TNG: S1E19: “Coming of Age”

In which Wes gets tested, Picard gets vetted, and I am appalled by the cavalier attitude towards severe emotional trauma evidenced by Academy entrance exams.

It is occasionally difficult to maintain an appropriate balance between synopsis and actual insight when doing these, particularly if it’s kind of a blah episode. I think I ballsed it up for “Home Soil” because I didn’t spend nearly enough time talking about the terraforming process. I’m going to try to be more careful about that in the future because, well, you can watch these episodes if and when one piques your interest. Speaking of piquing your interest, here’s a Wesley-centric episode!

Hello remaining reader! Now that it’s just the two of us, let’s get started. That came out way creepier than I intended.

In the future, everything must sparkle.

In the future, everything must sparkle.

The Enterprise corridors are teeming with civilians in doofy clothing. You will of course remember the one sweater Wesley owns. Well, he’s wearing it as he apologizes to Jake, who is dressed in what I can only describe as a business suit from the sci-fi of the seventies. There’s a sad parting as Wesley seems to have passed his preliminary exams and gets to take the actual entrance exams for Starfleet. I guess travel is cheap enough that the cost of sequestering him away from his friends and family is less than the potential costs of letting an unqualified person cheat their way into Starfleet. Also, Picard’s old friend Admiral Quinn is around and wants to beam up, along with his aid Dexter Remek. Quinn has some official business to discuss alongside an ominous musical sting.

Remek is from ‘the INspector General’s office’ and has the authority granted by an admiral, to investigate the ship from top to bottom to find a ‘something’ that is wrong. No mission profile stated to Picard. This is one of the stronger hints we’ve seen so far (Yar’s upbringing in a failed colony full of rape gangs notwithstanding) that the Federation and Starfleet aren’t the superhappy funtimes club that all of us who grew up watching TNG remember it to be. Bright clean corridors and holodeck orgies aside, Starfleet is still a military organization, and it apparently has protocols in place that can trigger, shall we say, some warrentless investigations. All the authority Quinn needs to essentially take over Picard’s ship is his spoken word. I have no idea how it works in real militaries, but I would have thought some verified orders might come into play at some point.

"What's that over to your left?" "I dunno, let me hold my breath so I can turn to look."

“What’s that over to your left?”
“I dunno, let me hold my breath so I can turn to look.”

Wesley meets some of his competetors for placement in the Academy. A human girl, a Vulcan girl, and a Benzite male (who are blue and wear extremely leaky resperators. Wes is apparently just barely old enough. The Benzite apparently already has a Strategy named after him, which Wesley has heard of, because there’s only one being named Mordock in the entire Federation. The four of them are the best and brightest, but only one of them will qualify for Starfleet Academy, according to their testing officer. Since I flatly refuse to believe that Starfleet Academy only takes one new student on per year, there’s got to be something weird going on here. Allow me to explain.

First of all, this can’t possibly be a need-based scholarship. The scale of Starfleet engineering and the amount of power they’re willing to waste  on holodecks tells us that at the very least, the military is not constrained by petty things like resources. Also, Wesley’s mother is, if personal wealth is even still a Thing, drawing a widow’s pension and the salary for the Chief Medical Officer on the best ship Starfleet has. Wesley also (thanks to the Traveller) has the backing of Picard and field experience on a Galaxy-class starship. This isn’t about scarcity. If it’s about merit, then it seems pointless to gather four overqualified candidates into one room only to eliminate three of them. Why not take all four?

Maybe Starfleet will… if they all respond well under the competitive pressure. Starships are not a low-stress environment. If they’ve all got the grades, then the question is more about who has the nerve. But if the shiny future we’d all like to believe in is truly a meritocracy, then Starfleet would be criminally wasteful to eliminate three candidates purely because of policy.

Speaking of the bright shiny future, Remek is auditing the bridge. And in the future, auditors are no less annoying and disruptive to operations than they are now.

Point of note: One of the test questions is what the correct matter-antimatter intermix ratio is under specific circumstances. Apparently, there’s only one correct answer. 1:1. One gram of matter for one gram of antimatter produces the annihilation reaction necessary to power a warp drive. This makes perfect sense – if it were anything else, the best case scenario is that you’d have unspent matter floating around clogging up the reaction chamber. The worst case is that you’d have unspent antimatter slamming into the side of the reaction chamber and breaching containment. That would be Bad.

Pictured: Bad.  Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Pictured: Bad.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Of note: There’s a compilation of video clips detailing how Riker doesn’t know how to sit in chairs. This is because Johnathan Frakes is freakishly tall and the chairs on set are super short, so he just kind of steps over them to sit down rather than maneuvering himself into them. I had never noticed it before but you get to see one of them in this episode. The fact that Riker is glaring auditor Remek dead in the eyes only makes it funnier.

Remek starts asking questions about Picard and getting super hostile. Apparently, Picard is under investigation, which I guess is why Quinn wouldn’t tell him what was up. That said, there should be some form of written order. Remek starts questioning everyone about some of the past missions – like how he handed over the engine room to Kozinski and flew out of the universe, or how he had a psychotic break under Ferengi mind-control and attacked the Enterprise. I actually quite like this device, as it illustrates a classic fallacy in human thought. We always have context for our own actions and those close to us. We make excuses. We are flawed and imperfect. And Star Trek tells us that despite all that, we may still make it to the stars. I cannot think of a better message, no matter how much I complain about the execution.

