If there was one story that perfectly encapsulated the virtues and strengths of Star Trek: The Next Generation and demonstrates the things it and only it can do, this would be it. “The Wounded” is an absolute masterpiece; as bold and defiant a statement of purpose for this show as exists, absolutely the story we needed after half a season of directionless navel-gazing and without question the definitive template for how it can stay fresh and relevant even four years into its run. This is it: This is where the new Star Trek: The Next Generation begins and the very first high water mark it must be constantly measured against. This is how good this show can be when people actually understand and care about it.
The reasons why “The Wounded” is a classic seem almost self-evident and obvious, and yet they seem remarkable precisely because of how much Star Trek: The Next Generation has been phoning it in and lowballing itself lately. It may be Star Trek's definitive statement on conflict and racial tension, perhaps only to be undone in two years by an even more remarkable story, albeit one that would not exist without this one. This is noteworthy in its own right, because it means “The Wounded” is very possibly the first time in the history of the franchise these themes have been explicitly tackled: The Original Series got a reputation among its fans for being a post-racial utopia solely due to its (likely network encouraged) diverse casting and a few offhand remarks here and there, and Star Trek: The Next Generation began by declaring itself to be one, but we haven't actually seen the material consequences of this before now.
And for the very first time we not only get to see how this plays out in practice, but the creative team itself finally seems to understand what all this utopian rhetoric really ought to mean. Every single character in this story is grappling with incredibly complex and difficult emotions, and the show never once uses them as a mouthpiece to preach at the guest cast from a self-appointed position of authority, nor gleefully and spitefully drags the mains through the mud in an attempt to show how they are “deceiving” themselves and others about their supposed entitlement. Instead, each and every character is allowed to behave in a way that is simultaneously human and idealistic. The creative team has at long last seemed to figure out what Star Trek: The Next Generation is really about-Utopian conflict resolution. Children's television for adults, where very adult issues, concepts and dilemmas are explored with the clarity and patience of children's television. Not a world where there are no problems and everything is perfect and idyllic, but one where we're all mature enough to deal with conflict in a positive, constructive, and helpful manner.
Like the title says, these are wounded people. But those wounds are also at last beginning to heal.
We of course have to talk about Miles O'Brien. While “The Wounded” in many ways is a story about racism, it's absolutely crucial to recognise that one thing it is manifestly not doing is turning O'Brien into a racist, which is a reading of this story I see quite a lot. Quite the contrary, what “The Wounded” is about is O'Brien stopping himself from turning into a racist because he comes to understand not only how counterproductive and hurtful his impulses are, but where those feelings came from. He's able to make peace with those feelings and that part of his life, allowing him to grow beyond them. Take notice of the second dinner scene with Keiko, where he expresses what's troubling him in the form of hypotheticals: Even from the very beginning he's well aware of how irrational and unjustified his feelings are, and he can't understand why he still has them. It's only after Keiko reminds him that the war was very long and brutal and that war trains people to see others as enemies first and foremost that it begins to dawn on him why he feels the way he does. I dare you to find any one living person in the real world who would have that level of self-awareness.
In this, O'Brien is contrasted with Captain Maxwell, one of “those individuals who live for war”, as Gul Macet says. Maxwell is eminently unlikeable, displaying every ounce of that overstuffed, self-righteous Good Ol' Boy rhetoric that seems to guide a great many United States politicians I could mention. But, frighteningly, you can also see how his warped sense of charisma was able to engender the loyalty it did, and even Maxwell is shown to have decent instincts in the end, however misplaced they may be. But what strikes me to the most about him is the scene where Captain Picard confronts him in the ready room: Maxwell tosses out pretty much every single Captain Kirk talking point about stuffy bureaucrats who don't know what “real life” out on the front lines is like and the need for mavericks to take justice into their own hands. And Jean-Luc refuses to give him an inch, barely containing his horror at what this supposed colleague and comrade of his is saying. This scene catapults “The Wounded” square into the territory of “Too Short a Season” in terms of placing the moral foundation of Star Trek: The Next Generation firmly in opposition to that of the Original Series, and it's absolutely glorious.
Speaking of Captain Maxwell, or rather his ship, if there was one criticism of “The Wounded” I could muster, it's that the new Nebula-class is ugly as sin. The idea was for a new ship that would do for the Galaxy-class what the Miranda-class did for the Constitution-class, and to also invoke the trappings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan again. This doesn't work for a number of reasons, even though equating Kirk, Khan and Maxwell is a pretty brazen bit of symbolic association: In-universe, the Galaxy-class was never meant to be as ubiquitous to the Starfleet of Star Trek: The Next Generation as the Constitution-class was to the Starfleet of the Original Series such that variations on its design don't make a whole lot of sense. But secondly, from just an aesthetic standpoint, the Galaxy-class simply does not look nice chopped up and rearranged in this manner: Its elegant and organic curves get totally lost in the translation where the more modular and utilitarian angles of the Constitution-class acquit themselves better to that sort of treatment. On the other hand, the idea of Maxwell helming what is in essence a warped and distorted Galaxy-class starship is very telling: Not only is it casting Maxwell as a distortion and betrayal of what Star Trek: The Next Generation stands for, it can be read as the new TNG's subconscious fear that it might not be good enough to inherit its own mantle.
