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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Icarus Factor (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Icarus Factor is a character-driven story. At least, it wants to be a character-driven story. The problem is that Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn’t reached the point where it can really do character-driven storytelling with a measure of consistence. (The fact that Picard confronting his future failures in Time Squared worked was more down to Patrick Stewart than the episode’s script.)

The Icarus Factor is a story focusing on Riker as a character, and it suffers from the fact that Riker hasn’t really been well-defined to date. We’re repeatedly told that he’s ambitious and career-driven, but most his on-screen characterisation has fluctuated between reckless, jerkish and horny. So The Icarus Factor tries to compensate by giving Riker the most generic back story possible for a lead male character on a television show.

This is the story of Riker’s daddy issues.

Somehow, this image just sums up Riker as a character...

Somehow, this image just sums up Riker as a character…

In a way, The Icarus Factor feels like a definite product of the late eighties. Granted, stories about conflicts between father and son date back to the earliest myths and legends, but they enjoyed an upswing in popularity during the seventies and eighties:

The pain and grief and shame from the failed father-son relationship seem universal, as evidenced in the popular movies of the past few decades which had father-and-son themes that overshadowed anything going on between men and women.

Father-son myths attracted huge audiences in the 1970s and ’80s. Men feared being like their fathers, but they wanted desperately to bond with them even if they could never really please them enough to feel anointed.

Indeed, The Icarus Factor even ends with a much-belated sporting contest between father and son, like a surreal twist on the end of 1989’s Kevin Costner vehicle Field of Dreams.

I am Klingon, hear me roar!

I am Klingon, hear me roar!

Even outside of popular culture, the relationship between fathers and sons had become a much more popular topic of discussion. S. Adams Sullivan published The Father’s Almanac in 1980, it was something of a welcome anomaly. When Sullivan returned to revise the text in 1992, he observed that the area had been much more thoroughly explored:

In 1979 and 1980, when I did the initial research for this book, there was very little available literature about fatherhood – either scholarly or popular. That changed dramatically in the eighties, which were boom years for social scientists and other researchers studying fathers. There were shelves of thoughtful studies to be examined when I updated the book – some of the best are listed in the Further Reading section at the back. Popular how-to books about fathering also enjoyed a boom decade in the eighties.

So an episode like The Icarus Factor seemed inevitable, with Riker and his father working out some weird Oedipal dysfunction through a made-up Japanese martial arts form called Anbo-jyutsu. Reflecting an eighties American fixation on Japanese culture on top of its pop psychology exploration of modern manhood, The Icarus Factor can’t help but seem a product of its time.

That's my reaction, too...

That’s my reaction, too…

To be fair, Riker isn’t the first Enterprise officer to have daddy issues. The second season of the original Star Trek featured Journey to Babel, an entire episode themed around Spock’s dysfunctional relationship with his disapproving father Sarek. However, Journey to Babel was rather more rational and insightful in its exploration of that troubled dynamic than anything on display here. For one thing, Sarek and Spock never came to blows while their loves sat on the sidelines watching.

There is something distinctly uncomfortable about the gender politics of The Icarus Factor. While Roddenberry’s sterile utopia can often feel a bit lifeless, the introduction of stereotypical masculine pop psychology is hardly anything to get too excited about. The conflict between Will Riker and his father is defined as a contest of masculinity, a dysfunctional relationship that went askew following the death of Will’s mother.

"Are you still here?"

“Are you still here?”

Kyle is unsettled by the idea that his son might be able to surpass him, in any way. Deanna initially suggests that Kyle might be worried that Will may become more well-known and respected than his father, but the climax of the episode reveals that Kyle worries about being physically bested by his off-spring. At the same time, Riker is worried that he will never escape his father’s shadow. While the relationship is not defined as healthy, The Icarus Factor seems to suggest that two men need to be left alone to work it out for themselves.

The fact that Deanna Troi, the ship’s counsellor, is willing to sit on the sidelines and let Will and Kyle pummel each other doesn’t paint her in a very flattering light. Particularly since her justification is that this is really just “guy stuff.” As the Rikers work things out in their armour with their big sticks, Pulaski and Troi gossip about their men in the Briefing Room. Which feels like it’s really not the place for that sort of thing.

Here come the pain sticks...

Here come the pain sticks…

On the subject of Troi and pop psychology, it’s worth noting the Joe Menosky always argued that her presence would date the show. Talking on Inside the Writer’s Room, Ronald D. Moore recalls:

Joe was the one who used to say about the therapist… He used to say that thing that would date The Next Generation the most was that there was a therapist on the bridge of the Enterprise. And he said that that was emblematic of America in the mid-nineties.

