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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Dauphin (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Dauphin ends what looked like the beginning of a winning streak for the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both A Matter of Honour and The Measure of a Man represented a significant shift in gear for the show – a demonstration of just what The Next Generation was capable of at the top of its game. The Dauphin, in contrast, is a decidedly generic little episode.

It doesn’t help that it’s a character episode devoted to Wesley Crusher as a teenage protagonist on the Enterprise. Wesley was always a character who posed a bit of a problem for the show. There were times when bad writing and Wheaton’s less-than-nuanced performance saw the character threatening to turn The Next Generation into a plucky teenage science-fiction adventure series. Watch the boy genius save the ship while the trained professionals around him are useless!

While A Matter of Honour teased a way of making Wesley work in the context of the show, The Dauphin falls back into familiar traps. It’s a poorly-written teenage romance with some awful dialogue and two rather wooden leads, using familiar Star Trek trappings.

A rocky relationship?

A rocky relationship?

The script for The Dauphin is woeful. It seems almost phoned in, as it runs through the big book of Star Trek clichés. There’s a beautiful alien princess. There’s a shape-shifter. There’s an off-screen conflict that requires immediate arbitration, with the Enterprise serving as an intergalactic courier service. These aren’t bad ideas, on the surface. After all, Star Trek managed to take the “bunch of people going to a summit” plot and turn it into Journey to Babel. The Next Generation will use it as the basis of Sarek.

The Next Generation had a weird preoccupation with the Enterprise ferrying diplomats and important people around the cosmos, perhaps a reflection on how the politics of Star Trek had changed since the original show aired. While Kirk’s Enterprise could also operate as a glorified taxi service, this often felt like the exception rather than the rule. Kirk’s Enterprise was more prone to partake in gun-boat diplomacy on the final frontier, while Picard’s is treated as a luxury liner in space.

I guess he would hit a woman...

I guess he would hit a woman…

This does lead to a strange sense that the Federation has really stopped exploring in the twenty-fourth century. Sure, the boundaries of human knowledge continue to expand, but there’s just less novelty out there. Instead, The Next Generation is more about delving deeper into the familiar – ferrying diplomats, launching deeper investigations into phenomena that have already been charted and mapped, supply runs and rendezvous and checking in. It’s more like maintaining the final frontier than really charting it.

That’s part of the problem with Star Trek: Voyager, which attempted to copy The Next Generation model by thrusting the eponymous space ship into the darkest recesses of the Delta Quadrant. This missed the fact that The Next Generation was very rarely about discovering entirely new things – it was more about expanding our knowledge of what we already knew. Which was really one of the core reasons that Voyager never lived up to its potential.

Making Data's day...

Making Data’s day…

So Voyager ended up a show that felt strangely disjointed, with familiar and recurring foes popping up far too frequently and the strange application of standard Next Generation plots where they made little sense. Shows about complex diplomatic relationships made little sense when Voyager’s primary concern should be trade and exchange of supplies; frequently diverting to investigate strange phenomenon would ultimately add years or even decades to their journey home.

Still, in the context of The Next Generation, there’s really a sense that the Federation has sort of stabilised itself and isn’t interested in outward expansion as much as stability. (That’s why the sudden discovery of something truly humbling and alien in Q Who? is such a game-changer.) It does make Wesley’s boast in the holodeck ring a little hollow, though. “This is all just beginning. We’ve only charted nineteen percent of our galaxy. The rest is out there, just waiting. Look what we’ve already discovered.” The Next Generation seemed to put the emphasis on the latter rather than the former; and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Flirting with melodrama...

Flirting with melodrama…

The problem is that there’s no real texture to any of this. The introductory exposition feels incredibly shallow. “Little is known,” Data tells us. “She was born on Daled IV. Her parents were from opposite sides in a civil war which has lasted for centuries. They both died shortly after her birth. A Federation ship brought her and her governess to Klavdia III so that she could be raised in a neutral environment.” He explains why the Enterprise is ferrying her, “It is hoped she will unite the factions and bring peace.”

We never get an idea of why Salia is so important. Why can she bring peace when nobody else can? Why is this weight and responsibility on her shoulders? Given that so much of her angst is anchored in the sense of duty and obligation to her people, it would be nice to know from where this obligation stems? Were her parents important people and so the duty falls to her? Has she been proactively reaching out to the two factions from exile? Has the political situation on Daled IV changed recently?

