“The First Duty”
Written by Ronald D. Moore & Naren Shankar
Directed by Paul Lynch
Season 5, Episode 19
Production episode 40275-219
Original air date: March 30, 1992
Captain’s log: The Enterprise is heading back to Earth. Picard is giving the commencement address to this year’s graduating class, and Cadet Wesley Crusher’s flight team, Nova Squadron, will be performing a demo as part of the commencement ceremony.
While en route, and after Riker and Picard trade stories of their respective Academy superintendants, the current superintendant, Admiral Brand, contacts Picard with a grave message: there was an accident with Nova Squadron. When the five ships flew close formation during practice, something went wrong, and they all crashed into each other. Four of the cadets made it; Cadet Joshua Albert did not.
When the Enterprise arrives, Brand briefs the families of the five cadets, plus Picard. There will be an investigation and a memorial service for Albert, and commencement will go forward as planned (there was talk of cancelling it). Picard and Crusher then visit Wes in his quarters, where he’s recovering from his injuries. He doesn’t want to talk about the accident—it’s all he’s discussed for two days.
Then Wes’s flight team leader Cadet Nicholas Locarno enters. After exchanging pleasantries, Wes says that he and Locarno have things to discuss. They then talk about sticking together, and that everything will be all right—basically the exact conversation you’d expect from two guilty people trying to cover something up.
Picard then goes to say hi to Boothby, the groundskeeper, who is a cantankerous old bastard. They reminisce, and Picard mentions an incident from his time at the Academy; no specifics, but Picard admits that he would never have graduated if not for Boothby.
Locarno and the survivors meet—along with Wes, there’s a Bajoran girl named Sito Jaxa, and a human girl named Jean Hajar—and then head to the inquiry. Locarno explains what happened. They were in a diamond-slot formation doing a Yeager Loop around Titan. Albert broke formation and crashed into Hajar’s ship. Everyone activated their emergency transporters except for Albert. The flight team also deviated from their filed flight plan by a few thousand kilometers, and Sito claims she was flying only on sensors, not visuals, which is unusual in that close a formation.
Then Locarno drops the bombshell: Albert was nervous, and he panicked and broke formation. Brand is disappointed that they did not mention Albert’s nervousness before. The inquiry is then recessed until the data from Wes’s flight recorder is recovered.
Sito, Hajar, and Wes meet with Locarno in private, and are furious with Locarno for saying that the accident was Albert’s fault. Wes says that they agreed that they weren’t going to lie. Locarno then engages in some lovely doublespeak that gets Hajar to agree that it might have been Albert’s fault. The preliminary report from Wes’s flight recorder is that they only have a third of the telemetry, all of it from before the crash. Locarno assures them that everything will be fine.
Albert’s father talks to Wes, and apologizes to him for his son letting the team down. Wes looks utterly miserable at this—as well he should.
Wes gives his deposition, and it all goes well until they show telemetry from a nearby sensor station that shows that the five ships were not in a diamond-slot formation as they all testified, but rather a circular one. Wes says he has no explanation for the disparity.
Crusher gives what she probably thinks is a pep talk to Wes, including offering to ask Brand to delay the inquiry while La Forge and Data go over the telemetry. Wes, though, urges her not to protect him and to stay out of this.
Picard goes to Boothby and asks about Nova Squadron. When the team won the Rigel Cup, the celebration was huge—the Academy practically worships the squadron as gods. That, though, is tough to live up to, but Locarno keeps them together. The team, he says, would follow Locarno anywhere—even over a cliff.
Back on the Enterprise, Picard and Crusher go to La Forge and Data for a report. They can’t figure out how they got into the new formation, nor why the crash happened. Picard asks if there was anything odd in Wes’s flight recorder info, but all they found were a few minor fluctuations that were a) within normal parameters and b) would be irrelevant to a crash. He also had a coolant valve open, which was odd, but not harmful. You’d only do that to refill the coolant, or as the first step to ejecting plasma before igniting it—
—at which point a light bulb goes off over Picard’s head. He immediately summons Wes to his ready room and confronts him with what he believes the truth to be. Five ships flying in a circular formation within ten meters of each other and igniting their plasma trails form a spectacular display called a Kolvoord Starburst. It was banned by the Academy a hundred years earlier because of a training accident where all five cadets died. Picard assumes that Locarno convinced Nova Squadron to attempt it for the commencement demo to show how awesome they are.