That certainly feels the way here, as if Troi exists solely to give weight to the masculine clichés at work in The Icarus Factor.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

“In spite of human evolution, there are still some traits that are endemic to gender,” Troi suggests, as if that’s really all the justification she needs to let two men who need to work things out wander into an Anbo-jyutsu ring together. “You think that they’re going to knock each other’s brains out because they’re men?” Pulaski asks, as if offering Troi the opportunity to clarify that grossly sexist statement she just made.

And then Troi cracks open the pop psychology on us. “Human males are unique,” she tells us, which makes it clear that she’s only sexist against human males. “Fathers continue to regard their sons as children, even into adulthood. And sons continue to chafe against what they perceive as their fathers’ expectations of them.” Ever ready to offer a nice bite-sized chunk of old country wisdom on us, Pulaski muses, “It’s almost as if they never really grow up at all, isn’t it?”

A Klingon alone...

A Klingon alone…

Having only made crass generalisations about one gender, Troi manages to make broad and sweeping generalisations about women as well. “Perhaps that’s part of their charm, and why we find them so attractive,” she observes, rather dreamily. Pulaski and Troi make it explicit that they are talking about their own attractions to Kyle and William respectively, in case we thought that two women might be having an objective discussion about things. “I hope they don’t hurt each other,” Pulaski states, making it clear that Deanna and herself are here primarily to fret over their masculine warrior lovers.

Kyle Riker is played by veteran character actor Mitchell Ryan, who has a long string of credits to his name, including a role on Dark Shadows and Magnum Force. However, in 1989, he was most recognisable to casual viewers for his role as the villain in 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Lethal Weapon was one of the wave of popular action films in the late eighties aimed at firmly reasserting classic images of masculinity.

I love how Pulaski's response to this is "it never came up", despite the fact they talked about Riker's childhood in the last episode...

I love how Pulaski’s response to this is “it never came up”, despite the fact they talked about Riker’s childhood in the last episode…

As Nicola Rehling notes in her introduction to Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity and Contemporary Popular Culture, the eighties were awash with insecurity around white masculinity:

Indeed, since the early ’80s, the media on both sides of the Atlantic has become obsessed with the beleaguered white male, who has been represented as increasingly victimised as years progress … The ’80s also witnessed a burgeoning production of books on masculinity, both popular publications (from self-help manuals to popular psychology) and academic literature, particularly from the new discipline of Men’s Studies that was established in the academy by the decade’s end. At the same time, the sheer number of popular films that screen white heterosexual masculinity in crisis suggests that laying bare the insecurities of the normative identity need not necessarily rob it of its structuring and ideological force.

And so that’s part of what’s frustrating about The Icarus Factor. It’s a story about masculinity under threat that resolves itself with a confident reassertion of that masculinity. The issues between father and son can only be properly resolved through brute force and violence.

All the best first officers have daddy issues...

All the best first officers have daddy issues…

Of course, The Icarus Factor also presents a bit of a problem for Riker as a character. We’ve been repeatedly told that Riker is an ambitious career officer, but we’ve never really seen that. Riker has never seemed ruthless or career-orientated in his dealings with Picard or the Enterprise. He seems quite content where he is. So building The Icarus Factor around the idea of Riker moving on to become captain of another ship backfires spectacularly when he (inevitably) decides to stay.

We’ve seen nothing to date that would convince us that Riker would want to leave the Enterprise, so having an entire episode built around Riker not leaving the Enterprise feels like poor writing. It completely neuters Riker as a character, even if he never seemed particularly ambitious or career-orientated in earlier episodes. Having Riker turn down his command after spending so much time telling us that he has always wanted a ship of his own really writes the character into a narrative cul-de-sac.

Deanna was less than pleased when Riker informed her he was keeping the beard...

Deanna was less than pleased when Riker informed her he was keeping the beard…

If you’ve spent so long telling us (but not showing us) that a character really only wants one thing, and it turns out he’s really not too bothered about it, it’s hard to feel too excited or engaged. There is a story to be told here, about Riker learning that he is happy being second-in-command, but The Icarus Factor isn’t interested in being that story. (The Best of Both Worlds is, and does a great job of it.)

It’s also interesting to reflect on the weird relationship that exists between Riker and Troi. The Next Generation was never especially clear on what their relationship was. Are they simply old flames, who happen to serve together and who function as co-workers? Are they engaged in a relatively casual relationship that might explain why each tends to get a bit jealous (or amused) when the other strikes up a relationship with the guest star of the week?

