“The First Duty” is yet another of those TNG episodes that should not work. The episode features zero alien enemies or phaser fights. There’s not even really much of a mystery for the crew of the Enterprise to solve. We know almost from the cold open that the cadets have been up to something hinky; the exact nature of their transgression matters far less than their efforts to cover up their guilt that will unquestionably be brought to light. However, the episode asks us as viewers to reflect on what our own choice would be in this situation. We know what Picard would expect us to do, as does Wesley, and we know what Locarno and the rest of the squadron would expect us to do. The episode also hints that our choice to side with Locarno will be by far the easier of the two, but despite that ease, Locarno’s path is the wrong one. Picard knows it. Wesley knows it, and through Wesley’s knowledge, we know it, too.
Captain Picard, having been tasked with giving the commencement address for this year’s ceremony at Starfleet Academy, directs the Enterprise to return to Earth, and while en route, the ship receives word that an accident has claimed the life of a member of Nova Squadron. That squadron happens to be an elite piloting squadron of which Wesley Crusher is a part. While Wes survived the crash relatively unscathed, Joshua Albert did not, and his death prompts a formal inquiry chaired by the Academy superintendent. From the beginning, the cadets’ account of the events that led to the crash seems fishy, especially when Superintendent Brand and Captain Satelk provide concrete proof that the cadets were not in the diamond slot formation as they have so determinedly insisted. Nevertheless, Nicholas Locarno, Nova Squadron’s leader, insists that everything will be just fine and exerts considerable pressure on the remaining squadron members to go along with the story that Cadet Albert panicked, causing the crash.
Wes, fresh off an emotional scene in which Cadet Albert’s father apologizes to him for his son’s alleged failure, finds throwing Albert under the bus morally difficult, but he decides to go along with the cover up regardless. However, Captain Picard has asked LaForge and Data to go over all the data from the accident, and a stray comment by LaForge regarding igniting plasma trails leads Picard to deduce just exactly what maneuver the cadets intended to attempt. Rather than the Yeager Loop that Starfleet had approved, Locarno and Nova Squadron had planned to execute a Kolvoord Starburst, a rather spectacular and incredibly dangerous maneuver that has been banned by Starfleet Academy for a hundred years. Picard confronts Wesley, and ultimately, Wes recants his previous testimony to the Board of Inquiry, setting the record straight. Locarno gets expelled from Starfleet Academy, and the remaining three members of Nova Squadron receive a reprimand in their permanent file and have their academic credits for the year revoked.
From the above, it is a fairly simple matter to reduce the story to one regarding the evils of peer pressure and the necessity of accepting responsibility for one’s actions. While both of these themes are strongly present in the episode, I do not agree that the story is that simple because reducing the story to that summary ignores the importance of choice and how it impacts not only Picard’s character but also Wesley’s. The episode introduces us to Boothby, more than ably played by Ray Walston by way of Picard’s truly awkward attempt to apologize to Boothby for his behavior as a student so many years before. While we never know exactly what misadventure placed Picard in such hot water that Boothby had to set him straight, we do know that Picard, like Wes, had to choose to do the right thing. We also know that without Boothby’s interference, Picard might not have made the choice he did.
The inclusion of that scene clearly serves as foreshadowing for the role Picard will adopt for Wesley. Boothby even pithily notes that he was the same age when he lit a fire under Picard that Picard is now, just in case you wanted to accuse TNG of being subtle. Even more important is Boothby’s easy acceptance of Picard’s apology, saying he understood entirely why Picard acted the way he did. It’s a great meditation on the occasional necessity of tough love. Just as Boothby forced Picard to wrestle with his own conscience, so too will Picard compel Wesley to evaluate his actions in light of a higher moral code.
I similarly think that having Wesley make a mistake of this magnitude is an important departure from TNG’s tendency to build up its characters as being nigh-unto-infallible. We saw Wesley make all the right choices and pull life-saving solutions out of thin air for three seasons, so in light of that history, his fall from grace here becomes all the more affecting. More to the point, Wesley’s error humanizes him as a character. Just as Picard stumbled on his path to adulthood, so does Wesley. We’ve all been there, and some of us were lucky enough to have a Picard or a Boothby to hold us accountable not just to externally imposed concepts of duty but also to our own inner sense of right and wrong. Nothing about Picard’s demeanor when he reveals Wesley’s punishment indicates that he cares for Wesley any less; there’s some pride that Wesley has chosen to accept the consequences and an acknowledgement that the moments in which we falter, in which we stumble, are some of the most formative. Wesley will go back to a campus and face the derision of his peers and the disappointment of his instructors, but he goes to face it with a new maturity just as Picard did after his own misstep.
I really wish the episode had included more out of Nova Squadron. Boothby tells us that the squadron members are like gods to the rest of the campus, but the rest of the episode provides no support for Boothby’s assertion. I understand that time and budget constraints may have rendered doing so more difficult. Additionally, while I think Robert Duncan MacNeill is a fantastic actor, Boothby’s insistence that Locarno is this driving presence falls flat because all we see in MacNeill’s Locarno is a smarmy kid scrambling to save his own skin. Even at the end, we do not see him accept the blame for the crash. We only hear that he does so from Picard, which leaves enough wiggle room to suspect that maybe Locarno did not act so altruistically despite Wesley’s contention that Locarno maintained his principles. Still, both of these issues are minor in the grand scheme of TNG viewing.
Rating: Four cups of steaming Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- The Academy uniforms are pretty slick, and unlike their professional counterparts, they appear to have pockets. I guess pockets are akin to training wheels in Starfleet?
- Speaking of costuming, poor Wesley Crusher cannot escape the awful sweaters. Cadet Albert’s father brings Wesley back a sweater that he’d loaned Josh, and it almost takes me out of the scene every time I see it.
- Fun fact, the bell that Brand uses to close the proceedings is the same bell that was used in the TOS episode “Court Martial.”
- Both Robert Duncan MacNeill and Shannon Fill will come back to Star Trek. MacNeill will play Tom Paris throughout Voyager’s run, and Fill will reprise her role as Sito Jaxa in “Lower Decks,” one of my all-time favorite episodes.