In honor of the recent birthday of Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes, let’s take a look back at some defining Riker moments in Star Trek.
Star Trek: The Next Generation would be nothing without its Number One, but even behind the camera then and now Jonathan Frakes has directed Star Trek even up through Star Trek: Discovery and some episodes of Seth MacFarlane’s ode to the franchise The Orville.
But it’s the role of William T. Riker for which he is best remembered. Let’s take a look at some episodes throughout The Next Generation which defined the character.
Measure of a Man
While getting covered in evil tar man slime in season 1’s “Skin of Evil” is a pretty memorable scene, it was Tasha Yar’s abrupt death which stole the show for that episode. So it wasn’t until season 2 when Lt. Commander Data was threatened to be carted off to the Daystrom Institute like a science project that we got to see the character of Riker shine as he was thrust into an adversarial role.
As contrived as the situation was, Riker argued a compelling case to prove that everyone’s favorite android is just a piece of Starfleet equipment instead of a living being. Despite his charming, pre-beard baby face and irresistible charisma, it was hard not to hate him when he switched off Data and said, “Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut.”
A Matter of Perspective
When he isn’t forced to invalidate the individual rights of his fellow officers, Riker is the ultimate good guy. Picard couldn’t ask for a more dutiful and respectable first officer. So when Riker is accused not only of seducing a scientist’s wife, but of also murdering her husband, suddenly we are faced with learning of a darker side of Riker than we know.
The episode does a great job keeping its cards to its chest during the legal proceedings. While in the back of the audience’s mind it’s obvious that Riker will be exonerated somehow, by adhering to the structure of a courtroom, we hear all sides of the issue, even some perspectives which make Riker seem worlds apart from the upstanding person we know and love.
Sure, by the end everything is all back to normal again, but you have to admit that there was a hot minute when you wondered if Riker really did those things, didn’t you?
While there are several things that could be discussed about the season 5 episode “The Outcast”, it is yet another episode featuring Riker nearly breaking the mold and defying expectations. The main focus of this episode was the romance that developed between Riker and Soren, who is of an androgynous race but realizes that she identifies as female.
While the original intent of this episode went from being the “non-heterosexual” episode to “yet another female who falls for Riker” episode, the story really hits home when Soren is discovered by her people and is put on trial (hmmm… I’m detecting an unintentional theme here).
As she makes an impassioned defense of her gender identity, Riker can only look on helplessly as she is condemned to some horrific sounding corrective procedure that will “cure” her. In light of this Riker risks his entire career in Starfleet, which won’t interfere because of Prime Directive things, and makes a daring midnight rescue only to discover he is too late and Soren is “fixed”.
The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1
Yes, the episode which brings the Borg back, and where Picard gets assimilated, and battling starships. So many things make this episode great, and one of the largest parts is Riker’s storyline about whether he has what it takes to be a Starfleet captain.
He suffers his own doubts as he ruminates on his refusal of command opportunities on other ships. Is he too comfortable? Is he scared? What happened to the brash young man from a couple of seasons ago? Should we blame the beard?
Then there is the ambitious upstart Commander Shelby. She unabashedly declares her intention to take Riker’s place. She has all the gusto we’d hope for from someone who has studied the Federation’s newest and most dangerous foe. She feels she is ready to make the big decisions that only a captain can make.
But when Picard is assimilated, and his rescue is not possible without risking the Enterprise’s
last-ditch effort to stop the Borg from attacking earth, Riker makes a decision that horrifies Shelby and everyone else, even though it’s the best decision to make in that moment.
With a weapon that could cripple the Enterprise, but hopefully will destroy the Borg cube, Riker gives the order that still gives me goosebumps. “Fire.”
He’s ready to destroy Locutus and any chance of saving Picard if it means saving Earth. As Spock would say, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”