Thursday, December 25, 2014

“Shut up, Wesley!”: The Dauphin, Pen Pals

Part of the original justification for adding a child character to Star Trek: The Next Generation was to show how regular teenagers could come to terms with regular teenage issues in a utopian setting such as this. The idea was that in this place and at this time, teenagers' perspectives would be valued and respected as much as those of any other person, and they would be able to resolve their inner conflicts in ways kids don't always have the opportunity to do in the real world. It's a nice conceit, and you can see how it would be in theory easy to weave this theme in as a manifestation of the show's children's television for adults motif.

And then there's Wesley Crusher. And episodes like these.

Both of these episodes deal in some way with developing Wesley as a character and both of them fail pretty conclusively at it. To be fair to “The Dauphin” and “Pen Pals”, there isn't really a whole lot for them to actually go off of to begin with: Of all the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, and with the utmost of respect to Wil Wheaton who consistently and gamely does the best he can with often unworkable material, Wesley Crusher is the one who has the most seriously and egregiously fatal conceptual flaws, and this makes it *extremely* hard to get behind anything he's involved in. “Pen Pals” isn't even expressly about him; his plot only comprises the B-story of an episode that is largely about Data. Problem is, Data himself has picked up Wesley's slack from the first season to become badly overexposed himself this year, and his story ultimately boils down to another Prime Directive runaround which means it sucks by default. Frankly, the fact that the Prime Directive has gotten us to a point where it would condone us leaving an innocent and adorable little alien girl to die on a planet that is literally exploding should tell us all we need to know about how cartoonishly evil, simplistic and impractical it is as a philosophical worldview.

The only thing remotely of interest in regards to the A-story of “Pen Pals” is Captain Picard's objection to helping Sarjenka's people, that the destruction of her planet and civilization might be part of a larger “cosmic plan” the Enterprise is not meant to be a part of. This is obviously intriguing considering the ethical foundation of Dirty Pair and all the Dirty Pair references that have been showing up in Star Trek: The Next Generation lately. Typically when Kei and Yuri inadvertently bring about the destruction of a planet, it's because something had marked its people very early on in the story as dangerously self-destructive, toxic or reactionary. It's also not usually the case that the girls' investigations end in a 100% fatality rating: More often than not there's a remnant that survives as a reminder to the readers that their mission is a positive and constructive one in spite of what it looks like, and that those who survive will probably end up with a better life than they started with. When the universe *does* have Kei and Yuri Kill 'Em All, there's usually a very good reason, like how the warring factions of “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal” and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture were a threat to themselves and others, or how the prison station in “Prison Uprising. We Hate People with Grudges!” was a monument to Panopticism.

So the question becomes, did the Dremans do something that was somehow *that bad* to warrant being doomed to be wiped off the galaxy? We certainly never get any indication of that anywhere in the episode, and furthermore this kind of plot becomes exponentially more worrying when taken out of Dirty Pair (where extraterrestrial life doesn't exist, or if it does it's so beyond our comprehension such that it's practically indescribable and ineffable, so we're only dealing with humanity in the general) and placed in Star Trek, where we're talking about entire species and ethnicities, and that's not touching on the latent militarism and imperialism that still haunts Star Trek. Maybe that's why Captain Picard eventually does allow the Enterprise to help. Perhaps we could say Sarjenka and Data were meant to find each other just as the Enterprise was in the system conducting geological surveys precisely such that it would be in a position to help her and her people. That's certainly a nicer twist on the plot that would be befitting of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Funnily enough, “Pen Pals” is the first episode in awhile that doesn't have an explicit Dirty Pair reference I was able to spot.

(It's also worth briefly noting the choice of characters here: Melinda Snodgrass campaigned for Data to be the one to talk to Sarjenka, because his literal-mindedness as an android gives him a childlike veneer that works nicely with the story's themes.)

So with that all said let's talk about Wesley Crusher. In “Pen Pals”, he takes his first command as the leader of the survey team that studies Drema IV and must face such crushing command decisions as how to react to his science officer questioning him and daring to point out how his positionality might mean there are some things he's not as informed about as others. But, as Commander Riker so helpfully points out, Wesley is in charge just like Captain Picard, and since nobody questions the captain’s authority (I guess we'll forget about “Lonely Among Us” and “Time Squared” for the moment) nobody should question Wesley's either. And, sure enough, the remarkable, brilliant and wonderful boy makes the crucial discovery that saves Sarjenka and her people.

