Thursday, May 11, 2017

William T. Riker Will You Please Go Now?

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered when I was nine years old, and its final season aired during my sophmore year of high school. Since I kind of grew up with the show, I wasn't really capable of noticing some of its most basic flaws. Like how the character of Will Riker is mostly useless and terrible. 

Pictured: Will Riker, doing what he does.
"But Dave," I hear you saying. "This is blasphemy! Commander Riker is a dear and beloved character with millions of fans! You'd better be ready to explain yourself, mister!"

Why yes, imaginary person I invented as a literary device to justify the existence of this article. Allow me to list all the ways that Captain Picard's Number One is Number Two:

(Get it? "Number Two"? Because he stinks? I know, just start the article already.)

The "Dual Lead Characters" Concept Didn't Pan Out
An early version of the TNG series bible referred to Captain Picard and Commander Riker as "dual lead characters". The idea was that the older, experienced Picard would stay on the ship and handle the weighty, dramatic loneliness-of-command decision-making stuff while the younger Riker would lead Away Teams into danger and engage in the requisite running, jumping, fisticuffs and romancing of attractive guest actresses on planets where the hairstyles of the 1980s remained the height of fashion.

This turned out to be one of those ideas that works better on paper than in practice. No disrespect to Jonathan Frakes, but Patrick Stewart is a far superior actor. Stewart and Frakes are less like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and more like LeBron and Daniel "Boobie" Gibson. (Don't know who Daniel "Boobie" Gibson is? Exactly my point.) Stewart eventually got bored and started wanting more action  and romance for his character--the stuff that had previously been Riker's purview. And he turned out to be way better at it. As Picard became the action lead as well as the dramatic lead, Riker's character became more of a third wheel.

His Character Arc Was Finished Less Than Halfway Through The Show
In the first season, it’s established that more than anything, Riker wants to command a starship. And yet he turns down every command that’s offered to him in the early seasons. This was finally addressed in the “The Best of Both Worlds”. After turning down yet another starship, Riker has command thrust upon him when Picard is kidnapped by the Borg, and he acquits himself splendidly, proving that he's matured into the captain he always wanted to be. But in the very next episode, Picard is back and Riker is a Commander again. After "The Best of Both Worlds", Riker had no reason to still be on the Enterprise, except that Jonathan Frakes was a series regular. The character was pretty much frozen in amber for the last four of TNG's seven seasons, never growing or developing, just playing the same tired beats over and over again. Imagine if the Andy Griffith show had continued until Ron Howard was a teenager, but Opie was still getting into the same childish scrapes as when he was a second-grader. That's basically what happened with Riker. And it might've been okay if Riker was likable, but unfortunately . . .

He Was Kind of a Creepy Perv
So in the first-season episode "110010111011111100001100011111110010101" (or whatever it's called) Riker visits the holodeck, which has been enhanced by the computer-dependent Bynars, and conjures up what is basically a holo-hooker named "Minuet". Minuet is essentially a blow-up doll with a sophisticated AI; she's programmed to pick up on a person's nonverbal cues and become whatever they want her to be. She has no real personality, wants, or needs of her own, she only exists to please whatever man happens to be sitting in front of her. Riker is super turned-on by this, but before things can get heated enough to show us something we could never unsee without years of therapy and powerful medications the show remembers it's rated PG, and they're interrupted by Picard barging in like a sitcom neighbor. This whole embarrassing episode could easily be written off as just another weird interlude in TNG's chaotic first season, except that Minuet resurfaces in the fourth season episode "Future Imperfect".

In that story, Riker blacks out on an away mission and seemingly awakens in the future, where Dr. Crusher explains that an alien disease has erased his memories of the last 15 years. He's now Captain of the Enterprise and has a young son, and his wife died tragically not long before he lost his memory. The whole thing comes unraveled when Riker looks up some home movies in the computer and realizes that his dead wife is Minuet. Eventually he finds out that he's really in a mind-reading alien holodeck, and his "son" is actually a lonely alien orphan who just wanted some non-holographic company. But here's the interesting thing: the kid didn't create every aspect of the simulation. He tells Riker that the "neural scanners" tried to give him what he wanted. Now, lots of people have someone in their past who they wish they'd ended up with. Since Riker is the "ladies' man" character on a TV series, his Rolodex of past loves is way bigger than yours or mine. And yet the great lost love of his whole life is not a real person, it's a futuristic Siri-equipped blow-up doll! That's really messed up! We all rag on Geordi (and rightly so) for falling in love with the holographic Leah Brahms, but at least there was a real Leah Brahms out there.

Then there's the exchange Riker and Troi have in the episode "Captain's Holiday" before Picard leaves on his vacation to Risa. Risa, by the way, is either a kind of Space Vegas with no slot machines where everything is free (and I do mean everything), or a futuristic reimagining of the racist old South Seas island trope, where said island is full of barely-clothed native women whose only purpose in life is to have commitment-free sex with any white man who happens to wash up on their shores. It's safe to say there's no Disney resort on Risa. Anyway, as Picard is headed to the transporter room, Riker and Troi have this conversation which I copied and pasted from the script:

Did I ever mention how imaginative
Risian women are?
Too often, Commander.

