Ensign Crusher has been granted a mid-term entrance to Starfleet Academy, and Captain Picard requests his presence on one last mission as a way of saying goodbye. The two are to travel with a shady shuttle captain named Dirgo to arbitrate a mining dispute. But along the way, Dirgo's rundown shuttle crashes on a desert moon. They all find shelter in a cave, where a mysterious energy force protects the only source of water to be found. When Picard is critically injured, Wesley must find a way to get through the sentry to the water that will keep the captain alive until the Enterprise finishes an important mission and can come to the rescue.
It's inevitable to compare this episode to "Skin of Evil," the episode in which Tasha Yar was written off the series. Both Denise Crosby and Wil Wheaton asked to leave for similar reasons -- both felt they weren't getting enough to do from week to week, and Wheaton in particular felt like he was having to turn down movie offers to keep his schedule free for Star Trek. (He has since written quite candidly about his time on Star Trek.) Where the situations differed is in how the production wanted to handle the exit.
With the distance of more than 25 years, I personally have come to regard "Skin of Evil" as a top episode of the first season. Yet I certainly remember hating it at the time. The fans as a whole weren't satisfied, and the people behind the show felt they'd handled it poorly as well. Head writer Michael Piller resolved to do better with Wesley Crusher's exit, and foremost that meant that they would not kill the character off. They wanted to leave the door open for the occasional return (which did happen), and specifically wanted to fulfill the destiny envisioned by Gene Roddenberry himself. It wasn't particularly creative or surprising, but they finally wanted to send Wesley to Starfleet Academy.
Unfortunately, the sentiment itself is really the only way they "do right" by Wesley in this episode. The script itself is loaded with a lot of what made many fans hate the character in the first place. He's unnecessarily dismissive and confrontational with the character of Dirgo. He's put in a position to "save the day" yet again (though at least this time, it's just Picard and not the whole ship). He's also totally unaware, which actually results in Picard's injuries. (A moment which, by the way, is staged rather unconvincingly; Picard stands in place waiting for rocks to fall on him for at least as much time as it took him to shove Wesley out of their way.)
There are a number of little moments that try at sentiment, but most of them somehow fall a bit flat. Troi tries to comfort Beverly about her missing son, but the doctor doesn't really allow time to acknowledge her feelings. Wesley recalls a past encounter with Picard and confesses how he sees the captain as a father figure, but it feels forced. Part of the reason this material doesn't quite work is that it's crowded out of the episode by a lame B-plot in which the Enterprise has to deal with a "radioactive garbage scow" threatening to contaminate an alien planet. It's a silly gimmick that exists only to explain why the Enterprise is unavailable to rescue Picard and Wesley, but it takes up a lot more screen time than a mere gimmick really should.
Leave it to the great Patrick Stewart to pull things back from the brink. He nails the episode's bookend scenes in which Picard gives Wesley a good-natured ribbing. His story of Academy groundskeeper Boothby is so poignant that the writers would later feel compelled to show the character in person. And he absolutely nails the moment when Picard confesses his envy of Wesley; you know that in that moment, Picard truly thinks he is going to die.
Also elevating things in this episode is the music of Ron Jones. He has several great action cues, from the crash sequence to Wesley's final confrontation with the energy sentry. He has noble cues, restrained but emotional, for the scenes between Wesley and Picard. At one point, he even scores a Lawrence of Arabia-like montage (notably filmed in a real outdoor setting, on one of the series' rare location shoots). Still, it's a shame Jones has to work so hard for an episode that didn't turn out very compelling.
- In the episode's original concept, the shuttle was to have crashed on an ice moon. Doubting their ability to make that look real on set, the producers asked that it be changed it to a desert environment. (Besides which, couldn't you just melt the ice for all the water you'd need to survive?) Actually, the cave set still turned out rather unconvincing, particularly the near perfectly formed stairs at the entrance.
- Every now and then, we get an alien race with a weird obstruction of their mouths. I get that there are only so many ways you can modify the appearance of a human actor, but seriously, how would aliens like this eat? For them, the invention of the straw would be as momentous as the discovery of fire.
- Before Picard and Wesley leave the Enterprise, Geordi does an inspection of Dirgo's shuttle and pronounces it safe. Given that it almost immediately malfunctions, what does this say about Geordi?
- At the end of the episode, Beverly mentions that the Enterprise search party found Wesley and Picard by first finding the makeshift arrow the latter left at the crash site. But since they were the only lifeforms on the entire moon, wouldn't the scanners have done the job much more quickly?
- In a nice bit of continuity, Picard in his delirium begins to sing the same song he and his brother sang after their fight in the episode "Family."