Monday, June 06, 2022

Revisiting TNG "Journey's End"

I am revisiting the TNG seventh season episode “Journey’s End” for several reasons.  The most obvious and proximate is Wesley Crusher’s brief scene in the final episode of Star Trek: Picard’s second season, his first official reappearance since this TNG episode, some 28 years previously.  (His very different kind of moment in the 2002 feature film Star Trek Nemesis wound up on the cutting room floor, and in discarded scenes special features.)

 The second reason is that the story of “Journey’s End” relates to the story of the ninth Star Trek feature film, which is next on my list to write about in this site’s way too longstanding “Trekalog” series.

 But the third reason is the most compelling: I’ve always wanted to write about it, because contrary to other opinions, this is one of my favorite TNG episodes, especially as it informs this site’s theme of the soul of Star Trek.

 “Journey’s End” came late in The Next Generation’s final season, when elements that would be important in the ongoing Deep Space 9 series, and the upcoming Star Trek: Voyager were shoehorned into TNG stories, not always to their benefit.  So this episode featured Cardassians—major DS9 villains—and established the existence of Native American settlers in Cardassian space, anticipating Voyager.

 The episode title primarily applies to Wesley Crusher, whose TNG journey began with the first episode, when as a 14 or15 year old boy (played, as he always would be, by Wil Wheaton), he was accompanying his mother, Doctor Beverly Crusher, in her new assignment, living on the new starship Enterprise-D. When this story begins (six years later), he is in his final year at Starfleet Academy.  

 The title can also be applied to the group of North American Indians, whose search for a new planetary home had ended after two centuries on the remote world called Dorvan Five.  But because of the new peace treaty between the Federation and the Cardassians, Dorvan Five was to be no longer a Federation planet but under Cardassian jurisdiction.  The Indians would be required to leave this new home for another. These two superpowers determined that their journey had not ended--until they come together to allow it.

 The Indians' journey to a new home remains over, but in a sense a new journey begins: the Indians under Cardassian rule. And after ending one journey Wesley begins another with the Traveler—which eventually leads him to becoming a Traveler himself, and to return to Earth to also recruit a new member. 

Journey’s End” begins with Cadet Wesley Crusher visiting the Enterprise-D for a school break. His mother Dr. Beverly Crusher escorts him to the new separate quarters he requested. He is welcomed by Geordi and Data, but barely manages to say what he believes they want to hear, and the scene ends with him sitting alone on his bed, isolated and uncertain.

  Admiral Necheyev also arrives on board the Enterprise to meet with Captain Picard.  She shows him the new borders of Federation and Cardassian space resulting from three years of negotiation as part of their peace treaty. 

According to the treaty, several planets switch governances and colonists must relocate.  One of these is Dorvan Five, settled 20 years before after a long search by a group of North American Indians, who left Earth to preserve their culture.  Picard immediately sees a problem in historical context.  “You see, Admiral, there are some very disturbing historical parallels here.  Once more, they’re being asked to leave their homes because of a political decision that has been taken by a distant government.”

 In fact, virtually all American Indian peoples had been driven from their ancestral lands, none more dramatically than the five tribes, including the Cherokee, forced in the mid-19th century to walk across the country from the Southeast to the West, leading to thousands of deaths in what became known as The Trail of Tears.

 The Federation is aware of this, it was debated but ultimately the decision was made “for the greater good,” the Admiral says.  It will be up to Picard to persuade the Indians to leave (with promise of aid in finding another planet) or, failing that, to forcibly remove them—also a painful part of American Indian historical experience, as Picard knows. 

Meanwhile Wesley’s repressed emotions boil over in an ugly scene with Geordi in engineering, a combination of undergraduate sneering at elders’ supposed old-fashioned ideas, and a late adolescent snit.  Beverly learns that his Academy grades have been falling, that he’d been moody and distracted.  He would later admit that he’d been depressed.

