Star Trek The Next Generation: Second Chances

Riker: "I'm Commander William Riker from the Federation starship Enterprise."
Riker: "That's not possible. I'm Will Riker."

By nature I love brevity: Pretty good work here. A nice trick to explore Riker and Troi's characters, and I quite liked the other Riker. Also some very nice effects that were groundbreaking in their day and still hold up.

This episode illustrates a problem that TNG ran into regularly, with all its characters but especially with Riker. It's the problem of character conflict. Allow me to elaborate. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry visualized humanity in the future as what he considered perfect. In his vision, this meant they had outgrown conflict with each other. That's all well and good, and it's an optimistic view of the future, but it makes it painfully difficult to write good television. Stories require conflict, and if the conflict can't be between the characters, where can it come from. Stories on TOS and TNG, as a result, had to be written with an external conflict, like an aggressive alien. Roddenberry's rules made it impossible to have true interpersonal conflict.

So the TNG writers, particularly after Gene's death, came up with some solutions to this. One of these was to have an alien virus or anomaly affect the crew and make them do things that they wouldn't otherwise. Another was like this episode. That solution was to externalize an internal conflict between one character and himself or herself.

Combine this with the new effects technique they had available to them, which allowed one actor to appear on the screen multiple times at once believably, and you have the concept for 'Second Chances.' The reason Riker is such a difficult character to do good work with is because he embodies Roddenberry's rules so perfectly. Episodes with Riker have to get their conflict either from external forces, or from one aspect of Riker conflicting with another. Most of the time, this manifests itself in a conflict between his past and his present, like in this episode.

Riker served aboard the U.S.S. Potemkin eight years ago, when they rescued the crew of a station on an anomalous planet. The distortion field generated by the planet began to be too much to transport through, and Riker barely managed to beam off. In the process, he was duplicated by the transporter. One version of him went back to the planet, and the other to the Potemkin. The other Riker assumed they thought him dead, and resigned himself to life aboard the abandoned station.

Now, the Enterprise is back to examine the same station. It's accessible every eight years, and they're better able to pinpoint their transport windows nowadays. They beam down and find the other Riker. He chooses the name Thomas at the end of the episode, so I'll refer to him as 'Thomas' and our Riker as 'Will' for the purposes of this review.

Thomas is, we find out, basically indistinguishable from Will. He's essentially the same man, except he spent the last eight years isolated from everyone else. Thomas hasn't had any of the growth that Will has experienced over the last eight years, particularly aboard the Enterprise, but he does vividly remember what his life was like eight years ago. When he learns Troi is aboard the ship, he comes to her quarters and immediately kisses her. He remembers her as his Imzadi.

Troi is conflicted. She has moved on from Will, and the two of them have a healthy working friendship. Thomas knows her only as the love he once had, and hasn't moved on at all. And deep down, I think Troi does still love Riker. Thomas makes it extremely difficult for her to keep that in. So she and Thomas begin to form a relationship. But as Will warns her, Thomas is still the same man. He will likely make the same decisions that Will made, and Will doesn't want her to be hurt by them.

Complicating this sound and mature advice is the fact that the Rikers don't get along. Thomas, reading over Will's file, judges his counterpart's decisions and thinks him wrong to have made them. Will sees in Thomas the man he used to be, before he grew into the man he is now, and thinks him unprofessional and sloppy. Will resents Thomas for his relationship with Troi, and Thomas resents Will for the career opportunities he has had - a life stolen, as it appears. It's good, and it's messy, and I love the character work here.

One of my favorite scenes is where Thomas joins the crew in one of their poker nights. Data and Worf look on as the Rikers go head-to-head. Now, at first this seems like the two are simply butting heads. Thomas raises the bet every time it gets to him, projecting confidence. Will believes he's bluffing, and calls him each time. A lesser-written episode would've gone with the predictable end of having Thomas' hand reveal he hasn't been bluffing and Will was wrong. But instead the episode hurts Will even more by revealing he was right. Thomas is beaten, and he throws down his cards and leaves dejected. "You always had the better hand... in everything," he says. Ouch.

One interesting thing about this episode is that it doesn't give our characters easy outs or even much resolution. Thomas leaves for the U.S.S. Gandhi, and Troi refuses to go with him. Will does gain a new respect for his counterpart, but he doesn't get the closure of Thomas conceding that there was nothing unfair about what happened to him. It's an understated ending, with the broken relationships not entirely mended. It's believable, and best of all, it's so very human.

Strange New Worlds:

We went to Nervala IV, which had a Starfleet Research Station on it, and generated a distortion field that could only be transported through every eight years.

New Life and New Civilizations:

No new life forms in this one, unless you count Thomas Riker.

Pensees:

-Riker can't play the piece 'Night Bird.' I guess he won't get the chance to learn now.

-As previously mentioned, the effects used here were insanely cool back in their day.

-Troi put on her old 'uniform' for Thomas. I didn't miss it.

-Will gave Thomas his trombone. That was a nice gesture.

-Thomas is Will Riker's middle name.

-The original working title of this episode, according to Ron Moore, was 'Two Many Rikers!'

-Daily dose of coolness for you guys: Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to be an astronaut, had a cameo in this episode as Lt. Palmer. Nichelle Nichols visited her on set. She was the first real astronaut to appear in a Star Trek episode.

Quotes:

Riker: "Ever since he came on board, I've been thinking about the choices I made."
Troi: "Me too."

Data: "If you had a double of yourself, would you have difficulty interacting with him?"
Worf: "I think so."
Data: "Why?"
Worf: "I am not easy to get along with."
Data: "But Commander Riker and Lieutenant Riker are, yet they seem to have trouble getting along with each other. I have found that humans value their uniqueness - that sense that they are different from everyone else. The existence of a double would preclude that feeling."

Troi: "Will's been trying to get this piece right for ten years. He's never made it through the solo."

4.5 out of 6 trombone solos

---
CoramDeo has never licked a spark plug, and he's not too good at ping-pong. Though he has been to Boston in the Fall.

3 comments:

Dustin said...

Data: "If you had a double of yourself, would you have difficulty interacting with him?"

Every time I watch this episode, the above quote by Data makes me think that the writers forgot about the several episodes that feature Lore. Data already has experience with a double of himself that he has difficulty interacting with. They should have rewritten the line to reflect that.

One of the things that I like about this episode is that I kept expecting an "evil twin" scenario. Will and Thomas might butt heads, but Thomas isn't like the evil Kirk from The Enemy Within, nor does he have a goatee (at least not in this episode).

Mark Greig said...

Data probably doesn't think of Lore as a copy of himself because despite looking the same (something Data would not care about), Lore has a completely different personality from Data. They had difficulty getting along not because they were the same, but because they were so different. For Data, Lore is more of a mean older brother than a duplicate of himself.

Billie Doux said...

I remember when I originally saw this episode, I was certain 'Thomas' would be dead by the end of it. How cool that instead, he was able to get his job back and continue with his career.