A healthy glow...

A healthy glow…

Without knowing where this obligation comes from, it’s very hard to invest in Salia’s angst. Yes, it’s tough having people depend upon you, but it’s hard to empathise when the situation is kept so frustratingly abstract. All we really have to go on is the episode’s title, The Dauphin, which suggests that Anya was born into this role; and the implication that Salia has little conscious choice about her role. “Nobody’s even asked me if this is something I want,” she protests. “It is your duty,” Anya tells her. “It won’t be as bad as you think. In fact, it could be quite wonderful. Besides, you are the last and only chance.”

Contrast this to the relationship between Jake and Nog and another young girl empowered with great responsibility in the first season Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode The Storyteller. There, the conflict is outlined quite clearly, without going into unnecessary detail; and the young woman’s roles and responsibilities are clear. It also helps that writer Ira Steven Behr seems to have a much stronger grip on teenage characters than Scott Rubenstein or Leonard Mlodinow.

Dammit, Worf! Stop dramatically reaching for your phaser in slow motion!

Dammit, Worf! Stop dramatically reaching for your phaser in slow motion!

Then again, the script really isn’t that bothered about any aspect of the episode. The dialogue is terrible. Television writers, as a rule, typically have a lot of trouble writing for teenage protagonists – particularly for prime time. While this seems to be something that – broadly speaking – has improved in the past decade or so, there’s still a sense the writers struggle with the voices of young teenage characters.

While Deep Space Nine generally did a good job with Jake, mostly be defining him relative to his father and as a means of world-building, The Next Generation always struggled with Wesley. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Most obviously – and something that fans like to point to a lot – is the fact that Wesley takes his name from Gene Roddenberry and seems to have been one of the creator’s favourites. Rod Roddenberry has even suggested that actor Wil Wheaton was “like a son” to Gene Roddenberry.

(E)Wok the hell is going on?

(E)Wok the hell is going on?

As such, the character of Wesley seems to have been insulated and protected a great deal. Wheaton himself has jokingly described Wesley as a “Mary Sue” character. Indeed, Ronald D. Moore has talked at length about the difficulties he had trying to present Wesley as a flawed character in The First Duty, meeting resistance from both Michael Piller and Rick Berman on his initial pitch for the episode. Given that The First Duty aired in the year where Gene Roddenberry passed away, it’s hard not read subtext into that discussion.

However, even outside of the way that the show seemed to treat Wesley as a wish fulfilment character for Roddenberry inside the narrative, the series had other difficulties writing for the character. Most obviously, Wesley is very much a typical protagonist of a teen television series. He’s young, he’s smart, he’s talented. He’s brilliant in a nerdy sort of way. It’s not too hard to imagine a late eighties teen television show built around Wesley and his weird adventures in the style of Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Good Morning, Miss Bliss or Silver Spoons. Just, you know, in space.

He is Klingon, hear him roar!

He is Klingon, hear him roar!

After all, episodes like The Naked Now or Datalore make sense in that context, following the rules of those sorts of narratives. Of course Wesley is smarter and more astute than the adults who share the Enterprise with him. Indeed, in Wesley episodes, it frequently feels like the senior staff are really just absent-minded parents, too focused on their jobs and responsibilities to notice the important things in life; like how clever Wesley is, or the fact that Data has been replaced by his evil twin.

And The Dauphin suffers from this. The entire Wesley subplot is like a half-hour episode of a Wesley-centric teen sit-com that exists in a parallel universe, aimed at a different demographic than the rest of The Next Generation. So Wesley is so smitten he can’t function at his work, because we work on sit-com cliché rather than logic. The adult crew members are reduced to quirky sources of humourous anecdotes and life lessons – crazy uncle Worf and his ducking! sleazy cousin Riker and his flirting! grounded older brother Geordi and his romantic advice!

It's like a creepy teddy bear!

It’s like a creepy teddy bear!

(That last one seems especially absurd, given how the series would go on to categorise Geordi as the most socially dysfunctional member of the regular cast. So having Geordi offer the most grounded and logical advice (recommending that Wesley “go talk to her” and to say “whatever occurs to [him]”) feels a little weird in context. That said, Geordi is still one of the least defined characters in the ensemble, and his awkwardness wouldn’t really be cemented as a character trait until the show’s third year.)

