Sunday, June 14, 2015
Myriad Universes: Thin Ice
How well do we really know Commander William Riker?
Conventional fan wisdom certainly seems to think it knows him pretty well. He's the dashing rogue, the adventurous away team leader, the Casanova space age sex tourist. He's Star Trek: The Next Generation's version of Captain Kirk, and he does all the things we loved seeing Captain Kirk do in the Original Series. Though if this is the reading afforded to him by conventional fandom it must be a relatively recent one: Round about the time Enterprise and the final Next Generation movies were being made, Riker was seen as one half of a double act with Deanna Troi and calling them anything other than lovers fated by destiny to be together forever was unthinkable. And when I was growing up with Star Trek, Riker was joked about and dismissed as the pointless guy who skulks around the bridge barking “Shields up, Red Alert!” once an episode.
None of these, I would submit, manage to adequately convey who Will Riker really is. Obviously Will isn't useless, so I'm not even going to address that one. The Kirk stuff...Just isn't true. Not even remotely. yeah, there was probably a little bit of that very early on in the show when the lineage to Will Decker and Star Trek Phase II was the clearest (maybe in episodes like “Justice” and “Angel One”), but any trace of that was gone by mid-season. The only episode I can clearly think of where this is explicitly a theme is “Up the Long Ladder”. Maybe some hints of it in later stories like “The Vengeance Factor” and “First Contact” if you want to argue them that way, but “First Contact” at least strikes me as pretty clearly a subversion of the Captain McGoldenPants trope. As for his relationship with Deanna...I'll actually come back to that a little later on.
“Thin Ice”, DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation Annual for 1991 (not to mention the final reprint in 1994's The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation), is a very Riker centric story. It is, actually, precisely the sort of thing that we would call a “Riker Story” were this a TV show episode and what we might imagine Michael Piller's team would be highly supportive of. But the TV creative team has had a very tough time getting a grasp on precisely who its characters are and it's just now starting to figure this out: On a good day, we might get something like “Sins of the Father” and “Redemption” for Worf or “Data's Day” for Data, but we're just as likely to get “The Loss” or absolutely anything involving Geordi La Forge on an off day. Also, the TV team thinks “Remember Me” and “Night Terrors” are rubbish and praises “Final Mission” to high heaven, so that doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
Michael Jan Friedman, by contrast, has always had a far more reliably comfortable grasp on his characters. With “Thin Ice” he goes back to what is in many ways the ur-Will episode, “The Icarus Factor”, and what he does for him here feels like a far more natural evolution of the character we know and recognise. Now “The Icarus Factor” was a troublesome episode, let's not forget, though mostly in terms of structural mechanics stuff, and given this was a second season episode and that the second season happened to coincide with a crippling Writers Guild strike that pretty much shut all of Hollywood down for a year, some of that can be forgiven.
Thankfully “Thin Ice” doesn't come anywhere near directly invoking “The Icarus Factor” (not because the episode is especially bad, but because, quite frankly, fuck fanwank. Although Friedman did seem to like it enough to give Will's dad Kyle a cameo in The Star Lost and pen a sequel to “The Icarus Factor” in a few years' time) the kernel Friedman takes from the earlier story is the idea that Will doesn't like taking a lot of unnecessary risks. And thus, we set up the fundamental philosophical debate between him and Captain Lyrinda Halk of the USS Marco Polo, a genuine daring rogue always willing to take a chance for the good of her people and the mission, and maybe to show off a bit too. Lyrinda is also, it turns out, Will's Unlucky Childhood Friend from Alaska.
