When he returns to the site of a mission from years earlier, Riker is shocked to find a duplicate of himself trapped on the planet.
Plot Summary: Nervala IV is only accessible to visitors once every eight years due to the planet’s distortion field, and the Enterprise arrives to retrieve data abandoned by Starfleet researchers when they fled as the window of opportunity expired during the previous visit. Riker, then a lieutenant aboard the Potemkin, was part of the previous away team and was nearly trapped on the planet. He leads the Enterprise away team, finds unexpected differences in the science station, then is shocked to discover another William Riker, who explains that he was trapped eight years previously when his transporter beam failed. Crusher says that the two men have identical genes and brain patterns, which LaForge concludes is because they are the same person – one who materialized on the Potemkin and one on the planet when a duplicate containment beam was initiated to try to rescue Riker during the previous mission. Since no one realized that a second Riker had been created by the beam’s reflection, no one knew that one Riker had been left on the surface. Lieutenant Riker is frustrated to have lost so many years from his career and unhappy that Deanna Troi is no longer in love with him, having moved on when Commander Riker chose career advancement over their relationship. He agrees to help the crew retrieve the data left in the station’s computers, but when he and the first officer disagree about entering the caverns beneath the station to access the database, Lieutenant Riker goes over Commander Riker’s head to talk to Picard. Troi decides to explore a relationship with Lieutenant Riker, though Commander Riker warns her that this Riker too may choose his career over their love. When Lieutenant Riker is offered a position on the Gandhi, she is unwilling to give up her life and position aboard the Enterprise to accompany him. In the underground caverns, a bridge collapses and Commander Riker must interrupt an argument with Lieutenant Riker to save his life. Later he gives Lieutenant Riker his trombone, saying that he should have some solid reminder of his old life. Lieutenant Riker says that he intends to use his middle name, Thomas, from now on, and tells Troi that after waiting eight years, he can wait for her a little longer.
Analysis: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too much Riker, so an episode with two Rikers is by definition one I’m going to enjoy, though I don’t think this is the strongest script possible for such a scenario and Jonathan Frakes seems less charming and comfortable than he did even in the mental institution from “Frame of Mind” – in all the scenes where the two Rikers quarrel, they seem to be overdoing it, as if compensating for a character who’s not there…which makes sense since Frakes undoubtedly had to play the scenes with a body double, but the eye contact isn’t right and the gestures all seem too big for the scenes. It’s charming to see him play a Riker who, while technically the same age as the Enterprise’s first officer, lacks his experiences and therefore seems like a younger man emotionally. I love the Riker/Troi relationship, too, and it’s nice finally to get some more of the backstory explaining why and how they split up, considering that she still thought of him as her Imzadi in the Next Generation pilot and he’s never been happy when she’s been emotionally involved with someone else. Ideally, this would have been a two-parter, since the storyline seems very rushed and we’re deprived of the opportunity to see any meaningful interaction between the man I’m going to call Thomas Riker and the longtime friends of Will Riker; I don’t like all the emphasis on the conflict between the two Rikers, despite Data’s amateur psychoanalysis that each must see something in the other that reminds him of something he doesn’t like in himself, and it seems contrived mostly as a reason for the second Riker not to apply for a position on the ship, where he could be close to Deanna and resume his Starfleet career at the same time.
The episode starts with a reminder of how well Troi knows Riker, asking him to play the solo from “Nightbird” on the trombone when he hasn’t been able to get it right in the past ten years. Will is more nervous about that than returning to a planet where he almost died eight years previously; he believes the transporter issues that put his life in danger have been resolved, and has no idea of the technical details that saved him previously and created a perfect duplicate in the process. The man who will become Tom Riker isn’t resentful to have been abandoned, since he believes Starfleet must have concluded he died during the beamout. He is more bitter to find that another Riker has taken his place, and worse, that that Riker messed things up with Troi – something Tom is certain he would never have done. He knows better than to think that he and Deanna can just pick up where they left off, but he’s hopeful that she’ll at least give him a chance, which she is somewhat unwilling to do given the way Will hurt her by putting his promotion ahead of their plans for a reunion and eventual engagement.
If Data is correct that the two Rikers both see things in the other that they resist, it’s hard to guess what. There’s a lovely moment when Will tells Tom that they should probably tell their father what has happened, to which Tom bitterly says he’s sure Dad will be just thrilled that there are now two of them, forcing Will to explain that he reconciled with his father after making the controversial decision to turn down command of the Aries. The same Riker who is certain he wouldn’t have left Troi is flabbergasted that the Enterprise’s first officer didn’t leave the ship – and Troi – to become a captain, while the first officer doesn’t relish having to defend that decision to someone who is essentially his own younger self. Perhaps the fact that Will turned down his own command is the reason Tom doesn’t want to take his orders, but it may be more basic, like arguing with oneself about the best course of action and deciding not to second-guess even when one’s own voice is insisting on a different path; he simply doesn’t seem able to take the idea of orders from William T. Riker seriously. He’s smart enough to know he can’t outbluff himself at poker, however, tossing down what he knows are probably losing cards and announcing that Will always had the better hand anyway. His own reputation is standing in the way of a future in Starfleet and a reconciliation with Troi. Not only has he been denied the previous eight years, he’s going to continue to have to follow in the footsteps of a self who’s already done many of the things he wanted to do, all while younger and without the disadvantage of living alone for so long.
It’s interesting to look back on this episode knowing from Deep Space Nine that Tom Riker will forsake Starfleet, join the Maquis, steal the Defiant and lead a potentially deadly mission deep into Cardassian space to expose a threat to the Federation. Kira Nerys doesn’t believe for a moment that he’s become a terrorist; she thinks he wants to be a hero like his doppelganger and the spectacular theft is a shortcut. There are conflicting versions of Tom Riker’s future in Pocket Books, Star Trek comics and video games – in one storyline he leaves Starfleet after a conflict with his new first officer and joins Voyager‘s Chakotay in the Maquis, stealing the Defiant at his suggestion, later being rescued by Romulans, while in another he helped labor camp survivors build a community and fathered a son there. I had always expected some canonical clue to Tom’s fate – since Kira promised to get him out of there, and Kira is always a woman of her word, I expect that she’d have made inquiries, yet we were never told during the Dominion War if he had escaped or was still a prisoner and there were never plans to set him free. Will must have been horrified to learn not only that Tom had joined the Maquis but that he had used Will’s own identity to serve their aims; it is rather astonishing in retrospect that no one makes note of the possibility of that subterfuge, that it isn’t discussed how easily Tom Riker might intrude into Will’s life if he chooses to do so.
As things turn out, Tom is right about Will getting the better hand: Will ends up with his own command and Deanna both, while Tom gets a life sentence in a Cardassian prison camp for revealing a secret Cardassian fleet intent on destroying people who refuse to allow their homes to be destroyed. Sure, he might have done it for the glory rather than a deep personal connection with the oppressed settlers, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about Will having turned into someone who will choose the safe route, something Tom decides isn’t for him. Maybe they’re not so alike after all.