In this context – The Next Generation as a teenage sit-com built around Wesley Crusher – the flaws become more understandable, if no less irritating. The romantic dialogue is particularly cringe-worthy. “This has all been so wonderful,” Salia offers at one point. “I’m not even sure it’s real.” Wesley assures her, “Believe me, Ten Forward isn’t an illusion.” Salia replies, “Not that. I mean the way I feel.” Aw, shucks.

Don't choke under the pressure!

Don’t choke under the pressure!

The script isn’t helped by awkward and stilted performances from Wil Wheaton and Jamie Hubbard. While Wheaton is a teenage actor still struggling to find his feet, Hubbard has no such excuse. She is a decade older than Wheaton, so there’s really no excuse for her terribly wooden performance. Maybe she’s trying to capture teenage uncertainty and insecurity, but it doesn’t come across well at all.

In keeping with the whole “Wesley Crusher: Teenage Space Hero” vibe that The Dauphin radiates, the script even has the young man learn a very valuable lesson about love. “Do not be fooled by her looks,” Worf warns Wesley. “The body is just a shell.” It turns out that looks aren’t quite everything – with The Dauphin making Salia a shape-shifter in order to underscore the point. In the end, Wesley sort of gets past that and decides to bid Salia farewell in the transporter room.

A boy alone...

A boy alone…

Which is a nice and appealing sentiment for a story about teenage love, even if it doesn’t quite work in the context of the episode. The romance between Wesley and Salia is introduced with an obvious conflict. No matter how much the pair enjoy each other’s company, she will have to leave the ship to bring peace to her people. That’s a solid tragic hook right there. Piling “Wesley also learns that looks are only skin deep” on top of that messes up the story a bit.

All of a sudden, the focus isn’t on the tragedy of Salia’s impending departure, it’s on whether Wesley can get over his own issues. However, there’s no real dramatic hook here. Given that Wesley is a smart young man serving on an enlightened and tolerant Enterprise, he was never not going to get over his own prejudices. So there’s no dramatic tension. It serves to distract from the original problem; when he gets over his own issues, she’s still leaving the ship and the two haven’t really dealt with that.

It's nice to know that the "replicator repair man" routine never goes out of style...

It’s nice to know that the “replicator repair man” routine never goes out of style…

Again, The Dauphin is very simplistic in a “teen sit-com” sort of way. The reactions of the rest of the crew to the fact that Anya and Salia are shape-shifters are remarkably straight-forward. The Enterprise crew seem rather blaisé about the fact that their guests are aliens who can change their form on demand, even when Anya threatens the life of a member of the crew. This is perfectly reasonable, given the utopian ideals of tolerance and open-mindedness that the Federation champions, even if you could probably justify more concern with the security threat Anya might pose.

However, this makes Wesley’s rather disgusted reaction to Salia seem a little… well, awkward. It would be enough to have Wesley feel a little unnerved and uncomfortable. After all, the notion that your girlfriend is completely different from who she claimed to be is probably a little unsettling. However, The Dauphin makes the character seem downright petty – as if he is having difficulty processing that Salia is a person.

Rings around each other...

Rings around each other…

“I loved you,” Wesley bitterly offers at one point. “I love you, too,” Salia responds, glossing over the whole “passive-aggressive past tense” thing. Wesley quickly shoots back, “Can you?” That feels like a little bit of an absurd response – particularly given that Wesley has never been a character prone to emotional over-reactions. Suggesting that a creature is incapable of feelings equivalent to love just because they don’t look like you is pretty much the antithesis of the open-mindedness we associate with Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia.

It also makes Wesley look like a bit of a dick. Which isn’t an inherently bad thing – it might be nice to get a bit of colour and characterisation for the boy wonder. On the other hand, having the character deny the personhood of a somebody who clearly cares about him makes it hard to really care about Wesley at all. His anger over the fact she lied to him is justifiable and understandable, but suggesting that she must be an inhuman monster just because she doesn’t conform to his standards of beauty suggests that Wesley really isn’t that nice a person.

That said, I would totally watch a sit-com with this cast.

That said, I would totally watch a sit-com with this cast.

Coupled with his awkward social skills and genius intellect, this sort of self-centredness hints towards a more flawed and fundamentally broken version of Wesley than the show was ever willing to explore in these early years. On the other hand, it is a lot easier to reconcile with the somewhat rougher characterisation of Wesley in his guest spots towards the end of the show’s run. It’s not hard to accept this version of Wesley being led astray by ego in the run-up to The First Duty, or resenting Starfleet for not living up to his expectations in Journey’s End.

