The Enterprise returns to Earth for Starfleet's commencement ceremony, where Picard is scheduled to give the address, only to learn that Cadet Wesley Crusher has been involved in a tragic incident; he is not seriously harmed, but his friend, classmate, and fellow member of Nova Squadron Joshua Albert has died in a flight accident. When Picard tries to learn more about what happened from Wesley, the young cadet is evasive about the subject. The discussion is interrupted by Nicholas Locarno, a classmate and Wesley's leader in Nova Squadron, who is just as saddened over Albert's death as everyone. When Picard leaves, however, Locarno tells Wesley not to worry about the inquiries; they have nothing to fear, so long as they stick together...
When Locarno, Wesley, and their squadmates are called in for the inquiry, Locarno recounts how Nova Squadron was attempting a Yeager loop near Saturn's moon of Titan in the diamond slot formation, but Albert's shuttle collided with another, causing a chain reaction that lead to all five ships in the squadron being destroyed. Everyone except for Albert were able to transport to safety. Jean Hajar, the squadron's navigator, reluctantly admits that she had changed their flight plan. Sito Jaxa, who was flying in the rear, claims to not be aware of how the accident occurred exactly due to flying by sensors alone—not a recommended procedure for the maneuvers they were attempting. Locarno manages to defuse the situation by placing blame on Albert, who he claims panicked while flying and caused the accident.
The proceedings are dismissed afterwards while data from Wesley's flight recorder is examined. Locarno reminds Wesley to trust in him.
While the proceedings are in recess, Picard and La Forge look into the accident themselves. Meanwhile, Wesley and the other members of Nova Squadron are stressed over the investigation, but Locarno warns them that they must stay together. He tells Wesley that his flight recorder was damaged in the accident and only has data on what happened before the crash, so Wesley doesn't need to testify to anything his recorder doesn't prove. Wesley doesn't feel comfortable lying, but Sito suggests not to lie, but simply to not volunteer any more information.
After meeting with Albert's father and realizing that even he blames his son for the accident, Wesley tells the inquiry board what Locarno coached him to say. However, a satellite had recorded their ships in a very different formation than the one he describes, for which Wesley has no explanation...
Even in spite of contradicting evidence from the satellite, everyone, especially Beverly, believes Wesley's story and plans to try to delay the inquiry, distressing Wesley. All the while, Picard continues to investigate the accident on his own. He learns from Boothby, the kindly old groundskeeper, that after winning the Rigel Cup, Wesley and the other members of Nova Squadron became highly popular among fellow cadets, and that the entire squadron were loyal to Locarno. La Forge can't find any evidence as to what exactly caused the accident, but does find one peculiar detail regarding Wesley's shuttle: its plasma interlock was open, when it was supposed to be closed to prevent the shuttle's plasma from igniting. This leads Picard to a harrowing realization...
Picard orders Wesley to his ready room, where he reveals to the young cadet that he knows exactly what happened: Nova Squadron was attempting a Kolvoord Starburst maneuver, in which five shuttles cross each other in formation while emptying their plasma exhaust and igniting it, creating a spectacular starburst pattern. The Kolvoord Starburst maneuver was banned by Starfleet Academy over a hundred years ago after the last attempt by cadets resulted in the deaths of all involved. Picard believes Locarno wanted to leave the Academy in a blaze of glory, and manipulated Wesley and the others into performing the maneuver. Wesley tries to feign ignorance and claim that he told the truth at the inquiry, but Picard knows that Wesley only told a half-truth, which he considers the same as a lie. He recounts how, when he let Wesley onto his bridge and saw how the prodigious young man knew every control in his captain's chair, he saw great potential in him, promoting him to acting ensign and later helping him enter Starfleet Academy. Now worrying that he made these decisions in error, he gives Wesley an ultimatum: if Wesley will not tell the truth to the inquiry board, Picard will.
When Wesley returns to Earth, he recounts his discussion with Picard to Locarno. Locarno tells Wesley he only needs to dispute Picard's claims at the inquiry, but Wesley no longer feels comfortable lying and plans to tell the whole truth. Locarno accuses Wesley of betraying the team, and suggests that Wesley should instead resign his commission to save the team. After all, Locarno would do the same for them...
When the inquiry resumes, the members of Nova Squadron have their flight privileges revoked and a reprimand placed on their permanent records. Just as the proceedings are adjourned, however, Wesley speaks up and confesses that Albert died after being pressured into attempting the Kolvoord Starburst maneuver. In the face of the truth coming to light, Locarno remains silent.
In the end, Locarno is expelled from the Academy. Wesley feels he should've been expelled as well, but Picard explains that Locarno saved his squadmates' careers by taking full responsibility for Albert's death. "Just as he said he would," Wesley muses. Remaining at the Academy will not be easy, however; Wesley's credits for the year have been annulled, and he will have to live with the stigma of his actions among his peers. Picard, however, is satisfied that Wesley stepped forward in the end. He knew what was the right thing to do; all he needed was a push...
Tropes featured in this episode include:
- Adult Fear: Picard has to reassure Dr. Crusher several times that Wesley was not hurt in the accident.
- Call-Back: In "Final Mission", Picard reminisces to Wesley about his days at the Academy, including a man named Boothby who was a mentor of sorts. A year later, in "The Game", Wesley mentions having met Boothby and hearing him tell a story about Picard. Here, Boothby is fleshed out into an actual character.
- The Chains of Commanding: Upon meeting Picard, Locarno admits he's saddened at losing someone under his command. The Captain replies that it doesn't get easier.
- Continuity Nod:
- Dangerous Forbidden Technique: The Koolvord Starburst. Forbidden because the last time it was attempted a century earlier, all five cadets were killed.
- Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: When Sito is being grilled by the Admiral running the investigation over the obvious holes in her testimony, Locarno immediately steps in to metaphorically throw the deceased Albert under the bus, saying he had been having "problems" lately and blame him solely for the crash, by saying that Albert's flying was erratic and he was prone to pulling away suddenly while in close formation. A later scene confirms that this is exactly what Locarno is doing when his teammates point out he purposely blamed Albert.
- Death Glare: When Wesley goes into Picard's ready room, Picard practically says "What the Hell, Hero?" with his eyes alone. We even get a close-up of Picard's piercing, unflinching glare as he puts his monitor to one side, getting ready to lower the boom. Hope and pray that you are never as screwed as Wesley is here.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Sito's make-up looks a little different to most other Bajorans seen in the franchise (and even her own later appearance in Season 7), giving her bushy eyebrows and more pronounced nose ridges.
- "Eureka!" Moment: La Forge noting Wesley's plasma interlocks were open, which he explains could ignite the warp plasma. This leads to Picard's realization.Picard: Ignite the plasma... that's what they were trying to do.
- Get Out!: Wesley looks like he wants to reason with Picard after he gets chewed out. Picard cuts him off with a loud, booming, "Dismissed!!"
- Glory Seeker: Locarno wanted to prove Nova Squadron was the best, by mastering the Koolvord Starburst and putting on the greatest flight demonstration the Academy had ever seen.
- I Gave My Word: It happens offscreen, but in the end, it turns out Locarno took the blame and got expelled. The rest of the team got a lighter (though still pretty bad) punishment, but as Wesley notes, Locarno did exactly what he said he'd do—he looked out for his team.
- Metaphorically True: Turns out Wesley testified with this. When Picard finds out what really happened, he lets Wesley know that he sees right through his little charade.Picard: Cadet, I asked you a question. Am I correct?
Wesley: I choose not to answer, sir.
Picard: [enraged] ...you choose not to answer? But you've already given an answer to the inquiry. That answer was a lie!
Wesley: I said the accident occurred after the loop! It did!
Picard: What you neglected to mention is that following the loop, your team attempted a maneuver that was the direct cause of the crash. You told the truth, up to a point. But a lie of omission is still a lie!
- Noodle Incident:
- Whatever Boothby did to save Picard's bacon years earlier.
- Also, about that time you were sent to the superintendent's office, Picard...
- And the celebration after the Paresees Squares victory against Minsk.
- Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Dr. Crusher assuring Wesley that she knows he's telling the truth, even though he and the rest of Nova Squadron have been lying. Also a doozy from Albert's father, who details how much Albert looked up to the other cadets, and how sorry his father is for Albert 'letting them down' and almost getting the squad killed.
- Oh, Crap!:
- The look on Wesley's face (along with the rest of Nova Squadron) when an image of their flight formation contradicts the cadets' stories.
- Wesley also gets quite alert when his mother tells him that Geordi and Data are investigating his flight recorder.
- That said, it's Picard's legendary "What the Hell, Hero?" speech where Wesley really knows the jig is up.
- Parental Substitute: Riker says that the superintendent during his academy days was a Vulcan, who memorized the personnel files of every cadet."It was like having your parents around all the time."
- Posthumous Character: Joshua Albert.
- Revealing Cover Up: There are too many small inconsistencies with the cadets' testimonies for it to have played out the way they described.
- Shout-Out: The Starfleet Academy motto, Ex Astris Scientia ("From the stars, knowledge") is derived from Apollo 13's mission motto Ex Luna Scientia ("From the moon, knowledge"), which, in turn, was derived from the United States Naval Academy's motto Ex Scientia Tridens ("From knowledge, sea power").
- Spanner in the Works: Locarno's entire plan to get Nova Squadron off the hook is foiled because Picard and his people step in to figure out the truth themselves.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Years later, when Star Trek: Voyager happened, it created the character of Tom Paris, who was shown to have pulled off basically the same scheme as Locarno, with the exception being that he came clean. They're also played by the same actor (reportedly, that one was a lucky coincidence). The reasons for why this happened are a matter of some dispute; longstanding fan rumor claims it was to avoid paying royalties to the writers of this episode, but the producers have claimed it was because they saw Locarno as beyond redemption.
- Taking the Heat: Locarno accepts full responsibility to prevent the rest of Nova Squadron from being expelled along with him.
- Think Nothing of It: When Picard offers a belated, stammering apology/thank-you to Boothby for whatever happened years ago, Boothby shrugs it off, saying that it's enough that Picard has done so well in life.
- Title Drop: See What the Hell, Hero?
- Weaponized Exhaust: The Koolvord Starburst works by having the ships eject their drive plasma and then ignite it using their engines. It looks cool... if you can outrun the blast. Also subverted in that looking cool is all is does; it's not weaponized in this instance, but intended to create an improvised fireworks display.
- What the Hell, Hero?:
- A rather epic one from Picard.Picard: Do you remember the day you first came aboard this ship? Your mother brought you on the Bridge. You even sat in my chair. I was annoyed. Presumptuous child playing on my ship. But I never forgot how you already knew every control, every display. You behaved as though you belonged on the Bridge. And then later when I decided to make you an acting ensign, I was convinced you could be an outstanding officer. And I've never questioned that conviction... until now. The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth! Whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth! It is the guiding principle upon which Starfleet is based! If you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened you don't deserve to wear that uniform. I'm going to make this simple for you, Mister Crusher. Either you come forward and tell Admiral Brand what really took place, or I will.
- Locarno then gives Wesley one to try to keep him from ratting everyone out. Doesn't work so well.
- A rather epic one from Picard.