Great Episodes is a series of blogs on my all-time favorite episodes of, well, everything.
The true aficionados know that Star Trek: The Next Generation barely qualified as science fiction. The fact that it was so popular in its day proved it didn’t really have a place in the true geek niche. Every Thursday night in university, I would gather with my dorm mates in the common room and watch the show. Back then, everyone watched TNG.
But not everyone loved “Journey’s End,” which I remember first seeing in that very common room, seated in uncomfortable metal chairs with barely-padded, scratchy upholstery (this was the early 1990s, long before dorms became almost enviable places to live, stylish and sleek.) I was captivated. Others were not.
What appealed to me then were the New Agey elements, the infusion of faux-Indigenous sensibilities, the acknowledgment of colonialism once again rearing its ugly head. The ideas about destiny, making amends for the actions of ancestors, that there are links that go back and forward generations, and that one could literally step out of time, were infectious, enthralling to me. I accepted these ideas already, and felt maybe for the first time the prime time space fest — before obsessed with concepts derived from the “hard” sciences like wormholes and warp drive — was speaking my language.
Now, I love the episode for different reasons. It is a deep examination of hierarchy, power, and the limitations on choice that are the byproducts of social conformity. By having a career, you’re making a trade off: you get a place in the structure, as long as you play by the rules. It is one of the only times I can remember in the Star Trek universe when those rules, so fundamental to the military-style organization of the franchise, were directly challenged by one of its own.
The assumption in Star Trek was that the hierarchy of the Federation was benevolent and led by morally blameless individuals. A fantasy, of course, but I can’t remember another time in the Star Trek universe when a character seemed to acknowledge that within the show itself, by questioning the actions of superiors. That’s what’s particularly striking about “Journey’s End.” Wesley is not just sick of following rules and regulations. He wants to do what’s morally right.
Not only does the Federation hierarchy prevent him from doing what’s morally right; his superiors up the chain of command admit that their actions are wrong. But they have orders to follow, and they are willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of an entire group of people in order to make peace with another species. When Picard meets with Anthwara, the leader of the Indigenous group that is going to be forcibly removed so the planet can be given to the Cardassians, it’s not to hear him out. He goes to the settlement, Counselor Troi in tow, to convince him they should be ok with being relocated. There is nothing particularly moral about that action, but Picard is following orders that have come several ladders down the chain of command. Even his direct superior, Admiral Nechayev, admits she doesn’t agree with the plan.
The episode clearly shows the level of socialization expected of Starfleet officers, or at least of Wesley Crusher onboard the Enterprise. Even on vacation, he’s made to show up at a reception, in uniform. When he talks back to LaForge in Engineering, he’s referred to as “cadet,” a kind of slur that reminds Wesley it’s position in the hierarchy that matters, not the validity of moral choices. And as tight as the hold the hierarchy has on Wesley, as easy it is for him to relieve it of its power. In a conversation with Picard, where the captain pulls rank, Wesley resigns. He just takes off his communicator and leaves.
It’s a ballsy move. But it sets him up to set off the insurgency, betraying Worf’s trust by telling the community about Starfleet’s intent, information Worf confided in him.
So Wesley drops out, in dramatic fashion. That’s where the episode creates a perfect ending for the arc of this character, who was basically born into Starfleet and never questioned that he would become a Starfleet officer. “Journey’s End” could have just been about Wesley wanting to do something outside the mold created for him by his dead father — that piece is certainly said explicitly when he has a vision during a ritualistic ceremony — but it goes beyond that. Wesley had a distaste for immorality, and he no longer trusted that the hierarchy was always going to do the right thing. A career in Starfleet would mean compromising personal morals not just occasionally, but probably on a regular basis.
There’s an earlier episode in Season 7, “Pegasus,” when Commander Riker gets a surprise visit from his first commanding officer. He has to come face-to-face with an ugly incident from early in his career when he not only disobeyed the rules of Starfleet, but committed a moral wrong. It is tough to imagine Riker ever having pulled a Wesley, as much as he may have been a little bit of a Maverick. Riker ultimately always wanted up the corporate ladder, despite knowing its pitfalls. Wesley, not so much.
It is gutsy to have taken this turn with the character of Wesley, on a show where outsiders to the hierarchy were rarely lauded for their moral compass. The easiest comparison might be Ensign Ro, who thought she found mentorship in Picard and stability in the Starfleet hierarchy before abandoning it as well. But even Ro was always set up to be a challenger to the Federation regime, in a way that Wesley was not. They kept Ro around, it should be said, because the Federation needed her. She could follow her own moral compass and wear that earring only because she suited the objectives of the hierarchy.
“Journey’s End” cleverly shows the other side of authority, where “do as I say” has positive effect. Gul Evek avoids a war with the Federation by telling a subordinate, “those are my orders, carry them out,” before revealing to Picard he lost two children in the previous war. His own moral compass, in that instance, drove him to assert his authority in a way that may have run counter to Cardassian rules of engagement but avoided a deadly conflict.
Wesley promises his mother he’ll “dress warmly on those other planes of existence,” and Captain Picard refers to him by his name instead of his title to say goodbye. He’s now largely alone, but free to live his life without following orders, without the security of the hierarchy and clearly defined expectations.