They were both first officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise — separated by time, but not by duty. But for some reason, rarely does anyone think to compare Mr. Spock and Commander Riker. Until now.
Ever since Jean-Luc Picard took the helm of the Enterprise-D and set out for Farpoint Station (it was Stardate 41153.7, but late September 1987 to us on Earth) people have agonized over whether he was a “better” captain than James T. Kirk. Indeed, for those of us old enough to remember, it felt like the primary topic of conversation on the early internet, as evidenced by The Simpsons’ first ever reference to the World Wide Web.
Typically, when talk left the center seat, the next point of comparison was between The Original Series’ Spock and The Next Generation’s Lieutenant Commander Data. It makes sense. Story-wise, they serve a similar function: They are the geniuses that are clutch to the ship’s survival, but forever on the periphery. Spock, of course, is the half-Vulcan, tamping down his emotions in favor of cold logic, and Data is an android of such superior (though never quite explained) design that even the sniveling Commander Maddox agrees he is sentient. Both characters were immediate fan favorites (and remain so) and the formula was repeated again in later series, with Odo on Deep Space Nine and Seven of Nine on Voyager. (Much has been written about Star Trek’s groundbreaking neurodivergent representation, even if some of the creators claim to have been unaware that that was what they were doing.)
Even though Starfleet is not a military organization it does follow a chain of command. Spock and Riker function as equals and, if they ever were to be on opposing sides, one must wonder: who would win? Let’s break the competition down by category.
Gene Roddenberry and his team of writers and producers pulled a reversal while dreaming up The Next Generation. Picard, while certainly a badass when he needs to be, was intentionally created to be a more cerebral response to Kirk. In essence, Riker has many of the qualities of the O.G. captain. He’s the sequel series’ man of action (and that action isn’t just with his phaser on an away mission.) Mr. Spock, while handsome in his own way, is far from a muscular hunk. He’s thin, and even stoop-shouldered at time. So to look at them you’d think Riker could knock him out cold.
Vulcans — even half-Vulcans — have a different physical makeup than humans. There’s the green blood, the inner eyelid, the ability to thrive in high heat and low oxygen environments, and, key to this discussion, tremendous physical strength. What’s more, there’s that handy little move known as the Vulcan nerve pinch that’ll take down just about anyone in a few seconds.
This one is a little tougher to pin down. Yes, Riker was known for wooing women all across the galaxy, even while maintaining an emotionally mature post-physical relationship with his imzadi, Counselor Troi. (On what other television show did you ever see a man who was truly happy when his best friend, an ex-lover, was having great sex with another man? Only on TNG!) To this day, the warm, bearded smile of the Enterprise-D’s first officer is a champion of memes and reaction GIFs.
But when Mr. Spock and his Luciferan lewks hit the airwaves in the late 1960s, it was a revolution for people attracted to “different” looking people. Indeed, much to the chagrin of William Shatner, his supposed sidekick Leonard Nimoy soon received more fan mail than the first guy on the call sheet. Spockophilia was a key, driving force in the early fan culture of Star Trek, and one can make the case that the commonly found pursuit of “shipping” has its roots right there on the tips of his pointy ears.
William Riker is the only interstellar jazz trombonist I can think of. (And Jonathan Frakes really does play the instrument; he’s on a Phish album, and has an RIAA certified Gold Record in his home to prove it.)
Mr. Spock, however, plays something no human ever plays, at least not that I’ve seen: the Vulcan lute.
His rare public jamming on said instrument was a way for the emotionally insecure genius to connect with the rest of his crew, and show a more playful side (especially with Lieutenant Commander Uhura’s improvised lyrics). Plus the damn thing looked so cool.
Mr. Spock is a child of two worlds. His mother, Amanda, is human. His father, Sarek, is a Vulcan ambassador. (That he also bears a striking resemblance to a Romulan Commander who died in battle against Captain Kirk is irrelevant.)
For years it seemed as if the solitude he exuded meant he also had no siblings, but this was actually not the case. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier we learned of an older half-brother, Sybok, who would later become a charismatic, quasi-religious leader and, ultimately, bad news. Fans don’t like to talk about Sybok much, but there’s always one or two dudes who dress like him at conventions, to a round of jeers.
Later still, we learned of an adopted older sister, Michael Burnham, the central character in Star Trek: Discovery. This relationship, quite frankly, might have been born out of ill-conceived creative choices by the since-dismissed Discovery showrunner Bryan Fuller (the story of Disco’s curious first season has never fully been told) but once Ethan Peck sank his teeth into the role of Spock, they managed to make it work. We’ll see more in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds later this year.
But none of Spock’s family history could ever match Will Riker’s “brother,” Thomas Riker. The noble adventurer (out there still?) is accepted to be Will’s sibling, but he’s actually a clone created by a transporter accident. Several disquieting years, to put it bluntly, set him on a different path — he joined the Maquis, and caught the eye of Major Kira. So he isn’t really a duplicate. He is, thanks to some serious sci-fi, his own man, with similarities and differences to the Enterprise’s first officer: truly, a brother.
Both Spock and Riker (and Kira and Chakotay and T’Pol and Trip Tucker and Saru) are fiercely loyal to their captains. And they both demurred when opportunities came to helm their own ship (for Spock in Wrath of Khan, for Riker in the episode Best of Both Worlds), realizing that they best suited the Federation’s needs (and maybe their own) by standing by their man. These fellas would never, ever be anything but forthright and honest.
Most of the time.
There is the case of The Original Series’s two-parter “The Menagerie” and the Next Generation episode “The Pegasus”. In both examples, our seconds-in-command withheld so much information that they basically lied to their captains. But they had a good excuse. They were serving out the wishes (and a previously made promise) to earlier captains. I suppose both Kirk and Picard took heart to know that, years down the line, they could call on these guys to have their back.
Post-first officer careers
After serving aboard the Enterprise, Will Riker eventually did take command of a starship: the U.S.S. Titan. He also married Counselor Deanna Troi.
The end of Star Trek: Lower Decks season 1 emphasized that he’s still out there, saving the day at the last minute. Same with the end of season 1 of Star Trek: Picard.
Spock, on the other hand, took the more cerebral route, as might be expected. After a stint back on Vulcan and an aborted attempt to complete his Kolinahr training, Starfleet (and the friendships he forged their) called him back to the Federation. After working as a professor at Starfleet Academy, he followed his father’s path as an ambassador. He even went rogue, going underground to try and bring peace between Vulcan and Romulus (and eventually chatting with Data, a scene that still sends nerds into paroxysms of glee to this day.)
He was also the conduit, from a story-perspective at least, between the Prime Universe and the Kelvin trilogy, which brought us one great movie (Star Trek Beyond), one very good movie (Star Trek), and one catastrophe so bad it makes the adventure with Sybok seem less horrible (Star Trek Into Darkness). In that regard, Spock proves himself, again, to be a family man.
So the math has it. One need not have Vulcan logic to see: Spock beats Riker.
But hopefully he’s learned enough from Captain Kirk to pull a Kobayashi Maru and change the rules so that they don’t have to fight in the first place.