The Enterprise returns to Earth so Picard can deliver the commencement address at Starfleet Academy, but upon arrival the crew learns that cadet Wesley Crusher and his flight team, an elite group on campus called Nova Squadron, has been involved in an accident during a flight exercise that has resulted in the death of one of their team members. An investigation has been opened to find out what caused the deadly crash. As we follow the courtroom-like proceedings of the hearing (and the young cadets' ominous conversations behind closed doors), it becomes clear there is more to this accident than they have claimed.
After years of being a punch line on this series because of his ridiculous tendency to always be a step ahead of the adults on the show, at long last we finally have a believable episode where Wesley Crusher isn't so goddamned perfect. (Though it's still so unthinkable that Wesley could do something wrong that his mother doesn't even consider, for one second, the possibility that he has lied when the evidence clearly indicates that he might have. She instead believes the evidence must surely be false.) No, here Wesley is a grounded human being looking at the real possibility of his future going up in smoke.
"The First Duty" is in the storied tradition of the courtroom drama, and on that level it's effective. The facts are clearly laid out, the evidence is sensibly and logically presented, and the parts where the cadets get caught up in the inaccuracies (i.e., lies) of their story generate real suspense, especially with the intimidating Admiral Brand (Jacqueline Brookes) overseeing the proceedings. You see, the rest of Nova Squadron doesn't want to come forward with the whole truth, so Wesley finds himself caught uncomfortably between his conscience and his comrades. The leader, Nick Locarno (Robert Duncan McNeill, whose character here would later be slightly retooled into Tom Paris on Voyager) makes a convincing-sounding argument that the team should be placed higher than any individual on it. (His argument, of course, leaves out the part about being willing to sacrifice their integrity — not to mention the reputation of the dead pilot — but I suppose no cover-up is perfect.)
Enter into this fray Picard, whose own forensics into the matter (at first to help clear Wesley) lead him to discover what Nova Squadron was actually trying to do and now is trying cover up. This leads to a tense confrontation between Picard and Wesley where he lays out what he knows and tells Wesley that he must come forward with the truth. It's a classic Picard speech that draws a moral line in the sand and says, hey, there is no gray area here. It's the sort of earnest speechifying that makes TNG uniquely what it is — and it works powerfully here.
In addition to its solid storytelling, I like how "The First Duty" adds to the canvas of the TNG universe. I believe this is the first time we actually see Starfleet Academy, and it comes across as a real place inhabited by real people — right on down to Boothby (Ray Walston), the curmudgeonly old groundskeeper who remembers Picard from his academy days and offers useful tidbits of wisdom and insight — about mistakes made in the past, as well as the present.
Interestingly, I remember hearing or reading somewhere (not sure where; maybe it was a BSG commentary track) that Ron Moore's original script for this episode had Wesley not coming forward with the truth, and instead the incident was covered up. That ending was rejected by the bosses, but what a fascinating alternate episode that might've been — and a very different one. Whether it would've been better or worse, I can't say. But I can say that the actual version of "The First Duty" is a standout TNG outing and a captivating morality play, and easily the best Wesley Crusher episode ever made.
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