Where No One Has Gone Before
Come on in. That’s right. Come on in and get out of that cold. You must be half frozen. Let me take that coat and you sit down by the fire. Lovely.
You’ll be wanting a story, then. No one comes to my door in this weather unless they’re wanting a story. No-one braves the raiders of the rad-zones unless they need to hear a tale. Just so happens I got one ready for you, too. One of those ones about the Enterprise-D you always like so much. It’s about a man, and a boy, and an alien. It’s about thought and space and matter and time and egotism and irrelevance.
It is a story about how we write our own stories.
Now then. Where to begin?
The Tale Of The Boy Genius
Once upon a time there was an adventure of the Enterprise-D that no-one really liked to tell the tale of. Not because the telling rendered one feeling dirty, like that awful incident with the Ligonians. No, it simply wasn’t any fun to speak of. And no wonder, you might think. It was a story filled with gorgeous descriptions of wondrous places all but beyond our imagining, but little more than that. A good adventure must have more to it than breathtaking locations. Characters cannot simply travel; we have to do something along the way. Alas for the discerning storyteller, however, in this tale the characters did little, and much of what they did do was foolish. Not foolish in the sense that we all prove to be from time to time, you must understand. Foolish in the sense that they would all have been just fine had they only realised the pampered, entitled teenage boy they travelled alongside was in fact a living god.
So strong was this tale’s need to tell us of Wesley’s powers and importance that all else found itself reshaped to slot in alongside. There are so many tales of these people and their marvellous machines and discoveries and revelations and journeys that we could never expect them all to tally precisely, of course. But the heroes we love to tell each other of are nowhere to be found here. Strangers wear their forms. The redoubtable Commander Riker was not simply charming and dedicated, but a friend to children also. He befriended Wesley immediately upon meeting him, and earlier tales tell of how he could recognise any child travelling aboard the Enterprise on sight.
How can we believe such a man could suddenly become so utterly dismissive? Hard enough to credit he’d ignore Wesley’s observations on the first trip so he could stare at Kosinski doing nothing in the run-up to the second. But this tale also makes much of our Commander inexplicably calling Wesley “the boy”, rather than using his actual name. Riker, hero of so many of our most fondly-remembered stories, becomes here an arrogant oaf. “The boy” isn’t even quicker to say than “Wes”. Extra effort is required to refuse to recognise him as an individual.
How can one of our legends go so wrong? Well, a good storyteller is as much archaeologist as she is orator. Let’s dig in. One possible answer here lies in the structure of the tale. Perhaps Will plays a role steeped in exasperated dismissal here because otherwise he would clearly have listened to Wes. Had he done so, the attempt to return home might have been delayed until Kosinski’s assistant could recover some strength and answer some questions. Either way, the second catastrophic failure of Kosinsky’s experiments would never have happened. That means Riker either becomes someone entirely different for this story, or this story cannot exist at all.
This realisation is unsatisfying, though, or at least it’s incomplete. Yes, the story as it is always told could not operate while allowing William Riker to play the role of William Riker. But there were obvious alternatives as to who or what needed reforging within the tale. All that was needed was for Wesley to also not notice as the being we now call The Traveller phases mid-voyage. A glance in a different direction, that’s all it would take. The second journey would still go ahead. The Enterprise would still have end up in the dreamland of blue clouds and fast, wild sparks.
Such an easy thing. Such a simple fix. But the reason the tale does not take this route is entirely obvious. It is too critical to the wider story that Wesley be a child ignored by adults even when he has information they don’t have and can’t proceed without. Those who wrote the myth of Wesley Crusher could not settle for simply making him a genius. They had to make him an unrecognised one.
People who are legends in their own right have told this particular tale before. If I might be permitted to summarise, however: Wesley is hated by so many who otherwise adore the folklore of the Star Trek precisely because he was so obviously intended to be impossible to hate because of his utter perfection. Even as a general rule this never works, because people are so gloriously and defiantly contrary a group, but the failure was particularly acute here. It was simply too obvious to which crowd these storytellers were playing: the technology-loving teenage males of the time. Those who would recognise Wesley as one of (those they saw as) their own: supremely intelligent young men utterly unappreciated by everyone who surrounded them.
Perhaps for that tiny subsection of the population, this approach was successful. But everyone else saw the lie. Everyone else was fully aware anyone thinking being smart, white and comfortable around computers constitutes a bum deal is someone best avoided. For most it was bad enough someone thought up Wesley Crusher in the first place. The idea his story was so important everyone else’s needed twisting around it was infuriating. Especially since expecting the story of their life will have a happy ending irrespective of how that ending impinges on others is exactly the sort of thing people like Wesley expect.What people like Kosinsky expect. But I repeat myself, obviously. Kosinsky is exactly where Wesley risks heading in later life. A strutting porcelain doll stuffed with oblivious arrogance, downplaying the relevance of everyone but themselves. Privilege in spandex.