Wes chooses not to answer Picard’s direct question, at which point Picard seriously looks like he’s going to slap him. Wes insists that he told the truth at the hearing—up to a point. But a lie of omission is still a lie, and they neglected to tell the board of inquiry that their incredibly illegal maneuver was the direct cause of the crash.
Picard guilts the crap out of Wes, then, reminding him of the day he first came on board, sat in his chair, and manipulated ship’s systems like he was born to it, and later when he made him an acting ensign, how he thought Wes would become a fine officer. He believed that until now. The captain makes it very simple: either Wes tells the board, or he will.
Wes panics and talks to Locarno. Locarno points out that Picard doesn’t actually have evidence, so it’s his word against theirs. Wes is appalled at the notion of calling Picard a liar, but Locarno says that Wes has no right to make the decision for him, for Sito, and for Hajar. If Wes feels he can’t lie to the board, then he should quit the Academy.
The board reconvenes. Brand doesn’t have sufficient evidence to know what actually happened, and she finds the inconsistencies troubling. Her judgment is that Nova Squadron’s flight privileges are revoked, and she issues a formal reprimand on all their records.
And then Wes steps up and admits the truth about the Kolvoord Starburst. To Wes’s surprise and relief, Locarno doesn’t deny any of it, simply saying he has nothing to add. In the end, Locarno takes full responsibility and expulsion in order to keep the team together. Wes himself thinks all four of them should’ve been expelled. Not that they get off easy: all of them have their previous year’s credits vacated, so the remaining three each have to repeat a year.
Can’t we just reverse the polarity?: If you ignite the plasma trail of a small flight ship in close formation, you can make an awesome bit of fireworks. Since you have to fly within ten meters of each other, it’s also incredibly dangerous.
The boy!?: Wes is the voice of reason throughout, the first to go for telling the truth, and the one who agonizes most about lying. But ultimately he goes right along with the coverup, going so far as to plead the fifth to Picard, which is, to say the least, ballsy. (And Picard totally looks like that’s where he wants to kick him when he says it.)
In the driver’s seat: Wes’s experiences flying the ship from the second through fourth seasons no doubt led to his being considered for Nova Squadron, and helped them win the Rigel Cup.
I believe I said that: “What happened to your hair?”
Boothby’s greeting for Picard.
Welcome aboard: Obviously, Wil Wheaton comes back as Wes, alongside Robert Duncan MacNeill, warming up for the role of Tom Paris as Nicholas Locarno; Shannon Fill, making the first of two appearances as Sito Jaxa (she’ll be back in “Lower Decks”); and Walker Brandt as Hajar. Jacqueline Brookes provides gravitas as Admiral Brand, veteran character actor Ed Lauter acts all tough-guy weepy as the father of the dead cadet, and Richard Fancy makes no impression at all as the Vulcan who aids Brand in the inquiry.
But the best guest star here is the perfectly cast Ray Walston—best known as the titular My Favorite Martian—as Boothby. It would’ve been easy to drop the ball when finally casting this character so revered by Picard, but instead they absolutely hit it out of the park.
Trivial matters: This is the first time Starfleet Academy is seen on screen in Star Trek.
This episode was the springboard for showing the Academy in more depth in the novel The Best and the Brightest by Susan Wright and the Marvel comic book Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, written by Chris Cooper. The characters of Admiral Brand and Boothby were supporting cast members in both the novel and comic book.
Speaking of Boothby, after being mentioned in both “Final Mission” and “The Game,” we finally see the groundskeeper in the flesh. Images of Boothby will be seen, again played by Ray Walston, in the Voyager episodes “In the Flesh” and “The Fight.” Boothby himself will continue to be referenced both on screen and in tie-in fiction quite a bit moving forward.
