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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.18 "It's A Damned Show Trial!"

Coming Of Age

Wesley and Mordok.
"I broke my harmonica, Wesley".

It’s time for an accounting.

The Next TNG

I already pointed out in my post on “Home Soil” that we were about to find ourselves in a new era. Increasingly convinced Roddenberry’s micro-management was hurting TNG, head writer Maurice Hurley persuaded his boss to hand over the duties involved in running the show. With the reins safely in hand, the first episode in which we can hear the echoes of Hurley’s cracking knuckles is this one.

Even more so than with “Arena", then, we can view “Coming Of Age” as someone close to Roddenberry offering a vision of how the show could be made better. This is perhaps a little less clear-cut here, and not just because “Coming Of Age” doesn’t enjoy anything like the earlier episode’s reputation. “Arena” was Coon’s first actual script for TOS, whereas “Coming Of Age” doesn’t necessarily feature any more of Hurley’s writing than did any episode previous to it. We’ll have to wait until the next instalment to see what Hurley thought a script under his tenure should look like.

Whether or not it’s simple serendipity, though, “Coming Of Age” offers Hurley the opportunity to make his case about Roddenberry in front of the cameras, as well as behind them. this is an episode about examinations and investigations, of forcing our crew in general and Wesley Crusher in particular to justify their actions, and even their presence. What better way is there for the show to consider what parts of itself aren’t quite working, and to at least nod in a new and better direction?

If such is the aim, it’s hardly surprising Wesley is singled out here. Of all the elements of the show that aren’t fully working, it’s hard to think of one so obviously floundering as the young Mr Crusher. Thus far, there’s been precisely one solid Wesley episode (“Where No-one Has Gone Before”) and precisely one episode in which Wesley himself has been solid (“When The Bough Breaks”). To state the obvious, those aren't even the same story.

It’s clear things have gone wrong somewhere. Whether this can actually be made right is a question for later in the show. “Coming Of Age” doesn’t actually try to fix Wesley. Instead, it offers an explanation for why he’s broken, and why the entire structure of Starfleet might be broken along with him.

Mandatory Crusher Crushing

Given that the aim here isn’t to rehabilitate Wesley as an idea, then, and the quantity and severity of kickings the character has received pretty much everywhere TNG is discussed, I don’t want to linger on the reasons he’s once again insufferable here. In brief, though, he’s already unbearable enough as the smart kid who no adult truly understands or treats with enough respect, without having a pretty older girl respond to his patronising by calling him cute. Especially when the two female applicants are just there to make up the numbers while the lads battle for the top spot – making Mordok female would have been so effortless an improvement to the episode I’m angry at the script for not going with it.

I’ll also note how hard it is to not feel insulted at the idea I should care that, having geeked his way to a competition so elite they’ll fake a facility-wide disaster just to check his chops under pressure, Wesley turns out to be merely the second mostest specialified kid ever. Particularly since the structure of the show means he was never going to qualify anyway.

If anything, then, Wes is worse than ever. As I say, though, this isn’t about redeeming him. This is about contextualising the societal pressure that has made him as irritating as he is. By that metric, the episode does a thoroughly good job. Master Crusher’s experience on Relva 7 makes it dilithium crystal-clear that the process by which applicants get accepted to Starfleet Academy is both flatly ridiculous and, as a result, hugely discouraging.

The Examination Examination

I’ll start with the unmissable, as is traditional: examining only one applicant per ship and accepting only one applicant per examination is a terrible approach just from Starfleet’s own perspective. Even if there are philosophical and/or logistical reasons for severely limiting the inflow of new recruits (and won’t that look foolish come Wolf 359, then wars with first the Klingons, then the Dominion), it’s trivial to imagine a testing centre elsewhere in which someone with lower marks than Wesley gets into the Academy because they faced a comparatively weak field. This isn’t an approach based on excelling, it’s one based on beating the people around you. In its own way, it’s no less gladiatorial than the Metrons’ approach to interstellar relations.

