Thirty years ago, in October 1991, the sixth episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation aired on US TV. The premise of ‘The Game’ saw Enterprise being jeopardized after the crew come under the thrall of a highly addictive computer game. It was enjoyable for a number of reasons, ticking many of the necessary boxes necessary to ensure that for many fans, it would achieve almost immediate classic status. More interestingly, it also achieved something which might previously have seemed impossible: it redeemed the character of Wesley Crusher.
The Jar Jar Binks of the Enterprise
The character of Wesley Crusher has never been popular. There are many reasons for this and most of them have nothing at all to do with Wil Wheaton, who played him. Right from the moment of launch in September 1987, the character of Wesley became the focus for many fans’ feelings of frustration and disappointment as they vented impotently about many elements of their favourite TV series’ long-awaited return to the small screen.
In this respect, and while it may seem unkind to liken him to a much-maligned computer-animated Gungan from the planet Naboo, Wesley Crusher is in many ways to Star Trek: The Next Generation what Jar Jar Binks would become to viewers of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, a dozen years’ later.
To some extent, it is unfortunate Wesley ceased to have a regular role after the fourth season. As Lance Parkin writes in The Impossible Has Happened (2016), his biography of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “There’s a near-consensus on The Next Generation: it took a while to get going.” Something like 25 to 30 writers were hired and fired during the first season, Parkin states. Although the series was undoubtedly well-established by the time Wheaton quit, it is unfortunate for him that he is destined to be forever most closely associated with the first and least successful half of the show’s run. Indeed, he was never more visible than during the first season when the show was visibly struggling.
However, there is more to Wesley Crusher’s unpopularity than just that.
The Child in Their Time
Wesley Crusher was first introduced as the son of Enterprise’s chief medical officer, Doctor Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden) in the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, filmed when Wil Wheaton was 14. We soon learn that his father was killed while serving under the command of the ship’s new captain (Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard) a few years earlier. We also get to see that Picard initially finds Wesley irritating, reflecting the fact that the captain is ill at ease in the presence of children. As it turns out, he was far from the only one to be uncomfortable with the notion of a child being on the bridge of Enterprise. Many viewers didn’t like it either.
Wil Wheaton later admitted he didn’t much care for the character himself.
There is no doubt that it is the simple fact that Wesley Crusher is a child during The Next Generation’s opening seasons which annoyed fans more than anything else. Some viewers, adopting a semi-military attitude argued the presence of a minor on a fully functioning Starfleet ship was unprofessional. Underlying this concern (given this particular Enterprise isn’t actually real) was a simple fear: Wesley Crusher made Star Trek: The Next Generation look like a kids’ show.
Suggesting Star Trek – or indeed, any sci-fi – is primarily intended to be watched by children is probably one of the worst things any non-fan can ever say. Probably the only thing worse would be to mix it up with Star Wars.
Many fans suspected, probably correctly, that the character of Wesley was introduced to appeal to younger viewers. Sadly, however, with Jar Jar Binks in the first Star Wars prequel, his continued presence on Enterprise made it much more difficult for Star Trek fans everywhere to easily bat away charges that their show was kids’ stuff.
It also didn’t help that scriptwriters didn’t really know what to do with the character of Wesley Crusher, other than making him the cause of the episode’s crisis for Enterprise that week or using him as an all too easy way to resolve them.
We learn early on, for example, that Wesley is in fact supposed to be a child prodigy, a boy genius of sorts. This realization leads him to be granted the position of acting ensign although was at the same time rather undermined by his initial failure to pass the Starfleet entrance exams at the end of the first season.
Another persistent charge levelled at Wesley Crusher is that he is an ‘author avatar,’ a character intended to represent a younger version of creator Gene Roddenberry, who remained an active presence on the show at this time. The theory is given added credibility by the fact, Roddenberry’s middle name was ‘Wesley.’
Before long, Wesley had been reduced to a more peripheral role in the series. He was not the only character to have reason to feel marginalized at this time. Denise Crosby who played Security Officer Tasha Ya grew so frustrated that she left after the first season, while Wheaton’s on-screen mother, Gates McFadden also left after the first season, only to return for Season 3. It has been suggested the series’ scriptwriters often struggled to write good stories for women and children in these early stages. Ultimately, Wheaton left at the end of Season 4, as Wesley was finally accepted for the Starfleet Academy. In reality, Wheaton had quit in the hope of launching a film career. In the end, this didn’t happen, and Wheaton came to regret his decision. In reality, whether they’ve wanted it or not, of all the actors to ever appear regularly in any of the TV versions of Star Trek, really only Patrick Stewart can claim to have achieved major success as a film star afterwards. Others, such as Colm Meaney (O’Brien) have enjoyed success at a lower level while Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan) was, of course, already a successful film star when she joined the crew. Wheaton has in fact, done better than most Star Trek actors in this regard. He had already starred in one classic film, Stand By Me (1986), before being cast as Wesley.
Wil Wheaton has since suggested that the nature of early social media in the 1980s and early 1990s may have distorted the extent to which his character seemed unpopular.
“I can understand why some people were rubbed the wrong way,” Wheaton said in 2004. “But the people who were complaining were a very small but incredibly vocal minority who had access to Usenet at a time when nobody really knew what that was. These people were statistically over-represented back in the old days.”
Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it doesn’t necessarily mean the character was actually more popular than we generally think. One wonders if the character would have survived for as long as he did, in the relentless and unforgiving social media environment of today.
The decades since have seen Wil Wheaton’s stock rise considerably amongst fans. As an adult, he has revealed himself to be an intelligent, sensitive man with a philosophical approach to his difficult years growing up on screen and a good sense of humor as reflected in his numerous appearances as a version of himself on the long-running sitcom, The Big Bang Theory which aired between 2007 and 2019.
