'The Next Generation's Wil Wheaton on Returning to 'Star Trek' for 'The First Duty' 30 Years Ago (Flashback)

Wheaton chatted with ET on the set about filming a watershed moment in Wesley Crusher's journey after leaving the Enterprise 1701-D.

Star Trek: The Next Generation checked in with Wesley Crusher at Starfleet Academy in “The First Duty," an apt episode title and moment of symmetry following Wil Wheaton's exit as a full-time cast member in "The Final Mission."

ET spoke with then 19-year-old Wheaton behind the scenes of the season 5 episode, which originally aired 30 years ago this week. In this on-set interview, the former child star opened up about his decision to leave TNG and what it was like to return to his roots. 

“It's weird coming back and being a 'guest star.' Look at this chair. It has no name on it,” Wheaton told ET in 1992, gesturing in amazement at his unlabeled chair on set at Paramount Studios. The studio lot was a second home for the actor starting with TNG's debut in 1987 through his 1990 departure (he previously returned to the Enterprise in “The Game” earlier in that same season). 

Entertainment Tonight (left) / Paramount (right)

“The First Duty” catches the 1701-D's former acting ensign mid-scandal, following a training accident that led to the death of one of his fellow cadets. Wesley is put at the center of a formal inquiry, along with the rest of his team members that make up Nova Squad, an elite group of student pilots. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) gets involved and soon discovers there's more to the story than what's been offered. As it turns out, the cadet died while attempting a dangerous flying stunt. Not only that, he had been peer-pressured by the flight squadron after initially voicing his concerns about pulling it off.

Picard implores him to reveal the truth -- "the truth" also being revealed as the titular "first duty" of Starfleet -- at the academy tribunal, along with sharing his disappointment in Wesley's actions. It was a shocking development for the character. First introduced as the Enterprise's boy genius, Wesley was all but destined to become an exemplary Starfleet officer under the mentorship from a legendary captain like Jean-Luc.


While Star Trek had already seen its fair share of trial-centric plots (see “The Menagerie,” “The Measure of a Man,” “The Drumhead” and many others), Wheaton recognized “The First Duty” was throwing a layer of ABC Afterschool Special into the mix. “The [problem is] between Wesley's loyalties to the principles of Starfleet and his loyalty to his friends,” he teased at the time.

As he reflected on his decision to depart the series nearly two years earlier, the Stand by Me star said it was a choice that reflected his age.

“I left to go off to do films and try to expand my career. And sort of stretch my limits,” Wheaton recalled. “It's a time of transition. A time of change. That's where I am and that goes through everything. It transcends acting.”

"This is like coming home for me,” he added. “I always have a terrific time here. I adore the cast.” 

After roles in movies like Toy Soldiers and December, Wheaton's later appearances on TNG weren’t the result of a “formal agreement" with the production. Rather, it was simply when producers “have a good script” and he’s “got the time.”


Despite the episode’s serious tone, Wheaton praised the other actors who made up Nova Squad for creating a fun week of filming. “I have had such a wonderful time with the three other actors that are playing the other people who are on my team at Starfleet Academy. I've had more fun with them in two days than I've had with just about every cast I've worked with in years,” Wheaton said. “If they would do a show with us again, then I would be here in a second.”

While Nova Squad did later pop up on Deep Space Nine, the group had found new members and Wheaton’s impromptu pitch never came to be. But it wasn’t the last time his co-stars found themselves in Star Trek. Shannon Fill, who played cadet Sito Jaxa, reprised her role in TNG's “Lower Decks,” the episode that in part led to Mike McMahan’s comedic take on Gene Roddenberry’s universe. Meanwhile, Robert Duncan McNeill, who played ringleader Nicholas Locarno, was later cast as pilot Tom Paris on Voyager (Paris was actually inspired by McNeill's performance as Locarno but producers ultimately decided early on to make them separate characters).

As for Wheaton, he returned as Wesley for two more episodes before the series ended in 1994. Following his last appearance in “Journey’s End,” where Wesley decides to leave Starfleet and follow a more spiritual path with The Traveler, the character’s canonical whereabouts remain up in the air today. But Wheaton himself can be found whenever a new Star Trek episode debuts as host of Paramount+’s after-show, The Ready Room

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Back on the set in 1992, Wheaton noted a change in the on-screen texture of TNG because “there’s no kid on it anymore.” Indeed, having a young character within the main ensemble became a Star Trek trademark following Wesley’s presence. DS9 had Commander Sisko’s son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton), and Voyager saw more than a few kiddos crawling in their Jeffries tubes (of course, today there’s a whole crew of youthful voices on Nickelodeon’s Star Trek: Prodigy).

In the time since he left TNG’s orbit, Wheaton learned how important teenage representation had been for the franchise’s passionate fanbase. 

“I've been getting a lot of letters from kids, from early teenagers, to 5 to 10-year-olds, saying they miss Wesley. And letters from their parents saying he was such a positive role model,” Wheaton explained. “They say that they miss that.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation, along with every Star Trek series, streams on Paramount+. The Ready Room also streams on Paramount+ and YouTube.


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