Thursday, September 15, 2011

Whither Riker?

This poster was the first TNG memorabilia I owned.
With the Star Trek: The Next Generation series now being available on Netflix instant view, I've been revisiting the show that was, in a lot of ways, "my" Star Trek. Yes I love the original series with a passion, and probably more than TNG. That said, when the Enterprise-D and her crew hit the airwaves in 1987, it was the very first time I could see Star Trek, of any kind, in first run. I was sharing these episodes with the whole world as they aired, and that gives it a special place in my heart.

Like, well, pretty much everyone, right off the bat, I quickly became enamored with two characters, in particular. I'm speaking of Lt. Commander Data and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of course.

Data had a certain fragility and innocence that was simply palpable when Brent Spiner brought his considerable talents to bear on it. Data had no emotions, he couldn't feel anything, but Spiner always made the audience feel those things that Data could not. It bound us to him in much the same way our empathy with Spock's desire to control his emotions did with that character. I should also say that I've long believe that Brent Spiner was simply the best actor on the show.

Then there was the Captain. Even at 16, I immediately embraced the smart choice of making Picard not feel like a clone of James T. Kirk. Patrick Stewart brought a gravitas and authority that, while equal to William Shatner's work in that area, stayed grounded and centered, less effusive. Stewart had a regal command on the bridge, a sense of classic authority. The kind of man men what to be, and women what to be with, as they say.

I owned the "bible" for the show that had been showing up, in photocopied form, at convention dealer tables from almost the minute the show was announced. I remember reading that the show would have "co-leads" in Picard and first officer Commander William Riker, ultimately played by Jonathan Frakes. When the show actually aired, I was somewhat bewildered by this. Riker seemed just...dull.

It didn't help that Picard and Data became so very popular so very quickly. They seemed so easily to represent a new spin on the same sort of command dynamic we enjoyed between Kirk and Spock. To borrow from the parlance of the show, Riker seemed rather quickly to become "Commander Dunsel." So often, Riker feel into a role of facilitating, rather than driving action. Far too often, Riker's duties seemed to simply be to check in on the other characters working to save the ship. He'd have a few lines to reiterate the danger the ship faced, then send Gordi and Data back to work on the warp core.

Frankly, during the first run of this series, I never thought much about Riker, or Frakes. The performances weren't bad, but the character did, especially as time went on, seem to become a sacrifice to giving Picard more to do. The original idea, where Riker would lead planet-side away teams, and Picard would deal with ship-board threats, slowly eroded, and Riker became more and more of a third wheel.

As I've re-watched the series, however, I have to tell you, I've fallen in love with Frakes' performance, and the sly wit he seems to inject into Riker every chance he gets. I think that the general tenor of TNG was always somewhat more austere, with creator Gene Roddenberry seeming to leave the bare-knuckle idealism of the original series behind. Something he was obviously trying to do with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as well (Spend a few minutes sometime checking off how many elements from TMP show up in's pretty eye-opening).

Riker, and, I think, by extension, Frakes, look like they're having the time of their lives in even the most dire situations. The sly grin, the twinkle in the eye, and a general sense of, "OK, hell, if I'm about to die, I'm going to do it with a good attitude."

Frakes, and Riker, were let down by the writing staff at almost every turn. Except when they needed him, as in "Best of Both Worlds, Part 1," where everyone suddenly realized that, if Stewart really didn't sign another contract, it was gonna be the Captain Riker show. Suddenly Frakes had solid, dramatic material. He had it, and he knocked it out of the friggin' park. In fact, almost every time they did turn to him to carry a show, he just nails it.

Then it's back to, "Geordi, is the warp core back in alignment?"

"Not yet, Commander."

"I'll inform the Captain." (Riker exits)

You can almost see Frakes marching off the set right to watching the director, because, as we all know, Frakes also proved himself to be THE Director for The Next Generation. Solid episodes, one fantastic film (Star Trek: First Contact), and one bad one, that was truly just hobbled by a terrible, terrible script (Star Trek: Insurrection).

Jonathan Frakes, good actor, great presence, and I think the one member of the TNG cast that should've gotten a better shake. I still long to see what a TNG that lived up to the "dual leads" concept would've been like. I'm all but certain that Frakes could've blossomed in that situation.

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