“Dual Survival”: Final Mission
A requiem for the would-be boy wonder?
Wesley Crusher, of course, had to go. That’s been obvious to everyone since at least “Encounter at Farpoint”. Perhaps not to the writing staff, however, as the final impetus for the Whiz Kid’s resignation from Star Trek: The Next Generation came not out of basic good sense on the part of the creative team, but from the person who played him. Wil Wheaton was an established, in-demand Hollywood film actor before and into his tenure on the starship Enterprise, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that while the show was doing nothing but increasing the stature of his castmates, it was holding him back and forcing him to turn down lucrative job offers. Of course, it’s also somewhat bleakly funny for me to point out that LeVar Burton was *also* an established Holywood personality, and he had no problems not only committing to Star Trek: The Next Generation but also holding down a whole second television career over at Reading Rainbow, so it’s not exactly like Wheaton was some special case or anything.
But either way, it came to pass that Wheaton would follow in Denise Crosby’s footsteps and leave the show, and that Wesley Crusher would finally be shipped off to Starfleet Academy.
The writing staff were apparently very proud of “Final Mission”. Everyone involved says they wanted to make sure they were able to send Wesley off with the most fitting tribute showcase they could think of. Jeri Taylor says this is the script she put the most work into all year, and Micheal Piller said everyone was very cautious on this production because there were a lot of bad feelings surrounding the way Tasha Yar had been written out…
Oh yeah. Tasha Yar.
Yes, I’m going to bring up Tasha Yar again, and no, I’m not sorry in the slightest. Let me put it to you all as bluntly as I can. How precisely do you think it makes me feel to read this? To hear people like Piller, Taylor and Rick Berman say it was incredibly important to everyone to make sure Wesley Crusher went out on a good note and then mention Tasha Yar in the same breath? I could maybe accept that this was them trying to make good on their past mistakes and make up for how poorly Tasha was handled (even if that does weirdly seem to throw “Yesterday’s Enterprise” under the bus) had this show not just come off the one-two punch of “Legacy” and “Reunion”. Bringing up Tasha three weeks after you still sort of failed to do a story about her with the appropriate dignity that was kinda sexist on top of things and two weeks after tossing out one of the most jaw-dropping, misogynistic affronts to utopian progress and basic fucking human decency imaginable does not come across as good in the slightest, particularly when you’re doing so in the context of an episode about how wonderful Wesley Crusher is.
No, the real reason Wesley Crusher gets an honourable sendoff (or what this crew thinks is an honourable sendoff at least, which I’ll complain a bit about further down) and Tasha Yar doesn’t is because he’s Wesley Fucking Crusher. Not only is he Gene Roddenberry’s favoured son, he’s also cishet white male privilege incarnate, and that affords him very specific and very noticeable rights and advantages over a poor, working class, underprivileged butch Latina (and let’s not forget, at least for the sake of argument, that Tasha was originally supposed to be Latina, even if she wasn’t on TV). Wesley gets pomp and circumstance for his exit not out of a desire to make amends for what happened to Tasha, but because that’s the sort of thing it’s expected the nice, bright young white man with a future ahead of him is entitled to.
And here we see the primary disconnect between me and the sort of people who write for and about Star Trek. They look at what Wesley Crusher embodies as things to valorize, glorify and decorate while I think they mark him as the sort of person who needs to be nailed to the fucking wall with a phaser rifle pointed at him.
And just to dial down on the utterly embarrassing, total and complete, though deeply ironic, lack of self-awareness on display here, “Final Mission” is actually boring as shit. Wesley’s deep, dark secret is that he’s only ever wanted Daddy Picard to be proud of him? And Jean-Luc actually buys into that cloyingly saccharine garbage? Oh, give me a fucking break. I mean really, how stock and cliche can you possibly get? Is there any province of insultingly, pretentiously trite hack writing this show isn’t going to touch on this year? It’s not enough, apparently, that we have to give Wesley the most dully predictable ending to his character arc imaginable; we also have to have to doll up this vapid, hollow simulacrum of human emotion and interaction as something really powerful, meaningful and profound. It’s overstuffed, self-indulgent, milquetoast inanity and is an insult to everyone’s intelligence, even Wesley’s.
(I guess the one good thing about this plot is that it portrays characters who we’re apparently meant to read as the paragons of Starfleet, Wesley Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard, as being pretty good in a survival situation. It does make Kira Nerys’ comments in “The Siege” sound particularly blinkered and silly.)
I’m running out of excuses for this crew at this point. These are veteran, professional writers here. The amount of latent talent in that writers room makes my own pitiful efforts look like juvenalia. These are the same people who are going to create some of my own very favourite television of all time. And this, THIS, is what they consider good drama and character development. In an effort to explain away this return error of a logic paradox if for no other reason than I know fucking “Emissary” and “Eye of the Beholder” are coming at some point (unless I’ve somehow imagined them as well), it would seem to me that maybe this team has serious mental blocks about the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters. They really, genuinely do not seem capable at this point of wrapping their brains around who they are and who they work. Michael Piller has come the closest, but even he tends to work best when he goes into a state of meditative trance and lets automatic writing take over his conscious body and guide him. Not everyone else jobbing for Star Trek is that spiritually advanced, and Piller doesn’t directly write very many scripts himself.