A few things here: Troi is Riker's ex-girlfriend, his co-worker, and technically his subordinate. If a guy has a habit of coming back from vacation and telling his ex-girlfriend about all the wild sex stuff he did, that's creepy and disturbing. If he does that to a co-worker, it's creepy, disturbing, and also constitutes sexual harassment. And if he does it to a subordinate, now you're in Bill O'Reilly territory. That's a very bad place to be for a hero character who the audience is supposed to like. Oh, and one more thing:

Riker Is An Emotionally-Unstable Jerk

In the first two seasons, Riker is a more genial, laid-back guy. He's a nice contrast to Picard, who in those early seasons was frequently uptight and short-tempered. But in the later seasons the two characters switch places. For example, in the episode "Hollow Pursuits", he joins in with Wesley and Geordi in bullying the nervous and dorky Lt. Barclay. Now, as the XO it's his job to make sure the ship runs well, and someone like Barclay who isn't giving 100% can expect the XO to be hard on him. In fact, if this story took place in a contemporary military setting there probably wouldn't be anything unusual about Riker's behavior. But this is supposed to be the 24th century Starfleet, full of morally-evolved Roddenberrians. So why does Picard have to be the one to tell Riker and Geordi to quit the bullying and name-calling and actually help the guy become a good officer?

Another thing Riker does a lot is get all shouty and petulant whenever someone disagrees with him. He threatens Lt. Commander Shelby when she goes around him to try and sell Picard on her anti-Borg plan he's rejected. He gets into loud arguments with Ensign Ro when she does stuff without following established protocols. And then we have his relationship with Captain Jellico.

We've all had bosses we didn't like, right? Bosses that made us do stuff we didn't want to do and thought was stupid? Most of us handled it like adults; we either gritted our teeth and did as we were told, or if we could afford to maybe we resigned from the job. But when Jellico comes aboard and orders a change in the Enterprise's shift schedule that Riker doesn't like, he complains and drags his feet like a teenager whose mom told him to pause his Nintendo game and take out the trash. And then when he doesn't like the way Jellico is handling things with the Cardassians, he loses his temper and shouts at him. This is unprofessional behavior for a Burger King employee; it's even worse when it's a dude who's second-in-command of a giant starship with an arsenal that can turn an Earthlike planet into the lava world of Mustafar. I'd ask how this guy got to be the XO of the flagship, but since Starfleet is an organization where most of the  Admirals we see are incompetent or corrupt I think we know the answer.

Imagine this: what if Riker had been written out of the show after "The Best of Both Worlds" and Commander Shelby had become the new first officer? Can you think of any Riker-centric episode from the final four seasons that wouldn't have been as good or better if reworked as a Shelby story? In fact, Shelby locking horns with Ensign Ro or Captain Jellico might've been more believable, since she was a younger, more impetuous character.

You may disagree with everything I've said here. And that's cool, I don't all mean and shouty when people don't agree with me.

Unlike someone else I could name.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Ryman Refinement

I saw my first Herb Ryman painting when I was six years old:

It appeared as a beautiful two-page spread in the definitive EPCOT Center bible, Richard Beard's Walt Disney's EPCOT-Creating The New World of Tomorrow. The book was a present from my grandfather, one of the best he ever gave me. While the gorgeous Robert McCall paintings from the Horizons chapter more strongly stirred my imagination, something about the Ryman painting compelled me. It wasn't until I saw more of his work a couple decades later that I realized what it was.

It was the people. In most theme park concept art, the people are hastily-sketched smiling figures excitedly pointing at or running towards the attraction that's being depicted, sometimes while clutching a piece of tie-in merchandise. Their only function is to provide a sense of scale while communicating the idea that the proposed attraction will be a fun (and profitable) place.

But in Herb Ryman's pictures, the people communicate something more. They convey the idea of EPCOT Center as a place where people from around the world don their finest clothes to learn about the future and immerse themselves in the cultures of the planet we share. It reminds me of how my grandfather used to wear a suit whenever he took a plane trip. He came from the era where flying was a special occasion. And for special occasions, you dressed up.

In the alternate universe Herb Ryman painted, a visit to EPCOT Center was very much a special occasion. And Florida somehow had no heat or humidity, so a man could stroll its unshaded expanses in a three-piece suit without breaking a sweat, and a woman could walk the entire park in a dress and high heels with zero discomfort. But more importantly, it was an alternate reality where people would actually come from all over the world to partake of the feast for the mind that EPCOT Center offered. I've said before that the main reason EPCOT Center failed to do as well as the pre-Michael Eisner Disney hoped was that it eschewed thrill rides and engaged your brain on a higher level, whereas the average theme park visitor doesn't want their brain engaged on any higher level, they want it engaged on the level that makes them sorry they had lunch at Pizza Planet.

I think a big reason why the world Herb Ryman depicted is so alluring to we EPCOT Center nostalgists is that it's a place where science, learning, and the appreciation of cultures other than one's own are highly valued. It's a more refined place, one that we feel a keen homesickness for even though it never really existed. But when we look into those paintings and imagine ourselves there, we hope that someday, somehow, it will.