This actually ties nicely in with “The Dauphin”, which was a similarly solipsistic yarn about how uniquely tortured and special Wesley Crusher is. It was supposed to be a love story about awkward teenage feelings and emotions but, seemingly in a dogged attempt to sidestep every single one of its core themes and values, Star Trek: The Next Generation forces us to watch Wesley going on about *his* pain and *his* confusion in a rote recitation of every single godawful young adult story about teenage boys that has ever been written since the dawn of time. The plot is basically “Elaan of Troyius” without the racism, as it features a beguiling young woman duty- and honour-bound to bring peace between two warring factions who tragically has no time for love from our sincere and eager Nice Guy.

Though it may not be as catastrophically and disgustingly racist, as “Elaan of Troyius”, “The Dauphin” keeps every ounce of its insufferable sexism, as its entire plot can be succinctly summed up as “bitches be cray-cray”: In no short order, we have Commander Riker flippantly pointing out how someone like Salia won't “have time” for Wesley (career women-such ice queens, amiright?), Salia giving stereotypical tsundere “hot and cold” “mixed signals”, Wesley actually bemoaning how confusing girls are and this gem of dialog between him and Worf:
"No. Men do not roar. Women roar...and they hurl heavy objects...and claw at you..."
"What does the man do?"
"He reads love poetry. He ducks a lot.”
So that can pretty much fuck all the way off.

In the end, of course, Wesley shows up all of his inept peers and elders by simply visiting Salia's room and talking to her, because of course he does. And that, right there, sums up the problem with Wesley Crusher so neatly: He's cishet male privilege given form. Both of these episodes in one respect or another deal with Wesley being reassured of his natural, God-given authority because he's either male, he's in a position of power or because he's a Nerd (as if there was actually a meaningful difference between those things anyway). If there's every any conflict, it's *always* brought upon him by *other people*, all of whom are some manner of scary, different, confusing or less competent than he is. All Wesley Crusher ever has to worry about is the haters and the little people who keep bothering him and cramping his style. And what's up with that? After all, he didn't do anything to them, right?

For real, fuck this. Fuck him. Fuck these episodes. This is the exact wrong kind of “children's television” Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to be trying to mould itself as and is precisely the reason why I can't stand Wesley Crusher.


  1. This post has made me realise... Wesley Crusher IS Harry bloody Potter *avant la lettre*. Yeurch.

    1. Blargh indeed, Jack. But we can still learn from the mistakes of Wesley Crusher as a character, just as the TNG production crew itself did. One of my favourite Wesley episodes is his last, when he returns to find that no one on the crew will take his smug directions anymore and the Traveller takes him away for what I like to think amounts to a remedial class on personal growth and progress.

      I like to contrast Wesley Crusher with Adric, in terms of how a sci-fi television show can deal with boy geniuses. I remember Steven Moffat explicitly connecting Adric and Wesley in the making-of documentary for Earthshock, as an example of why he would never do such a character (as many beefs as one can have with Moff, I think we can all agree on this).

      Adric may have been an annoying, insufferable boy genius who thought he was better than everyone around him and pouted petulantly when those around him disagreed. But he was in a dramatic context where he was continually subordinated. With Tom Baker, he was the dickish son to the Doctor's father figure, and Baker at this point could very easily put someone in their place through the performance process. As part of Davison's first crew, he was continually put in his place by a TARDIS full of equally competent or more pragmatically worldly women, and a Doctor who had a little more of the feminine about his performance.

      Harry Potter receives the greater share of attention in Rowling's series, being the centre of the Hero's Journey mythos in that series. However, even against Rowling's own perspective on her characters and the series' narrative, Hermione is always a rebellious figure. I like to think of the central trio of the Hogwarts series as a detective crew: Hermione does the bulk of the legwork behind the scenes, Ron is the slapstick comic relief, and Harry does the most visible detective work to get all the credit. In Rowling's masculinist vision of her series as Harry's Hero's Journey, Hermione is always there, quietly undercutting the Myth of Harry in the narrative itself.

      Wesley, however, is constantly lionized by the narratives he's in. There's no feminine (Nyssa, Tegan, Hermione) or feminized (Davison's Doctor) or fatherly (Dumbledore, Tom Baker's Doctor) figure that can stand up to the immense gravity of entitled dickishness that his character exudes. Because Wesley-centric stories in this era of the show tend toward Wesley-saves-the-day narratives, the stories' structures make all the more reasonable and ethical characters seem dumber and less capable for the sake of idolizing Wesley.

      As viewers, we see through this immediately. We see how egotistical and petulant the character of Wesley is, and it rankles us to see admirable characters like Picard, Riker, and Beverly Crusher constrained by Wesley's smug rictus.