 Picard and Counselor Troi meet with an Indian council to get them to agree to relocation but the parties seem to be talking past each other.  Troi points out that there are three other nearby planets with similar environmental conditions.  But Anthwara, the council leader, speaks of other “more intangible concerns.” “When I came here twenty years ago, I was welcomed by the mountains, the rivers, the sky…This planet holds a deep spiritual significance for us.  It has taken us two centuries to find this place.  We do not want to spend another two hundred years searching for what we already have.”

   They agree to reconvene the next day, and Picard invites them to a reception on the Enterprise that evening. At the reception, Anthwara asks Picard to tell him about his ancestral family, for ancestors are very important to his people.  “They guide us, even now.”

 Wesley arrives late and meets Lakanta, an Indian who tells him that two years before he had a vision that Wesley would come to Dorvan Five. “I know why you came to us, Wesley.  To find the answers that you seek.”  

 Wesley beams down to the surface and is met by Lakanta, who asks Wesley what is sacred to him.  But that concept is not part of Wesley’s world.  “Look around you,” Laconta says.  “What do you think is sacred to us here?”  Wesley guesses Laconta’s necklace, and designs on a building wall.

 “Everything is sacred to us,” Laconta says.  “The buildings, the food, the sky, the dirt beneath your feet. And you.  Whether you believe in your spirit or not, we believe in it.  You are a sacred person here, Wesley….So if you are sacred, then you must treat yourself with respect.”

 Wesley responds that no one has ever told him he was sacred, but admits that he’s been lacking in self-respect lately.  Laconta sees this as a sign that Wesley is ready for his own vision quest.

 Some viewers have denigrated what Laconta said as a Hollywood version of Indian spirituality.  This episode doesn’t get everything right (and the vision quest, a real ritual in some tribes, seems to have captured the non-Native imagination.) It requires a suspension of disbelief to accept that an Indian culture would choose to leave the Earth that nurtured it, but many tribes did relocate over the centuries for one reason or another, even before Europeans showed up. The ceremonial space of the “Habak” where Wesley’s vision occurs is decorated with designs and objects that seem often to miss the point of real Native designs and objects, but this is partly because the real American Indian consultants to this episode did not want anything to identify a particular tribe (the original idea was a Hopi or Pueblo kiva.)

 But this key concept—that everything in the given world is sacred—is not Hollywood; historical research and contemporary accounts, including those of tribal members, affirm that it is central to Indigenous beliefs among peoples across North America and Central America.  It is as well a core concept in Buddhism. It is moreover a major moment in Star Trek, because it runs counter to the assumptions of our technological civilization—but might be another way to express a key value in Star Trek, especially TNG.

 Laconta makes another important point in a seemingly casual way that is true to today’s Native peoples.  Wesley notes that in the Habak collection of ceremonial figures (similar to Kachinas) is one that looks Klingon.  Laconta laughs, and acknowledged that it is.  “Our culture is rooted in the past,” he says, “but it’s not limited to the past.” This is something that non-Natives often don’t realize, at least at first. 

In the Habak, perhaps under the influence of a ceremonial hallucinogen, Wesley has a vision of his father, a Starfleet officer who was killed in the line of duty when Wesley was very young.  “You’ve reached the end, Wesley,” he says. When his father died, Wesley “set out on a journey that wasn’t your own.  Now it’s time to find a path that is truly yours.”

 Wesley says he doesn’t understand.  “Yes, you do.  It’s just hard for you to accept.”

 Later, when talking to his mother, Wesley admits that the vision only crystallized what he already knew. (Recall also that in the fourth season episode “Family,” Wesley saw his father as he was when Wesley was born, in a holotape he made that Beverly had just retrieved with other possessions she’d left behind on Earth. His father mused then that Wesley might grow up to wear the Starfleet uniform.) 

 Meanwhile, the Native leader Anthwara tells Picard that one of his ancestors had participated in a brutal and bloody slaughter of southwestern American Indians, and that they believed he was sent to make amends.   Picard tries again to petition Starfleet to revisit their decision, but to no avail.  The Native villagers will not leave.  Picard orders Worf to make plans for their removal via the transporter.

