Picard retreats to the back cabin to study up on the relevant mining laws, leaving Wes to serve as Dirgo's co-pilot. Dirgo suspects the miners will be too much for Picard to handle, but Wes, not exactly impressed with Dirgo, defends his captain. Not long after their departure, Dirgo's rather ancient shuttle malfunctions, forcing them to crash-land on a desert moon orbiting Pentarus III. They manage to land safely enough to avoid injuries, but the ship is left inoperable. As Dirgo traveled light, all they have for supplies is a basic medical kit. Picard uses pieces of the wreckage to form an arrow on the ground in the direction of some distant mountains, toward which they set out. Dirgo objects, but Picard reminds him that they don't have any other options. Picard takes point, while Dirgo struggles to keep up behind Wesley, who reminds him of how he didn't think Picard was tough enough. As Wes moves forward, however, Dirgo stops to take a swig from a hidden flask.
The Enterprise arrives at Gamelan V, and discovers that the mystery ship is basically an abandoned garbage scow, carrying some forgotten race's nuclear waste, which has drifted into this system. The crew determines that the best way to get rid of it is to send the barge into the local sun, but there are complications: there's an asteroid belt between them and the sun, and using the tractor beam puts the crew at risk of being fatally irradiated. La Forge and Data come up with a plan to use construction drones to attach thrusters to the barge to control it remotely, but the hull plate one of the thrusters is attached to breaks off, forcing Riker to use the tractor beam after all.
Picard, Wesley, and Dirgo reach a cave in the mountains, at which time Wes catches Dirgo drinking from his flask. Dirgo explains that it's not water, but "dresci," an alcoholic drink from his homeworld. Picard confiscates it for the medical kit, citing it would be better used as a coolant or disinfectant. Meanwhile, Wes has been tracking some elevated energy readings, which lead them to what appears to be a natural water fountain. The fountain is protected by a force field, however, and when Dirgo fires his phaser in an attempt to disrupt the field, it unleashes a burst of energy that knocks the weapon out of his hand and encases it (the weapon, not the hand) in some sort of hardened compound. Before anyone can react, a landslide starts, and Picard knocks Wesley out of the way of the falling rocks, sustaining severe injuries in the process.
Dirgo makes another attempt to disrupt the field, but gets himself encased by the energy "sentry" for his troubles, which kills him. Wesley is left alone to try to figure out how to disable the field to get to the much-needed water, while keeping Picard awake and alert. Picard tells Wes that he envies him for the adventures he's about to have with so much of his life before him, and advises Wes to seek out a man named Boothby at the Academy—a man Picard considers the wisest on campus, even though he's the groundskeeper. Wes confesses that his hard work on the Enterprise was all so that Picard would be proud of him; the captain replies that he's always been proud of Wesley.
The Enterprise manages to use the tractor beam to slingshot the barge past the asteroids and into the Gamelan sun, at which point they return to the Pentarus system to join in the search. Back at the cave, Wes combines his tricorder and communicator to attempt to disable the force field by confusing its "sentry," which proves successful. He's finally able to get some water to Picard.
When they are found, Wes has fallen asleep and is woken up by his mother. Picard is being carried out on a stretcher, but is expected to recover. The captain and the ensign exchange barbs about their dirty uniforms, before Picard grabs Wesley's hand and tells him, "You will be missed."
Tropes featured in this episode include:
- A Day in the Limelight: For Wesley Crusher, proving that Wil Wheaton can do pretty well with the character when the writers give him a believable part in a decent story that doesn't make him the annoying kid or the boy supergenius.
- Asteroid Thicket: The garbage scow needs to be towed through one of these in order to be disposed of properly. The thicket itself does not pose a danger to the Enterprise while they navigate it, but it could damage the scow further, so they can't just launch it towards the sun without clearing the asteroids first. They barely manage to get through in time before the radiation from the barge reaches lethal levels.
- Call-Back: While talking to Picard in an attempt to keep him conscious, Wesley brings up the last occasion he and Picard spent an extended period alone together, in "Samaritan Snare," admitting how nervous the assignment made him.
- Captain Crash: Nice going, Dirgo.
- Chew-Out Fake-Out: Picard yells at Wesley for showing up on the bridge late before telling him that he's been accepted into Starfleet Academy.
- Lampshaded near the end when Picard asks (as he is being taken out of the cave) why Wesley's uniform is so dirty. Wesley is wise to this, however, by responding that Picard himself is in terrible shape.
- Continuity Nod: A delirious Picard mumbles the same song that he and his brother sang while drunk.
- Crossing the Desert: Dirgo's shuttle crash-lands in the middle of a large, flat desert. Sheltering in the wreckage isn't an option, as it would quickly turn into an oven, so Picard, Wesley, and Dirgo have to cross the plain with no water and minimal sun protection in order to find a cave in the nearest mountain range.
- Exact Time to Failure: The Enterprise computer counts down how many seconds are left before the radiation becomes lethal.
- Hurl It into the Sun: The disposal method for the garbage scow.
- I'm Cold... So Cold...: Picard, as much from his internal bleeding as from the falling temperature when the sun sets.
- No One Should Survive That: Captain Picard, according to Dirgo.Dirgo: With those wounds, most men would already be dead.
- Put on a Bus: Wesley Crusher, as Wil Wheaton wanted to pursue a movie career. He reappears a few times during seasons 5 and 7, though.
- Rubber-Forehead Aliens: Dirgo is a Pentaran. His set of forehead ridges mark him as alien, but also give the impression of a grizzled old man—which he is also.
- Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The episode works on a premise that the Enterprise has to tow the garbage scow away from the planet to avoid casualties, even at great risk to themselves, when they could have conceivably simply flung the ship away with their tractor beam in any direction without inhabited planets within the same star system, and then arranged for an unmanned ship to tow it to its final destination within the next several thousand years, before it could conceivably endanger anyone else, even by chance.
- So Proud of You: Picard expresses his pride in and admiration of Wesley while lying injured, in case he doesn't make it out. He reaffirms the sentiment when they are rescued. Picard also admits to a certain amount of envy—Wesley is young and has a lifetime of adventures still ahead of him.
- Thirsty Desert: Lambda Paz is a desert moon of Pentarus III with an average temperature of 55°C (131°F, roughly the same temperature as Death Valley, California)! With the shuttle's replicator damaged in the crash and no backup supplies to speak of (Dirgo liked to travel light), the castaways have to find shelter sans any food or water.
- Too Dumb to Live:
- Dirgo kills himself in the same way he almost killed Picard earlier, and gets Wesley and Picard into further trouble as a result.
- He also refused to pack water and emergency rations onto his shuttle, relying entirely on the onboard replicator and some alcohol despite having enough cargo space.
- Underestimating Badassery: Durgo doesn't think Picard looks very tough, yet Picard is better at handling the desert. Wesley, of course, reminds him of this:Wesley: And you were worried about how tough the captain is?
- What Happened to the Mouse?: So...about the Peace Conference that Picard was supposed to mediate?
- You Are in Command Now: Sort of. Picard, knowing that he's out of action, tells Wesley to keep Dirgo on a tight leash.