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The Real Reason Wil Wheaton Left Star Trek: The Next Generation

Stardate: 1987. Little did the science fiction world know it, but the folks at (the now-defunct) Paramount Domestic Television were about to boldly go where few folks ever thought a TV series would go again — back into the world of Star Trek. The new iteration of the franchise first created in 1965 by Gene Roddenberry was returning to the final frontier with a clear and present mission: to bring Star Trek to a new generation of small-screen fans.

This was clearly reflected in the series' title, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the fact that not a single member of the original show's cast was involved in the project as series regulars. (A few familiar faces, like Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy actor DeForest Kelley and Montgomery "Scotty" Scott actor James Doohan, appeared on The Next Generation, but weren't by any means permanent fixtures.)

As such, The Next Generation was set several decades after the adventures of Kirk and Spock, and saw Capt. Jean-Luc Picard leading a slew of new Starfleet stalwarts. Among the new faces in The Next Generation's inaugural season were lauded UK thespian Patrick Stewart, a rash of virtual unknowns, and a fresh-faced, up-and-coming teen actor named Wil Wheaton, who was cast as a brilliant young Starfleet Ensign named Wesley Crusher.

Wheaton won the coveted role on the strength of his prior work in several film and television projects, including a starring turn in Rob Reiner's beloved coming-of-age drama Stand By Me. For The Next Generation's first three seasons, the young actor featured prominently in the series' storylines, more than holding his own opposite his older co-stars. Then, at the end of TNG's third season, Wesley Crusher was unexpectedly written out of the show, which left many fans wondering what might have led to the decision. 

Here's the real reason Wil Wheaton left Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Wil Wheaton was eyeing greener pastures when he left Star Trek: The Next Generation

Despite persistent rumors that Star Trek: The Next Generation's creative team forced Wheaton off the show because fans didn't like his precocious character, it's become quite clear that the decision to leave TNG was Wheaton's own. Wheaton himself has been quite candid about that fact over the years, admitting as much to Entertainment Weekly as early as 1996. EW reported that the actor claimed he was frustrated with the character's limitations, and was genuinely afraid he'd spend the rest of his career recalling his glory days on Star Trek.

Given the general track record of Star Trek alums' post-Trek career trajectories (Sir Patrick Stewart being the rare exception), it's hard to argue with that. And given Wheaton's age (he was just 18 when he left the series), one could hardly blame him for wanting to find out what else show business had in store for him. Though the actor has been earning raves in recent years (particularly for a recurring role as his evil self on The Big Bang Theory), it's safe to say Wheaton's post-Trek career didn't pan out quite the way he'd hoped.

Still, Wheaton has kept himself gainfully employed on he fringes of Hollywood over the years, and we can only assume his high profile work on The Big Bang Theory has opened a few more doors to him. Though he doubts it'll happen, Wheaton would love for the future to include an appearance as Wesley Crusher opposite Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard in the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard. "I think it is very unlikely they will ask me to participate in it," Wheaton deadpanned in a recent interview. "I mean, I think it is just extraordinarily unlikely that will happen. If they did, I would say 'yes,' of course" (via CinemaBlend).

Wil Wheaton takes a very adult tone about his Star Trek: The Next Generation departure

Even if that Star Trek: Picard appearance never comes to fruition, it appears that Wheaton has finally made peace with his departure from the TNG, and more importantly, with his co-stars. When asked about both during a 2012 convention appearance, Wheaton had nothing but kind words for his TNG experience (via Trek News).

"I left Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was 18 years old, and initially I thought it was a really smart business career move," he explained. "In some ways it was, and in more ways it wasn't. What I wasn't prepared for was how much I was going to miss [my cast mates] and how much I was going to miss the spacesuit that I hated wearing and the helmet hair, that I couldn't stand putting on. After I left the show... I just sort of [said], 'I'm going to go out into the world and do my own thing,' and I didn't see anybody. That went on for awhile."

Wheaton went on to say, "After that ended, I just felt really ashamed of myself. I felt like I just couldn't go to the set — I felt like I couldn't look them in the eye, and that I couldn't invite them to my wedding. Years after that, I sort of saw them at a few conventions and I just, you know, I just sort of [said], 'I apologize for being a kid'... [and] everyone said, 'Yeah, you were just a kid, you were always welcome, you're always part of us.'"

Call us crazy, but it certainly sounds like our little Ensign Crusher is finally all grown up.