Up in here, up in here
Y'all gonna make me go all out
Up in here, up in here
Y'all gonna make me act the fool
Up in here, up in here
Y'all gonna make me lose my cool
Up in here, up in here
Y'all niggas is characters, not even good actors"
DMX - Party Up (Up in Here)
Before I go on to the main event: Wil Wheaton was not a good actor in The Next Generation. He was a mediocre wannabe child star whose portrayal of his role consisted mostly just of looking confused or over-emoting. I don't particularly care what he's done since then. I'm aware he's made a name for himself online and I've seen him guest starring on The Big Bang Theory, but nothing I've read or heard by him has ever seemed erudite, artistic or clever enough for me to actively take notice of him.
That being said, Wil Wheaton was also not a bad actor. Certainly not by TV standards, or by Star Trek standards. I'll still take him over Shatner anyday. He seemingly got a lot of hate during and immediately after TNG's run, most of which really should have been directed at the incredibly cheesy scripts the poor guy had to read off without bursting into laughter. Give him some credit for managing to make the best of bad writing.
Much as I said in reference to the internet phenomenon Leeroy Jenkins, I don't particularly care about the player behind the role so much as the role itself and its impact. Like Tasha Yar, Wesley Crusher makes a good object lesson in how not to develop a character. Now on to my take on that dread malady inflicting so many ST:TNG scripts, Wesleyitis.
Where No One Has Gone Before
Already discussed here but it set the tone for most Weasely episodes after. Wesley's scenes had pretty much nothing to do with the rest of the action. Every five to ten minutes characters were simply forced to stop whatever they were doing to gaze in rapt admiration and lavish servile adulation on the Enterprise's wunderkind... who hadn't actually done anything yet!
Baywatch in space!
There's a decent SciFi plot about a sentient race reaching the capacity for self-governance buried somewhere in this episode but you'll have to dig it out of the endless gratuitous panoramas of chiseled and/or curvy young blond(e)s in loincloths. If you manage that, you'd still be left with scene after scene of Picard and Beverly Crusher lamenting poor, innocent Wesley about to be put to death for jaywalking. Never mind the real question should've been of enlightened despotism, superstition, selective enforcement, yadda-yadda. We need to take half an hour to discuss how much we like Wesley, how dedicated we are to Wesley's safety, how we're all willing to get court-martialed to save Wesley, how special Wesley is, it's always Wesley, Wesley, Marcia!
One of the biggest issues with an artificially inflated character like this is that it just gobbles up screen time by the reel. Everything he does, every line, every gesture, every pregnant pause requires an extra layer of gravitas to reinforce his specialness in the absence of his actually doing anything special.
More critically, a disease like Wesleyitis will spread inexorably to cripple the rest of the cast, and if you want a perfect example you can watch the first episode where Data's evil
More so, Wesley needs to look like a martyr willing to go against the current to stand for what's right, the last righteous man, etc. but of course since his whole situation is actually so safe, so simplistic, so... milquetoast, it's the other characters around him who suddenly have to begin telling him off for no reason instead of kissing his ass as usual to make us sympathize with our poor downtrodden boy wonder's plight. It gets to the point where Picard has to switch gears, completely against his image as a stern, calculating father figure, and begin acting like a hotheaded petty bully.
Though I think we can all agree the phrase "shut up Wesley" should've cropped up much more often.
Coming of Age
"It's a good thing you're cute, Wesley, or you could really be obnoxious."
So sayeth the first of Wesley's one-episode love interests. Already discussed here but I wanted to add that this particular line grabbed my attention. Wesley's obnoxious precisely because he's cute, because we're supposed to buy him as a transcendent genius yet also somehow the all-American boy next door, praised and adored six ways from Sunday but also somehow struggling against some imagined antagonistic resistance to his messianic destiny.
Oh, ye gods. What is there to even say about this one?
Wesley falls in love with a beautiful young high-cheekboned space princess, except she turns out to be a shapeshifting space yeti princess instead! Oh noes!
apparently) and something about the other shriveled old shapeshifting yeti nursemaid's costume and demeanor immediately reminds one of a Bene Gesserit, especially when squaring off against Gurney Halleck.
