In which an inquest is held, traditions get people killed, and everybody needs a Wise Old Mentor.
Picard is taking the Enterprise all the way back to Earth to give the commencement speech at the Academy, and to visit Wesley. I can’t help but feel that this dives home an idea of most of what Starfleet does is busywork. I mean, I’m sure they were able to get someone else to transport valuable cargo X or dignitary Y or chart nebula X, but it’s very considerate of the Klingons and the Romulans not to flare up diplomatic incidents when the primary assigned ship in the sector is away.
Anyway, there will be a nifty aerospace display near Jupiter. Picard and Riker reminisce about their superintendents back in their day: Riker had a Vulcan who memorized the record of every student, and Picard had a telepath who already knew why you were being called to the principal’s office. However, the call from the current superintendent is somewhat weightier, else this wouldn’t be worth an episode. In fact, from Brand’s opening lines, it seems like Wesley is dead now. Or at least horribly maimed.
As it turns out, just horribly maimed. Admiral Brand is terrible at delivering news, but at least she knows it and told Picard in the worst way imaginable so he could deliver it on to Crusher. It seems that there was a shuttle accident when practicing maneuvers for the flight team. All ships were destroyed, and they just barely managed to recover a flight recorder. An investigation is automatically triggered, but surely it will just be a formality. After all, they didn’t even tap Picard to be on the investigation committee.
When Picard and Beverly meet up with Wesley later, they get a few moments before Nick Locarno, the cadet squad leader of the flight team, knocks and is let in manually. I really like that the Academy dorms have door handles rather than swish-sensors. I’m not sure whether it says something about values that Starfleet is trying to instill, or Starfleet’s dorm housing budget, or just the set budget.
Also, get used to that face as a hotshot pilot and with a look of shame. Something seems Up with them, but this isn’t one of those episodes where we’re supposed to know the problem immediately.
Instead, we get Picard’s journey through memory lane, including a meeting with Boothby the Groundskeeper. I have questions about Boothby. Is he the only groundskeeper, or just the only wise one? How old was he when Picard was at the Academy? Is there some trope where the gardener is full of an arcane wisdom that the protagonists are never clued in on? Actually, it seems that Picard learned everything he needed from his Wise Old Lower Class Person, and I would absolutely watch a series about our favorite Starfleet personnel going through the Academy. Boothby and Picard allude to some important Incident during Picard’s academy years – one that almost washed him out.
The investigation begins, all very clinical – two ships collided during a tight-formation loop, they all had emergency transport beacons which are never used on away missions, and only one cadet didn’t make it. However, there are some discrepancies – the filed flight plan deviated slightly but significantly from the records. Also, one of the surviving cadets should have seen the accident from her position in the rear of the formation, but didn’t. They were also traveling at 80,000kph with tolerances of less than 10 meters. Locarno steps in, claims that the dead cadet was flying erratically lately, and that they were trying to cover for his memory. Soon, the flight recorder data will come in, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.
Picard’s acquired a copy of the data, because Wes is one of theirs, so Picard asks Data and Geordi to work on the recorder data as well. In a closed meeting, Locarno cajoles everyone else into going along with his testimony.
I hereby formally question the utility of practicing formation flying in the Academy. The diagram appears to indicate some sort of heretofore-unseen high-maneuverability one-crew fighter platform. Having never seen fighter craft in use by the Federation, I have to wonder whether there’s actually a place for such vehicles in the Federation or if this is just a tradition from earlier days.
Going over his deposition, Wesley is met by the dead cadet’s father, who found one of Wes’ ugly sweaters from a skiing trips and apologizes for his son nearly getting everyone killed. Salt in the wound. Other nice touches – the Academy flag is at half-mast.
The flight recorder data cuts out before the disaster and Wesley describes the rest of the incident, including a description (at the insistence of a Vulcan admiral with extremly suspicious eyebrows) of a Yeager Loop, the maneuver they were performing. It’s an Immelmann turn, but with five ships in formation instead of one plane. They establish this very clearly and precisely because there’s external data that shows that the ships were in fact in a completely different formation. Wesley is on the stand when this comes out, and it’s very tense. Dire, even.
Picard goes to get some background on Nova Squadron. Nova Squadron are local Academy heroes, and Nick Locarno is the superman to their Justice League. Of course, that means if Nick says ‘frog’ they all jump off a cliff. Some other data from the flight recorder indicates that a specific valve was open, which is a maintenance thing and doing it with the engine on would ignite drive plasma, which is guaranteed to look awesome if done on purpose.
There is a maneuver called a Kovoord Starburst where some ships get close and ignite their plasma trails in a spaceborne firework. Emphasis on ‘fire.’ It was banned over a century ago by the Academy after a training accident. Locarno pretty clearly got everyone in on this, not realizing that even if it went off successfully they would still have performed a banned maneuver. Having figured it out, Picard gives Wes the choice – tell the truth, or Picard will.
Nick is going to stick to his guns despite this, and forces Wes to choose between loyalty to his teammates and friends, or loyalty to the higher principles of Starfleet. It comes down to the sentence – an inaccurate flight plan and permitting an unqualified pilot to flie will get them grounded and reprimanded, but in the last moments, Wesley steps up.
Locarno winds up falling on his sword for everyone else and taking full responsibility – protecting the team and accepting expulsion. Wesley gets sent back a year, but whatever the consequences, they won’t be as bad as losing Picard’s respect forever.