As important as the characters of Maxwell and O'Brien obviously are, “The Wounded” wouldn't be anywhere near the classic it is had the entire cast not been handled absolutely perfectly for once. While Gates McFadden isn't here tonight (discounting the second season, her only no-show, as a matter of fact), considering she had just recently become pregnant that's understandable. But everyone else is as lively and recognisable as ever, to the point it's astonishing “The Loss” was only two weeks ago: Deanna Troi is quick to let bygones be bygones, but she's given a polite, yet forceful, rebuttal from Worf: “Trust is earned, not given”. Will Riker feels the weight of the whole situation pressing down on him, almost more empathic to the tension the crew is feeling than Deanna, and Jonathan Frakes wears it in every furrow of his brow. Geordi and Data are walking on eggshells everywhere. And we get an absolutely iconic performance by Patrick Stewart in what may well be the defining moment for Captain Picard.
It's Jean-Luc who can reach across the span of the entire story to bring its disparate elements, and players, together. As director Chip Chalmers points out, it's a compelling bit of synchronicity that this episode aired during the First Gulf War, showing as it does Captain Picard doing everything he can to prevent a war while the United States seemed to be doing everything it could to start one. It's Captain Picard who strives the hardest to forge a partnership with the Cardassians in spite of the hostilities of the past. And it's Captain Picard who gives O'Brien the last bit of guidance and support he needs to move beyond his pain and resentment with a quote that has been inscribed in my memory ever since this episode aired:
It's this exchange that spurs O'Brien on to that legendary ten forward scene, where he gets an unforgettable quote of his own: “It's not you I hate, Cardassian. I hate what I became because of you”. And yet it's an easily overlooked and absolutely brilliant move to leave it not at all ambiguous where O'Brien will end up by the end of the story: There's never any doubt that he'll be able to confront his pain and move beyond it, and the show absolutely refuses to fool us for even a split-second into thinking that he might betray the Enterprise crew and side with Captain Maxwell. Traditional scripted drama would have played up that angle straight away, and probably would have had him defect outright just for good measure. But from the very beginning where O'Brien is questioning his emotions down through the numerous scenes where he professes and reaffirms his loyalty to Captain Picard and the Enterprise, we know precisely how O'Brien is going to react, and that's a *wonderful* thing. Indeed, this is why he is on the Enterprise and not the Phoenix in the first place.“I think, when one has been angry for a very long time, one gets used to it. And it becomes comfortable like...Like old leather. And finally...It becomes so familiar that one can't remember feeling any other way.”
(And indeed, how significant is it that “The Wounded” features a ship called the Phoenix?)
We also get that achingly beautiful reoccurring musical motif of “The Minstrel Boy”. It was added in at the suggestion of Michael Piller, because of course it was. Who else would have been so perceptive? In fact, “The Wounded” itself is a deeply, poignantly lyrical work in general: Its themes of trust and overcoming tensions between different ethnic groups show up in echoing refrain all throughout the script, from the story about O'Brien to Worf's rebuttal of Deanna, to any number of scenes between Gul Macet and Captain Picard to even the dinner vignettes between Miles and Keiko. It's sublimely musical in the very same way that characterizes Michael Piller at his best, even though Piller didn't write the script himself. It's a side of Star Trek: The Next Generation we haven't really seen since at least “The Defector”, and “The Wounded” is way, way better than “The Defector” because instead of mocking and deriding the Enterprise crew it allows them to display their truest selves in all their glorified splendour.
But as much as “The Wounded” can be seen as a new beginning and a return to form for Star Trek: The Next Generation in a thematic sense, there's another metatextual level we can see this at as well. Here begins, of course, the epic story arc about Federation/Cardassian tensions in the aftermath of a war people are trying to rebuild from that will define so much of not just Star Trek: The Next Generation, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If you look at the given canon dates of the Federation/Cardassian War, however, you might find something interesting. Namely, that the worst fighting was said to have occurred in a time that corresponds to what should have been the first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, fighting that we should absolutely have expected Starfleet's flagship to have been on the front lines for. Fighting that we neither heard nor saw any of, even though we were literally watching what was apparently a defining moment in this universe's history.
But of course, the Federation/Cardassian War didn't happen in the first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation that we physically saw, but in the imagined and intangible past the new Star Trek: The Next Generation has slowly been weaving for itself. It, and other little things like Keiko O'Brien's relationship with Data established in “Data's Day”, belongs to the same time period that the Tasha Yar the crew mourns in “Legacy” did. Indeed, perhaps Tasha died valiantly as a casualty of that very war. In any other context, this would have been seen as an inarguable and unmistakable retcon-No, a reboot, and yet Star Trek being Star Trek we're not permitted to read it that way even though this is blatantly what it is. But there's nothing stopping us from reading it this way here and now, so this is what we're going to do. Star Trek: The Next Generation has finally succeeded in rewriting its own history in order to transform itself into something stronger and more vibrant with the greatest power of all: That of memory and imagination.
We have inscribed our own narrative collapse back into our history as a story and a metaphor as a means of coming to terms with out own painful past. Having the courage to confront such things about ourselves marks the beginning of healing, and of maturity.