Wesley Crusher, in spite of whatever else was conceptually wrong with him (which was A LOT, believe me), is ultimately just the latest casualty of the writing staff’s lack of comfort with the characters they’re writing for. And he’s going to be far from the last, as we’ll see in another week or so. This is actually hard for me to understand: I know the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters were originally conceived as basically templates built out of stock, programmatic archetypes because Gene Roddenberry was actually kind of a shit writer, but I mean four years into the show with a cast of performers like this and you’d think the writers would have *some* handle on who these people are and how they act when they talk to one another that was at the very least more interesting then the set of vague character traits and virtues they started out as. But apparently they don’t.
And this touches on a genuine problem with not just Star Trek: The Next Generation, but speculative fiction on the whole: Although sci-fi-fantasy’s ability to focus on compelling and imaginative ideas and concepts over stock melodrama and gritty plot functionality is its greatest strength, it can also be its greatest weakness. Speculative fiction characters more often than not tend to be disposable talking heads to provide exposition and can be as inhuman and distant as possible. But to make a story truly memorable and enjoyable, you have to populate it with characters we care about to some extent. And if you’re doing utopian fiction especially, these have to be characters we look up to and admire. They don’t necessarily have to be strictly “realistic”, to use the cinephile’s favourite buzzword; they can stand in for specific philosophical concepts or be built purely out of mythological and mystical symbolism. But they have to have personalities we can identify as natural and human to at least some degree. This means they can’t be hackish stereotypes, and it also means we actually have to like them.
Which is my problem with “Final Mission”. It’s asking me to get deeply invested in a character who I quite frankly just don’t care about in the slightest, and it’s a poor piece of writing to boot. It’s a sad thing to say about any character, but the fact remains the version of Star Trek: The Next Generation I have the fondest memories of is the one that he’s not in. And, thankfully for me, that show is finally almost ready to start.
April 27, 2015 @ 1:22 am
Wesley Crusher. I think you've said in this blog what needed to be said. Yet it's not as if anyone in Star Trek fandom ever found him all that great. I was profoundly irritated by him even at age 6. I always considered it as being because he was so smug, but you identified all its social aspects too.
I remember on the extras of the Doctor Who did for Earthshock, the one where Adric dies, Steven Moffat said that nobody likes boy geniuses, and that they were terrible ideas for characters in general. Of course, Adric was so egocentric and irritating that he made Wesley Crusher look like Han Solo.
Wesley's problem was that he embodied all the worst aspects of our mainstream culture: self-centred, lacking empathy, entitled, and ignorant of what his flaws were. And the show never calls him on it to any deep extent.
April 27, 2015 @ 2:32 am
Yet it's not as if anyone in Star Trek fandom ever found him all that great
I know two people who did. One of them even wrote fanfic about Mary Sue the Girl Genius Who Was Totally Also An Acting Ensign on the Enterprise who Wesley Fell In Love With and Who Dies Tragically In The Modified Version of This Particular Episode.
(Come to think of it, she also wrote similar fanfic about Adric)
April 27, 2015 @ 6:23 am
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April 27, 2015 @ 8:29 am
Adam, I'll at least some time down the road argue that there are elements of calling Wesley out on his failings when The First Duty rolls around. Not that any of the lessons that could've been learned there stuck around. But that's an episode to deride for launching another dozen missed opportunities another day.
I can remember every dry, painful moment of stock, tropish "we've crashed in a desert survival scenario" parts of the A-Plot here, from memory. The water trap. The boy genius using resonance to turn it off. The funky crystals and energy shots. The dumb provincial space hick who just don't get science and rational logic, whose sole existence is to make Wesley's (and to a lesser extent Picard's) entitled lives of privilege look heroic instead of snooty.
But I can't remember a single moment of the B-Plot. I mean I'm sure there had to be at least some Riker and Doctor Crusher moments, right? Possibly even interesting moments.
Season 4 is an interesting phase. If I've mentioned the show losing its newness and bite, and softening and getting comfortable – that seems to have essentially been a completed process by mid-Season 3. With 4 we're entering a new part of that – a possible sense of complacency or resting on its laurels and not trying hard anymore. We're seeing cliches and stock tropes being doubled-down on. And we're seeing 2 dull episodes to every 1 decent one, instead of a more 50/50 balance. But it's set to change in two episodes time, for me.
Meanwhile I'm really curious where Josh might go next episode. I have a hunch, and can't wait to see if I've guessed right.
April 27, 2015 @ 12:25 pm
I've admitted here elsewhere that I liked Wesley when I was a youngster. I'm going to continue to reveal my Trek uncoolness by admitting that, when I first began watching this show (aged 11-13) this was one of my favorite episodes. A. I thought the fountain forcefield thingy was cool and B. I related to Wesley's search for a father. I had similar feelings, and really wanted to make my absent father(s) proud of me somehow. I guess trite and hackneyed drama is an appropriate way to express those feelings when you're 13.
I haven't watched it in decades, though, so I'm unsure what adult me would make of it.
May 4, 2015 @ 10:03 pm
"And here we see the primary disconnect between me and the sort of people who write for and about Star Trek. They look at what Wesley Crusher embodies as things to valorize, glorify and decorate while I think they mark him as the sort of person who needs to be nailed to the fucking wall with a phaser rifle pointed at him."
All of the problems behind this character and the inherent blinkered sense of privilege is also a perfect encapsulation of the current problems with the Hugo awards. Thanks for a great essay.