Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 6: Second Chances

The Next Generation, Season 6
"Second Chances"
Airdate: May 24, 1993
149 of 176 produced
149 of 176 aired


When the Enterprise crew visits Nervala IV in order to recover scientific data that had been lost in a storm eight years ago, Commander Riker experiences the shock of a lifetime when he discovers his perfect doppelganger living on the planet, having been castaway for those eight years. The results of this discovery throw many things into doubt for him, not the least of which is his relationship with Counselor Troi, his erstwhile Imzadi.

What is that, velvet?


Matthew: It had to happen sooner or later - the Trek Trope of the transporter duplicate. Perhaps we should commend TNG for getting most of the way through six seasons before it came up (with the possible exception of the dual Picards in "Time Squared"). And let's make no bones about it - most of the criticism of this show will focus on how artificial the trope is. So the question becomes - does the story we're given surmount this? I think that largely it does. But let's not praise this episode before we bury it. The whole "8 year window" thing is a completely artificial bit of "deadline" writing. It is perhaps a bit better than the "colony that needs vaccine in 48 hours or less" trope, but not by much. Then of course we have the million to one (running total of actual results - 230:2) transporter accident that somehow creates a fully functioning duplicate, apparently out of... matter? On the surface? Aw, who the hell knows. Dr. Crusher recovers her clone detecting skills from their apparent loss one episode prior, when she was unable to identify that Kahless was a clone. Somehow, Thomas Riker is able to infiltrate several secure areas of the ship in order to leave love notes for Troi, the one in Engineering occurring on the warp core without the chief engineer noticing.

Kevin: I agree on the absurdity of the transporter issues. It both doesn't make much internal sense and seems to further muddy the waters of transporter science. Does the transporter disassemble, move, and reassemble a person or craft a new person out of a set of data points assembled by the transporter? Neither theory supports what happened, since you would need additional matter to do it, or convert an unholy amount of energy. Also, it's one more accident of a fairly routine device that seems to make its everyday use unfathomable. Isn't any non-zero chance of causing a massive existential crisis enough to make you want to take a shuttle?

Matthew: My other big problem with this script is how it portrays the effects (specifically, the lack of effects) of an 8 year isolation with no end in sight. Prisoners who are given a specific end date for, say, six weeks of solitary confinement have fared far, far worse. Yet Thomas Riker seems none the worse for wear, both physically and mentally. Personally, I think a good ten or twenty minutes of this show could have been dedicated to his rehab by Counselor Troi, which would have afforded us two good things - her being a consummate professional, and a more realistic arc to their falling back in love. Instead, Troi is asked to evaluate Thomas Riker on his level of mental stability with respect to helping on the mission. They chat about old times, and she asks "are you feeling up to it?" to which he responds with a half-hearted "absolutely!" Lame. I feel as though, generally speaking, the antagonism between the Rikers is unusually harsh. This due has been in solitary with no replicators, showers, or anything else really, for eight years. You'd think Will Riker might cut him some slack, or at least have a nice heart to heart with him. This could have been a really interesting chance to explore the difference between a "young" Riker and an older one. It also could have played up the parallel between Thomas Riker and Kyle Riker, who both would have suffered through a long convalescense and social isolation, whereas Will had not.

Kevin: Paralleling Kyle and Thomas Riker is pretty inspired actually, and something I had not thought of. Had Thomas stuck around, that could have been a fun avenue to explore. I am more okay with the lack of exploring the long term effects of isolation for a couple of reasons. First, we just watched Jonathan Frakes have a meltdown in Frame of Mind, so it might have seemed repetitive to do it again so soon. Also, I think that would have been the anchor of the episode, instead of the relationship with Troi, and I think the scenes both Rikers got with Troi add up to some of finest scenes for the characters and relationships in Star Trek as a whole, so I'm happy not to crowd them out.

Matthew: Once you get past some of the artificiality, the story gives us a lot of "fan service." Troi/Riker "shippers" are given loads of scenes between their two favorite romantic targets, and some nicely written scenes at that. Troi's parallel scenes with Thomas Riker and Will Riker in Ten Forward were quite good, giving the actors some really neat shades of emotion to play. The transporter duplicate story is a trope, to be sure. But how you use it is everything. "The Enemy Within" gave us a meditation on the qualities necessary for command, and a meditation on how Yeoman Rand was asking for it. So... one hit and one miss. This story gives us a very nicely done "flashback" romance between two characters we've been rooting for for years, but also at the same time shows how much more mature both of them have become compared to their earlier incarnations circa "Encounter at Farpoint." This wouldn't really have been possible without the duplicate.

Kevin: I'll admit that when I first watched this episode as an 11-year-old, I did not love it. Riker wasn't my favorite character and romance was not something I was terribly interested in. Watching it now, what really sells this episode for me, even over the transporter trope problems, is that it is far and away the most mature and nuanced portrayal of adult relationships in the franchise. Troi sleeping with Thomas felt like an actual decision, and not just what happened next in the script. Her conversation with Will after positively oozed maturity and depth. Will is not possessive of Deanna, and his warning in no way comes off as petulant. It's in fact the opposite. He made an honest appraisal of an action he is not proud of, and warned her that she is essentially setting down the road with the person he used to be. Troi deciding to stay on the Enterprise, though briefly tempted to start something with Thomas reads as very real as well. How would anyone feel if an ex came back into their lives, but from a point in time when they were still the person you fell for, not the person you broke up with? And Troi ultimately deciding to stay because of her life on the Enterprise shows how much she regards that life, and makes me, as a viewer, value it with her. Even the scene with Troi and Crusher, which could have easily read as standard "women only talk about men with each other, right?" dialogue came off as genuinely friendly and supportive banter. This entire episode gave some gravitas to the mytho-historical Imzadi relationship, and it's apex of character development for both Troi and Riker.