Obviously, Kyle and Will subscribe to the Darth Vader school of father-son bonding...

Obviously, Kyle and Will subscribe to the Darth Vader school of father-son bonding…

I quite like the implication that Riker and Troi were in an intimate relationship that didn’t conform to normative social values. They aren’t “an item” in a way that prevents Riker from organising crew sex holidays or stops Deanna from making pretty questionable choices involving men she’s just met. Despite that, they still call each other “imzadi” and organise romantic picnics together on Betazed, but without the show having to explicitly identify them as “a couple.”

Given the lack of definitive evidence one way or the other, it’s quite easy to read the relationship between Riker and Troi on the Enterprise as an “open” romantic relationship. It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of The Next Generation, and one that was arguably progressive – at least for a show that was terrified of exploring homosexuality. After all, an “open” relationship is one quite far outside the recognised sexual norms of eighties or even nineties television.

(Pain)sticklers for protocol...

(Pain)sticklers for protocol…

As such, it feels a bit reductive to treat Deanna as a character who pines for Riker – whose primary function in The Icarus Factor is cry when he thinks he might leave and who sits around gossiping with the only other female member of the main cast, who just happens to have had a relationship with Riker’s father. It’s interesting that The Icarus Factor offers us the first glimpse at Troi’s remodelled office, given how superfluous her professional role on the ship actually is in this episode, amounting to little more than saying “boys will be boys.”

It’s also interesting how eager Picard seems to be to get rid of Riker. He spends most of the episode talking about Will’s assignment as if it’s going to happen. He makes just about every argument he can to convince Riker to leave, without actually coming out and saying it. He recommends the staff that Riker will be working with, and assures his second-in-command that even if this assignment is a bit crap, it’ll be a stepping stone to greater things, so go on and do it.

"Don't let the door close on you on the way out..."

“Don’t let the door close on you on the way out…”

Even at the end of the episode, Picard seems to take Riker’s departure for granted. When the service overhaul turns out to be completely unnecessary, Picard observes, “At least it gave Commander Riker the opportunity to consider his promotion. Now that he’s accepted, we can leave him at Starbase Montgomery.” He seems ready to order the ship to leave orbit as quickly as possible, when Riker finally shows up on the bridge.

When Riker does show up, Picard seems rather quiet and withdrawn, as if his grand scheme to kick Riker off his ship has been foiled at the last possible moment. He manages a murmur of agreement when Riker selects a course for the Enterprise. Once all that is out of the way, Picard can’t wait to ask the question at the front of his mind. “Any particular reason for this change of heart?” It isn’t quite as blunt as “what are you still doing on my bridge?”, but it’s telling that Picard doesn’t complement Riker on his decision to remain on the ship. The episode ends with Wesley and Deanna smiling. Picard is pointedly not smiling.

O'Brien always knows just what to say...

O’Brien always knows just what to say…

There’s also just a hint of character development for O’Brien, who seems like he has become the only other person on the ship outside the senior staff, the background extras and Guinan. Like Picard, O’Brien seems to like messing with Riker’s head. When Riker seems sullen, O’Brien’s first guess is “female?”, and his second is “career?”, as if to suggest that Riker’s really not all that complicated at all.

When Riker witnesses his father kissing Pulaski, he tries to dismiss it. “They know each other,” Riker explains. Always a good friend, O’Brien’s not about to let Riker gloss over the fact his father just made out with the ship’s chief medic. He replies, “I know her too, but we don’t do that.” Indeed, The Icarus Factor suggests that O’Brien is just passive aggressive in general. Wesley invites him to tag along to Worf’s celebration – probably by virtue of being the only other person on the ship outside the senior staff, the background extras and Guinan. O’Brien isn’t glad to help out a friend. He goes because it “sounds intriguing.”

Sticking it to the man...

Sticking it to the man…

Seemingly getting great kick out of winding up the regular cast, O’Brien also has a story about Klingon pain sticks. Just in case Wesley wasn’t feeling nervous enough about the whole thing. “I once saw one of them used against a two-tonne Rectyne Monopod,” he boasts. “Poor creature jumped five metres at the slightest touch. It finally died from excessive cephalic pressures.” When Wesley asks what he means, O’Brien helpfully clarifies to his teenage co-star, “That’s right. The animal’s head exploded like…” Pulaski has to shut him up. When Pulaski has more tact than you, you know you’re in trouble.

