“Not all tests are announced”: Coming of Age (TNG) vs. Ask Not (Short Treks)

*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and may contain mild spoilers for other events in season 1 of The Next Generation, seasons 1 and 2 of Discovery, and the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Coming of Age” (season 1, episode 19)

age concentratingWritten by Sandy Fries; directed by Mike Vejar; first aired in 1988

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open on Wesley Crusher consoling his friend Jake, after Wesley passed a qualifying test for Starfleet Academy and Jake didn’t. As the Enterprise drops Wesley off at a Starfleet outpost for his Academy entrance exam, Admiral Quinn and Lieutenant Commander Remmick beam aboard on urgent, secret business. Quinn and Captain Picard go way back, apparently, though you wouldn’t know it from the cold, adversarial tone Quinn and Remmick take with the crew, Picard included, in their “full investigation” into “something very wrong” on the Enterprise. While Remmick gets on everyone’s nerves with his questions about Picard’s past command decisions, Wesley meets his fellow Academy applicants: a human, Oliana, who finds Wesley both “cute” and “obnoxious”; a Vulcan, T’Shanik, who is … a Vulcan; and a Benzite, Mordock, whom Wesley knows by his impressive reputation. Wesley makes short work of his initial tests, but worries about the “psych test,” in which he’ll be confronted with his “greatest fear.” Meanwhile, a despondent Jake tries to run away on a stolen Enterprise shuttle, which he promptly almost crashes, but Picard talks Jake through saving his own life, and Remmick can’t help but be impressed. His questions continue, though, until he admits that the only thing he’s discovered is a feeling of “family” among the Enterprise crew, and basically asks Picard for a job. Quinn then reveals that he was really just making sure that Picard could still be trusted in the face of a deadly, though incredibly vague, threat to the Federation, and offers to put Picard in charge of Starfleet Academy, in order to keep him close – an offer Picard considers, but refuses. Wesley also passes a couple of disguised tests, first using his cultural knowledge to defuse an argument with an alien officer, then making the difficult choice to rescue only one of two officers seemingly in danger after an apparent accident … a choice Picard apparently made in real life, resulting in Wesley’s father’s death. Wesley’s told he did well, but Mordock did better, and now it’s Wesley who’s despondent. But Picard reassures Wesley that he, himself, had to apply more than once to the Academy, and encourages Wesley to do the same.

VS.

Star Trek: Short Treks – “Ask Not” (season 2, episode 3)

ask cuffsWritten by Kalinda Vazquez; directed by Sanji Senaka; first aired in 2019

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open on a starbase, where Starfleet Cadet Thira Sidhu is thrown to the ground by an explosion as the base apparently comes under attack. Once she’s back on her feet, her senior officers task her with watching over an imprisoned mutineer, whom we recognize as Captain Pike. Sidhu recognizes him too, and obviously understands how serious a situation she’s in here, but stands her ground and refuses Pike the communication access he demands. Pike tells her that he was accused of mutiny for defying an Admiral in his attempt to rescue the crew of the USS Bouman from a Tholian trap; Sidhu’s husband just so happens to be serving on the Bouman, and the two just so happen to be the only survivors of a previous Tholian attack. Pike leans hard on that emotional leverage to enlist her help in defying the Admiral and fighting back against the Tholians, but Sidhu won’t give in. Pike then starts quoting regulations at her, but she counters with a regulation of her own: that non-violent attempts to resolve a dispute must always be made before resorting to force – a principle she, and her husband, are willing to die for. Finally, Pike threatens her career, but she still almost shoots him as he tries to leave … at which point Pike calls off the “test” Sidhu didn’t know she was taking, and assures her that her husband is in no danger. Sidhu passed that test, and gets an introduction to her new crewmates, Spock and Number One, as well as a tour of her new ship, the Enterprise … and a coy answer from Pike when she asks if her phaser would have worked, during the test, if she’d fired it at him.