Wesley has a heart-to-heart with Worf about how afraid he is of the psych test. Apparently, he will have to face his deepest fear. This is kind of worrying, as I suppose it should be. Hey, if it was good enough for Remus Lupin, it ought to be good enough for Starfleet. As well, it’s a great idea to see if your candidates can overcome personal horror in order to perform their duty. Still, there’s something… sinister… about an organization that tailors a test specifically to you on that level. And as always, it ties into one of my fundamental questions – what did they put Tasha Yar through on that test? She did not have a happy childhood, but seems (trying to shoot everything that looks at Picard funny notwithstanding) reasonably well-adjusted. Is Starfleet that good at psychoanalysis and the related fields? I’m impressed. And skeptical.

Worf is coming to be my favorite character. He, like Data, has an outsider perspective on humanity, and his hybridized Klingon-human philosophies and blunt speaking give him some of the best lines. He’s giving Wesley advice on how to face the test, and flat-out tells him that only fools have no fear. Worf’s test was apparently that he had to depend on someone else for his life, because that’s a thing you always have to do on a ship.

There’s a minor crisis where Wes’ friend from the beginning of the episode, who failed his exam, steals a shuttle, somehow destablizies the engine, and is about to die before Picard talks him into a lifesaving atmospheric skip, and the kid lives. Remek shows a human moment where he’s happy the kid made it, but immediately attacks Picard based on the fact that he stole a shuttle in the first place. The fact that he’s trained in may of the practical areas of ship’s systems is brought up, which makes me question how a ‘fully qualified academy candidate’ managed to send a shuttle into critical failure in the first place. I guess that’s why he didn’t pass his exams. Not everyone can be Command or Science track. Someone has to be the meatshield security team.

"Listen you little pip-squeak, I'm like a foot and a half taller than you and I don't wear ugly sweaters. That makes me better."

“Listen you little pip-squeak, I’m like a foot and a half taller than you and I don’t wear ugly sweaters. That makes me better.”

Wesley handles a potential violent altercation with a cadet fairly well by noticing and contextualizing a biological clue that tells him how to handle a member of that species. Some stereotypes are true, at least for the purposes of a test that was orchestrated by the academy. This is the kind of thing that gives us a little more to worry about for the psych exam. Starfleet is perfectly willing to disguise a test in a seemingly real circumstance in order to get an honest, in-the-moment read on a cadet’s abilities in real circumstances.

Speaking of ‘a test can be anywhere, anywhen, and unannounced’ Remek has outstayed his welcome by probing the crew about, for instance, how Beverly feels about serving under the man who’s responsible for Jack Crusher’s death, and raking Picard over the coals for saving Wes from the Edo death sentence. However, in his final report, Remek admits failure because he couldn’t find any dark and terrible secrets about the Enterprise and states how much he’d like to serve aboard her. However, the audit complete, Quinn starts talking about a deep and dark conspiracy, and how the audit was to make sure he could still trust Picard. He offers Picard a promotion and the position of Starfleet Academy Commendant.

Oh no! What a terrible disaster that Wesley is the only one who can help out with just when he's supposed to be taking his psych evaluation! This is totally unexpected!

Oh no! What a terrible disaster that Wesley is the only one who can help out with just when he’s supposed to be taking his psych evaluation! This is totally unexpected!

Wesley is slated for his psych test and is ushered into an empty room to face facing his fear, when an explosion happens off-camera. Screaming and klaxxons come from the environmental lave, and a 65-second seal-in warning. Some dude is trapped under a beam behind some liquid hydrogen, but Wes drags the broken-legged dude out and has to leave the healthy, frightened one to die.

Which, lest we forget, is how his father died. Picard had to make a choice of who to save and who he couldn’t, and Jack Crusher lost the roulette and went home in a torpedo tube draped in a UFP flag. Wesley, to his credit, goes from furious to comprehension remarkably quickly. Apparently his deepest fear was ‘not being able to make the choice,’ but to face him with a situation like the one that killed his father seems… I don’t really have a word to describe how viscerally wrong that feels, even though it’s objectively necessary to determine that he won’t freeze up in a live disaster.

After all that, Mordock gets the candidacy based on minor test score variations (Wes did better than the Vulcan and Human girls) which makes me wonder why only one of the four candidates can join up if it’s not about passing the psych evaluation. Why, oh why, does only one candidate from any given testing site get to go on?

Actually, Picard’s final pep talk to Wesley may indicate an answer to that. Apparently, Picard failed his first-year’s entrance exam, too, but it only inspired him to double down and led him to becoming the starship captain he is today. Perhaps this is just another test?  Or perhaps they have limited teachers at the Academy because most so many candidates, like Picard and Kirk before him, choose to stay with their ships for as long as possible.


2 thoughts on “TNG: S1E19: “Coming of Age”

  1. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S3E24: “Ménage à Troi”

  2. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S2E15: “Pen Pals”

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