There are a lot of resemblances between Nicholas Locarno and Voyager’s Tom Paris—both played by Robert Duncan MacNeill, and both with remarkably similar backstories. It’s not entirely clear why the producers didn’t just use Locarno on Voyager. The official story is that Locarno was considered irredeemable after this episode, which isn’t particularly convincing. However, Writers Guild rules are such that the creator of a guest character gets a (very small) royalty every time a character is subsequently used. (As an example, when the Traveler came back in “Remember Me” and “Journey’s End,” Diane Duane and Michael Reaves got a little sum added to their next royalty check because they created him in “Where No One Has Gone Before.”) It has been rumored that the real reason for changing Locarno to Paris was so that they wouldn’t have the added bookkeeping of paying writers Moore and Shankar every time a Voyager episode aired. However, there is no verification of this.
Locarno returns in the novella “Revenant” by Marc D. Giller in the Seven Deadly Sins anthology, where he’s part of a civilian crew that encounters the Borg.
The events of this episode will be followed up on through the eyes of Sito Jaxa in “Lower Decks” and Wes in “Journey’s End.” Sito also is seen as a child on Bajor in the Terok Nor novel Dawn of the Eagles by S.D. Perry & Britta Dennison.
The incident that Picard and Boothby discuss is never specified, though an incident described in the comic book Starfleet Academy #11 written by Chris Cooper, involving Picard and his friends Marta Batanides and Cortin Zweller (introduced in “Tapestry”), might well fit the bill.
The hearing bell was the same one used on the original series in the episode “Court Martial.”
Michael Piller has stated on DVD commentaries that the Air Force has shown this episode to cadets.
The Yeager Loop performed by the cadets when they crashed was named after test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Make it so: “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth.” It’s easy to simply describe this as the one where Wes screws up, but it’s actually a fairly brave choice for an episode. So often, the TNG crew are painted as paragons of virtue and brilliance, with screwups reserved for visiting admirals or messed-up officers who get better by serving on the ship (I’m looking at you, Reg Barclay). So it’s a refreshing change to have a character royally mess up, and not because the plot calls for it or because the writers don’t understand that the character’s being an ass (I’m looking at you, Geordi La Forge), but because the character’s just a fallible human being.
Having it be Wes, the kid who saved the ship way too often in the early days of the show, makes it even better. The moment when he says, “We thought we could do it—we thought we could do anything,” is heartbreaking and utterly convincing because we spent three-and-a-bit seasons watching Wes pretty much do anything. It’s real easy to get arrogant and complacent and think you really can perform miracles at the drop of a hat.
And thank goodness for that back-knowledge of Wes, because that’s the only way the episode works. As it is, it’s really hard to get your arms around the storyline because we don’t know anything about Nova Squadron. Boothby tells Picard that they’re worshipped as gods, and he also tells Picard that Locarno’s a great leader. Sadly, telling is all we get—we’re not shown anything about Nova Squadron beyond their clandestine meetings where they’re arranging their coverup. They don’t come across as highly regarded students being taken down a peg, but rather a bunch of thoughtless teenagers pissing on their friend’s grave.
Worse, Locarno is played by Robert Duncan MacNeill, who doesn’t give us a great leader so much as a sleazy lawyer type. MacNeill is a charismatic actor, but it’s the wrong kind of charisma for this role, and that, combined with the utter lack of context for Nova Squadron’s exalted status in the Academy, really takes the wind out of the episode’s sails.
Still, it’s salvaged by genuine consequences to a character we do care about. (Actually, two, though we won’t truly come to care about Sito until she comes back in “Lower Decks.”) And it’s easily one of Wil Wheaton’s two or three best performances on TNG. The scene where Albert’s father comes and apologizes to him is beautifully played. In general, director Paul Lynch deserves a ton of credit for getting a great deal out of facial expressions: Picard’s fury when Wes pleads the fifth, Albert’s father’s sadness, Wes’s free-floating guilt, Locarno’s easy-does-it-everything-will-be-okay-don’t-worry-your-pretty-little-head affect, Crusher’s desperate attempt to be clinical and calm when Picard tells her about the accident, and so on.
Warp factor rating: 6
Keith R.A. DeCandido wonders what ever happened to Cadet Hajar.