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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Coming of Age (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

Coming of Age is interesting, if only because it is one of those rare instances where an episode’s B-story is far more compelling and interesting than the primary drama unfolding. Coming of Age is apparently about Wesley’s entrance examination to Starfleet Academy, which seems to have quite high standards for an organisation that let Riker and Yar into its ranks, but that teenage academic story feels a little trite and cliché.

Far more interesting, however, is the strange investigation conducted into the crew of the Enterprise at the behest of Admiral Gregory Quinn, who makes a dramatic impression by suggesting to Picard, “I have reason to believe there may be something very wrong on this ship.”

Evidently he has been watching the first season as well.

Picard off-guard...

Picard off-guard…

I joke, of course. However, there is something decidedly “meta” about the structure of the episode. It essentially sees Dexter Remmick prying through the early adventures of the ship and finding various inconsistencies. There are points where Remmick seems to point out obvious plot holes as much as probe into the conduct of the crew.

For example, discussing the events of Where No One Has Gone Before, Remmick seems to think that the episode’s set-up was less than convincing. “According to his own logs,” Remmick begins, with the weight of authority on his side, “his Bridge crew didn’t think highly of Mister Kosinski’s theories, yet the Captain allowed him to access to the engines anyway. Is that true, La Forge?” It’s not too difficult to imagine a snooty fan asking the same question.

A simple investigation...

A simple investigation…

Indeed, Remmick seems intent on holding a few dodgy adventures against the crew, perhaps reflecting the expectations and mindset of fans who had waited over decade for The Next Generation only to get episodes like The Battle. In an opinion not too far from my own, Remmick makes an argument that that particular storyline hardly makes a convincing case for Picard as a capable commanding officer. It’s fairly easy to construct a fairly water-tight case that Picard (and his senior staff) were less than competent dealing with that threat.

“Do you believe the captain is emotionally and psychologically fit for command of this starship?” Remmick begins, with what might be termed a leading question in a more structured environment. “There is nothing in his history or his personality that would suggest mental lapses?” Troi, of course, denies it, prompting Remmick to break out the big gun. “Not even the Ferengi incident with his old ship, the Stargazer?”

Try not to look too happy Wesley's off the ship...

Try not to look too happy Wesley’s off the ship…

Troi falls back on an excuse I imagine Starfleet court martials hear more often than you might think, assuring Remmick, “He was being controlled by a mind altering machine, Commander. Without his knowledge.” Remmick, to his credit, and sounding like that’s not even a half-decent attempt at a credible excuse, smugly responds, “I would call that a mental lapse.” Boom! Game, set and match!

We are not initially told what Remmick is investigating. Indeed, we’re not really told at the end of the episode either. However, in the middle, Remmick’s inquiries seem intentionally obtuse, and any refusal to cooperate with the investigation (a “charade”, according to Picard) is simply proof of complicity and guilt. In a surprisingly confrontational moment for a Starfleet officer at this point in the show, Remmick loses his patience and reveals an unnerving attitude. “You are required to answer my questions, Mister Riker, unless you’re trying to cover something up!”

This dude is probably all over the 24th century message boards...

This dude is probably all over the 24th century message boards…

In a way, it seems like Remmick has arrived to put the show on trial. Watching the mountains of behind the scenes footage accompanying the collection, it’s quite clear that the writers and actors weren’t entirely satisfied with how the year had gone – particularly the first part of the year. The departures of Denise Crosby and Gates McFadden were just around the corner, and the show had produced a couple of shows that ranked with the worst of the franchise, and had yet to cobble together a true classic.

As such, Remmick’s investigation works surprisingly well. Much like the Enterprise might not have been meeting the high standards of a Federation flag-ship, perhaps The Next Generation was not yet meeting the expectations for a Star Trek series. Remmick’s inquiry is perhaps a confession from the writers, and a vow to keep improving. Clearly, things could not continue as they were.

Should the Enterprise screen its crew better?

Should the Enterprise screen its crew better?

Remmick himself seems like something of a fan. Notice the way that he almost cheers when Picard rescues a kid trapped on a shuttlecraft, and he ends the episode hoping to end up post on the ship among the crew. The cast manage to ultimately convince Remmick that they are worthy of their position, much like the show was forced to earn the approval of the legions of fans of the original Star Trek. Remmick’s ultimate validation of the crew marks an important seal of approval, and perhaps a “coming of age” for the show itself.

More than that, though, Coming of Age also teases an interesting idea. It’s really the first multi-episode arc of The Next Generation, the first time that ideas are really pushed to the fore and not neatly wrapped up at the close of the hour. Sure, threads had weaved from episode to episode. Q’s interest in Riker in Encounter at Farpoint paid off in Hide & Q, for example. The Big Goodbye had originally been intended to follow 11001001, and the holodeck malfunctions would have been the result of the Bynars, but that didn’t work out. Still, this feels different.

Pursuing all pertinent Data...

Pursuing all pertinent Data…

We all know where this is going now. It’s a plot point that leads to a confrontation that leads to one of the largest dangling plot threads in the history of the Star Trek franchise, so large that it had to be dealt with in the spin-off novels. It’s also quite different from what Conspiracy writer Tracy Tormé had in mind, but we’ll come to that. Ignoring the bugs and the mind control and the gross factor, Coming of Age has one heck of a revelation at its core.

“Something or someone is trying to destroy the fabric of everything we’ve built up in the last two hundred years,” Quinn advises Picard, and it’s clear he is talking about someone or something inside the Federation itself. It’s a brutal twist, even today, even knowing how it plays out. More than that, though, it also adds a great deal of spice to the show. The early part of the first season was alarmingly smug and arrogant in its depiction of Starfleet as the moral centre of the universe. Coming of Age subverts that in a big way.