One Day, One Room scenario. Instead it's forty minutes of sappy adolescent angst that'd make Romeo and Juliet roll their eyes and gag, brightened only by a few short scenes of the crusty, hard-nosed old bat arguing with Picard, Pulaski, Geordi or Worf or whoever gets in her way.
Take notice: Wesley's romances must needs fit the "star-crossed" recipe. It can never be the case that they meet and turn out to have hilariously nothing in common, or the girl turns out to be a racist sadist with bad breath or heaven forfend, she's perfect but just has no sexual interest in our hero. Wesley gets the cream of the crop and they all fall madly in love with him but wouldn't you know it, the universe itself conspires to keep them apart!
So I gotta say, Wes, buddy, so she gets a little hairy in the mornings, so what? She's a shapeshifting princess. You're not gonna do any better. Go for it, dude. Hit that like it's a shag rug.
When the Bough Breaks
And yet, Wesley's mere presence didn't spell doom for quite every episode in which he appeared. Here, despite playing a fairly central role, his impact is limited to that of a clever and brave young space cadet and not allowed to completely overshadow the rest of the cast. Kidnapped along with other, younger children, Wesley's mostly shown to act as their de facto leader without simply setting all things to rights by wiggling his nose. A hero, but within marginally more believable bounds.
By mid season 2 the show's writing had begun to improve, and this included a better sense of the wunderkind's proper proportions among the cast. Epidemics of Wesleyitis still occurred (note The Dauphin aired just five episodes prior) but when Weasely occupied the B-plot instead of the main event he grew gradually more and more bearable. Here he's put in charge of a geologic survey team (or the 24th century equivalent thereof) and winds up running the correct scientific test to help Data keep a cute little girl's planet from exploding. Some tediously drawn out coming of age dialogue between him and Riker still eats into the science fiction plot and the more interesting discussion of the prime directive, but at least the brat's not farting rainbows any more. His superior intellect supports Geordi and Data's own superior intellects and their greater experience.
The main plot here's worth discussing another time. The B-plot involves Wesley and Picard riding a shuttle to a space station.
Two men in a boat. Again, the trite and superfluous coming of age crap eats sizeable chunks of air time, yet much less painfully than before. Their dialogues are used more efficiently, not only to lavish attention on The Chosen One but to also reveal more about Picard and at the same time reveal more about ordinary life in the far future. Picard's storytelling does a good job of outlining a society still changing, still advancing, and Wesley seems more like a young ensign learning from an honored superior and not the promised child blinding all others with the light upon his brow. Cheap and effective scenes, when used sparingly. I like 'em.
When Wesley passes his Starfleet exams, it's not to any world-shaking consequences and no hangers-on wait at his elbow to tell him how great he is, unlike in "Coming of Age."
Ironic that Roddenberry et co. created Wesley Crusher a decade after the term "Mary Sue" came into being in relation to bad fan fictions of the original Star Trek universe, as though they aimed to parody themselves. Endless rants have been scribed on the topic, I'm sure.
I'd rather frame things thus: Wesley was a fantasy character misplaced in a science fiction setting. Science Fiction is bottom-up. Fantasy is top-down. SF is evolution while Fantasy's creationism. Things happen in Fantasy books because "it's magic" because of the mysterious machinations of wills beyond the ken of mortals. Things happen in SF due to rational agents making them happen out of nuts and bolts. The Wesley in Pen Pals uses scientific (by Star Trek standards) knowledge to arrive at a plan of action and executes it with limited and not entirely predictable results - but that's a rare occurence. The Wesley in most Wesley episodes need do no more than lay on hands to a starship engine and furrow his brow to make it work. He should have been Ender Wiggin. He was written as a prelude to Harry Potter. Instead of a super-intellect who learns from real-world phenomena and builds his understanding of the world, taking action according to his abilities and the constraints of his environment, Wesley was introduced as simply... "special" in some nondescript magical way. Every single person he meets fawns over him ceaselessly, he meets no adversity whatsoever, yet at the same time we're meant to buy his being oh-so put-upon in some nebulous fashion, until other characters have to be re-written around him in order to fit these fantasies of perfection and persecution.
Now, while Harry's annoying enough at Hogwarts, he was an utter disaster aboard the Enterprise.
By the end of season two when he became borderline bearable, it was already too late, time to excise the tumor because no treatment could fix the damage already done. If you're gonna come up with a character like this, first try to figure out whether you're writing SF or Fantasy.