In this episode, the crew are sent to investigate mysterious goings on within a research vessel, and end up bringing some kind of infection back to the Enterprise that turns the whole ship into a frat party. An alcohol virus, of sorts. Everyone’s walking around acting like they’ve had a snoot full, even Data.
In the midst of all this, young drunken Wesley goes on a deep fake power trip and impersonates the Captain’s voice to get the senior staff out of engineering. Then he sets up a force field, pulls a few little blue chips out of a console, and now he has full control over all the ship’s systems. Easy as that, eh? Meanwhile, a sun explodes, and a big piece of star is heading straight for the ship, threatening to destroy them all. What suspense!
The crew do their best to keep their heads despite their intoxication. Many fail. A lot of hooking up goes on, including the start of Data and Yar’s relationship. Eventually, Wesley comes up with a way to buy them some time as data puts those little blue chips back in the console, and they manage to get away.
There are many lessons to be learned from this exercise. Firstly, it is really easy to take over the Enterprise. Like, really fucking easy. You just pull a few blue things out and Bob’s your uncle, the ship’s yours.
Second, the crew obviously didn’t learn the lessons of the Coronavirus pandemic of the early 21st century. An infectious virus spreading round the ship, and no lockdown. Not a face mask in sight. Not that this would do any good, since this thing was spread by contact. No one seems even the least bit concerned about containing the spread of this thing, not even Crusher, who, after learning she was infected thought “I know, I’ll go to the bridge and infect all the senior officers too!” You’d think they’d break out the hazmat suits or something.
But the key lesson here is self-discipline. We see that some crew members are completely at the mercy of the virus, while others do their best to stay in control, to varying degrees of success. We see LaForge and Picard putting up a fight, but many others are unable to hold it together. Perhaps the best response was from Riker, who starts to feel the effects, but doesn’t fall completely under them like the others do. Through self-discipline they were able to solve the problem at hand.
You’re not likely to find yourself infected by a frat party virus while a piece of sun is hurtling towards you. But you will experience many analogous life situations. Your child does something that upsets you, and you have to keep calm and deal with them in a productive way instead of losing yourself to anger. You have an exam coming up and you have to drag yourself to the books instead of, well, going to a frat party. Your alarm goes off at 6am and you’re about to go for that jog… but the bed is so comfortable…
Self-discipline, or willpower, is a pretty complex concept.
Perhaps some people do naturally have more willpower than others. I think this is probably true – a number of studies show that people differ in a personality trait called conscientiousness, which is partly related to willpower, at least in the aspect of conforming to pre-defined rules, whether self-imposed or imposed from the outside. We also know that some people show more impulsiveness than others.
But I don’t think it’s a simple trait that you either have or you don’t.
There is also probably a domain-specific aspect to willpower. There are people who are extremely disciplined when it comes to their careers, but struggle to maintain their weight. There are those who can get a six pack pretty easily, but struggle to control their anger.
It also overlaps with motivation. Think of Data in this episode – to encourage him to put the control chips back in the console, Wesley tells data it’s like a game – it becomes something he wants to do, rather than something he has to force himself to do. But this is not discipline – at least not purely. I would say motivation (which may be created through desire, morals, duty, rivalry etc) is like creating a wind behind you to push you along, and self-discipline is dragging yourself forward even when there’s no wind behind you.
What Riker and others demonstrate here is the ability to keep control over yourself and your actions, not only when there’s no wind behind you, but when the wind is actually blowing towards you, and you’re working against it.
Discipline isn’t something that you get, and then have forever. It’s something that you must consciously employ, and by it’s very definition, will be hard to do. David Blaine, who has performed many feats taking incredible discipline, has said that when he’s not performing or preparing for such a stunt, he often displays very low self-discipline. But when it’s time to switch it on, he can do so – even if he has to drag himself into it.
Once you get going, it’s easier because you have inertia. You see Data go through this phase – after he starts getting into the task of replacing the control chips, we see his demeanour change, he becomes more focused, more serious, more sober.
But how do you get it?
Regardless of your “natural” or “starting” level of self-discipline (if there even is such a thing), it is something that simply takes practice to develop – and you get better the more you do it. Some researchers liken willpower to a muscle, and recommend exercising it.
If it’s 11pm and you’ve just gotten into bed but realise you forgot some chore, like taking the rubbish out or washing up the dishes, you won’t want to get out of that nice, comfortable bed. It’s no big deal to wait for tomorrow. But if you get up, do the chore, and get back to bed, you’ve exercised your self-discipline a little bit. Think of it as like doing a rep at the gym. The more you do, the stronger your willpower “muscle” is likely to become.
That’s the essence of building willpower. To be self-disciplined means to do things that you don’t want to do – or not do things that you do want to do. So to build it, you do exactly that.
Start small. building self-discipline takes time, so start with small changes and gradually increase the level of difficulty. For example, start by setting a small daily goal, making the bed, going for a 10-minute walk, practising meditation, and so on.
Of course, after a while, things like this become habitual. How much willpower does it take to brush your teeth? Probably none, right? You just do it. But you probably needed some persuasion to do it when you were younger. So as things become habitual, you’ll need to up the difficulty or create new challenges.
Remember, it has to be something you find a chore, or don’t want to do. As I write this, I realise it sounds like a crappy piece of advice – go do things you don’t want to do!
But it’s not supposed to be fun in that moment. It’s supposed to build a resource you can use in the future, the next time you face your own personal frat-party-imminent-death-by-supernova scenario.
Addendum: Additional Lessons
- Mitigating circumstances. Despite Wesley essentially committing an act of treason and nearly getting everyone killed on their second mission, Picard decides not to have the boy thrown in the brig or executed or whatever. In fact, he even agrees he should be commended in a log. Because it wasn’t Wesley’s fault – he was under the influence. And he did come through in the end.
- Smooth talker. The chat up line “I am programmed in multiple techniques” might be worth a punt.