Matthew: Although I do find it odd that Thomas Riker would sign up for a faraway terraforming mission with no friends or loved ones after his eight year ordeal, it does give Counselor Troi the opportunity to demonstrate that she is a solidly independent woman who was not just sitting at home pining for her big strong man to come back. The way she describes the break-up really makes Riker sound like a douche-bag - he skipped out on a vacation and then just stopped calling her, essentially. Not much of a way to treat your Imzadi. You would think she would have slapped him hard in the face during their first turbolift ride in "Farpoint," not exchange "do you still feel me" mental messages with him.

Kevin: I agree, it is a little one-sided, but I have no trouble believing there is still more to the story, something Troi chose not to share with Thomas. In a way, it puts a new spin on that scene. By making telepathic contact, Troi confirms his feelings or their connection, and can now squarely place the blame on Will's actions, rather than some deficiency in their relationship. It even makes the "I, too, could never say goodbye," a little ironic, or maybe even accusatory, in retrospect.


Matthew: Whatever issues I have with the script, they do not impugn some sterling acting jobs by the two principals. Sirtis is at her absolute best here, delivering her lines with subtlety, but also real pathos. When her chin quivers just a bit, describing her soul searching after her break-up with Will Riker, it was really effective. But she also shows some steel, when she asserts her independence and pride in her accomplishments. This is what she has always been capable of, and it's too bad that at times the writers have under-utilized her.

Kevin: There was something about the way she pitched her voice just above a whisper in the Ten Foward scene with Thomas that just breaks my heart. Between the moments she actually gets to be a real mental health professional and scenes like this, it almost makes the fan dismissal/dislike of her unfathomable. She's got the chops, and it's a crying shame she didn't get more to do. I know Frakes was joking when he was talking about a sitcom about the Rikers on the Titan, but if this is what they can bring, I'd watch that show.

Matthew: Frakes has perhaps an even tougher task, having to play two slightly divergent versions of the same character, and to act against that character when they are not in the room. He shades Will Riker as slightly overbearing and strained, while giving Thomas Riker some slouches and off beat mannerisms that make him feel different. The line readings for Thomas are also a bit unsteady and lack the kind of confidence that the Will Riker has earned in abundance.

Kevin: I've commented before how I always thought early Riker had a little more frenetic energy about him, as if the character were trying just a shade too hard, and I got some notes of that in Thomas' performance. He lacked, most notably for me, the jovial ease of latter Riker. You can't picture Thomas being comfortable enough to stumble through a solo he knows he can't do in a room full of people. It actually makes his performance in the teaser even better because it works so well to set the characters apart. I think Jonathan Frakes was consciously mining character moments like the conversation with Deanna about his career in Best of Both Worlds in portraying both Will and Thomas, and it really showed. Beyond that, I have to give a shoutout to Data and Worf. The "not easy to get along with" conversation always slays me. Perfectly executed subtle humor.

Production Values

Matthew: LeVar Burton deserves praise for so ably handling a challenging show as his directorial debut. The quick cuts between Frakes and the back of his double are really effective, much more effective than similar shots in "Datalore," because they are much closer and quicker.

Kevin: It's really a credit to Burton's directing that I while I was aware of the double-shot effects, I was always thinking, "Wow, that was really well done." I was never pulled out of the moment. And props to whoever served as Frakes' double, you got his slight hunch down perfectly.

Matthew: The split-screen and optical effects depicting doubles are also much better than Datalore. The lighting matches the actors much better, and only when Will grabs Thomas is there any real visual inkling that they're not in the same room. Given the apparent lack of seams and composite degradation, I would bet that many of these scenes were done with motion controlled cameras, which would allow two scenes with the same background to be shot, and combined in post with the same lighting.

Kevin: The grab and spin was an ambitious shot, but the hand on Thomas' shoulder doesn't quite line up with the Will's forearm. It is really the only jarring moment, but on some level, I appreciated that they tried for physical contact.

Matthew: The Nervala IV base looked nice enough, but I kind of feel cheated that we did not get a look at Thomas Riker's living arrangements. We got nice continuity touches with Thomas Riker's torn season 1-2 uniform, and the slightly different beards and hairdos. There were some pretty atrocious outfits on Frakes this episode - baggy-in-the-front tops that make him look unduly rotund. And the less said about Sirtis' wigs, the better.

Kevin: Resolved: The perm wig has to go. I liked that the Nervala IV set managed to pack a lot of rooms that while individually small made the base fell large and varied in the aggregate. I liked the underground areas as well. The blending into the rock was well done, and the bridge collapsing came off really cleanly. Especially for a new director, LeVar Burton really delivered.


Matthew: I'm going to give this a 4 because of how good Frakes and Sirtis are. This is the kind of episode that is a culmination of all the unscripted background work they have done on their two characters' connection and chemistry. The tropes and the artificiality are annoying, but they are in the service of something really nice and enjoyable. I think the result has above average entertainment value.

Kevin: Agreed. This is the episode that retroactively sells me on even the most annoying Troi/Riker moments, like Haven. For the respect that the characters themselves get, and the rare mature, non-chauvinistic look at relationships in the 24th century, I agree with the four for a total of 8.


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