He’s always been our Number One.
The show is called Star Trek: Picard, but right now — three episodes into the third and final season — it’s Jonathan Frakes’ performance as Captain William T. Riker that’s charging the dilithium crystals in the warp core. That’s not a dis against Patrick Stewart or Jeri Ryan or Michael Dorn or Gates McFadden or Michelle Hurd or Todd Stashwick as Captain Liam Shaw (where did this awesome guy come from?), but Picard’s vision of Riker feels like a fulfillment of a promise Trek fans have been waiting on for over 20 years.
As First Officer of the Enterprise, watching Riker turn down his own command was something of a recurring gag over Star Trek: The Next Generation’s run. He finally moved to the center seat of the USS Titan (and married his imzadi, Counselor Deanna Troi) in time for Star Trek: Nemesis, but we never actually saw him on his bridge. (Also, that movie stinks like a plate of week-old tube grubs from the least profitable restaurant on Ferenginar!)
As disappointing as Picard’s first season may have been, watching him warp in to save the day as acting captain on the USS Zheng He was a get-off-the-couch-and-cheer moment for fans of the Alaska-born commander, adventurer, occasional lawyer, lover, and, after TNG season 1, beard-haver. (Eternal bar trivia: Despite 10 tie-in novels set aboard Riker’s Titan, the first time we ever saw him at the helm was on Star Trek: Lower Decks — including some toe-tappin’ jazz, to boot!)
Today’s Riker, long out of any commanding officer’s shadow — even Admiral Picard’s —invokes a feeling of “oh, look how far he’s come” pride. When roles get reversed in the episode “Seventeen Seconds,” and Jean-Luc says to call him Number One, it brings a tear to the eye. This turns chillingly Shakespearean when Riker is forced to bark, “Remove yourself from the bridge, you’ve just killed us all!” (Don’t worry, this all gets resolved in episode 4, but no spoilers.)
The point is that Riker is strutting his stuff as a center-stage badass, and it’s terrific.
To celebrate and reflect on the character’s greatness, and to piss off fans of every stripe with our omissions and our placement, we now list the top 10 Riker episodes of pre-Picard Star Trek, which unsurprisingly all come from The Next Generation. Please send your outraged emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
10. “Rascals” (season 6, episode 7)
This is not a Riker episode per se, but Jonathan Frakes plays the key scene like a Ressikan flute. Thanks to a wacky transporter accident, Captain Picard, Ensign Ro, Keiko O’Brien, and Guinan (what a fab four!) end up reverting to their 12-year-old selves. When Ferengi take over the ship (!) only the quasi-younglings (aided by real youngling, Alexander Rozhenko, son of Worf!) can save the day. Key to their success is “Young Picard” creating a ruse in which he pretends to be Commander Riker’s son.
It’s obviously a very funny scene, but it also totally works as drama. How Frakes was able to pull this off with a straight face is a mystery deeper than what lurked at the center of Sha Ka Ree.
9. “The Measure of a Man” (season 2, episode 9)
Wait, hold up; this isn’t a Riker episode either! Yes, that’s true; this was one of the early-ish episodes in which Patrick Stewart showed off what would one day make him Sir Patrick Stewart — acting his brains out while arguing, in court, that Lt. Commander Data, an android created by Dr. Noonian Soong, is, in fact, a sentient being.
To make it stick, and to save Data’s life, someone had to present for the prosecution, and that duty fell to Commander Riker. What’s more, he couldn’t half-ass it.
“I can’t. I won’t,” Riker protests. “Data’s my comrade. We have served together. I not only respect him, I consider him my friend.” Of course, he must, and luckily Data is humane enough to never condemn him for it.
The following season Riker himself is put on trial in the Rashomon-inspired episode “A Matter of Perspective.” Trek writers Ira Steven Behr, Ronald D. Moore, and the late Michael Piller all later said this one never turned out like they’d hoped, but we can, and should, celebrate it for giving us the Riker facepalm.
8. “A Matter of Honor” (season 2, episode 8)
I may be getting old, but at least I can say I got to see this when it first aired, and got to come back to middle school the following Monday waving around a baggie of gummy worms and shrieking, “Gagh is always best when served live!” (When I refused to stop, Mrs. Welch gave me detention.)
This spectacular episode is a targ-out-of-water story in which Riker does some exchange-student business on a Klingon ship, the IKS Pagh. The Klingon captain jumps to conclusions about something, and soon prepares for battle against the Enterprise. Riker must figure a way to save both ships, and do it in a way that retains his (temporary) oath to Klingon honor. He uses a variant of the Corbomite Maneuver, proving that the alpha-when-necessary Riker is cut from the same cloth as Captain James T. Kirk, and not just ’cause he’s an interstellar stud.
7. “The Pegasus” (season 7, episode 12)
As with TOS’ Spock and Kirk, DS9’s Kira and Sisko, and Voyager’s Chakotay and Janeway, what’s key to Riker and Picard is loyalty. That’s why this episode hurts. Just like it’s kinda weird to see your current significant other with an old flame, watching Riker salute a previous commanding officer somehow feels indecent. What’s more, when it appears that they may be keeping some kind of secret from Picard, it’s downright scandalous.
Naturally, our guy is simply caught up in a (non-Tholian) web of ethical complexities — his old boss, played by Terry O’Quinn, broke a slew of Federation rules by dabbling with cloaking technology, killing many — and the worst you can say is that it takes him a little time to do the right thing. Perhaps to mitigate the darkness of all this, the top of this episode features one of the daffiest moments in all of Trek — the Enterprise’s youth contingent prepping for “Picard Day,” all leading to Jonathan Frakes doing a spot-on Patrick Stewart impression.