And yet apparently the audience is supposed to applaud as Wesley is first compared to Mozart and then granted a field commission. We are supposed to feel vicarious vindication over how this young man, ignored by those around him, is told by a massively powerful and wise alien that he’s secretly a genius among geniuses. We’re meant to be thrilled at the idea Wesley can finally experience his dream and slouch around the bridge of a starship. Many of us would rather demur. This just isn’t a story we want told to us. A story about wish fulfilment for someone who clearly needs to learn to not expect their wishes will be fulfilled? We’ve heard that one already, far too many times.
So let’s tell a different story entirely.
The Tale Of The Secret Storyteller
“It had been a strange day for Commander William Riker. Well, obviously it had. He’d visited a new galaxy and a realm of pure thought. His captain had snapped at him for interrupting his conversation with his dead mother.
But it had been odd for other reasons too. Will had spent the day feeling entirely unlike himself. Not only had this usual patience with Wesley Crusher completely evaporated, but looking back, his initial reaction to Kosinsky’s assistant had been rude to the point of racism. What had he been thinking, challenging a visitor to the ship on the grounds he came from far away? People simply didn’t do that anymore. Had his subconscious been worrying at something? Had the enormous distances the Tau Alphan travelled to reach them already suggested Kosinsky himself wasn’t the master of speed in the partnership? That was tempting to believe. But if that had been where his brain was going, why drop it so completely on Kosinsky’s say-so? Will had been suspicious enough – entirely appropriately – of the strutting fool the rest of the time.
Why, on this one point, did he allow himself to be painted so poorly?”
The Traveller is the key to everything here. He is critical. All the time we’ve spent pouring scorn upon the lack of craft we see in this tale misses something crucial. This story all but explicitly describes the alien visitor as a being who can rewrite reality with his thoughts. He is not merely a character in the tale. He is a character with the ability to make authorial changes. Like us, he can rewrite the story to take on a shape he finds more pleasing. Understanding this solves many problems. A storyteller who writes Will Riker this way is a hack. A storyteller who writes an alien writing Will Riker this way? That works far better.
And this story is very clear about rewriting others being the Traveller’s forte. It’s what he did with Kosinsky, after all. At the very least, he rewrote the man’s reputation, and he might well have done the same to his attitude, making it so expansive that Kosinsky’s ego is all anyone notices in the room. It’s what he does to Wesley’s future, both in their direct interactions and with what he tells Picard. It’s even what he does to the episode itself, first by letting Wesley fiddle with the experimental parameters so they end up in M-33, then by bringing them all to thought-space through the exhaustion he insists he isn’t feeling.
Assuming you believe that particular story at all. There is good reason not to. This is simply too convenient a location for the Traveller to bring Wesley to, for both his story and ours. First we’re told how the Traveller inspires Wesley to consider the possibility that thought and reality are in some sense one. Then the plot brings us to this strange new realm in which the equivalence of thought and reality becomes literally true for everyone aboard the ship. Here, the Traveller can show his unwitting apprentice both the potential and the pitfalls of constructing matter from your thoughts. Show him how almost everyone, given this power, will summon up slices of reality that reflect either their nostalgia or their terror. This, we learn along with Wesley, is an awesome power, but it must be handled with caution. Get it wrong, and you’re in desperate anger of burning and/or of falling out into nothing (there is a nod here to still another legend, that of Icarus’ first and final flight, but that is a story for some other time).
But it isn’t enough to simply show Wesley these possibilities, or to warn about the dangers to himself. The Traveller also needs to provide some guidance in how to make use of this power in a morally acceptable way. Wesley needs to understand that those not operating on his level are not therefore irrelevant. That everyone working alongside him, no matter what their role, is a colleague to be considered and respected. There must be no confusion over the fact that every contribution is of value, not just those of whomever is running the show.
In other words: Wesley has a moral duty to become the exact opposite of Kosinsky.
The Tale Of The Mediocre Man
This is, I think, is why we’re told of the Traveller’s insistence Kosinsky plays a role in what he is trying to do. Certainly he can’t have required the man’s technical aptitude; it’s strongly suggested here that he doesn’t really have any. It might be he’s referring to the man’s use as a front. That’s a role that requires only gregariousness, though, not Kosinsky’s uncanny impression of a burning mound of elephant dung. There must be tens of thousands of Starfleet engineers who are working on projects to improve starship engines, and almost all of them would be more pleasant company than this jackass. Why pick so unbearable a companion?
Well, in the story I’m telling you now, Kosinsky functions as counter-example. Surely it’s clear this is a man no-one should want to emulate. A worthless fool trading on one part smugness to ten parts the hard graft of those who work for him. Someone who has managed to earn a gold uniform in the 24th century and yet be able to waffle on about the “elementals of space and time” without instantly dying of shame. Did this man learn nothing at the Academy?
It’s entirely possible he didn’t, I suppose. Perhaps, like so many others, Kosinski studied only to regurgitate, writing down exactly what was expected of him in every exam. Everything was remembered, but nothing learned; instead being simply stored until release. Clearly nothing Kosinski studied was ever allowed to leak into his ludicrous conviction that he secretly knew better how physics works. Nothing scratched his ironclad conviction that the hoops he had to jump through to get his commission were being held out by circus clowns. The problem was never that he wasn’t smart – clearly he must be that, at least. The problem is that he proves you don’t need anything more than smarts – combined with various forms of unearned, unspoken advantages – to “get ahead”, in the narrowest, most hollow sense. Hard work and an awareness of others doesn’t actually turn out to be necessary to become feted as a genius.
