The Enterprise is returning to a planet that Riker barely escaped during a dangerous past mission as a lieutenant. Atmospheric conditions are now making transporter use possible for the first time since that narrow escape 8 years earlier. But the crew beams down to find a duplicate Will Riker! Copied in a transporter mishap all those years ago, this Riker has been living in isolation, and is now eager to get his life back on track. That includes rekindling a romantic relationship with Deanna Troi, a relationship the counselor had long given up on.
Staff writer René Echevarria wrote this script, from an idea pitched by outsider Michael Medlock. To hear Echevarria tell it, Medlock's "Riker has a transporter clone" concept was almost laughed out of the room, until the freelancer got to the real meat of the idea: that the duplicate was still interested in Counselor Troi. That aspect captured everyone's imagination (though Michael Piller reportedly insisted that it be explicit this kind of duplication was a one in a million accident). From there, Echevarria said the script practically "wrote itself."
But not before some initial arguing behind the scenes. An early idea from the writers' room, which most of the staff was wildly enthusiastic about, was to end the episode by killing Commander Riker! Their idea was to have the new duplicate, Thomas Riker, take over Data's position at the helm, and promote the android to first officer. It was perfect, they insisted! Jonathan Frakes could still be on the show, but the relationships would be scrambled up with new blood that could lead to interesting new stories. Rick Berman shut that idea down, by some accounts out of fear that losing Commander Riker could damage plans for Next Generation movies that were already being considered to follow the run of the show. But years later, writer Ron Moore (among those most enthusiastic for the idea at the time) agreed that it would have been a mistake; he felt that in their youthful enthusiasm to do something different, they'd failed to respect the fans' attachment to the old character, above and beyond that of the actor. (Needless to say, today's television world is quite a different one, with characters and the actors who play them being written off a show purely for storytelling shock value.)
Fortunately, there's plenty more to this episode than an abandoned "Riker Swap." Indeed, the episode barely has time for the also-compelling idea of simply showcasing how someone would struggle to reintegrate with people after being alone for eight years. That's because the even more compelling notion here is about "roads not taken," an idea the episode thoroughly explores. Lieutenant Riker basically discovers that an imposter has been living his life for nearly a decade -- and, in his mind, has messed it up completely. Commander Riker didn't get the girl, nor the starship command he wanted. It's like being betrayed by himself, and it sparks an interesting and believable rivalry between the two.
The episode serves up lots of great dialogue, loaded with double meanings. It also fleshes out the past relationship between Troi and Riker in interesting ways -- for example, making it explicit that he ended it, and that they'd actually still been together just two years prior to the first time we met them. There are nice moments for Troi and (Will) Riker as friends -- her tormenting him with the jazz solo he can't play; him trying to shield her from another heartbreak. There are equally nice moments between Troi and (Thomas) Riker as a couple -- the romantic scavenger hunt, and the thoughtful conversation that follows.
This is the first episode ever directed by LeVar Burton, and he does an excellent job. He stays focused on the characters, and never lets the technical challenges of duplicating an actor get in the way. (Though he does get tricky at times. For example, there's a long and intriguing circular sweep of the camera during the tai chi sequence.) You can sense that the cast all wanted to do well for one of their own. In particular, Jonathan Frakes gives a strong performance with nuance for each of the two Rikers, while Marina Sirtis is very relatable, in turns both swept up in romance and in bittersweet memories.
Someone else that agreed to help when LeVar Burton called was Dr. Mae Jemison. She was the first African-American woman in space, and had retired from the space program a few years prior to this episode. Burton asked if she'd come cameo as the transporter chief, and in doing so she became the first person who'd actually been in space to appear on Star Trek. Adding to the significance of the moment, Burton also invited Nichelle Nichols to visit the set on the day the transporter room was filmed. Uhura had been a hero for Dr. Jemison as a child (much as she'd been for Whoopi Goldberg), so Burton arranged for them to meet.
- It's too bad that (obviously, because they're played by the same actor) that Thomas Riker had to have the same beard as William Riker. (Particularly since William Riker didn't have one at the start of the series.) Still, the gold uniform and some subtle makeup and hair work do make Jonathan Frakes look slightly different in the two roles.
- Speaking of that gold uniform, note that when the duplicate Riker first shows up, it's the old style uniform from the first two seasons. Nice bit of continuity there.
- Though stud has typically been the poker game of choice on the show, here the game is five-card draw. It seems weird that they never played Hold 'Em, but then this was just a few years before the big poker explosion. At this time, Hold 'Em simply wasn't as well known.
- There's a fun scene in which Data speaks to Worf about what it would be like to have a double. I find it interesting that the subject of Lore doesn't come up. Missed opportunity? Or did the writers already know they were planning to bring Lore back in the season finale, and they didn't want anything to risk spoiling the surprise?
- It's nice that in deciding not to kill Commander Riker, that the writers didn't then resort to the obvious ending of killing Lieutenant Riker. Instead, the episode leaves both Rikers alive in the universe. (And Deep Space Nine would make use of that a few years later.)