Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: The First Duty

The Next Generation, Season 5
"The First Duty"
Airdate: March 30, 1992
118 of 176 produced
118 of 176 aired



Introduction

On the eve of the Starfleet graduation ceremony, where Captain Picard is due to give the keynote speech, Cadet Crusher is involved in an accident with Nova Squadron, the elite piloting team of which he is a member. While Wesley survives, one of his classmates is killed. An investigation is convened, but shockingly, Nova Squadron's explanation of the accident and the physical evidence don't seem to match up. Captain Picard must now confront the possibility Wesley may be hiding something.

I'm sure Josh would have wanted you to have this fugly sweater back, Wes.




Writing

Kevin: This is certainly the best Wesley story there is, largely because he is portrayed as the most human the character has ever been. Here, his prodigious skills aren't a help; they are in a way a hindrance. Part of why Wesley does what he does is because he feels the pressure of the expectations of his mother, his captain, and his squad leader. The problem felt very complicated and very real. It's easy for the viewer to think that we would do the right thing, but if it were our career on the line, a trusted authority figure like Nick Locarno was telling you to stay quiet, how might we react? That aspect of the story shined really well. I empathized with Wesley's position, even though he was not blameless in his problem. Ron Moore talked about in interviews how there was some resistance to making Wesley not do the right thing right away, and I'm glad they stuck to their guns.

Matthew: I am very much in agreement with your analysis. This story resonates very personally for me. When I was in 5th grade, I cheated on my reading workbook. We would bring them in and go through them in class, and then simply read off our scores for the day to the teacher. A made up score is just as good as a real one, right? Now, I had always been something of a "wunderkind," winning spelling bees and always being the darling of my teachers. My cheating was motivated not by pressure to perform (I could easily have done the work and gotten 100s), but by laziness. Nonetheless, it was shocking I think to my teacher, Mrs. Kindelin, and it was devastating to me to be found out, to feel the guilt of betraying the trust of a respected elder, of having lied, of feeling that semi-public shame. I was sick for several days afterward, and even developed an ear infection. Anyway, having been through something emotionally similar to Wesley (although luckily there were no reading workbook fatalities), I can tell you that the writing rings completely true. It's a wonderful character story for Wesley, Picard, and Dr. Crusher. The way she wants to believe the best of her son, despite indications to the contrary, is heartbreaking for me to watch. The moral lessons are sound and well worth absorbing for a young viewer.

Kevin: I liked the episode for how it developed Picard's character as well. It was great to get snippets of his relationship with Boothby and hints of the firebrand he was in the academy that thus far has only been hinted at in Samaritan Snare. My only real nitpick with the episode is how Picard framed Wesley's choice. I think it robbed Wesley actions of as much moral strength as it might. I think the scene would have worked better had Picard acknowledged Locarno's eventual point that he had only supposition, not proof. So the choice truly is Wesley's, he can get away with it if he wants but it will cost him Picard's respect. Picard's threat almost forces his hand. Once Wesley knows the truth will come out one way or the other, falling on the sword is not quite as selfless as it could have been.

Matthew: I didn't mind how that played out, and it did of course give Picard one of the best speeches he's had in the series. What I found odd was the notion that any of the 5 flyers thought that performing the Kolvoord Starburst was anything close to a good idea. Not in terms of danger, but due to the fact that it was "banned by the Academy." How would they possibly escape punishment for such a stunt? It would be like streaking the graduation ceremony and then posting it on YouTube. There would be a record for all to see which clearly indicates the malfeasance.

Kevin: One element that I really liked and that really elevated the episode was how well Starfleet Academy was realized. The grounds felt expansive and very much like a college campus. Brand, Solok, and Lt. Albert all came off as very well developed, as did the snippets of the Picard's relationship with Boothby. Everything served to make the episode and by extension the universe feel like a real place.

Matthew: You took the words out of my mouth. Hearing Riker and Picard reminisce about their superintendents, and hearing Picard and Boothby discuss the old days, really gives the world a depth of flavor and realism. If anything, I feel like we could have had 3 or 4 more minutes of this kind of thing. Maybe a bar scene, with a happenstance meeting with old friends. Anyway, Ron Moore really did a great job adding to the tapestry of the universe. Although I will say, Boothby's dialogue regarding Nick Locarno was a bit on the nose, in a Guinan sort of way. Speaking of Lt. Albert, I loved the fact that he was a lieutenant, and that this seems to be the pinnacle of his career. As someone with relatives in the military, I really appreciate the realism of not everyone ending up as an admiral someday, and I really liked the intimation that these careers are a family legacy, something that each generation strives to live up to. It is light years ahead of the cavalier treatment of rank and career in various J.J. Abrams craptaculars.

Acting

Kevin: Obviously, Picard and Wesley get the lion's share of the acting in the episode, and their relationship serves them well. The imagery of disappointing a father-figure is well mined, and the actors played it perfectly. Picard's disappointment and Wesley's shame came shining through and was pretty compelling. I would have like another scene between Wesley and his mother both before and after the revelation, as her concern was genuine and engaging, and I would have liked to see how she balanced her love of her son with the expectations she had for him, but for what she got, she played it well. The thinly suppressed panic in the opening scenes when Picard told her was moving.

Matthew: Yeah, McFadden yet again quietly nailed the "seeming like a mother" emotions coursing through this story. Her shock at the beginning, and her tremulous faith in Wesley throughout was really great. And this is easily Wheaton's most nuanced work in the series.