To quote from the legend of John Scalzi: “the failure state of clever is asshole”. Kosinsky demonstrates the truth of this about as well as anyone the Traveller could have accompanied aboard.
I do not believe this to be coincidence.
Because the blunt and brutal truth of it is that right here, so early into the cycle of legends we tell about Picard and his crew, it isn’t hard to imagine Wesley going the same way. These first few stories paint him as always being the smartest person stood between whichever bulkheads he finds himself, and insist that no-one else ever notices this fact. So instead of seeing the truth, instead of letting him do things the way he can see they clearly need to be done, they insist on approaching problems from the same limited perspective they always have done. What’s worse, they can offer nothing more than experience (read: ‘age’) as a justification. We see everything from Wesley’s perspective, within which children are mold-breaking geniuses and adults are hidebound cowards. Another tale, set only weeks earlier, tells of how Wesley cheerfully mocks the chief engineer of the Enterprise for not being able to see horrifically complicated circuit patterns in her head. The fact her objections are born of doubting whether a tractor bean can or should be thrown into reverse, in the space of ninety seconds, from entirely the wrong section of the ship, whilst her entire engineering staff are too inebriated to space-walk in a straight line, is apparently not relevant.
As I’ve said, these stories work very hard to run parallel to Wesley’s own perspective, but the truth should be clear despite that. Does any of this strike you as describing someone who could sit still for long enough to reflect upon whether alternative approaches might be worthy of consideration?
Kosinski was the future Wesley could have written for himself, if he wasn’t careful.
The Tale Of The Particularly Amateur Amateur Writing Group
Once again we come back to writing. Having the Traveller feature in our story really gives us little choice. He’s a writer too, in every way that matters. The ability to restructure with a thought what we ourselves recognise as a fictional reality is indistinguishable from being an author of that reality. By bringing the Enterprise here, the Traveller has set up his very own creative writing group. Obviously, it’s a group in which only one member is showing any potential, at least as far as the organiser is concerned. Everyone else is just churning out banal material about their current trip, either about how far it’s taken them from home, or how scary and uncertain the voyage has become. Having reached idea-space, they dash for the nearest location to the wilderness they find themselves in, and stay there, shivering.
(The exception to this literary critique is Tasha Yar. Because of course it is. The tale never mentions any impossible encounters experienced by Doctor Crusher or Counsellor Troi, leaving Lieutenant Yar the only woman named in the story to be given access to this realm’s metaphorical pen and paper. It stands completely to reason that her story would be one that can’t easily be pigeonholed. That it would be one which doesn’t follow the comfortable contours of everyone else’s tales. It’s inevitable this would be the perspective that turns out to have something vital to say. In some other universe a storyteller like me is recounting the tale of how Tasha Yar grew from a frightened girl dodging rape gangs in an collapsed colony to become a being that could rewrite reality with their thoughts, and used that ability to make a better, fairer galaxy. That storyteller is rather happier in general.)
And now all the pieces are in place. The structure is solid, and we can jump from it to our conclusion. Let’s tick the plot beats off, shall we? The Traveller has set Wesley on the path to becoming an author, and brought him to a place where everyone gets free pen and paper. He’s provided an example of how not to write via Kosinsky. And he’s even gone so far as to recruit Picard for a bit of subtle copy-editing down the road. Given all of this, why does the tale not feature so much as a single instance of Wes actually creating anything with his thoughts? After all the effort put into clearing his desk and buying him supplies, why isn’t Wes actually writing?
The answer is obvious: he is. He clearly is. The very first thing he does with his newly-awarded authorship is to write himself as a commissioned bridge officer. And just like that, he’s in Starfleet. He doesn’t even have to bother blagging his way through the Academy like Kosinsky must have done. A rustle of paper, a push of a pen, and the job is his.
After all I’ve said on the topic of Wesley, this is not an encouraging development. The Traveller set up a test for him, and it seems he failed it pretty conclusively.
But let me share something I’ve learned in my years doing this job. After all, you don’t spend decades persuading people your tales are worth risking encounters with giga-wasps or howlworms for without figuring out a thing or two about the nature of stories. The truth of this gets obscured by those tales that come after, but the most important thing to realise about this story is that, where Wesley is concerned, there’s still time. Almost everyone’s first story is relentlessly terrible. Almost always they feature the author themselves as protagonist, when you get down to it. Like the myth cycle he is a part of, Wesley is only just learning how to tell the stories he has inside him. He’s supposed to be as solipsistic and oblivious as he is written at this point. The question is whether he gets any better. His compassion for the Traveller is the first sign of hope there. There will be others.
For now, it’s enough to know that everyone has the ability to grow.
There, now. Isn’t that better than how this story is usually told?
1. More Tribbles, More Troubles
2. Where No One Has Gone Before
3. The Enemy Within
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman