Wednesday, June 08, 2016

TNG Flashback: Journey's End

As the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation began to wind down, each of the characters was featured in their own episode for the last time. This extended to recurring characters not in the main cast, and "Journey's End" was Wesley Crusher's turn.

Wesley Crusher is visiting the ship from Starfleet Academy, but he is not his usual self. Surly and standoffish, he has come to the realization that Starfleet isn't for him. Helping him sort through his feelings is Lakanta, a mysterious settler of Dorvan V, the planet at the center of the Enterprise's current mission. The planet has been ceded to the Cardassians in a recently signed treaty, and Captain Picard has been tasked with transporting them off the planet -- by force if necessary. Adding to the moral quagmire of the task is the fact that the people of Dorvan V are the descendants of North American Indians; the historical parallels of a forced relocation are not lost on anyone involved.

The resolution of Wesley Crusher's story arc is the more central part of this episode in the grand scheme of the series. Episode writer Ronald Moore had long argued that Starfleet didn't feel like the proper destiny for the character -- a controversial position, given that Gene Roddenberry had modeled the character on himself (even giving Crusher his own middle name, Wesley). To have Wesley turn his back on Starfleet was a notion that many on the writing staff resisted, for the simple reason that Roddenberry never would have sanctioned it.

But Moore was arguing from a very personal place. He himself had been expected to join the Navy and be a career officer; the decision to follow his dream of becoming a writer at the risk of disappointing his family had not come easily. And fueled by this personal experience, Moore eventually won the argument. As he would later explain it: "I felt that there was a built-in contradiction in a character that we'd said was like Mozart in his appreciation of higher mathematics and physics, yet was just on the same career path as any Starfleet cadet. I didn't get it – if Wes is truly special and gifted, what the hell is he doing at the Helm?" Executive producer Michael Piller also believed that Wesley deserved a more unusual fate, and he quickly threw his support behind circling back to the Traveler, and to the episode "Where No One Has Gone Before."

The resulting story is actually quite poignant and relatable: at any age, it's a hard thing to realize that what you've dedicated your life to thus far is the wrong thing. The problem is, the story doesn't entirely do justice to this core idea. For one, the issue isn't even articulated until very late in the episode; for more than half of the running time, Wesley is just kind of being a jerk without any hint as to why. And while it's understandable that he won't talk about it with his mother or Captain Picard -- the people he's most afraid of disappointing -- this puts the main characters on the outside of the plot. Wesley doesn't even approach Worf, the most logical person to give advice about the burdens of honoring a dead father and experiencing an actual vision quest.

At least when the episode does find scenes for Picard and Beverly, they're good ones. When Beverly finally does confront her son about his decision to leave Starfleet, her shock and resistance instantly vanish. She accepts his explanation, apologizes for any pressure she ever put on him, and immediately offers encouragement that he may have just taken his first step on the path to a greater destiny. Picard handles the situation well too, advising Beverly early on that whatever problems Wesley is having, he'll have to work through himself. (How he suddenly has this insight on parenting is unclear, but he is right.)

There could have been more solid character moments like this, but Wesley's story line is crowded out by the episode's other plot. And that exists to set up the next spin-off series, Star Trek: Voyager. The Cardassian/Federation treaty established here is where the Maquis originate (though the resistance group's name isn't spoken in this episode). Dorvan V itself, according to showrunner Jeri Taylor, was meant to be the home of the Voyager character Chakotay, though that was never made official with any on-screen reference. (But coincidentally, the actor who plays Dorvan leader Anthwara, Ned Romero, would later play Chakotay's grandfather in an episode of Voyager.)

The forced relocation story isn't "bad" as such, but it does at times feel awkward. It's awfully on the nose to populate the colony with Native Americans, sort of stripping the allegory out of the allegory. On the other hand, it does help further diversify a franchise that has always done rather well with racial diversity. On the other other hand, real-world sensitivities clash with the needs of the fiction; even in 1994, the more accepted term was "Native Americans," and while it would have been preposterous to call these centuries-removed people such, the repeated use of "Indian" becomes increasingly jarring as the episode unfolds.

Originally, the episode tried to draw on actual history. The first draft script made direct references to the Hopi tribe, and to Kit Carson's 1875 destruction of a Rio Grande village. But the tribe asked not to be depicted for fear of misrepresentation, and so many real-life aspects of Hopi culture appear here with fictional names. Perhaps the people who might have given their blessing were put off in part by the character of Lakanta, who fires off every mentor cliche imaginable. He answers every question with a question, avoids ever making a definitive statement, and insists that the protagonist must learn for himself.

What's most awkward about the Dorvan plot is how it casts Picard in the morally dubious position. Not long ago, he was lecturing Wesley about the importance of honor and greater truth, but here he's for following orders blindly. Anthwara informs Picard that his distant ancestor was responsible for an atrocity against Native Americans, but Picard swats aside that this has any relevance whatsoever. (And he's probably right. Why is this even mentioned?)

Still, even this compromised story line serves up some interesting moments. Picard's interactions with Admiral Nechayev are great, as he tries to warm her up, and she for once actually expresses sympathy for his position. The ultimate resolution to let the colony stay in place under Cardassian jurisdiction may seem a bit suspect, but it's totally a classic Star Trek kind of ending that feels right.

Other observations:
  • Eric Menyuk reprises his role as the Traveler, and he's not the only returning guest star. Doug Wert plays Jack Crusher again (as he has twice before). And while Gul Evek has not appeared on The Next Generation before, actor Richard Poe had by this point already originated the Cardassian character on Deep Space Nine (and would play him again on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager).
  • Another character who was briefly in line to return in this episode was Boothby. Ronald Moore originally considered that during Lakanta's morph into the Traveler, he'd first morph into the Academy groundskeeper. Michael Piller argued against it, saying that it would cheat Picard to reveal this about his mentor.
  • Still, Boothby was to have at least been mentioned in this episode. In a deleted scene that can be found on the Blu-ray edition of the episode, Picard talks with Wesley about his struggles at Starfleet Academy, and Wesley notes that Boothby has become more of an irritation than a mentor. This is exactly the sort of thing I wish there had been more time for in the episode.
  • In a late pivotal scene, Beverly reminds her son how the Traveler once confided in Picard that Wesley was a "Mozart" level genius with a great destiny. Clearly, Picard relayed that information to Beverly at some point. Yet the Traveler expressly told him in "Where No One Has Gone Before" not to repeat the revelation to anyone, "especially not to the mother."
I do feel like this episode could have been better if it had focused solely on Wesley's identity crisis. Still, the elements of the story that do work outnumber the elements that don't. I give "Journey's End" a B.

1 comment:

Ian said...

I'm not sure why you think it's odd that they would have gone back to calling themselves 'Indians'. It's 400 years into the future, the 'politically correct' term will probably change another 10 times before *this* century is up. And once this tribe were on a different planet on their own, who's to say that they didn't embrace the old term of 'Indian' for whatever reason.