For a follow-up episode dealing with Riker struggling with his loyalty, check out “Allegiance” (season 3, episode 18), in which the bridge officers are forced to mutiny when they become convinced Picard has been captain-napped and replaced by a clone. (Luckily, their hunch ends up being correct.)
6. “Second Chances” (season 6, episode 24)
Oy, the transporter. Always causing trouble. Just ask Tuvix! This time a malfunction causes an existential crisis for Will Riker, but a delight for us — double the Jonathan Frakes.
The Enterprise returns to a planet where, years ago, Riker led an evacuation. Little does he know that when beaming back he created, and stranded, a duplicate of himself. And whatever the opposite of Narcissus is, that’s Riker. Rikers.
The two butt heads and soon things get weird when the new Riker starts to romance our Riker’s ex-girlfriend, Counselor Troi. In time the two form an accord and “Thomas” Riker is transferred elsewhere within Starfleet. (Of course, he’ll return for an episode of Deep Space Nine for one of the best surprise twists in the entire franchise.)
5. “Frame of Mind” (season 6, episode 21)
The closest TNG ever came to The Twilight Zone. This is a wheels-within-wheels paranoia exercise that proves a pet theory of mine — production of TNG’s sixth season coincided with DS9’s first, which meant the creatives still working on the last show felt empowered to get a little nuts while all eyes were on the new one. (Note: When did DS9 kick into a new gear with the Dominion War arc? When Voyager was getting started and every exec at Paramount was freaking out about Kate Mulgrew’s hair.)
Anyway, “Frame of Mind”: Riker going nuts facing the abyss of his own fractured sanity. Just watch it. It inspired the song linked above. And when you really want to see our beloved Commander lose his mind, check out that one scene in season 7’s “Parallels” when an alternate, unkempt Riker is at the end of his rope, begging for pandimensional sanctuary. It makes an excellent cosplay option.
4. “Future Imperfect” (season 4, episode 8)
So many great moments in Trek are about taking our heroes and putting them in unexpected versions of their own reality. That’s what TOS’ “Mirror, Mirror” is, that’s what Voyager’s “Flashback” is, that’s what TNG’s “Tapestry” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and, to a degree, what “All Good Things…” are, too.
Riker gets to experience this all on his own with “Future Imperfect,” but with a twist: What if Riker woke up one day and discovered it was 16 years later? Well, he’d discover he had some handsome Reed Richards-esque gray in his hair, for starters.
One of the best things about this episode is how it rewarded dedicated fans. The first clue to solving the riddle is recognizing that Riker’s “ex-wife” is actually Minuet from the season 1 episode “11001001.” But she was a holodeck character! So if she’s real, then maybe… aha!
3. “First Contact” (season 4, episode 15)
When Gene Roddenberry was creating The Next Generation, he was determined to have a more cerebral captain in Jean-Luc Picard. This created an opening for some James Kirk-esque swashbuckling with the second-in-command, Will Riker. It is false to suggest either character was bedding alien babes all over the galaxy, but some of that cliche has a basis in reality. Though always kind and attentive, Riker did have his dalliances.
Anyway, this gets turned on its head in the absolutely brilliant episode “First Contact,” when an undercover scouting mission goes awry. Posing as an alien in a culture probably closer to our own than the Federation’s, Riker’s only way home is via the embrace of Bebe Neuwirth, in one of the finest guest shots in the entire franchise.
2. “The Outcast” (season 5, episode 17)
In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise meets up with the J’naii, a humanoid race without gender. Riker is working closely with an individual named Soren, and they hit it off. Soren, as it turns out, privately identifies as female, but must stay closeted, as J’naii culture will not allow such a thing. The two grow to have feelings for one another. Soren is eventually “caught” and will be forced to undergo conversion therapy. Riker prepares to rescue Soren, but is reminded of the Prime Directive. When does one draw the line in respecting a culture if it means denying an individual’s rights?
It’s important to remember that this was released in 1992. It was intended, at the time, to be a metaphor for gay rights. Today it reads more matter-of-fact as a story about gender nonconforming people. Whether its message is righteous or steeped too heavily in stereotypes is up for debate. (Indeed, I dedicated an episode of my old Star Trek podcast to this conversation.) One thing that I think all would agree on is that this is one of the all-time great dramatic moments for Riker. It is also the polar opposite of the corny season 1 episode “Angel One,” in which the studmuffin commander ends up on a planet ruled by women.
1. “The Best of Both Worlds” Part 1 (season 3, episode 26)
Let me tell you something about the summer of 1990: Even in that pre-internet era, there were rumors floating around that Patrick Stewart wanted to leave the series. It had only been two years since the shocking death of Lieutenant Tasha Yar. Her murder by that evil Hefty bag, Armus, was a constant reminder that TNG didn’t play by the rules: Major characters could croak at any given time on this show.
So when Picard showed up as Locutus of Borg, and Riker told Mr. Worf to fire (cueing the most heart-pounding orchestral brass this nerd ever heard), it sure was something. Was it over for Picard? Would Riker, who had been considering leaving the Enterprise for his own command, assume the captaincy with Elizabeth Dennehy’s Shelby nipping at his heels as first officer? It seemed plausible!
Obviously, Jonathan Frakes kills it in that moment, and while part 2 of this cliffhanger is more of a Picard-focused episode, “The Best of Both Worlds” is really Riker’s show. The drama stems from his unease with Shelby, making the showdown with the Borg all the more relatable. There’s a direct line from the bedeviled, younger Riker to the worldlier (and beefier) Riker of Picard season 3. And we’ve been with him every lightyear of the way.