age misunderstandingThere are a lot of reasons to argue that 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of the most important milestones (maybe the milestone?) in all of Trek so far, ranging from the critical and commercial success which cemented Star Trek as not just a cult phenomenon but a full-on franchise and cultural institution, to that single, perfectly over-the-top line reading which would become one of the most iconic, imitated, and meme-able moments in the history of popular entertainment: “KHAAAAAAANNN!!!!!!” From a story-telling perspective, though, one of Wrath of Khan’s most significant contributions to the Trek universe might be its introductory scene, in which Saavik, a Starfleet Academy cadet, leads the Enterprise in a rescue mission which first turns into a bloodbath, and then turns out to be an infamous training simulation known as the Kobayashi Maru. Seemingly a test of command skills and judgement, the Kobayashi Maru is, in actuality, a chance to observe how a cadet might cope with a no-win scenario. This scene serves as our first real glimpse of how cadets are trained at Starfleet Academy, which I believe was mentioned, but never shown or explained, in The Original Series, and would go on to be a source of stories in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the 2009 Star Trek film (not to mention an aspirational fantasy for more than a few fans). It also introduces the premise that accepting the possibility of a no-win scenario – and holding to Starfleet’s values in the face of one – is an explicit part of Starfleet training. I often complain that Trek can be a bit vague about what, exactly, makes its future so bright, but the idea that Starfleet deliberately trains its cadets to value their ideals and ethical judgement more than the success of their mission seems genuinely utopian. We’d seen that principle put into practice before, notably by Captain Kirk in “The Corbomite Maneuver” (despite the fact that Kirk famously cheated on his own Kobayashi Maru test), and would see it again many times in many different incarnations of Trek going forward, but it’s the Kobayashi Maru that contextualizes that behavior not as exceptional, but expected of all Starfleet officers.

ask phaserThe Kobayashi Maru also introduced to Trek the idea of the sneaky surprise Starfleet Academy test, which The Next Generation’s “Coming of Age” and the Short Trek “Ask Not” would both take and run with, for better and for worse. To be fair, the Kobayashi Maru, as depicted in Wrath of Khan, isn’t entirely sneaky; Saavik at least knows she’s being tested, even if it hasn’t been made clear to her what, exactly, that test is meant to evaluate. The sneakiness is taken a step further in “Coming of Age,” in which Wesley Crusher is aware of the testing process and has already completed several obvious exams before having later tests sprung on him without even being identified as tests, let alone without warning: first an apparent cultural misunderstanding, and later a more Kobayashi Maru-esque simulation in which he must make a difficult decision in the aftermath of what appears to be a tragic accident. This is mirrored by the episode’s B-story (or is it the A-story?), in which Captain Picard and his crew know they’re being evaluated, or perhaps investigated, by an Admiral and his lackey, but have no idea what Quinn and Remmick are actually looking for, or why. And this concept is taken further still – almost ridiculously so – by “Ask Not” (an episode so short, even by Short Trek standards, that it barely has time for its A-story, let alone any B- or C-stories). At the time of her own exam, Cadet Sidhu presumably thinks she’s just showed up for a typical day at work, seemingly with no idea that she’s still being considered for a position on the Enterprise after her initial rejection. And the circumstances of her test are more elaborate and extreme even than Wesley’s: she’s thrown to the ground by a pretty authentic-looking explosion, put in the incredibly tense position of single-handedly standing guard over the most famous officer in all of Starfleet, and made to believe that both she and her husband are in real, mortal danger. “No-win scenario” or not, the Kobayashi Maru seems like an easy day compared to what Sidhu is put through.

