There’s no way to predict which random events or ideas will stick with a child, why one particular concept takes hold while thousands of others pass over them like a light breeze. So why is it that out of the many (many, many, many) hours of television I watched as a kid has Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s season one episode “Justice” managed to never leave my head?
Because I loved Wesley Crusher and watching him nearly be executed on a strange world for a trivial incident was one of the most important lessons I ever received.
If you have never seen the episode or don’t remember it, the basic plot is that young Wesley accompanies an away crew to the seemingly Eden-like planet of Edo, where the inhabitants are a peaceful,
overly sexual super friendly race of physically fit people that jog everywhere (obviously not Eden). When Captain Picard first hears about the planet he says, “Let’s just hope it’s not too good to be true.”
It always is.
On the second trip, the crew finds out that any and all crimes, no matter how minor, are punished with death. They race off to find Wesley, but not before he accidentally crashes through some new flowers in a forbidden area. Riker stops a remorseful “mediator” from injecting him with a fatal but painless poison on the spot, but as a result Captain Picard finds himself with a quandry: save Wesley at the cost of violating the Prime Directive and disrespecting the laws of Edo, or allow him to be killed for something we wouldn’t even consider a crime.
This is made all the more difficult because the Edo are protected by their “god,” an unexplained, powerful inter-dimensional ship/being(s) that hovers over the planet, and saving Wesley might result in the entire ship being destroyed.
When I re-watched this episode I didn’t remember all of the details (like the great scene where Worf stoically talks about why he must restrain himself from earth women, or when Picard tells an oblivious Data he babbles), but I did remember the themes exactly right. The questions of justice versus the law, of trying to reconcile your own value system with that of a different society and culture, and even just being a visitor to a strange new place, were all there, same as they have always remained in my mind.
The final scene between the Enterprise crew and the people of Edo, after Picard has decided to take Wesley back, reasoning that the Prime Directive and all laws should never be absolute because that isn’t justice, was just as it has been in my head all these years. The Edo believe they are being wronged, disrespected and overrun by a more advanced (and therefore patronizing) culture which is judging them and violating their sovereignty, so they beg Picard not to do this. They never asked the Enterprise to visit them, and they don’t want to be looked down upon by a society that views their ways as uncivilized.
Picard, with a duty to protect his crew, doesn’t want to treat the people of Edo that way and doesn’t even think they are wrong, but ultimately feels that true justice here demands he save Wesley, something he is only able to do after pleading with the “god” to allow to happen.
The entire scene is full of great lines that made an impact on me as a child (I must have seen this as a repeat around age 9, give or take a couple of years). The one that has always stuck out to me is when a mediator says, “We cannot allow ignorance of the law to become a defense.” I have never, ever forgotten that. It scared me, but in the way that first realizing there is a whole world out there that you don’t know about is scary, before it becomes exhilarating.
I was just a kid whose travels involved going from Boston to Disney World, and this episode was the first time I learned that there were differences between my life and others, in ways far more significant than what we ate for dinner and the type of weather we got. People could have laws and customs that seemed crazy to me personally, but yet that didn’t make them wrong or me right. If it were that simple Captain Picard wouldn’t have struggled with his decision, and the pleas of the Edo people wouldn’t have made any sense. But he did, and I understood their argument. If nobody was wrong, what was right? That isn’t insightful as an adult, but those complex issues have to be introduced somewhere, and this was mine.
I also learned there are consequences to our actions, even when we mean no malice, and when we don’t know enough about the culture of a different place we should proceed with cautious deference and respect. That has always helped me, no matter where I go.
The fact that this happened to Wesley Crusher made it all the more meaningful. I know now that Wesley Crusher wasn’t exactly beloved by Star Trek fans, but I was a kid, and watching him on that ship was like getting to be on it myself. I don’t know, it’s possible as an adult I’d feel differently about his character if the show came on today, but when I was young he was the best. Smart, brave, respectful, I wanted to be like him. Even here, facing death, he doesn’t want Picard to save him at the expense of the rest of the ship. (And yes, his later disgrace absolutely crushed me, or Crusher-ed me if you will.)
So while I have aged and traveled, and began to try and understand the world and people around me more and more, I have never forgotten that episode, which first introduced me to difficult concepts like justice, law, values, and the difference of cultures. It was just my first lesson on those ideas, but that can sometimes be the most important one.
Re-watching it now I can see the episode has some plot issues and feels a little simplified, but I saw it through the eyes of a child, and its ideas got stuck in my mind where so many others passed over me.
I’m glad it did, because seeing Wesley Crusher almost executed taught me a lot then, and since I still think about Captain Picard’s decision to this day, it still does.
What episodes of television meant a lot to you as a kid? Share your favorite stories in the comments below.