The Good: Decent acting, Interesting - if unrealistic - character development
The Bad: Certain aspects of the plot
The Basics: When Wesley Crusher is injured and another cadet is killed, the facts of the investigation do not match with the cadets' story and Wesley must choose where his loyalties lie in "The First Duty."
Every now and then, Star Trek The Next Generation did an episode so obvious it was almost insulting to the viewers intelligence. Sometimes, the message was so obvious it was insulting, but the execution of it is classy enough. "The First Duty" is the latter type; it is rather straightforward in its message about not lying, but it gets there in an interesting enough way to keep us interested.
The Enterprise is recalled to Earth when Wesley Crusher is wounded in a flight accident. As Picard and the Enterprise staff lend a hand to the investigation, it becomes clear that the cadet flight squadron, led by the charismatic Nick Locarno, is not being entirely forthcoming with the reason one of the cadets lost his life in the accident. Picard quickly learns Wesley is part of a cover-up and works to impress upon the youth the importance of not lying.
What is nice is that Wesley Crusher appears, for the first time, as a less than perfect individual. He suddenly seems very realistic and his moral dilemma about sticking with his friends or telling the truth is a worthwhile one. It's presented well and Crusher, who always had so much potential, seems to be knocked down a few notches here in a way that makes his character instantly more empathetic. Add to that that Crusher and his moralistic sense makes a great deal of sense to be the one to come forward.
The way that it fails to be believable is in the time element. Wesley Crusher spent three and a half years on the Enterprise where he was given the most responsibility and trust he had ever had in his life. Since then, he has been back once where he restrengthened the bonds to those people by saving all of their lives. Now, less than a year and a half since he first left, he has fallen in with a group that asks him to lie to the people he has loved and trusted for a significantly longer time. That makes less sense than one would like to admit.
Beyond that, it's easy to see how strong Picard comes on and Locarno seems savvy enough to be at least possible as a leader. So, in the end it becomes a battle of wills between Picard, who reasons the truth, and Locarno, who wants to conceal it, via Wesley Crusher. And in the end, it makes sense that Picard ought to be victorious.
But in the process, there's another awkward aspect and that is how long it takes for all of the facts in the case to come to light. Given the amount of time it takes for the Enterprise to arrive at Earth, it seems inconceivable that the video images of the flight squadron was not already available. In short, it makes little sense that the cadets would even have the chance to lie by the time the Enterprise arrives.
Given that is not the case, the plausibility of the episode falls squarely on the acting and it is what eventually throws the episode over. Robert Duncan McNeil plays Locarno and in the process creates one of the more memorable guest characters. McNeil has a rogue quality to him and a natural charm that easily comes through. Perhaps this was the reason he was later tapped to play Lieutenant Tom Paris on Star Trek Voyager. He makes a great foil to the stern demeanor of Patrick Stewart in the role of Captain Picard. Stewart manages to tone down his performance, hone his range to simply fill the gaps between his character and McNeil's. In the end, Stewart refines Picard to simply be all of the things that Locarno is not and as a result, he makes the message that much more poignant and clear.
In the end, the episode hinges on Wil Wheaton's performance and he lives up to the responsibility. Here he makes Wesley Crusher visibly conflicted in a way that has not been well presented before. He's a conflicted character now and it works with where he is and where he is going. Wheaton makes him feel like a character in transition and his place in the episode is secure.
In the end, "The First Duty" is a piece that can be appreciated by anyone as it is a bottle episode more about the morality of telling the truth than anything even remotely science fiction oriented. As a testament to the strength of the episode, on the DVD bonuses for Season 5, one of the behind the scenes facts mentioned about this episode is that it has been shown in military classes to promote the importance of telling the truth. Well, if that's not enough to give you hope, what is?
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fifth season by clicking here!
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