[TNG] Lynch's Spoiler Review: "Second Chances"
Review by Tim Lynch <>

WARNING:  This is your first chance to avoid this article before reaching spoilers on "Second Chances", the most recent TNG episode.

This, on the other hand, is your second and last chance.

Not bad, really.  Not exactly fantastic, but none too shabby.  Some vaguely more coherent ramblings will follow, of course, after this friendly synopsis:

The Enterprise comes to Nervala Four in an attempt to retrieve data abandoned
eight years ago when the planet needed evacuation.  Riker leads an away team
down through a window in the planet's distortion field (which caused the
initial evacuation, which he also led), and when the team arrives on the planet he is surprised to meet himself there!

The second Riker is just as surprised to see his double, and claims that _he_
is Will Riker, left behind when he couldn't beam through the distortion field
eight years ago.  Worf brings him back to the Enterprise and takes him to
sickbay, while Riker and Data get started on their work.  Beverly finds that
Riker-2 is genetically identical to Riker, and that their brainscans, formed
by early childhood experiences, are also virtually identical.  Picard greets him and says that an investigation should clear up what happened.

Geordi finds that the transporter officer on the Potemkin (Riker's ship eight
years earlier) tried using a pair of beams to get Riker through the
distortion field.  The first one worked without assistance, and the second
one was reflected back to the surface before it shut down.  Thus, it created
a second Riker, and both are equally real.  Picard urges that this second
Riker (still a lieutenant) be made to feel welcome, and suggests that he
might be able to help them retrieve the database.  Troi offers to evaluate
him to make sure he's psychologically fit -- but when she goes to find him, he greets her as though they're still lovers.

They talk of the last time Riker-2 remembers seeing her, just weeks before
the Nervala Four incident.  She remarks that Riker never met her at their
scheduled rendezvous six weeks after that meeting, and that their careers
took them on different paths until they met on the Enterprise, by which time
their feelings had changed.  Riker-2 is less philosophical, saying that he
kept himself sane by thinking of her, and that his feelings _haven't_ changed.  Regardless, he agrees to help with the retrieval.

Unfortunately, on the first attempt he proves as insubordinate as he is
resourceful, and Riker dresses him down quite firmly for not following
orders.  Riker-2 talks to Troi about it later (having "lured" her to
Ten-Forward with a series of gifts and notes), but the conversation quickly turns to their past ... and their future.

Some time later, Riker talks to Picard, who has heard from Riker-2 about his
more risky (but more likely to succeed) plan to retrieve the data from the
station core directly and approves of it.  The two Rikers talk, with Riker
making quite sure Riker-2 has "no confusion" about the chain of command.  
Riker-2 finds Troi exercising and joins in -- and before long, their exercises take on a decidedly different turn.

Riker, realizing what's going on, warns Troi to be careful -- after all, he
points out, if Riker-2 had made it off the planet instead of him, he'd have
made exactly the same choices.  The two Rikers meet again in a game of poker
with Worf and Data, and their charges and countercharges result in Riker-2 leaving the game in a huff.  

Riker-2 later talks to Troi, saying he's gotten an appointment on the Gandhi
that will begin in about a week.  He proposes to her, offering to bring her
on board later, but she bitterly reminds him that he made the same offer
before leaving on the Potemkin eight years ago.  Besides, she adds, she's
built herself a rather happy life on the Enterprise, and is loath to leave.   She suggests that they both need time.

The third and final attempt (before the distortion field reforms for the next
eight years, at any rate) is made on the database.  Despite their
differences, the two Rikers manage to retrieve the data, with Riker rescuing
Riker-2 from a fall into a precipice in the process.  The link restored, the
Enterprise leaves to meet the Gandhi.  Riker-2 comes to say goodbye to Troi,
who says she's not ready to leave -- at least, not *yet*.  Riker comes in
to give "Thomas" Riker [Riker-2's new name, and Will's middle name] a
farewell gift -- his, or perhaps their, trombone.  Thomas leaves, asking Riker to take care of Deanna.

There we are.  A little short on detail, perhaps, but I think the essentials are there.  Now, on to comments.

I was not looking particularly forward to this episode, particularly after
seeing the preview for it.  Transporter-created doubles are a rather tired
plotline, for one, and the suggestion given off by the preview was that we'd
see a lot of the two Rikers snapping at each other, and perhaps brawling over Troi.  This did not, in fact, sound promising.

What I *saw*, however, was much better.  "Second Chances" wasn't the best
we've seen from TNG this season, or even this month ("Frame of Mind" and
"Rightful Heir" are both well ahead of it), but it was, for the most part, a nice character piece.