Wesley has a lot of heavy-lifting to do...

Wesley has a lot of heavy-lifting to do…

It’s hardly out of left field. Home Soil demonstrated that the Federation was fallible, even if not intentionally. A terraforming expedition almost wiped out an intelligent life form because the Federation cleared the planet of life. Too Short a Season saw Admiral Jameson subverting the Prime Directive, in an episode built around the Iran-Contra Crisis. Similarly, Tormé’s initial draft of Conspiracy also focused around the scandal. Jameson was acting alone, but the fact he had done so with complete impunity suggests that there must be some institutional rot.

Still, the revelation that there is some active force trying to erode and corrupt the Federation is a deeply unnerving one, and the scene is played so perfectly straight that you immediately accept the scale of the threat. The Next Generation arguably handled moral philosophy a bit better than its predecessor, so it’s fitting that this plot evolves around the decaying moral superiority of the institution. The attack is not a literal one, but a more fundamental intrusion.

Giving Wesley a good dressing up...

Giving Wesley a good dressing up…

You could argue that The Next Generation was never really the ideal show for such a thread. It was capable of going to some dark places, but it wasn’t willing to dwell on that sort of moral uncertainty so close to home. Deep Space Nine went on to handle the notion of a military coup of the Federation in Paradise Lost, and the show did it astonishingly well – much better than I think that The Next Generation could have. Still, the fact that such an idea is even suggested hints at promising developments.

Which is all pretty great, except that all of this unfolds in the background of the episode. The centre of Coming of Age is built around Wesley sitting the entrance exams to Starfleet Academy. And it is incredibly cliché. His fellow applicants all conform to easy cardboard cutout archetypes, and he learns lessons both inside and outside the classroom, while also accepting that he’d rather be a decent person to a fellow applicant than assure himself a place. It’s all rather paint-by-numbers. It’s not actively painful, but it’s not especially interesting.

Web of intrigue...

Web of intrigue…

Still, there are a couple of interesting character beats, and they involve Wesley. I’ve said before that I don’t generally mind Wesley as a character. He’s just a problem when the writers play up the “boy genius” trope like they did in The Naked Now, The Battle or Datalore. After all, if Wesley is so much smarter than all the adults, why would he have any difficulty getting into their special club? There’s a clunky “chosen one” narrative grafted on to Wesley by the Traveller in Where No One Has Gone Before that is completely unnecessary. As Oliana states here, “It’s a good thing you’re cute, Wesley, or you could really be obnoxious.” And I’m not as convinced about his cuteness.

However, if you divorce Wesley from all that, he works quite well. The problem is that those other aspects of the character eat up so much screentime that there isn’t much left for actual character work, instead of treating Wesley as a romanticised teenage audience-insert character. Coming of Age gives us some nice insight into his father, who died while serving under Captain Picard. It has been suggested before, but it’s the elephant in the room – particularly because Wesley looks to Picard as a father figure and Beverly has the hots for him. Let’s try to avoid getting all Freudian on that.

Leavin' on a shuttlecraft...

Leavin’ on a shuttlecraft…

The B-plot on the Enterprise actually quite cleverly brings the viewer up to date with a conversation between Remmick and Beverly, one of the few times that another character discusses Jack with her. Remmick is particularly sleazy as he assures her, “Everything said here is confidential, Doctor. You can be completely open with me.” Crusher responds, “About what?” The inquisitor answers, “About how you feel serving with a man who is responsible for the death of your husband.”

It’s a nice way of making sure we know Picard and Jack crusher have history before Wesley faces his final entrance exam, but it’s also just a nice moment on its own. Crusher has been even more marginalised that Yar or Troi during this first season, and – given the sexism of the scripts – that’s not a bad thing. However, she gets to rather brutally knock Remmick down a peg as she politely tells him where he can shove his questions.

Kling on to that defense...

Kling on to that defense…

As an aside, before we even get to Wesley, there’s even a nice moment between Worf and Wesley, which also represents the most character development Worf has got to date, assuring young Wesley that “only fools have no fear.” Worf went on to be the longest-serving title-billed character in the franchise, so it’s strange (and also quite nice) to see some measure of consistency from here through to What You Leave Behind. Here, Worf confesses that his greatest fear is having to depend on other people, and it’s a recurring character trait throughout his time in the franchise.

Anyway, we discover that Wesley really fears having to leave a man to die, which is actually not a bad character beat. At least it’s better than giving him a fear of “failure” or some other abstract concept that keeps young over-achievers awake at night. And that fear is revealed to be rooted in the loss of his father. He knows that Captain Picard was responsible, but he ahs a bit of difficulty articulating it. “Because of my father? Because Cap– Because someone made that choice, and my father died.”

Yes, it is a skirt. What of it?

Yes, it is a skirt. What of it?

Coming of Age isn’t quite as strong as the sum of its parts. Wesley’s time at his entrance exams feels a little bit cliché, full of mandated teenage scenes like the character flirting with a girl or learning to stand up to a bully – all with a unique Star Trek twist. However, it feels rather outdated, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere dozens of times. (And executed better.) The episode suffers because Wesley’s exams are much less interesting than Remmick’s investigation, but they seem to eat more time. It feels a little unbalanced.

Still, while Coming of Age is hardly a classic, it’s not a bad episode, and it manages to do two things right. It manages some solid character work for Wesley, and it also hints that things are not quite as they should be. It’s not enough to make the episode essential, but it’s more than a lot of early episodes have going for them.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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