Having known each other since they were kids, the two of them grew up together and were often at odds over their contrasting personalities. Lyrinda was always more outgoing, brazen and extroverted, while Will was more cautious and introverted (honestly, I think she overwhelmed him a bit). They even went to Starfleet Academy together, though they had a falling out when Lyrinda, while under Will's command in a training simulation, took it upon herself to beam aboard a starship trapped in an asteroid field and pilot it clear of danger herself, in spite of Will's plan to slowly edge it to safety from afar. They didn't see each other again until they met on shore leave when he was stationed on the Hood and she was on the Fearless. It was here Lyrinda finally confessed her long-held feelings to Will, feelings he had been completely oblivious to before. She admitted she had tried to give up on him after the Starfleet Academy incident, rationalizing that they were two different sorts of people, but never fully could.
Yet even though she still tracked him down in Alaska and it seemed like Will had finally begun to reciprocate, Lyrinda stopped the affair from going any further because she thought being involved with a fellow officer would be impractical: Either one of them would have to settle for not being captain, or they'd always be worrying about each other in a distance relationship. This was the last time the two of them had spoken to one another until the Enterprise picked up a distress signal from the Marco Polo, under her command, crippled by a relentless squadron of robotic defense drones left behind by a mysteriously vanished people with technology far beyond that of the Federation. As his crew works feverishly to save not only the Marco Polo but themselves as well from the returning drone ships, Will shares with us his memories of Lyrinda through flashback.
“Thin Ice” is already an incredibly intimate and moving story on the surface level and once again strikes a perfect balance between (proper) character interiority and science fiction, but its real brilliance lies in how Friedman expertly takes advantage of narrative subtext. It's what goes only implied that's every bit as riveting and heartwarming as what's told to us: There is, for example, a blink-and-you'll-miss it reveal just for the minutiae geeks that Lyrinda and Data must know each other even though they don't interact in the story proper: After having graduated the Academy with top honours and before she was posted to the Fearless, Lyrinda had served with distinction on the Trieste. This means she and Data are actually former comrades as that was his post prior to the Enterprise and they would have been serving on it at the same time. Through this, and building on Lyrinda's textual relationship with Will, Friedman is able to subtly position Lyrinda as a heretofore unseen, yet legitimate, member of the Enterprise family.
Which is just about as masterful an exploitation of Star Trek fan's eye for continuity as exists, and it makes Lyrinda Halk the final form of Friedman's trademark narrative device. Yes, she's a canon foreigner, but the way she's so deftly woven into the fabric of Star Trek: The Next Generation's tapestry here she's by the end of the story completely inextricable from it. She's so, so much more than the one-off character she becomes and deserves so much more of a legacy than that. Katherine Pulaski, Guinan, Doctor Selar, Alyssa Ogawa, Keiko O'Brien and Ro Laren weren't aboard from the start either, but you can't think of the starship Enterprise now without them. And yes, I'm putting Captain Lyrinda Halk in that same category.
(“Thin Ice” also sees a major turning point in the style of the comic book line: Pablo Marcos is replaced on art duties this time by Matt Haley, Carlos Garzon, Juliana Ferriter and Bob Pinaha: Together they craft an altogether far more photorealistic, yet still artful and evocative, look for this story that nicely compliments its romantic and intimate atmosphere.)
And there's more here than just the bait for continuity hounds. There's also the fact, which hadn't occurred to me until I re-read this story in chronological sequence, that this is coming either alongside or in the wake of The Star Lost. Which gives an entirely different weight to certain lines of dialog, especially near the start. Early on Deanna Troi tries to caution Captain Picard about letting Will lead the away team to save the Marco Polo given his personal stake in the mission. But not only does Jean-Luc permit it, he also asks Will to dig up all the information on the sector he can, something Data could have done impartially and instantaneously. Why? Captain Picard tells Deanna, and us, “I think he's earned it, don't you?”. Out of context it's a nice acknowledgment of how decorated Will already is on the Enterprise, but in the context of where this story actually falls, this comes *right after* The Star Lost...A story where Will and the rest of the crew aboard the Albert Einstein were flung to the other end of the galaxy and that he was comatose for about 95% of.
