|Shout-out to Ray Walston, My Favorite Non-Terran Humanoid Solid.|
In the mid-1980s there was a cartoon show called The Get-Along Gang. It was about a group of happy preteen anthropomorphic animals living in a storybook world called Green Meadows and, as you could probably tell from the title, was about the various and sundry ways teamwork and friendship will solve all of life’s problems. Each character had some egregious and crippling flaw that would be unflappably counteracted by working together with their friends.
If you were willing to be unkind to The Get-Along Gang, you might say it typified the concept that “The Complainer Is Always Wrong” in children’s media. That did certainly seem to be the worrying underlying implication of a lot of the show’s morals, and you could probably trace an entire counter-revolutionary movement in children’s television after the fact solely dedicated to moving as far away from The Get-Along Gang as was possible to get. It also probably didn’t help matters that the show was the product of a greeting card company. Not that anyone had anything much to worry about anyway, as Disney kicked off the Renaissance Age not two years later. But my point is that The Get-Along Gang was a very specific kind of children’s television: First and foremost it was prescriptive: That is, it existed more or less just to talk down to kids and tell them how to act, how to behave and how to think.
In the past, you might have noticed I have a specific opinion of how I think teaching should work. My conception of how the teacher-student relationship should operate is derived from Paulo Freire’s famous (some would say infamous) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he argues that students and teachers are both equal participants in the creation of knowledge, and that teachers should be willing to learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. The kind of teaching that The Get-Along Gang tried to do is the kind that Freire calls “the banking model”, because it treats students as “empty receptacles into which knowledge is deposited”, much as one might do with a piggybank. This “banking model” is the exact model of education Freire is positing his pedagogy in opposition to, because the banking model’s attitude to students is the exact same one that colonizers take to the colonized.
So the thing about “The First Duty” is that, like The Get-Along Gang before it, it’s adopting a hierarchical banking model approach to moralizing. It’s clearly a story about the importance of always telling the truth and is obviously aimed at the sorts of young people who were expected to project onto and identify with Wesley Crusher (whether or not they actually did is beside the point and a question I think we’ve more than settled by this point). Michael Piller, then a parent of teenagers himself, has explicitly said he thought this episode was important as it teaches a lesson he’d want his own kids to learn, and even swayed a (perhaps understandably) sceptical Rick Berman by saying kids who were involved with drugs or crime might find its message meaningful. Seems like this is the new model for Wesley episodes as his last guest spot in “The Game” similarly smacked of after-school specials.
The problem with this approach, apart from the fact it’s insulting and patronizing, is that this is also the exact opposite conceptualization of how to talk to children and what children’s television should be from that of something like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Reading Rainbow. And *that* means its precisely the wrong kind of children’s television for Star Trek: The Next Generation to be emulating. But that, I actually think, is fairly self-evident and self-explanatory. Obvious, almost. “The First Duty” is clearly an insult to the intelligence and yet another in a long line of bungled stories about Wesley Crusher (though I guess you could make the case it shows how Wesley can’t get away with everything anymore and that his actions have consequences now, which I suppose is valid). But that’s not interesting or important to me anymore. What is interesting to me, and where I think the real story this week lies, is in the path this script took from pitch to screen.
There were several different drafts of this story penned, and just as many differing opinions on which one was the better story to tell. To the point, actually, that this story caused a sizable row in the writers’ room. In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Naren Shankar talks about his original inspiration for “The First Duty”:
“My first credit was ‘The First Duty’, which Ron [Moore] and I wrote together. Ron had been in ROTC in college and we were both into military history. We wanted to do a show set at Starfleet Academy and pick up where Wesley was with his life. Our focus was the notion of choosing between your friends and your duty. And the script caused a fair amount of tension between us and Michael Piller.”
Moore elabourates by saying
“Naren and I took the position that Wesley shouldn’t be ratting out his friends. He should go down with them. And Michael took this parental position: ‘As the father of teenagers, I can tell you that it’s just wrong, and telling the truth is more important than anything else.’ But we felt that your word to your friends is more important on some levels than your obligation to the rules. Naren and I weren’t that far removed from being that age in college, and being in those kinds of circumstances. Wesley had given his word to hold the secret about what they had done and what led to this kid’s death. He had to stand by that with his buddies. But Michael felt that sent a bad message, and that telling the truth is what Star Trek is about.”
Piller responds with his side of the story in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion.
“I thought he should choose the truth, and Ron thought he couldn’t go back on his friends. Ultimately I gave the order to go with the truth – that’s what I’d want my kids to do – but I think it shows how much we can get into these characters when we find ourselves debating the points they’re arguing.”
In a later chat on AOL, Moore clarifies his position and tries to show how the story he and Shankar wanted to tell wasn’t as ethically reprehensible as perhaps Piller thought it was, and their perspectives weren’t in truth irreconcilable. Finally, he posits that in his and Shankar’s version, Wesley would still end up with the moral high ground:
“In the aired version of events, Wesley steps forward even though the court of inquiry is about to let them all off the hook. In so doing, Wes commits an act of moral courage by standing up for the truth and being punished when to remain silent would’ve allowed him to go scot free. Now, let’s assume the circumstances had been constructed so that the Nova Squadron was going to be kicked out of the Academy by the court if they kept silent about what really happened. Say that the team had made a decision not to finger the one among them who came up with the idea on the ‘we all hang together’ philosophy. In that scenario, Wesley coming forward to tell the truth is suddenly an act of moral cowardice because it appears that he’s only trying to save his own skin at the expense of one of his teammates.
If that had been the story (which is more or less what Naren and I were advocating) then Picard’s impassioned speech to Wesley about the morality of coming forward to tell the truth is suddenly a scene where the Captain tries to convince a young man not to throw away his own career in order to protect one of his friends. In the end, Locarno (the true culprit) comes forward on his own in order to save the rest of the team. As you can see, it’s a very different kind of tale even though the essential ‘plot’ is relatively unchanged.
…Both stories are valid and interesting, but I prefered the story about a young man willing to stand with his friends rather than a morality tale about telling the truth. Don’t get me wrong – I like ‘The First Duty,’ and I think it works pretty well just as it is, I just wanted to tell a different story.”
Meanwhile, Rick Berman was still pretty sour on the whole thing, especially on an earlier draft where Nova Squadron’s crime was apparently even more reprehensible:
“I found that unacceptable. Wesley is Wesley. He is one of our characters and heroes and he’s capable of lapses in judgement, capable of making decisions on an emotional basis as opposed to thinking them out, but not capable of some of the more severe things that were suggested. And not capable of overt cover-up, lying to Starfleet Academy officials. So we basically tempered it down, still keeping it believable and the crime that was serious and would result in a punishment.”
I’m kind of with Berman here, to be honest.
But that aside, the real story of “The First Duty” and its true moral centre lies in what the story of “The First Duty”should really have been. That’s the big philosophical question this week: What do you think would have been the better story? More to the point, what do you think would have been the more appropriate and fitting story? Which of these drafts, if any, truly embodies what Star Trek: The Next Generation should be about?