age holodeckNow of course, we could point out that the super-contrived nature of these tests strains both episodes’ credibility a bit. As I’ve probably made clear by now, I’m not generally a stickler for such things; I try to accept that I’m getting a made-up story about made-up characters, made up in the minds of imperfect people, and I don’t mind if the strings show as long as those strings aren’t too distracting from what the story is trying to say (which is, I realize, a very subjective matter of taste, and your mileage will obviously vary). Still, since I think Starfleet Academy’s training procedures give Trek a uniquely perfect opportunity to world-build its utopia – by showing how Starfleet officers are literally taught to be part of that utopia – I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed that these obviously impractical tests were so clearly designed, from a story-telling perspective, as more of a heroic journey for a single character than a glimpse behind the curtain of Starfleet. But besides painting a slightly confusing picture of how Starfleet and its Academy works, what we see of how Starfleet trains and tests its cadets in these episodes is actually pretty regressive, as approaches to education go. I don’t usually mention my background as an educator here, but in this case, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to raise an even geekier point than “How many of these personalized fake disasters is Starfleet staging, anyway?” In the settings in which I’ve taught, best practices include assessing students by their ability to carry out tasks reminiscent of what they might need to do in the so-called real world – rather than relying on high-stakes, standardized tests, if possible – and making the conditions and criteria of an assessment clear to students before it’s carried out. Even before the “psych test,” the sort of high-stakes testing we see in “Coming of Age,” which pits students against each other for the highest score, is pretty old-school by today’s standards, never mind what we might expect from a 24th-century utopia. And a test which students have no idea how to pass – let alone a test they don’t even know they’re taking – certainly makes sense from a writer’s perspective, to build tension and put their characters through the ringer, but from a teacher’s perspective … well, let’s just say that if I tested my students the way Wesley and Sidhu are tested in these episodes, I’d be out of a job pretty quick.

ask hoodIn all seriousness, I don’t raise these concerns just to be pedantic. I think it’s fair to expect that these episodes use their focus on the testing of cadets, or potential cadets, to tell us something both about Starfleet as an organization, and about the cadets themselves. Wrath of Khan has, I think, prompted us to expect this, by using the Kobayashi Maru both to show that Starfleet is an organization that prioritizes principles, judgement, and character over victory or even survival, and to suggest that, however much he might have aged since The Original Series, Captain Kirk won’t have truly grown up until he has faced the sort of no-win scenario he cheated his way out of during his own time at the Academy. Do “Coming of Age” and “Ask Not” tell us anything about Starfleet, beyond the fact that its pedagogy could use some work? Ultimately, yes, I think they do. However cruel and inefficient it might seem to me that four prospective cadets are pitted against each other for only one spot at the Academy in “Coming of Age,” it’s actually heartening to see Wesley assessed by his ability to peacefully resolve an intercultural conflict, and to act both humanely and decisively in a crisis. And while “Ask Not” doesn’t explicitly reference any events of Discovery beyond the inclusion of Pike, Spock, and Number One, it’s significant that Sidhu is judged by her willingness to uphold Starfleet regulations, and the principles underlying them, even when her past traumas are brought back to the surface … a test Michael Burnham essentially failed in Discovery’s very first episodes, and later passed in its first-season finale. Again, no explicit reference is made here to any of those events, but when Sidhu quotes regulations that require Starfleet officers to exhaust all other options before resorting to violence, I immediately find myself thinking of lines from those first episodes of Discovery: “We’re explorers, not soldiers,” and of course, “Starfleet doesn’t fire first.” I’m impressed with the way “Ask Not” ties this thematic thread from Discovery right back to that lesson from The Wrath of Khan and its Kobayashi Maru: that Starfleet officers are judged not just by their ability to survive or solve a crisis, but by their ability to stay Starfleet in a crisis.