So he's “earned” this mission not just in a diegetic sense given his history to date or what he went through in The Star Lost, but also an *extradiegetic* one because the character of Will Riker was *barely in* The Star Lost, which was a story mostly about Jean-Luc, Deanna, Worf, Selar, Wesley and Nigata. So, we were about due for a Riker Story (and indeed if you can cast your mind all the way back to “The Lesson”, you'll recall Will walked out of that one with a bit of egg on his face. Here he gets a meaty dramatic plot to sink his teeth into and look heroic in as well as a passionate and adorable love story). And in one more nod to The Star Lost, Captain Picard tells Deanna, in regards to his odd orders concerning Will, “you're not the only one who can empathize”, which is an elegantly understated callback and coda to the respective story arcs of those two characters in the recently concluded serial.
And as much of a Riker Story as this may be, we really can't forget Captain Halk in our assessment either, whose story this is as much as it is Will's. “Thin Ice” is nothing if not if not a treatise on how paralleled these two really are, and this is a theme woven into every fiber of the narrative body here. The opening moments set up the tacit implication that Lyrinda made captain first because she's more aggressive and more of a risk-taker, and yet there is also the fact Will has numerous times turned down promotion to remain first officer of the Enterprise because he knows that's where he belongs. But “Thin Ice” also raises the possibility that he may also be doing this to prove to himself, if not Lyrinda, that he is indeed the person who would be willing to make that compromise. That he doesn't need to be captain. That career advancement and competition isn't everything to him, just like he tried to articulate in “The Icarus Factor”. And perhaps it's the case that Will might just know, deep down, that Lyrinda is more cut out for the captain's chair than he is.
But even though Will and Lyrinda talk about how contrasting their personalities are, we always get the sense that the two of them are probably more similar than they let on and more similar than they frequently like to think they are. In the Alaska scene, it's Will who does savvily point out that Lyrinda seems to be the one unwilling to take a risk, while later on in the Enterprise sickbay Lyrinda confesses to Captain Picard that she's afraid she “took one risk too many” in taking on the robot fleet, and praising Jean-Luc's first officer for being “by the book”. Funnily enough, at the same time, it's Commander Riker who reassures the crew of the Marco Polo that their captain will be fine because of her unshakable tenacity, resolve and strength of will. And indeed, he's only able to get them and his away team to safety in the end by making a pretty big gamble.
It would be wrong to say that Will Riker and Lyrinda Halk “complete” each other because they are both utterly whole individuals (and I personally think that's an incredibly dangerous sort of rhetoric to use anyway), but you could say that they compliment one another and I think the way in which they do makes their relationship, for me at least, one of the most memorable and mesmerizing in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. If I were to ship Commander Riker with somebody, there's no question in my mind that it would be Captain Halk. The thing about Deanna Troi is that her love story with Will is and always has been a part of their shared past-It ended (amicably, it should be stressed: At least at this point nobody is trying to sell it that their relationship “failed” in some way) and they moved on to different stages of their lives. Because of Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism, they can reshape themselves as close friends and confidants. They remain empathically linked and still probably know each other better than almost anyone else, they're just not romantic lovers.
(In fact “Thin Ice” even gives Deanna a scene that implicitly points this out: As she's browsing Captain Halk's biography and service record she talks to us about what a tragedy it would be to lose her, not just because Halk is a skilled and valued captain, but because she's also a hell of a lady. Deanna is clearly impressed, sees how Will could have bonded with her and approves.)
But while Will's relationship with Deanna may have ended, his relationship with Lyrinda halted. It was interrupted and came to an abrupt stop, and there's a big difference between those things. There was no closure for either of them, and you just know he and Deanna worked these sorts of things out a very long time ago. But Lyrinda disappeared from Will's life, came back, and then just as quickly left again. Now though the Enterprise has given them a reunion, and it seems like they might have a chance for a new start. And even though we continue to trek forward, our past remains with us. It will always be a formative part of who we are, shaping us as people through experience and forever guiding us through memory. Accepting and coming to terms with it helps us do the same for ourselves.