Episode no. 119
Season 1
Entertainment rating: B-
Tergiversation meter: -2


COMING OF AGE



FEATURING: Wil Wheaton, with John Putch as Mordock, Stephen Gregory as Jake Kurland, and Robert Schenkkan as Lt. Cmmdr. Dexter Remmick. DIRECTOR: Michael Vejar. WRITER: Sandy Fries STARDATE: 41416.2. EARTHWEEK: 3-14-88.

OVERALL RATING: B-. WRITING: C-. Thoughtless acceptance of military testing and investigation procedures. ACTING: C+, for Wil Wheaton--Wesley gets a bit too much screen time, and this character is so inherently boring and enervating that it works as a handicap against an otherwise watchable episode. A, for Robert Schenkkan who does an excellent turn as the hateful Demmick. A, for Patrick Stewart who does a nifty double-take, in the corridor, toward the end of the episode, when he spots the rebellious Jake Kurland (Stephen Gregory), who is trying not to be seen. Kurland, B+. A, for John Putch who does a fine job as Mordan, in what looks to be a dreadfully difficult-to-wear alien costume. COSTUME: Mordan's costume is scientifically interesting. It appears to provide the alien with a permanent supply of some constituent of the air that he needs for survival, and that is apparently lacking in the air that humans breathe. DIRECTION: B. Given the retrograde script, it's a pretty good episode.

THE SHOW: The arbitrary cruelty of military life and military thinking is inadvertently laid bare in this episode about a Starfleet investigation into the loyalty and the character of Captain Picard, and about Wesley's exams for entrance to Starfleet Academy. The script fully accepts the psychologically cruel, grueling round of Starfleet entrance exams in which individual candidates are pitted against each other for one slot at the school; and it excuses the horrendously intrusive and paranoid interrogation of Enterprise officers about Picard, because the interrogations ultimately have a good purpose.

There is no examination of these highly questionable procedures. When the pressure of the Starfleet exams drives one candidate, young Jake Kurland, to flip out--to commandeer a shuttlecraft and very nearly die in a shuttlecraft accident--nothing is said of the possible evils of such a viciously competitive system.

Ordinary literature and drama may teach us about ourselves, and may point to changes that are needed in society, by merely presenting the problem in an effective way, so that we become aware of it. Science fiction, however, has the additional, time-honored responsibility of proposing a solution or at least presenting the problem in an unusual light. In this Star Trek episode, the problems of ego-centered education (individuals seeking an A+ and to hell with everyone else), and the problem of intrusive government interrogation, are merely copied from our present 20th Century world and placed in the 24th Century, without any transformation.

Rather than devising exams in which a team of Starfleet Academy candidates tries to solve a problem together, and are judged, not just on their individual smarts, but also on their ability to work with others (since team work an essential quality needed on a starship), the candidates are put into a situation in which they must ignore the others in the room, and pursue their own individual high score (in a video game simulation)--the same sort of faulty and regressive testing procedure that now exists in our 20th Century world, particularly in our military schools (with their endless cheating scandals).

The message here--that such educational procedures are okay, and will last for centuries--is sugar-coated by Wesley's generosity in helping his fellow candidate Mordan. Wesley refuses to ignore the fact that Mordan is not doing well on the test. He offers Mordan some assistance. As a result, Wesley loses time and points on his own score AND IS NOT REWARDED FOR HIS TEAM WORK AND GENEROSITY. At first, I thought that this was going to be a very clever test, and that the candidate's reaction to the difficulties of others was going to be taken into consideration. Would that it had been--then we would be getting somewhere, as to 24th Century education. But no, it's just the same old S.A.T.

Time and again, in situations aboard a starship, as depicted in this series, the crisis is avoided, the problem is solved, by people putting their heads together and tossing out ideas, under great pressure, with no one taking particular credit. Pride in ownership of an idea is a positive menace in such situations. Assisting others to think fast and creatively is the point. It often saves lives, starships and whole planets. An individual getting an A+ for solving the problem is decidedly not the point. The Enterprise crew works as a team, on the whole. This contest for high scores that Wes and the other candidates undergo seems irrelevant and even dangerous.

Similarly, in the notorious psych test, the candidate must face his or her fears alone. There is no psychological testing of the ability to share and overcome fears with the help of others. The psychological test is cleverly designed (by writer Fries) so that Wesley doesn't know it's a test; and it is well-acted. But it's point is retrograde (educationally) and unrealistic (as to real starship life). There is a "social" test--which tests how well the candidate understands the sensitivities of another race, for instance. But the big one, the psych test, is based on the outdated philosophy of existentialism (each man alone)--contrary to everything that we have seen before in the Star Trek series, which emphasizes group interaction, team work, mutual support, and the mutual overcoming of fears.

Writer Fries is not current on these educational and psychological issues. She appears to be ignorant of even the most basic innovations in 20th Century education. She merely offers clever little Trek-like twists on the old-fashioned testing procedures that have led to our fractured, crazy world. She has one of the tests be a video simulation, for instance. But she offers no comment on the fundamental premises of the test, even as to their practical command applications. The battles that are conducted from the bridge of the Enterprise have no similarity to video games. They are team efforts with everyone contributing ideas and plenty of backup in case any individual falters in his or her particular task.

She does the same thing with the C.I.A.-type investigation of Captain Picard. She merely reproduces a 20th Century methodology and then justifies it as having a good purpose. Any personal abuse, intrusive question, twisting of words, or unfairness, is justified, because the ultimate purpose of the Picard investigation is a good one. This episode says that abusive interrogation methods are okay--just as our current intelligence establishment might say that secret assassination, covert spreading of mayhem in "enemy" societies, and all the other atrocities of the C.I.A., are justified because they are done in the good cause of freedom and democracy.

You may remember the American officer's remark, during the Vietnam war, after torching a Commie-infested village: "We had to burn the village in order to save it." That's what they do to Picard in this episode.

Lt. Commander Dexter Remmick (well-played by Robert Schenkkan) attempts to sow seeds of resentment and mutiny among the officers he is interrogating about Picard. He trashes Picard's character. He insults people. He forces them to answer nasty questions, under orders. And, as much as the Enterprise officers dislike him, he is ultimately vindicated by the script, and made out to be a man who is "just doing his job." The writer even has him complimenting Picard, finally, on the informal, family atmosphere of the ship, and says he'd like to serve under Picard's command some day. We are supposed to think that he has been responding to some higher order of morality, by treating people in this shabby manner.

The episode is merely a morality tale for the present world. The conflicts are dramatic and compelling, more because of our own experience of the failures of our education system and the obnoxious and criminal behavior of our "secret government," than because of the wondrous, progressive, creative ideas proposed for the future. Of these latter, there are really none in this episode.

The moral is: Accept authority. It really has your best interests at heart.

TERGIVERSATION METER READING: -2. Lack of original thought in some rather vital areas of Enlightenment philosophy.

Tergiversate (tur-ji-ver-sat): 1. To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate. 2. To change sides; to defect; apostatize. The Tergiversation Meter scale runs from -5 (very defective) through +5 (unambiguous, true blue philosophical humanism with no negative subliminal messages).


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