ask wowSo then, if the tests faced in “Coming of Age” and “Ask Not” tell us something about Starfleet, do they tell us something about their characters, as well? In the case of “Ask Not,” it’s kind of hard to say, given that what we learn about Sidhu here is all we know about her, so far, and at the time I’m writing this, it remains to be seen whether we’ll ever learn any more about her (though I hope we do see the character again, as I’m assuming we probably will see Discovery’s take on Pike, Una, and Spock again, one way or another). Her ability to keep her head and stick to her principles in such an over-the-top situation is admirable, and this tension is well portrayed by actor Amrit Kaur. But we don’t have the time to learn much more about her, aside from that alluded-to backstory of barely surviving a traumatic incident involving the seldom-mentioned Tholians, which could be very interesting if it were fleshed out; here, as mentioned above, it mostly makes her an analogue for Michael Burnham’s own tragic past with the Klingons. As for Pike, Anson Mount is as fun to watch as ever, and by this point the character has built up so much goodwill from his appearances in Discovery’s second season – where he effectively played the antithesis to the first season’s villainous Captain Lorca, and was almost the embodiment of a principled, thoughtful, and fair-minded Starfleet – that the weirdly high-tech hood over his head when he first appears in this episode is clearly there for our benefit, to milk the audience’s anticipation to see him again. But that is, in a way, the problem with “Ask Not.” An audience waiting impatiently for more Pike after season 2 of Discovery – which is exactly who this episode is aimed at – is an audience who will almost certainly, and almost immediately, recognize his role in the test for what it is, given how obviously out of character it is for him to manipulate and bully Sidhu, holding her career and her husband’s safety over her head. On my first watch, I knew almost exactly how this episode was going to play out, from the moment Pike first appeared on screen. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, in and of itself; personally, I think any story that can’t be enjoyed if you know how it ends probably wasn’t much of a story to begin with, and I did enjoy watching Sidhu and Pike play out this particular, if familiar, story. But there’s no real character growth or insight to be had here: what we learn about Pike we already knew, and what we learn about Sidhu we have no context for. As a result, “Ask Not” falls into the same shorter-format trap as earlier Short Treks “Runaway” and “The Brightest Star,” episodes I enjoy but which feel like vignettes rather than complete stories, in comparison to more fully-formed Short Treks like “Calypso” or “The Escape Artist.”

age mordock

And what do the tests of “Coming of Age” tell us about the characters taking them? When it comes to Wesley’s fellow applicants, the characterization of both of the young women is conspicuously non-existent, but Mordock is a surprisingly interesting character, for his relatively short time on screen. His makeup and prosthetics are probably the most impressively alien-looking we’d seen from Star Trek up to that point, and actor John Putch does an excellent job of playing him as believably alien, while keeping him relatable. When Wesley downplays his help by saying, “You would have done the same thing for me,” I love the way Mordock seems to very seriously consider that stock phrase, and very sincerely responds with, “Yes … I believe I would.” As for Wesley himself, again, I’m not sure we learn anything in particular about Wesley here that we didn’t know before this episode; yes, he’s a good-hearted wunderkind whose biggest flaw is the social awkwardness that comes from being both super-smart and extremely earnest, but that’s all part and parcel of his role as an audience-identification character meant to attract geeky young male viewers to The Next Generation. While this demographic certainly was drawn to TNG – I should know, I was among them – that plan for Wesley ultimately seemed to backfire, given the ridicule the character has endured over the years, however earned or not. But “Coming of Age” does make a point of showing us that, even as a child prodigy, Wesley will still have to work to better himself, just like his fellow applicants. And this is made more effective by the way it’s tied to Picard’s own characterization in this episode. Even knowing that it’s meant to set up a later episode, “Conspiracy,” I find the vague motivations for Quinn and Remmick’s investigation of Picard a bit frustrating. And the crew’s answers to Remmick’s questions, constantly reaffirming Picard’s awesomeness, become a bit one-note as the episode continues. But it’s a welcome twist when the episode ends with Picard reassuring Wesley that he, too, had to work to better himself, starting with his unsuccessful first application to the Academy. As great as Patrick Stewart is at playing the moral voice of Star Trek, Picard’s moral authority is made more interesting, and more Star Trek-y, by the knowledge that he didn’t start as some sort of chosen one … just as a good student.

tsun 11a

Next week, it’s out of classroom and into the gladiator pit, as Captain Kirk and Seven of Nine fight for their lives in The Original Series episode “The Gamesters of Triskelion” and Voyager‘s “Tsunkatse.” A hundred quatloos on the newcomers!

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