Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Star Trek :The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Coming of Age" (March 14, 1988)

Stardate: 41461.2

The Enterprise stops at Relva VII, where young Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) plans to take a difficult entrance exam for Starfleet Academy. He is in competition against three other contenders: a Benzite named Mordock (John Putch), a Vulcan named T’Shanik (Tasia Valenza), and a human, Oliana Mirren (Estee Chandler). Wesley has prepared well for the test, but is most concerned about Starfleet’s Psych Test, which is renowned for being accurate…and terrifying.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise is visited by Admiral Quinn (Ward Costello), who -- through his underling Lt. Commander Dexter Remmick (Robert Schenkkan) -- launches an investigation into the Enterprise. Remmick interviews the command crew, and the gist of all his questions involves Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his fitness for command.

While Remmick toils, Captain Picard saves the life of a young man, Jake Kurland (Stephen Gregory) who steals a shuttlecraft. Jake is upset he did not get to test at Relva instead of Wesley, and loses control of his craft in orbit. Picard demonstrates his acumen and knowledge by instructing Kurland how to bounce the malfunctioning shuttle off the planet’s atmosphere and return safely to space. Even this rescue, however, does not impress Remmick.

On the surface, Wesley aces his Psych Test, but is not selected as the candidate for Starfleet. He loses out to Mordock, who will be the first Benzite in Starfleet.

Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, Picard learns why he has been singled out by Remmick and his old friend, Quinn.  The admiral fears some nefarious conspiracy has taken over Starfleet, and wants allies close by. He offers Picard the position of Commandant, Star Fleet Academy, but Picard turns him down to remain captain of the Enterprise.

“Coming of Age” is a weird, though not unpleasant episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). The episode is weird because it functions as an unofficial first part of a two part episode (the second part being “Conspiracy.”)  

Basically, the episode sets up the premise of a conspiracy subverting the Federation in general, and Starfleet in particular. Admiral Quinn and Remmick both return in “Conspiracy,” one of the final episodes of the first season, co-opted by the alien-run conspiracy. However, “Coming of Age” seems torn between setting up this fascinating premise, and undercutting it. Quinn explains the broad details of a conspiracy here, but then, by episode’s end, dismisses the very idea as being the product of his (aging) mind. So he goes through all this angst -- including recruiting Remmick -- because he is convinced a conspiracy exists. Then, after putting the Enterprise crew through the wringer, he dismisses the possibility himself. 

In this episode, Data is asked to check into the Enterprise and seek anything amiss. He finds nothing. But what if Quinn had asked Data to confirm his suspicions of a conspiracy inside Starfleet itself, instead? We know from “Conspiracy” that Data finds one, after brief research. Had Quinn trusted Picard, and engaged his crew in discovering the conspiracy, his mission would have been better accomplished.

Intriguingly, the episode gives Remmick ample reason to question Picard’s fitness. It brings up his violation of the Prime Directive in “Justice,” and his loss of his mental faculties in “The Battle.”  Remmick might also have asked why, in his first months in command of Starfleet’s flagship, Captain Picard has also twice surrendered the ship (once to “Q” in “Encounter at Farpoint” and once to the Ferengi in “The Last Outpost.”) He might also have asked about Picard’s loss of faculties in “Lonely Among Us,” though of one his questions references “The Naked Now,” another story in which Picard lost command of the Enterprise and also lost control of himself.

Amazingly, given all these circumstances, Remmick finds nothing amiss with Picard’s tenure. Then, astoundingly, he notes the informality among the bridge crew, and says that it is the result of a feeling of family. This is an observation more appropriate to Kirk’s Enterprise, it would seem. Indeed, the final episode of The Next Generation, “All Good Things,” culminates with Picard admitting that he should have been “familiar” with his bridge crew far earlier. The interaction between this bridge crew is pleasant, but I would hardly say it is like a family, especially at this early juncture.

So basically, Remmick is the worst investigator ever. He sees a relationship that isn't there. And then doesn't report Picard's (numerous) failures in command.

It’s weird to write these words, but Wesley’s subplot is superior, actually, to the “investigation” subplot. It is fascinating to learn more about procedures for entering Starfleet Academy, and great to meet an intriguing new alien species: the Benzites.  Furthermore, Wesley’s particular psych test -- worrying about choosing who must live or die -- makes sense for the character, and is reasonably affecting.  Still, in terms of practicality, does Starfleet Command always arrange dramatic “set-ups” for the Psych-Test, enlisting other officers to play out specific scenarios?  Wesley's psych test involves explosions, injuries, steam/gas, etc. That's a pretty elaborate production!

If Starfleet goes to these lengths for every cadet, that’s a little weird and unbelievable.  Still, the psych test scene is well-played by Wheaton, and it’s a great choice on the part of the writers and producers to deal Wesley a reverse.  Throughout the series thus far, Wesley has been seen as superior to all others, including trained Starfleet Officers. By this point, we expect him to succeed. But as The Last Jedi (2017) taught us (with apparently so much controversy), failure can be the greatest teacher.  Picard virtually says as much in the episode coda.

Fans of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century will recognize the matte painting of the Starfleet base on Relva 7. The matte was used in the BR episode “Plot to Kill a City.” It has been modified here, re-painted and given some new (moving) elements so it seems more three-dimensional.  This episode also marks the first appearance of a Starfleet shuttle.

Next week: "Heart of Glory."

1 comment:

  1. John,

    When this episode was first broadcast, I think it's safe to say that we had no idea what awaited both the characters of Quinn and Remmick. I know we have several episodes to go before reaching that point, but I will most assuredly be awaiting your appraisal of that one!

    Sometimes, before I read your insights into these episodes, I find myself thinking what I considered to be the highs and lows of each episode, and am always amazed when you seem to take the thoughts right out of my head. I'm in complete agreement that Wesley's story is superior, and I was genuinely moved by Wil Wheaton's performance and reaction to learning he would not be admitted to Starfleet. I really felt for the kid. Not only that, but the Benzites are a unique addition to the mythos of Star Trek. We'd find out more about them later, and yet it feels as though we've hardly scratched the surface. Again, we owe quite a bit of this intrigue to John Putch's abilities as a performer.

    "Coming of Age" felt as though The Next Generation was finding its voice. It was a coming of age for this series as well, and great things were on the horizon.



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