When I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation back in the ’80s and ’90s, Commander William T. Riker often felt like the series’ attempt at a James T. Kirk stand-in. Much like the iconic captain of the original NCC-1701, Riker was smooth, charismatic, fiery, and a bit of a ladies’ man — especially when compared to Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who was more stuffy and standoffish. (In those early seasons, anyway.) Which is probably why I didn’t pay Riker much mind back then.
I didn’t dislike him — the only TNG character that I truly disliked was Doctor Pulaski — but Riker did feel like a throwback to the original Star Trek and with TNG, I only wanted new, new, new. I’ve come to appreciate his character more in recent years, however. His swagger (see: “the Riker Maneuver”) is fun to watch, as is his love of jazz, cooking, and poker. His machismo’s undeniable, especially after the beard arrived in season two, but in keeping with TNG’s utopian vision of humanity, there’s nothing toxic about his masculinity. Riker may be your commanding officer, but he’d have no problem joining you for a friendly drink or jam session in Ten Forward.
But it wasn’t until Star Trek: Picard’s excellent third season that I really valued Riker’s character. As I wrote in my review: “Riker was the season’s MVP. He brought a nice dose of humor and was critical to some of season three’s most intense emotional moments.”
With regards to the humor, Riker had an irrepressible charm and impish grin throughout the season. Whether reminiscing with Picard or sparring with Worf, it was quite obvious that Jonathan Frakes — who also directed two of the season’s episodes — was having a blast gallivanting around the galaxy again. (This sense of fun is also evident in his guest appearances on Star Trek: Lower Decks.) But it was during those “intense emotional moments,” be it his relationship with Picard or confronting his own personal issues, when Riker really shined in Picard.
Note: The following contains potential spoilers for Star Trek: Picard’s third season.
In the season three premier, Picard receives a cryptic and urgent message from Beverly Crusher, whom no one has seen for almost twenty years. She warns Picard that Starfleet can’t be trusted, so he turns to Riker, who agrees to help Picard find the missing doctor. It’s a risky mission, but Riker doesn’t seem too concerned; he even remarks that his family will probably be glad that he’s away. After commandeering the USS Titan-A with the help of Seven of Nine — who joined Starfleet and now serves as the Titan’s first officer — they travel to Crusher’s last known location.
Upon finding the good doctor outside Federation space, the Titan is attacked by a massive vessel called the Shrike. (Kudos to the Picard sound department for giving it some appropriately creepy audio cues.) After the Titan’s captain is injured by the Shrike’s attack, he transfers command to Riker. Up until this point, Picard and Riker have been a team, but now there’s almost instantly conflict between the two men.
While Picard wants to attack the Shrike, Riker believes they’re outgunned and wants to run away. He eventually gives in to Picard’s urgings, though, and fires on the Shrike, only for the Titan’s weapons to be turned against them by the Shrike’s advanced technology. With the Titan now critically damaged and caught in a nebula’s gravity well, Riker lashes out at Picard, declaring “You’ve just killed us all.”
Riker’s line really bothered me at first: as (acting) captain, he’s ultimately responsible for everything that happens to the ship, so blaming Picard seemed like the height of petulance, especially given that they had no other options. But Riker’s lashing out makes more sense after he confesses how the Titan’s helplessness against the Shrike forced him to relive the helplessness he felt in the wake of his son’s death and the subsequent strain that it put on his marriage. (Hence his earlier remarks about being away from his wife and daughter.)
Frakes gives a wonderful performance here, conveying Riker’s emptiness and despair. Here’s a man who has spent decades traveling throughout the galaxy and seen all manner of wondrous and amazing things, and yet nothing he’s seen provides an ounce of solace for his grief. Instead, returning to the depths of space, and being plunged into its horrors, has only increased his grief and sense of lost-ness. But even in the midst of that despair, Riker is still able to apologize and encourage his old friend and captain to make amends with his own son before their inevitable end.
This sudden apology of Riker’s, which comes just one episode later, could have easily come across as cheap, perfunctory, and unearned. That it does, in fact, feel honest and emotionally satisfying is a testament, not only to Frakes’ own acting, but also to his decades-long friendship with Patrick Stewart. Without that real-life bond, I don’t think those scenes would’ve worked nearly so well. Indeed, it’s the long friendship between the core TNG cast that really makes Picard’s final season work as well as it does, and Frakes, Stewart, et al. know it.
In a recent People feature, the TNG cast reflected on their reunion:
“There was a connection that we all made and which was nurtured and encouraged and survived,” [Stewart] explains of the seven seasons of the series and the additional four theatrical films. “I’ve worked with a lot of companies, groups of actors in plays that ran for a year or in other shows, television shows that have run for more than a year, and nothing has had the impact on my life like this.”
Frakes was in agreement. “Unlike some shows, we were a family, we all got this job that sort of changed our lives at the same time,” he says. “LeVar was already a big star; Wil Wheaton was a bit of a star; but the rest of us were trying to cobble together our careers and this was this was the career-changing job for all of us. And I think we all appreciate it at the same time. And still do.”
But working again as an ensemble two decades after the final TNG film premiered strengthened their bond even further.
“I think it brings us closer together, without a doubt,” says Frakes. “There’s something about being 20 years older than the last time we were all together that I don’t think it just helped me, I think it helped all of us. The characters are deeper… And it was quite thrilling.”
This sense of fun and camaraderie helps explain why, all quibbles aside, Picard ultimately felt so right — and so much more than just a slavish exercise in nostalgia. To be honest, I think I would’ve been perfectly satisfied had season three just been Picard and Riker doing their own thing. But the fact that the season brought back all of the core TNG cast, and did so in a way that largely felt unforced and natural, was just a delight for someone like me who’s been a fan from the very beginning. Drew McWeeny said it well:
It takes all of the decade of storytelling involving these characters and this world and it uses your affection for it and understanding of it as part of the storytelling weaponry. It is a phenomenal use of the entire Next Generation cast and feels in some ways like a greatest-hits album. By the end of episode eight, we’ve touched on so many of the familiar icons of TNG that it almost feels like a guided tour, but it’s also dramatically urgent and thrilling and there are real stakes.
Those real stakes come through clearest in those harrowing scenes between Picard and Riker, when both men have been pushed to the breaking point and say and do regrettable things. Their relationship is not without tension and strife, but at its core, it’s ultimately defined by respect, honesty, and yes, love. Thus, when Riker refuses to abandon Picard to the Borg in the series finale, it doesn’t come off so much as a grand heroic gesture, but rather, as a simple declaration of friendship and loyalty — and it’s all the more affecting because of that.
Although Picard’s third and final season was officially about Jean-Luc Picard finding and connecting with his son (and defeating the Borg once and for all), I’ll always think of it as a season that was more about the joy of seeing old friends reunited. Seeing the TNG crew gathered around a table, playing poker, and laughing it up was a balm that left me more than a little teary-eyed, much like seeing the Enterprise-D back in action.
Star Trek has always been a hopeful series, imagining what humanity could achieve if we just looked past our differences and sought after knowledge, discovery, and adventure rather than greed, selfishness, and war. But this final season of Picard was hopeful in another way: it made me hope that we might all experience the sort of camaraderie that Picard and Riker, and by extension, the rest of the TNG crew, got to experience when they reunited to save the galaxy once again.