This also raises up broader questions about teenage romance in the twenty-fourth century. Wesley knew that Salia was not human… so did he assume that she was biologically identical to one? Okay, Salia is physically identical to a human, at least from what we can see on screen. She is obviously played by a human actress. But was Wesley operating on the assumption that she would be exactly the same as a human girl in every respect?

The best romantic advice I can offer is to never, ever listen to anything Riker tells you.

The best romantic advice I can offer is to never, ever listen to anything Riker tells you.

Given how repulsed Wesley became when he saw that Salia was not perfectly human-like, it does raise questions about sexual education on the USS Enterprise. It’s obviously not anything the show is ever going to delve into in any real detail, but The Dauphin comes uncomfortably close to suggesting that human children are really taught to expect their love interests to conform to human norms and values. (Of course, Wesley gets over this squeamishness – but the strength of his initial revulsion is unsettling for a show about a tolerant futuristic utopia.)

There are a few nice moments here or there, and the comic sequence of Wesley seeking romantic advice from the crew at least allows The Next Generation to work at cementing the characterisation of various crew members. They are obvious exaggerated for comic effect, but the scene with Worf is actually a startlingly good character moment for the adopted Klingon. As Worf romantically explains Klingon mating rituals, we get the sense of a man who has fallen in love with a culture to which he belongs, but also one of which he will never be a part.

Looks like something shut up Wesley...

Looks like something shut up Wesley…

This is really the essence of Worf’s grand character arc over The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine; an outsider who has developed a romantic ideal of what life as a Klingon must be like, but with no direct experience of what that life entails. (This was also hinted at A Matter of Honour.) As such, this seems like perfect set-up for Worf’s eventual discovery that the reality of Klingon culture differs significantly from his expectations of it.

The Dauphin is a disappointing episode following the two strongest episodes of The Next Generation to date. It’s a much more mediocre piece of television, one with a dire script that demonstrates the show is still struggling with some of the problems that come built into the premise. Even if Wesley isn’t as much of an unfixable problem as some parts of fandom would suggest, The Dauphin demonstrates how you could reasonably reach such a conclusion.

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

9 Responses

  1. I probably would’ve hated this episode as a kid, but the girls were cute.

    • I still kinda dislike it, to be honest. But “hate” is a strong word. It doesn’t get filed in the same box as The Child or Up the Long Ladder or Angel One.

      • I think my child self would actually have hated it. (There was a low tolerance for cheesy man-in-suit monsters in my childhood home.) The modern version of me just sorta smirkily dismisses it. Also, cute teenage girls don’t hold the same power over modern me.

      • Fair point.

        I think the weird care-bear Ewok freaks me out more now than when I was younger.

  2. I was waiting for the comparison to Star Trek, found it in the first few paragraphs. Typical pregen trekkie, it’s annoying.

    • Sorry? “Pregen trekkie”? As in pre-Next Generation?

      Edited to Add: If I understand, I think the insinuation is that I prefer TOS to TNG and so the bias is showing in the review?

      I’m not sure that’s entirely fair or accurate. For the purposes of disclosure, I actually prefer TNG to TOS. (I also prefer DS9 to TNG, and the only Star Trek I actively don’t like is VOY, but – even then – I’ll concede that there are moments of brilliance to be found.)

      However, I think that you have to look at TNG in the context of TOS, for the same reason that you have to look at VOY, DS9 and ENT in the context of both TOS and TNG. TNG is a spin-off, so it makes sense to discuss the similarities and differences to the original TOS. So it’s natural that the comparison comes up, particularly because “the show’s central location hosts diplomatic people” is a standard Star Trek tropes, and one of the large parts of the early seasons of TNG are about deciding what Star Trek tropes they want to keep and what ones they don’t. “Prime Directive” stories are kept; “ferrying diplomats” is kept; “suspiciously Earth-like planet” is cast aside; “sociopathic artificial intelligence” is toned down.

  3. Now Darren has Robert humming “The Ewoks” cartoon introduction song.

    • I feel like I’ve done something good with my day. 🙂

      (I never saw the cartoon show, but I did see the movie. Which I recall featured a sorceress for some reason.)

  4. The episode doesn’t know where to land and the actress being ten years older than Will doesn’t help. Machen Amick being only a year older than Will also makes it a strange choice.

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