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Star Trek: The Next Generation (DC) Annual #2 – Thin Ice (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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Riker is a character caught between a rock and a hard place. According to the series bible, Riker was imagined as one of the “dual lead characters” for the show and clearly envisioned as an impulsive and brilliant Kirk to Picard’s more rational and stoic Spock. However, it didn’t quite work out that way, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the writing on the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation tended to be a bit more sterile and bland, so Riker was never really allowed to step too far out of Picard’s shadow.

Instead, we got lots of characters talking about how ambitious Riker was, without seeing it for ourselves. It’s implied that Riker’s career led him to separate from Troi, something Peter David ran with in Imzadi. Everybody is constantly telling everybody else how Riker desperately wants to be a starship commander. And yet, when it come to the actual characterisation of Riker on the show, none of this shines through.

Due to the constraints imposed on the early years, interpersonal conflict was impossible in early Next Generation scripts, putting Riker in a paradoxical position as a character. We’re repeatedly told how ambitious and career-orientated he is, but none of that shines through.

Dead space...

Dead space…

As an example, in Encounter at Farpoint, we’re told that Picard chose Riker for the role of first officer precisely because Riker isn’t afraid to speak up. Picard specifically cites Riker’s stubborn refusal to let his previous commanding officer beam into trouble. “Isn’t it just possible that you don’t get to be a Starfleet Captain without knowing whether it’s safe to beam down or not?” Picard prods him. “Isn’t it a little presumptuous of a first officer to second guess his captain’s judgment?”

Riker responds, “Having been a first officer yourself, you know that assuming that responsibility must by definition include the safety of the captain. I have no problem with following any rules you lay down, short of compromising your safety.” Before allowing him to assume his duties, Picard ensures that Riker isn’t willing to “back off” that position – suggesting it’s an aspect of Riker’s record that appealed to him.

The rocky road to command...

The rocky road to command…

And yet, despite that, the show rarely put Riker and Picard into conflict. Riker seemed spend most of his time on the bridge agreeing with his superior. When Picard did take unnecessary personal risks and did put himself in unnecessary danger, Riker would dutifully lodge a complaint and make his objections clear, but would stand back and let it happen. Which is, of course, exactly what a good line officer should probably do – one imagines DeSoto would have had Riker kicked to the curb for refusing to let him beam down – but it also demonstrates that Riker was quite a toothless character.

So, from the show’s outset, Riker was portrayed as a mirror of James T. Kirk, just stripped of any of the ambition or assertiveness. For most of the first season, this simply meant that Riker was tasked with the role of aggressive romantic lead. His horniness nearly gets Wesley killed in Justice, and his libido was used to keep him distracted on the holodeck in 11001001, but his mythical sexual prowess helped bring peace in Angel One. Gradually, perhaps sensing that the sexual moors of the late eighties were a little less enthusiastic than those of the sixties (with the AIDS scare and so on), that aspect of Riker was toned down.

Warping Riker's character a bit?

Warping Riker’s character a bit?

The result was a somewhat generic character, caught between the perception that the show wanted to give, and the reality of what viewers saw on the screen. The second annual for DC comics’ Star Trek: The Next Generation series, written in the wake of The Best of Both Worlds, tries to explore this contrast between the Riker that we know and the Riker that we have been told about, time and time again.

The problem is that Michael Jan Friedman can’t quite reconcile the two aspects of the character. In The Best of Both Worlds, Michael Piller suggested that Riker had simply grown from his more impulsive youth. However, the flashbacks in Thin Ice suggest that Riker was always as careful and cautious as he appeared on The Next Generation. Friedman doesn’t suggest that the differences between the Riker on the show and the Riker in his personnel file are due to development. Instead, Friedman suggests that Riker has always been a cautious and careful officer.

Everything's sideways...

Everything’s sideways…

One can sense the influence of The Best of Both Worlds on Friedman’s script. Like Shelby, Thin Ice features a female character who challenges Riker. The only difference is that this supporting character has known Riker her whole life, rather than meeting him for the first time. “You just hate to take chances — that’s the real problem,” she accuses him. “Interesting you should say that,” Riker responds. “Captain Ledbetter tells me I take too many chances.”

It’s not a bad approach to Riker as a character, suggesting that the differences in his portrayal in the show and in the way that characters talk about him are a matter of perspective. In a way, Riker’s refusal to let DeSoto beam into a dangerous situation could be explained as an over-cautious action rather than act of ambition. Perhaps Riker wasn’t assuming to take command of the situation, but was instead being over-protective. Perhaps Picard misread the event when he recruited Riker; he wasn’t assigning a young ambitious officer unafraid to speak his mind, he was assigning a meticulously careful second in command.

A commanding presence...

A commanding presence…

While it’s a lot more mundane (and less interesting) solution to Riker’s characterisation issues than The Best of Both Worlds, it fits quite well. (In fact, you could argue that it also fits better with his characterisation in Pegasus than Piller’s approach to the character. After all, Pegasus defined Riker as a character so dedicated to protecting a senior officer that he never stops to question what’s going on around him.)

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

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