Continuing the approach to Wesley that we noted in The Dauphin, it’s worth noting that his subplot here is very much structured in the style of a teenage sitcom. Wesley notices that one of his friends has a problem. Wesley investigates. Wesley discovers that his friend wants to celebrate a piece of his heritage. And so, the audience and the characters learn an important lesson about celebrating diversity.

"You know, most dads do fishing trips..."

“You know, most dads do fishing trips…”

Indeed, Wesley is a lot less irritating if imagined as a character from a young adult show who accidentally wandered on to the Enterprise, and who tends to distort the narrative around him. Assessing Worf’s character, he offers, “He’s really eccentric at times.” Indeed, Wesley’s desire to figure out what is wrong with Worf feels like a heart-warming exploration of the true meaning of friendship. “Well, whatever is troubling him, I think we should try to help. He is our friend.” Aw, shucks.

At the same time, it feels like The Icarus Factor isn’t entirely sure what to make of Worf’s Rite of Ascension. His friends organise the celebration, realising that it is important to him as piece of his cultural heritage. They aren’t comfortable watching Worf get poked and prodded, but they value his cultural heritage enough to respect his wishes. However, Pulaski is rather quick to dismiss the tradition when talking with Troi, “I’m just glad that humans have progressed beyond the need for barbaric display.”

The Rite stuff...

The Rite stuff…

It’s obviously a punchline to set up the fight between Kyle and William Riker, but it also feels like it undercuts the whole “respect for other cultural values” message that the subplot was trying to convey. Respecting Worf’s value system means more than just watching him suffer, it means acknowledging it and recognising its importance to him. A lot of the early episodes of The Next Generation suffer from the assertion that anything that doesn’t meet western cultural norms must be inherently inferior. The show has been improving, but lines like that feel like a step backwards.

The Icarus Factor also represents more development of the large space that exists between Star Trek and The Next Generation. It isn’t the first time the gap has been discussed. It’s apparent that relations between the Federation and Klingons have improved, and The Neutral Zone made reference to “the Tomed Incident” that occurred some point after the end of the classic Star Trek and the start of The Next Generation.

Working it out...

Working it out…

Still, establishing Kyle Riker as a heroic diplomat who dealt with the Tholians in the recent past is a nice bit of universe-building, an example of how The Next Generation is starting to try to fill in some parts of that massive gap between the universe as inhabited by Kirk and the universe currently explored by Picard. The mention of the Tholians is particularly interesting. Since their appearance in The Tholian Web in 1969, the Tholian’s have held a fascinating grip on the imaginations of Star Trek fans.

They were included (along with the Gorn) in the table top board Star Fleet Universe, an off-shoot of Star Trek continuity that extrapolated from the Star Trek universe as it existed in 1979. This line was so popular that it even spawned a line of video games. Even within mainstream continuity, the Tholians hold a key place in the grand mythology of Star Trek, despite only one on-screen appearance in the classic show. They’d go on to become one of the franchise’s most mentioned and least seen villains, only reappearing in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise.



The mention of the Tholians in The Icarus Factor is a nice touch that really cements the continuity that exists between the classic Star Trek and The Next Generation. It’s not just recurring and iconic aliens like Klingons and Romulans that are part of this shared universe. Even those weird-looking creatures who appeared in one episode from the show’s final year are part of this shared tapestry. It’s easy to take that for granted, given how much continuity the franchise would develop between various iterations in the years ahead, but it feels like a nice confirmation that The Next Generation is part of a shared universe.

It’s also worth noting that The Icarus Factor is the third episode in a row that ends with the crew effectively shrugging their shoulders over a main plot point. In The Royale, the crew had not idea what really happened. In Time Squared, the anomaly was never explained. Here, the mysterious fault that sends the Enterprise to the Starbase is left completely unaccounted for. The episode even ends with Data and Picard both shrugging it off. “Stuff happens, I guess” seems be the Enterprise’s mantra at this point in the season.

Even Picard is confused by that brief period in the second season where The Next Generation became Lost...

Even Picard is confused by that brief period in the second season where The Next Generation became Lost…

Still, that doesn’t prevent The Icarus Factor from being a massive disappointment. Insert your own “Riker daddy issue” joke, if you want.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

3 Responses

  1. Darren’s rōmaji texted as “Anbo-jyutsu” needs to be changed to “Anbojutsu”.

  2. I really enjoyed this episode for two reasons (maybe three)

    The episode had 3 stories (rare on TNG). There was no convoluted sci-fi plot (also rare) and a lot is done to flesh out Riker and Pulaski’s back stories.

    It’s a bit like a soap opera (the music even sounds like Days of our Lives which knowing what I know about Ron Jones was probably a deliberate choice!)

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