  But the situation on the planet has become more complicated with the premature arrival of Cardassians to conduct a survey of the buildings and other resources they will inherit.

 When Wesley leaves the Habak, he sees Worf preparing the beam-out.  He shouts out a warning to the villagers to resist.  The Starfleet team is forced to return to the ship.

 Captain Picard is livid in his confrontation with Wesley, but Wesley calmly tells him, “What you’re doing down there is wrong.  These people are not some random group of colonists.  They’re a unique culture with a history that predates the Federation and Starfleet.”

 Picard responds, “this does not alter the fact that my orders are to—“

 “I know Admiral Necheyev gave you an order, and she was given an order from the Federation Council.  But it’s still wrong.”

 This speech will echo in the future, but this time Picard tells Wesley he must follow orders as long as he is in Starfleet, and Wesley tells him he is resigning.

 Before a shocked Picard can respond, he must meet with the Cardassian Gul Evek.  It is at this point that Wesley explains to his mother how the vision revealed what he had already known, that his path did not include Starfleet.  She then remembers the Traveler telling Captain Picard that Wesley “was destined for something quite different from the rest of us.”  But at this point, his new direction isn’t clear. 

Meanwhile, villagers have taken some Cardassians prisoner, and things are moving swiftly towards an armed confrontation between the Cardassians and the Enterprise, which would lead to a resumption of war.  Wesley is on the surface when a villager and a Cardassian are struggling over a weapon, and a Cardassian is hit.  Wesley shouts “No!”—and everything stops.

 Across the frozen tableau, Laconta strides towards Wesley.  “You pulled yourself out of time,” he tells Wesley.  “You took the first step…to another plane of existence, another way of thinking…You’ve found a new beginning for yourself. The first step on a journey that few humans will ever undertake.” 

Laconta then reveals himself as the Traveler, who offers to take Wesley with him.  “You’ve evolved to a new level—you’re ready to explore places where thought and energy combine in ways you can’t even imagine.  And I will be your guide, if you would like.”  

 They leave, with the Dorvan Five situation unresolved. The Traveler tells Wesley to have faith in the others’ ability to solve things on their own. “They must find their own destinies.”

 After Picard pleads with him not to restart the horrors of war, Gul Evek pulls back from confrontation.  An arrangement is made for the Native villagers to remain on Dorvan Five, but under Cardassian jurisdiction. Anthwara believes Picard has “wiped clean a very old stain of blood.” 

The final scene is Wesley’s transporter room sendoff by Doctor Crusher and Captain Picard. “Where will you go?” Picard asks. “The Traveler said that my studies would begin with these people,” meaning the Natives on Dorvan Five.  “He said that they’re aware of many things.  I can learn a lot from them.” 

 After emotional goodbyes, his transporter trace ends with a benevolent smile, and Beverly and Picard leave together, mother and father-figure, with the prospect of never seeing their son again on his unimaginable journey.

 Though Laconta and the Traveler seemingly being the same person complicates things, that the Traveler has Wesley begin his explorations with this Native culture is also a major moment: a further acknowledgement of the legitimacy, the importance, of their very different knowledge and point of view.

Star Trek crews explore the universe with high technology, and they meet other technological species. But from the beginning, the Star Trek universe has included beings that defy the science upon which those technologies are based.  They reflect aspects of reality that these sciences don’t touch.  Each contact with another culture raises questions of ethics and principle, and causes them to reevaluate their sense of themselves and their place in the universe.

 Similarly, Star Trek ships are crewed by individuals responsible for using and maintaining that technology. Their jobs require technical skill and knowledge, and often enough, technical creativity and brilliance. But beginning especially aboard the Enterprise-D of the Next Generation, many of those individuals explore other aspects of their inner beings, through music, art, books, drama, dance as well as spiritual pursuits and engaging with animals and plants. 

