I think we're supposed to find Worf unreasonable, but I think he honestly deserves some sort of medal for not punting the little brat out the nearest airlock.

Lwaxana is getting married, wants to hold the ceremony in Ten Forward, the groom is Campio, third minster to the conference of judges Kostolain

And here is where the true horror of this episode becomes clear. It's not just Alexander; it's also Lwaxana, and she's just bringing the crazy like nobody's business. Also, here's another example of "recording names of places that no one really gives a damn about." I mean, it's not like Kostolain is ever going to be in a trivia quiz. Unless you're writing fan fiction (maybe Campio was actually an assassin who married Lwaxana as a cover so he could murder Picard!), who cares?

They haven't met yet

Sigh. Classic Lwaxana.

Worf and Alexander are drawing up contracts. KILL ME. I'm with Worf. This is hell

Already, my mind is starting to slip. Troi suggests Worf and Alexander make up contracts of their obligations, and Worf isn't a huge fan. Alexander immediately starts whining about how Worf won't follow through on anything, and it's all intended to drive the brat towards Lwaxana, so they can be friends or something. But you know what? I don't watch this show for parenting tips or for tepid family dramas. The more time I spend with Alexander, the more infuriated I am that Worf, of all the characters on the show, has been saddled with this irritating lump of tedium.

"Nothing would please me more than to give away Mrs. Troi."

I may just be imagining this, but it seems like Picard has gone from "trying to hide a possible attraction to Lwaxana" to "pure, unfettered irritation." I find this latter reaction far more believable.

Colony of Free Spirits This is terrifying. Holodeck

And here's were we go from bad to nauseating. I'm sure some people would find Lwaxana's idyllic artist's retreat to be a whimsical place full of enchantment and, uh, whimsy. To me, it's a lot of good old-fashioned nightmare fuel, made all the worse because everyone involved seems to think they're utterly wonderful. There's a multi-colored head floating in a bubble; a juggler who juggles edible "worlds" (and buddy, nobody's impressed that you can manage three balls at once); a pair of Suessian exiles who argue constantly; and a pontificating blowhard with a beard. It's supposed to be charming, and that's the worst kind of awful, I think. The forced chumminess and unfunny jokes make me gag.

"The higher the fewer." 

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?" (In context, this bit makes absolutely no sense. I guess Alexander's habit of quoting it is supposed to be a indication of his childlike childishness, but, as with nearly everything else in this episode, it's pretty dumb.)

Looking for Alexander. Mud bath. Ugh

All right, just to catch you up: Lwaxana has taken Alexander into the holodeck so he can enjoy all the horrors of the Colony of Free Spirits. They're doing a full spa treatment, and Worf is upset because Alexander is missing his scheduled therapy time with Deanna. Eventually, Deanna realizes what's going on and zzzzzzzzz sorry, what?

SO FUCKING IRRITATING

No comment. 

Whoa. Naked chick dancing!

Yeah, so this happened. A dancer does a number while Alexander and Lwaxana are in the mud, and the dancer is covered in body paint and a few strategically placed bits of... moss? Mud? Anyway, she's mostly nude. Given Lwaxana's attitude towards nakedness, this isn't that surprising, but then again, it sort of is.

"You're telling me you're not going to be naked at your own wedding?" Oh thank god

Oh, past Zack. You really are charmingly naive sometimes.

The computer is having problems. Creates sausage instead of tea. Thank god, a plot that I can sort of give a shit about

I'm clearly turning bitter at this point in the note-taking process, but the episode's secondary plot (which, come to think of it, never really ties into the main story) isn't bad. The dust from the asteroid is a parasite eating all the nitrium in the Enterprise's engines and leaving behind a sort of fecal goo. ("A Sort of Fecal Goo" would've made a better title for this episode, actually.)

Alexander and Lwaxana talking about marriage. She admits to him she's settling
To dial down the sarcasm just a tad, I did appreciate "Cost"'s attempts to once again remind us of the real sadness that lies behind all of Lwaxana's antics. She's alone, she's getting older, and as much as she might put on a good show, the odds of her finding someone she actually might want to spend the rest of her life with are distressingly low. There are aspects of this episode that I wanted to enjoy, and not just the sci-fi plot; while Lwaxana isn't exactly appealing, her potential groom, Campio, is a stuffed shirt ass, and her eventual refusal to compromise her principles in order to find a mate should be triumphant. But it's just too much. She spends roughly 80 percent of her time on the show being forceful, obnoxious, and disrespectful of others. Making her depressed every now and again isn't going to make up for hours of anti-entertainment. 

Laughing Hour: worst thing ever?

HA! and yes. (The Colony has a "Laughing Hour," which in practical terms, means that at random intervals for the rest of the episode, Alexander will start to go "HA! HA!" Remarkably, this is even more irritating than it sounds.) 

Running into problems with Campio. KILL ME

My notes become something of a broken record at this point. But yes, there's a scene with everyone shouting, because Lwaxana and Alexander want to spend time together, and Campio and Worf and Deanna are not happy with this. 

Yes, because we can't possible chase them into the holodeck

I sometimes think the writers believe that just because the holodeck can create spaces that appear bigger than the 'deck actually is, then people can hide inside the program. Surely Worf would have the clearance to simply turn off whatever program Lwaxana and Alexander were engaged in. As escape plans go, this is like running out of the bedroom to hide under the kitchen table. 

The holodeck program is disrupted by the parasite. The turbolift starts fucking up. Whoa, life support slipping, Data has to follow through if everyone passes out.

Oh thank god, the other plot kicks in. Briefly, we're led to believe that the parasite that has been slowly infiltrating the rest of the ship might actually be relevant to all this Alexander/Lwaxana foolishness when the holodeck starts acting up. Such is not the case, however, as Lwaxana and the others (apart from Worf) largely disappear through the rest of this crisis. Geordi and Data determine that the best way to get rid of the evil space dust is by returning it to the asteroid field from whence it came, which is what they do; except that, given the low power levels through the ship, everyone on board passes out except for Data. But hey, it's Data, so he gets the job done and saves the day and doesn't even ask for a raise. 

Oh great the wedding. Troi's hair is kinda hilarious

Yes, it's wedding time. And yes, Troi's hair is hilarious. She looks like she should be on stage singing back-up at a Prince concert. 

Lwaxana is late, and when she shows up, she's naked. Heh. That's cute. Still. KILL ME

And thus does Lwaxana once again show she's a free spirit, and thus does Majel Barett reveal far more skin than I'm entirely comfortable with seeing. I dunno. This could've been tolerable in theory, if Campio wasn't played as such an obvious tool. He has a protocol minister with him, for god's sake. How did Lwaxana possibly think this could work? And how would someone this obsessed with protocol ever consider marrying someone of a completely different race? I wish I could find something beautiful in her commitment to her ideals, but, as is so often the case with Lwaxana plots, this just seems like a selfish, immature twit forcing others to once again bow to her shallow whims. I also don't find it particularly life-affirming that she and Alexander bonded. Like attracts like, after all.

"You're just supposed to sit here?"

And thus we end in the only possible way an episode like this could've ended, with Worf forced to kowtow to a psychotic harridan and his ungrateful gnat of a son. I suppose if there's any consolation here, it's the knowledge that we got a Lwaxana episode and an Alexander episode out of the way at the same time, and hopefully, we'll have the rest of the season to enjoy trying to forget they exist. And that does it for this week. No worries if this format didn't work for you. I should have picked up sufficient pieces of my brain to go back the usual house style in time for next week. Ciao!

Grade: C

Next week: We try not to hit on "The Perfect Mate," who in all probability is almost certainly just an "Imaginary Friend."

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