    2. Gosh, that sounds horrible, the idea of being constrained by a smug rictus.

  2. My brother and I have a recurring joke fictional narrative called overtly "Destiny of the Chosen One". It's more than just a hashout of "The One" Trope, of course, it's really a game for us, a thought exercise to see who can top whom in just how far each instance of Destiny of the Chosen One can pile up. Best played by the way, at movie theaters, during the trailers ... loudly ... with intermittent Obi-Wan Kenobi impressions.

    I always really liked the senior staff debate in Pen Pals, much for the same reason I liked Home Soil for actually having the scientists and explorers of the crew actually play out the Scientific Theory in real-time in the narrative instead of taking melodramatic flights during.

    I like seeing future humans actually engage in a full debate and cover the angles. TAKE THAT PLOT HOLES. Of course patching all the potential plot holes ironically points toward the elephant in the room of plot holes - that of course Data has emotions and a soul. Or at least, if he doesn't, neither do any of the rest of us.

    I can't believe I'd never noticed that The Dauphin was Elaan of Troyius. "I Fell In Love With A Space Ambassador" is fast becoming a trope of its own in Trek, but Wesley is so milquetoast that it's hard to notice him do anything. At least in the Kirk/Elaan relationship, Kirk was interesting.

    And that gets to a root of why I hate Wesley Crusher. I was a child who was regarded as a high-potential, multi-talented little know-it-all. I was in all the advanced classes, was frustrated at being talked down to by adults, and was shy.

    One thing I never was was naive. Someone who reads that many books can't be reading nothing but tech manuals. Good writers, good artists, and good old fashioned curiosity and taboos will pique your interest. And we did all that with our free information in print form, which took far more work than omnipresent computers do now.

    The implication that this kid would rather read a tech manual than pornography even at an early age had me writing him off as some kind of strange neuter ... or the fact that the Enterprise has other kids his age, presumably many of whom are girls. "Girls are scary and confusing" never made any sense to me. Girls are the easiest thing in the world to understand because there isn't that much relevant data to have to sort through past "interact with each individual individually".

    But that just speaks to the fact that the universal constant of human teenagers is some degree or other of rebellion - everyone identifies with an outsiders because we're all outsiders. Therefore having our teen hero be a kiss-ass workaholic shouting about how he wants to live up to everyone's expectations kind of defeats the purpose of having a teen character at all.

    Which brings me all the way back to Jake Kurland.

    Because that kid should've been Wesley Crusher. Or at the least, if you're going to have a male lead Destiny of the Chosen One type, a Luke Skywalker ... you've gotta have a Han Solo around to knock him down a peg, look cool doing it, be a natural, maybe make the grown-ups in their lives feel a bit out-of-touch, guilty, admiring, whatever else.

    And they should've all been cadets and hot shot pilots, too.

  3. Well, I've always had a soft spot for Wesley. Watching the show as a kid, I thought he was pretty cool (shows you how cool I was). Of course, I see him a little differently now and I don't dispute anything you've said here.

    I don't know if this has been brought up here before -- but has anyone seen Rod Roddenberry's documentary "Trek Nation"? It was on Netflix, so I gave it a whirl -- and it was one of the more interesting Trek docs I've seen. For anyone unfamiliar with Rod, he's Gene's son ... and the two of them did not have a great relationship. Consequently, he's not been a big Trek fan for most of his life. With his movie, he decides to explore what all the fuss about Trek is all about, and he attempts to get a new perspective on his dad through everyone else's visions of him.

    There's still a fair amount of hailing GR as a genius visionary, but Rod is pretty candid about his dad being an alcoholic, womanizer, and absent father. One of the most interesting and touching parts of the film is when Rod talks about Wesley Crusher. Rod explains that Wesley is Gene's idealized son -- the son he never had. Rod was a bit of an anti-social, anti-academic kid growing up, and he felt he was a great disappointment to his father.

    Gene took this as far as treating Wil Wheaton like a son behind the scenes ... sharing interests, joking around with him, and spending time with him in ways he never did with his own son. Rod was extremely hurt by both Gene's relationship with Wil, and by seeing this idealized version of who his dad wanted him to be on screen.

    In the documentary, Rod sits down with Wil for the first time (now both fathers themselves) and shares his feelings and resentments .... it's pretty moving.

    Anyway, worth a watch and it changed my perspective on Wesley a little bit.

  4. Great points K.Jones and Adam above.

    I was weirdly also singled out as a bit of a *golden child* for some reason when I was young. I read massively and widely, was bigged up by all my teachers at school and was singled out by most of my peers as being a bit of a *professor* as I was also quite socially awkward. Odd experience, I never liked it and actually pushed against it and resisted the image, to create my own path and identity, rather than that being placed onto me.

    All touching on your ideas about rebellion above K - *that* quality is perhaps what's always been missing in Wesley for me, his lack of fire or rebellion.