He has undoubtedly redeemed himself in the eyes of many. It was a process which began 30 years ago, on the first episode which saw him briefly returning to Enterprise, in one episode, ‘The Game’ (S5, Ep6).
The Player of Games
First, a bit of context. ‘The Game’ was the sixth episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and aired on US TV in October 1991. The show was still in its prime and we now know it still had 72 episodes of a total of 178 still left to run. In the UK, however, ‘The Game’ wasn’t shown on in its popular Wednesday 6 pm slot on BBC Two until January 1995. This was a full eight months after the last ever episode had been broadcast in the US and only two weeks before the UK release of Picard and Co’s big-screen debut in Star Trek: Generations.
Although little is ever made of it, almost everything which occurs in ‘The Game’ can be blamed on Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes). Whilst flirting playfully with a Ktarian woman named Etana (Katherine Moffat) while on shore leave on Risa, Riker allows himself to be introduced to a new computer game which he subsequently introduces to Enterprise’s crew. It is this security breach which ultimately almost precipitates the downfall of Enterprise. Although he is undeniably shown to be the victim of an alien plot, the crisis occurs entirely as a result of Riker’s poor judgement and overactive libido. It is surprising he is never reprimanded for this.
‘The game’ within ‘The Game’ is also worth discussing. Typically introduced on a 1990s TV series as a means to make a show look up-to-date, ironically these depictions can often be amongst the most dated elements when we look back at these episodes again, years later. Happily, although it is activated by a device worn over the ears which project images into the user’s eyes like a proto-Oculus Rift, the game here is kept mercifully simple and as a result, looks much less dated now than it might have done had something more ‘complex’ been attempted. Involving images of disks and cone-shaped tunnels, it looks dull enough. But we soon get the point: the game ‘rewards’ users by sending a direct rush of pleasure to the brain every time a player is successful. We can therefore see how ‘The Game’ could become potentially very addictive indeed. We soon learn that it is not only highly addictive but inspires a compulsion in anyone who plays it to get as many other people playing as possible.
Events progress slowly as we gradually become aware, the entire crew has fallen under the sway of the game, before the plucky young double act of Wesley Crusher on break from Starfleet Academy and his new friend, Ensign Robin Leifer (Ashley Judd) start the fight to win the ship back.
The story is best told through a number of its standout scenes. For example, the sequence in which Data is suddenly taken offline by the complicity of Beverly and Riker reveals dramatically just how effective the game can be in distorting the personalities of those addicted to it.
Another key moment occurs when Wesley Crusher, shocked to learn that the game (which he as thus far managed to avoid playing) is not only highly addictive but has the capacity to distort the user’s basic reasoning, dutifully informs Picard of his findings. Picard responds politely and seems genuinely concerned. But seconds after Wesley has left the room, we learn the truth. Picard is addicted to the game too! He is no more in his right mind than he was when he was part of the Borg.
Another scene sees Wesley and Robin faking playing the game in a bid to fool Beverly. There is something faintly disturbing about the sight of Doctor Crusher looking on contentedly as her son and a young woman pretend to be actively engaged in a game which basically serves as an orgasm machine.
‘The Game’ is a very satisfying episode for a number of reasons. There is a nice Invasion of the Bodysnatchers feel about the whole thing, particularly the sequence in which Picard is revealed to have been brought over to the dark side. The 1978 version of that film, of course, featured another Star Trek legend, Leonard Nimoy as Dr. David Kibner.
It is also an amusing twist to see the youngsters, Wesley and Robin fighting to overcome a computer game addiction which has overtaken Wesley’s mother and all the older members of the crew: a complete generational role reversal of the usual situation in which the older group usually battle to get their teenage offspring to play less. It briefly puts one in mind of the ongoing spread of disinformation across social media, which is often treated far more credulously by parents than their ‘digital native’ offspring.
As writer and producer, Michael Piller acknowledged, “I thought it was a great episode. That was an episode that dealt with my fascination in watching my two sons with their obsession for video games and doing a show that dealt with a non-world-shattering issue but people’s obsession, almost addiction, to certain types of games.”
To many fans’ disappointment, Ensign Robin Lefler, who had appeared briefly before in the episode, ‘Darmok’ (S5, Ep2) a few weeks before, never appeared in Star Trek again. Actress Ashley Judd herself has enjoyed success as a middle-ranking Hollywood movie star starring in films such as Kiss the Girls (1997), Double Jeopardy (1999) and Divergent (2014). Wheaton, in fact, only appeared three more times in the series (in the episodes, ‘The First Duty’ – S5, Ep19, ‘Parallels’ – S7, Ep11, and ‘Journey’s End’ – S7, Ep20) and had a non-speaking role in the final Next Generation film, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).
The Crusher Redemption?
Does ‘The Game’ really redeem Wesley Crusher? There is certainly plenty to annoy Wesley-haters here: he greets his mother in Latin and uses his technical expertise to reveal the truth about the game and revive Data. He also risks provoking the ire of envious Ashley Judd fans by getting to assist her in her first on-screen kiss.
Yet somehow, for once, he gets away with it. He is a likeable central hero in a compelling and exciting story. No other character could have done it as well. Ultimately, Wesley had too much emotional baggage to truly win over fans at this point, but as a 19-year-old, Wheaton gives us a flavour of what might have been had he been cast in Star Trek as an adult rather than as a child.
Ultimately, ‘The Game’ sees Wesley Crusher redeem himself with fans in the most natural way possible. By growing up.
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Chris Hallam is a published author and freelance writer based in Exeter. In the past, he has written for magazines such as DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He provided all the written content for the Star Wars Clone Wars and Smurfs annuals for 2014, and the Transformers annual 2015. He continues to write for Yours Retro, Best of British and The History of Comics, 1930-2030.