Kevin: The guest cast was also top notch. Admiral Brand was intimidating and commanding in every frame. Robert Duncan MacNeill did an awesome job as Nick Locarno and it's easy to see why the writers brought him back on Voyager. He had the quality that the charismatic bad guy needs to have: charisma. I completely bought that he could charm/guilt people into doing what he wanted and had probably done so most of his life. I would have actually liked to see him defend his team members and sacrifice himself for them, but the episode is only 43 minutes long.

Matthew: Yeah, there were 7 major guest roles in this story, and each was executed to perfection. All of the cadets seemed like real people with varied personalities. Shannon Fill has a great insecure vulnerability, and it was great that they brought her back. MacNeill was superb. he effortlessly inhabits the role and makes the his character feel like a real person with a real history. He is a perfect foil for Wesley - the charming leader who utilizes the skills of nerdy wonks to get ahead. When he chastised Wesley for his selfishness, I almost kind of agreed with him. Ray Walston was perfect as Boothby. Ed Lauter really delivered the grief as Lt. Albert. And wow! Jacqueline Brookes had me shaking in my boots as Admiral Brand, and I'm not even enrolled at the Academy!

Production Values

Kevin: I liked the graphics showing the flight plan for the shuttles. The zoom in on the image from the Saturn monitoring station was well done and really served the story. The internal cockpit camera looked a little too obviously CGI.

Matthew: The only thing that bothered me in the slightest was the issue of scale with the moons of Saturn. But the graphic itself totally kicked butt. And I liked the cockpit views, CGI and all. I liked the "enhance!" moment from the remote satellite showing the formation flying. The ship design itself was neat, and represents a departure from anything we've seen before in the franchise.

Kevin: The Starfleet Academy building is the reuse of the water treatment plant, and the grounds looked great. Boothby apparently did a good job tending them. The set pieces for the dorm room was nice, the one contemporary doorknob in the Federation is right there in that door.

Matthew: I loved the dorm room. The Apollo and Constitution models were cool, the San Fran backdrop, both day and night versions, looked great out the window, and I loved the touch of having a doorknob. It's the little detail that makes you think "this place has been here for 200 years." Perfect. Plus, we also get the Academy flag and logo, which I have one one of my favorite t-shirts. Ex Astris Scientia, baby!

Kevin: The hearing room was also nice. It had the expected institutional austerity, but didn't look underdone. Overall, nothing was shockingly mind-blowing, but everything was well done and served the episode well, if quietly.

Matthew: I think it may have been a re-use of the room from "The Outcast." Anyway, it was a nice dramatic set, with the elevated gallery seating and the centrally located viewscreen. Also, I dug the bell. Ding ding! That seems to be a hold-over from TOS hearing scenes. By the way, I also loved the cadet uniforms. The inversion of the regular color scheme is a bold visual statement, and it's easy to see why it was reconsidered when it came time to refresh the main uniform.

Conclusion

Kevin: This is a 4 for me. The writing presents a complicated real problem and stretches two major characters. Coupled with some first class acting, this is definitely in the upper tiers of TNG.

Matthew: I can see an argument for a 4. But this is a 5 for me, perhaps because it resonates so personally for me. But I think I can argue rationally for it, too. The writing is top notch, finally humanizing a challenging character in Wesley, and introducing so much color and flavor to the universe. Ron Moore really hit this one out of the park. The acting is absolutely superb, with MacNeill's coming across so well that he basically performed his way into a recurring star role. And the production values teemed with lovely little details that set my nerd-instincts all atwitter. I love it when this one comes up in a viewing marathon, and it's clear top decile material for me. That makes our combined rating a 9.

4 comments:

  1. Yeah this is a great episode. Plus as I believe was mention it introduces us to Cadet/Ensign Sito Jaxa perhaps my favorite guest(non human) ensign. I have to agree though that it seem a little foolish of them to attempt a stunt that they know could get them expelled. WC seems to much like a wuss to have gone along. My only nitpick is that I think the Admiral Brand is not ranked high enough. The USNA superintendent is a vice admiral.

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  2. Wow, I'm shocked to see how much everyone loved this one. This is one of my least favorite episodes of the entire series.

    I'd give it a 2 only for the Boothby scenes and Tom Paris being in it :p

    The story is just sooooo unbelievable.
    I'd rather have it be a cheating thing. I mean why would 5 top students do a maneuver that was BANNED BECAUSE 5 PEOPLE DIED DOING IT. I mean, I get showing off but that's a bit extreme.
    Could've made it a lab experiment, which would suit Wesley better anyways.
    Also does Starfleet really give 5 ships to students and lets them fly unattended? No teacher coach?

    When Nocarno first arrives at Wesleys room he says he's just checking up on him then all of a sudden Wesley says they have stuff to discuss? RED FLAG

    They have lots of meetings but never actually discuss a story to tell about what happened? WHAT?

    Nocarno is allowed to interrupt the other students testimonies? HUH?

    There's honestly so many more failings that I could just never get engaged in the episode. Maybe I'm just weird. That's often the case.

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    Replies
    1. These sort of story issues always bothered me as well (but I'm not an official rater). I think that overall the performances are aces, but the problems with the logic of the story bring it down. It's always bothered me that the cadets in question were only sentences to a roll back in their academic years, with only Locarno being expelled. It seems to me they should have all received equal punishment, especially considered they all knew the maneuver was banned. I mean, a cadet died. Sort of a big deal.

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