 They explore history and archaeology, engage in rituals, and explore their minds through psychology and meditation.  They confront ethical questions, both in relation to other species and each other.  They pursue relationships and confront elements of their past relationships, including family. They do so individually and in groups, and they support each other’s endeavors.  In other words, they take care of the machinery, but they also cultivate soul.

 This is what has set Star Trek apart from other space opera.  Star Trek takes another step in this episode by recognizing a way of seeing and experiencing reality different from the technological and sometimes technocratic premises and practices of the dominant culture, by a culture with more ancient roots on Earth.

 It would not be the last time a Star Trek story explored cultures with such beliefs—these became more common in DS9 and Voyager.  The results were mixed and arguably superficial, but they were acknowledgements. 

 In this episode, however, a particular move is made: the core beliefs of Native Americans and many Indigenous peoples is linked to the realities beyond scientific knowledge and mindset, the unimaginable “levels of existence” known to the Traveler—and that Q on occasion suggested to Picard. 

 This is daring, and causes a certain amount of disbelief, resentment and even anger among some Star Trek viewers.   Yet it is a vital contribution to the soul of Star Trek.

Moreover, among Native peoples these beliefs have motivated practical care for life and the Earth that is the basis for ecology. Today's Native tribes often practice sound ecological science on their tribal lands, and several are taking on responsibility in managing national parks and forests, because of their commitment and expertise.  These sciences and these transcendent beliefs coexist. 

 It is worth noting that this episode aired in early 1994. Beginning in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus to the New World, there was an unprecedented degree of attention to the history, arts, literature, beliefs and contemporary lives of the Native American peoples who had been living in that New World for thousands of years. 

 The relevance of these beliefs to the plight of the planet Earth became more recognized, as did the sometimes uncomfortable relationships of some Indigenous beliefs to ideas implied by the most advanced physics. 

  This episode, like others from the seventh season (for instance, “Phantams,” “Parallels,” “Genesis” and “All Good Things) and before (such as “Inner Light,” “Darmok,” “Transfigurations” and “Where No One Has Gone Before,” the first season episode in which the Traveler and Wesley meet) broke ground that led to later Trek explorations as well as the many time-dilation and multiverse stories of today.  But this episode stands out in suggesting that societies with advanced technology (historically based on heedless destruction of the natural world) are not innately superior to so-called primitive cultures—that it is not a question of a linear “superior” versus “inferior” civilization, or a sense of evolution as “progress” towards high technology. 

 Granted it is only a suggestion: there is not much depth in this episode.  Profound ideas can sound trite without context or relationship.  But the basics—the sense of sacredness of nature and community, and the consequent attitudes of respect and connection—are correctly if simply stated.  By definition the sacred is not to be disrespected, dishonored or carelessly exploited.  

This is also the respect for life that is at the center of many TNG episodes—be it alien life of a previously unencountered kind, or sentience in machines.  There are hints that this respect extends to environments, though the issue of self-destructive exploitation arises too seldom.  In this regard, I note one of the special features to the latest TNG movie collection that discusses the villains in Star Trek features.  Towards the end when villains of 9 of the first 10 features were described, writer and director Nicholas Meyer asks, Who is the villain in Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home?.. "It’s us.” 

 It is human beings who hunted the whales to near extinction.  There are Native peoples who traditionally hunted whales, but they consider them sacred, so they take only what they need, with respect and rituals of appreciation.  This is just one aspect of these cultures that mitigates against hunting whales to extinction, or otherwise destroying their environment for future generations.  The respect for life--and our planetary life support--is more than logical (at least in human terms.)  It is a profound outcome of a certain understanding of the universe.

In “Journey’s End,” the two journeys that end and begin again will eventually be joined by a third new journey, when Captain Picard faces a situation very similar to what he found on Dorvan Five, but makes a very different decision.  That’s the subject of the third TNG feature film, Star Trek: Insurrection.

Thanks to Trekcore for screencap images.

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