That’s not really what bothers me here, though. If Starfleet wants to hobble its recruitment drive mere months after the horribly damaging war with the Cardassian Union, that’s their business. The issue for me is the effect this approach will have on the applicants themselves. Long-term readers will know that for most of my time in the world of work, I’ve been an educator. I did a year’s teacher training, spent two years teaching maths in secondary schools, and have almost eight years’ experience as a university lecturer. Even when my job didn’t specifically include teaching, I was taking up all the spare lectures and tutorials and marking I could persuade people to throw my way. I’ve done my ten thousand hours, is what I’m saying.

I can say with at least a little authority, then, that one of the worst things you can do to young people trying their best at securing a future is to pit them directly against each other. Sure, you can throw in the occasional prize for a quiz or a competitive game to spice things up. But those are brief, small-stake reliefs from routine. When it comes to the exams that, rightly or wrongly [1], will determine a kid’s future, they need to be judged against an objective baseline. Or, since the whole idea of an actual objective baseline is laughable, judged against the most robust set of society-wide criteria you can manage to slap together.

True, the red line is never going to be completely unchanged by the students that came before you, or because your exam board happened to write a slightly harder exam this year than another exam board testing the same material has. The fact no testing regime can be completely objective doesn’t mean there can’t be examples that are obviously awful. And one way to guarantee your approach is numbered among the worst is to forget it’s critical your students see learning environments as places where they can collaborate, and exchange ideas, and give each other support when needed [2]. A place, in short, where your peers are a resource, rather than a threat. A place where you can actually imagine having friends.

Three hundred years on, alas, these lessons regarding lessons are long-since lost. Certainly, the idea of getting assistance from a peer is so (if you’ll forgive the pun) alien to Mordok he feels compelled to object – twice! – he shouldn’t have a question counted because Wesley helped him with it. Yes, Chang eventually reveals Mordok would have been selected even without Wesley’s help (presumably a line added so the unfairness would be merely transparent, rather than perverse). Even so, it’s significant he reassures Mordok that Wesley’s self-sabotage ended up not mattering, not that it wasn’t counted against him at all.

The decision to penalise generosity is made all the more strange by the degree to which its encouraged by the examination room’s layout. Applicants are sat back-to-back so they can easily turn to look at each other’s screens, time limits are set question-by-question to ensure all students are working on the same question at the same moment, and clearly there are no rules against chuntering away mid-problem [3]. Hell, the facility has the resources to dress up an entire room to look like it’s been hit by a massive disaster for the sake of just one test for just one kid. They wouldn’t have struggled to put all four students in different rooms if this was a situation they wanted to avoid.

Not only do the entry requirements teach applicants to see each other as competitors, then, the tests themselves are designed to disadvantage anyone whose natural inclination is to be helpful and cooperative. To refuse to see a zero-sum game.

Which seems horrendously harsh, naturally. That said, I guess there’s an argument that this is genuinely for the best. Because it’s clear a zero-sum game is precisely what the Federation wants to be playing. No-one can win without someone else going down in flames.

Almost literally, sometimes.

“You’re Either First, Or You’re Last!”

As that last sentence suggests, it’s almost time for Jake Kurland to enter the picture. First, though, there’s some blind-spots in my argument that need checking. I don’t want anyone thinking I’ve not noticed the obvious point that it’s rather reductionist to treat an entire educational system as no better or worse than whatever approach it takes to its final exams. In theory, it’s no less reductionist to treat Starfleet as being equivalent to the Federation as a whole.

To deal with the latter point first, though, there’s a limit to how much of a difference that particular distinction can make in the context of this franchise. Nine shows into this seemingly infinite paddock of cash cows, and only Picard comes close to being a show about Federation citizens who aren’t fleet – and even there, many of the show’s main characters are former officers [4]. The franchise’s unshakeable focus on Starfleet is mirrored in the attitudes of the characters themselves. Wesley is crushed that he wasn’t selected. Picard, for his part, restricts his attempts to console his acting ensign by insisting on the futility of being unable to do better than one’s best. The idea that Starfleet might not actually be the be all and end all of Wesley’s future is never entertained.

Nor is this a fixation that only causes problems during the entrance exam itself. We learn at the very start of the episode that the only reason Jake Kurland isn’t making his way to the testing grounds is that Wesley has outperformed him. It’s not just the exams themselves that are flawed, then, it’s the structure of the education system that allows you access to those exams in the first place. Depending how long his father has been stationed on the Enterprise, Kurland has been forced into competition with Crusher for months at least. Presumably there are other ships in the fleet where kids have been deliberately pitted against each other for years. For sure, wherever Jake and Wesley were before this ship, they were still in the same race, just running against different people.

That’s just a ridiculous amount of pressures to put on teenagers, while undermining their peer support. And we see the inevitable results here, as Kurland finds himself so humiliated by being only the second most able candidate aboard the Federation flagship that he tries to run off to sign up on a freighter rather than tell his Dad he didn’t top the podium. A teenager almost gets himself killed for the crime of happening to live on the ship to which Doctor Crusher has been transferred.

It’s not just the exams, it’s the whole damn system. For all that this scene is used to highlight the obnoxiousness and prejudice involved in Remmick’s investigation, it seems clear to me that what’s actually being judged is the assumptions underlying Starfleet itself.

“Perform A Level 5 Diagnostic…”

This also means that the link between the A and B plots here isn’t Kurland, even though, other than Picard, he’s the only person with one foot in both stories (I’m not counting Dr Crusher’s brief appearance over the comm). The link lies in how Tac Officer Chang and Lieutenant Commander Remmick are both operating with the full support of the Starfleet hierarchy, and both are running evaluations that are utterly, unmistakeably unfair.

Under any circumstances, this would be an interesting development. The Original Series was never shy about throwing some p’tok authority figure into the mix for Kirk to scowl at before eventually outwitting. But the Federation of Kirk’s time is not the one the same as the one Picard lives in. Yes, it took an approach to gender and racial politics that by ’60s US standards was quite liberal, with all the limitations that time, place and philosophy implies [5]. The concept of it being some kind of post-capitalist utopia didn’t surface until The Voyage Home, though, and the line about Federation life being all about the pursuit of self-improvement is entirely this show’s own.

While it’s depressingly clear that we’re still some way from even realising the comparatively modest view of a better way that Kirk’s time offered, then, it’s equally clear the Federation of the 24th Century is even loftier in the principles it espouses. As a result, there’s a corresponding increase in the importance of interrogating those principles.

“Coming Of Age” seems keen to begin this process. Again, it seems unlikely that Hurley was actually responsible for this, but it’s a happy coincidence that the self-inspection kicks off in the first episode of his tenure as show runner, given his belief that Roddenberry’s view of future society was “wacky doodle”. Either way, though, it’s here that the episode earns its title. Wesley, after all, neither turns sixteen here, nor successfully makes his way into the institution (essentially university) that, for those lucky enough to go, symbolically represents the passage into adulthood. What’s come of age instead is the show itself, now sufficiently confident in getting the basics right that it can start pulling itself apart to see where the ticking noise is coming from.

Or that’s the theory, anyway. We’ll come back to this. Let’s keep pulling at this thread for now, though. Especially fun here is the decision to run this cultural diagnostic concurrently with the suggestion of some kind of existential threat to the same society. As a result, when Admiral Quinn admits he’s not sure whether his theoretical threat comes from within the Federation or without, we can see the attitudes that might already be eating away at their society from the inside. An absurdly narrow interpretation of “best of the best” which promotes isolation and hyper-competitiveness, and an approach to checking “loyalty” (already a loaded term) which involves deliberately twisting every word and action into a condemnation.

We learn in “Conspiracy” that what Quinn has picked up on is massive infiltration operation perpetrated by mind-controlling aliens. Right here, though, we’re left facing the uncomfortable possibility that the problem might be Starfleet itself. And to the extent that – as we’re shown again here – Starfleet is seen as the pinnacle of one can inspire to be, it isn’t too great a stretch to say that the episode in which we’re told the Federation might be in danger of destruction is the same one in which we’re asked to consider whether it’s actually worth saving in the first place.

“The System Cannot Be Reformed”

It’s significant then that Quinn’s request upon inducting Picard into the counter-conspiracy is that he take over the running of Starfleet Academy. Doubtless this is just one small part of a wider strategy by Quinn to put people he can trust in key places. From our perspective, though, it’s significant that having seen first-hand where the Academy is going wrong, it’s Picard who has been chosen to fix it. The man who – by commanding the Federation flagship – represents in some sense the best Starfleet has to offer, and our main character besides. Both characters and audience are primed to believe that what Picard believes genuinely matters.

This brings us back to his conversation with Wesley at the end of the episode. There’s much truth in what Picard says. As I say above, his insistence that no external factor can validate you is absolutely right. We are no more our exam results than we are our jobs, or our bank balances [6]. What society says is our worth is irrelevant at best, inversely proportional to the truth at worst, and the fact the Federation has taken a post-scarcity society and found a new way to categorise the haves and the have-nots is more than a little concerning.

And Picard almost gets it. While he can recognise there are flaws in how the system is maintained, though, he’s too deep into that system to consider the possibility it itself might be the problem. He can understand that the approaches of Chang and Remmick aren’t acceptable, but he can’t let himself conclude that they’re also baked into the organisation he’s so deliriously proud to be a member of.

Nor is he the only one. I’ve mentioned already how Remmick’s approach to an investigation is clearly and terribly unfair. No prizes for figuring that one out; the episode goes out of its way to make this as clear as possible. It’s obvious he’s read up on every encounter the Enterprise has had up to now, and then discarded all the ones that don’t offer him a line of attack against Picard’s approach to command.

It’s what Picard doesn’t question that’s most interesting, though. I’m thinking specifically of Remmick interviewing Dr Crusher. This is the episode in which we learn that Jack Crusher’s death was due to a decision made by Picard (and note how Remmick and Chang both use that sad truth to pursue their own agendas). Remmick is perfectly willing to try and use that fact to try and turn Crusher against Picard, heavily implying that this was one more mistake on Picard’s part; that Jack never actually had to die.

He gets nowhere with this approach, just as he gets nowhere with the rest of the bridge crew (with the distantly possible exception of Yar – I assume Remmick at least interviewed her; there’s no reason to believe he thought her as completely irrelevant to proceedings as the writers did). And it’s certainly somewhere between gauche and appalling that he would even try – an antagonistic ass trying to mansplain a woman’s own grieving process to her. In all of this, though, what sticks out to me the most is the fact he doesn’t make use of the actually reasonable criticism of Picard’s relationship with the Crushers, which is the obvious favouritism on display.

Because while Kurland is too classy to say it, one can’t help but wonder if the reason he’s so devastated by his failure to get to try out for the academy is the fact he was up against someone who’s already an acting member of Starfleet, and still only beat him by a measly thirty-two points. Obviously, we don’t really know what that number translates into in terms of overall performance, but it’s clear Kurland considers it to have been really close. Anyway; no. A mysterious alien tells Picard the only son of the woman he so clearly has feelings for is the most wunderful and wunderous of wunderkinds, so he gets to fly the Enterprise and get the experience that pushes him past poor ol’ Kurland. Even if you buy Picard buying the Traveller, it’s certainly a more questionable decision than him obeying a direct order to let Kosinski tinker with the ship’s engines in that same episode, which is what Remmick considers the better criticism.

But then how could Remmick do otherwise? He’s on a mission to save Starfleet. Of course he’s not going to question the decisions that are actually in line with the organisation’s own philosophy – secure the “best” candidate irrespective of the effect it has on anyone else. If that means you groom one teenager at the expense of everyone else, who cares? Starfleet gets theirs!

I don’t imagine anyone watching this episode at the time ever imagined Picard was going to take Quinn up on his offer to run Starfleet Academy. What’s more interesting than his refusal is the reasoning behind the decision. It’s a shame we don’t actually find that out, then, though that does let me speculate wildly, which we all know is my jam. I think Picard simply doesn’t believe the system is sufficiently faulty to make it worth him trying to fix it. Instead, like so many who benefit from the status quo, he protests he’s not one for politics – which is to say, he doesn’t like having to think about the extent to which the current political situation has allowed him to benefit.

“Bang! And The Stain Is Gone!”

All of which has huge potential. The only problem is that it goes absolutely nowhere. Its energy is squandered, allowed to dissipate like a well-cooked meal left to cool, uneaten. The possibility Beverley and Wesley might resent Picard for Jack’s death is never really addressed again. Our protagonists are no less willing to extol the putative virtues of the Federation going forward than they were beforehand. Worst of all, six episodes on, the fears that the system might be collapsing are burned away in phaser fire. Turns out it was all just those pesky aliens. Bad apples in a fundamentally decent barrel; nothing to see, nothing to change. The political analogies practically write themselves.

Ultimately, it’s this that sinks the episode, more even than Wesley being characteristically aggravating. I mean, that’s just part of what the first season of this show is. This is something new. It’s one thing to not notice your flaws. It’s quite another to look at them and decide they’re not flaws at all. This is the show trying to appear like it’s growing up without bothering to put in any of the necessary work. Like the fifteen-year-olds we’re somehow supposed to believe Wesley represents, “Coming Of Age” is aping maturity without actually evincing it. Like each of Wesley’s tests, this self-examination is shorn so completely of the surrounding context that it ends up meaningless.

Sometimes an unsuccessful episode can partially redeem itself by at least gesturing at something bigger. This isn’t what’s happened here. Here, the nod towards the possibility that there’s more to be done with the series is made all the more aggravating by the decision that, no, actually, we may as well just continue on as before. The self-diagnostic somehow returns a verdict of no errors, despite the flaws we can quite clearly see for ourselves.

The best-case scenario here is that Hurley was mistaken, and that TNG hasn’t actually grown up. The worst is that TNG really has come of age, and has decided to act just the same as it ever did.

Ordering 1. Arena 2. (The Infinite Vulcan) 3. Coming Of Age

[1] It’s wrongly. Obviously, it’s wrongly.

[2] By chance I happened to revise this essay just days after finishing Eugenia Cheng's X+Y: A Mathematician's Manifesto For Rethinking Gender, a key argument of which is that creating testing regimes that value competition over collaboration is not only self-defeating on its own terms, it creates a feedback loop that damages the whole of society. The more you prioritise qualities Cheng calls "ingressive" (I'd use a rather less polite term), the more the people with those qualities end up in positions of power that allow them to make success impossible for those who aren't naturally ingressive.

It's worth considering this argument in light of the number of narcissistic dickheads that have made their way into Starfleet over the years.

[3] I wonder if Oliana and T’Shanik found Mordok’s outburst distracting? Maybe that’s why they didn’t end up getting selected. Who cares, though, right? The LADS are being TESTED. And don’t think I didn’t notice how the two smartest kids on Enterprise are both white boys, either.

[4] I understand Prodigy is breaking that miold, but I’m not actually able to watch it, so…

[5] I'm sure I'll have more to say on this if I live long enough to reach "The Savage Curtain".

[6] Though I’m not sure that the white male geeks who were meant to see their reflection in Crusher needed to hear that nobody was fit to judge them but themselves.

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