One thing that got in the way of it was the rush to retrieve this
all-important database.  I realize that a central tenet of TNG writing
appears to be Thou Shalt Not Write a Show Without Jeopardy, but that's too
bad -- because here, I think it got in the way in some places.  Certainly,
the whole "bridge rescue" crisis did very little for me, and in general I
think there were better ways to create tension between the Rikers than to
have a whole pile of "we get three chances and then nothing for eight years" sentiment created by the rather unexplained "distortion field".

On the other hand, I *do* appreciate the fact that the field _was_ left
unexplained, and that the technobabble was kept to a minimum during the
explanation of Thomas Riker's origins.  Basically, all we got was "they tried
to recreate him twice, and the second one ended up planetside", with a few
words of techspeak on either side.  That's the sort of level I find very
acceptable for technobabble -- it made things sound vaguely plausible without trying to sound like a "real" scientific explanation.  

I do think, however, that this particular setup opens up a _major_ can of
worms for the future of TNG society.  If the Federation ever figures out how
to intentionally duplicate what they did accidentally on the Potemkin, then
unlimited "cloning" becomes possible, which should have some fairly hefty
implications worth examining.  (The issue of replicating Data, for instance,
becomes a non-issue in terms of _practicality_ -- the ethical issues then take center stage.)

The plotline of having a Troi/Riker romance "rekindled", more or less, by
this incident was also a good idea that was well handled.  In particular,
our Riker's feelings over seeing Troi and Thomas Riker together must have
been a confusing mix, and that was _noted_ in him acknowledging it was
somewhat flattering in addition to everything else.  (A member of my family
recently started going out with a member of my wife's family, so I have at
least some vague understanding of just how weird Riker must have found the
situation.)  I also thought that Riker's warning that, after all, Thomas
would have had to make the same decisions in Riker's position, was a terrific idea, and one with a lot of truth to it.

One thing that I found both positive and negative about the show was the
particular emphasis on playing it safe vs. being more risky.  On the one
hand, Riker certainly has gotten more complacent since coming on board the
Enterprise, and it's a natural sparring point between the two.  On the other
hand, that's a point that has already been made once, beautifully, in part I
of "The Best of Both Worlds" with Shelby, who we already knew reminded Riker
of how he used to be.  So, while it made a lot of sense, it also felt
slightly like swiping previously-used material from the show.  I'm somewhat mixed on it.

I also want to express my gratitude that the staff seems to finally be
breaking away from killing off important guest characters.  I expected Nella
Darrin to be killed in "Lessons", and I expected Thomas Riker to die here.  
Fortunately, neither has happened -- and I'd put reasonable odds on seeing
Thomas back at some point, especially if Will Riker gets his own command and
Jonathan Frakes doesn't want to leave his job.  I was frankly amazed to see
that Thomas lived to the final seconds of the show -- I kept expecting him to either be killed or to remain behind, trapped by the field again.

One final point on the writing.  Data's hypothesis about uniqueness being the
reason humans don't react well to doubles may or may not be true for the
species in general, but from what we know it's very _definitely_ true for
Riker.  About four years back, when Riker refused to be cloned, he said that
it was because one of him was something "special and unique", and duplicating
him would cheapen that.  I don't know whether that particular speech of
Data's came out of Michael Medlock's head or Rene Echevarria's, but whoever it was did some good character homework.

Onwards to directing.  This was LeVar Burton's first directorial stint, and
I'd have to say it fell somewhere in between Jonathan Frakes's first one
("The Offspring") and Patrick Stewart's ("In Theory").  Burton had a lot of
very good bits here and there, such as the usually-fun-to-direct poker game
bits and the revolving camera during Troi's and Thomas's exercises -- but he
also had a great many scenes where the dialogue was a series of head shots,
which gets very wearing.  The former tend to stand out more than the latter,
though, so all in all it's a very promising start.  (And Burton also had the
sense to keep himself away, for the most part, from _in front_ of the camera
while he concentrated on working behind it.  That's the same thing Frakes did with his first, and it proved effective.)

One other part of the show that Burton directed very well was Troi following
the trail to Ten-Forward.  That's the sort of sequence that could have been
terrific to watch, or could have been agonizingly dull.  Fortunately, thanks
to several factors (including the music, which was surprisingly lively), it
was a lot closer to the former, and I think Burton deserves some of the credit for it.  

Then, there's the acting, which this week has to center on Frakes and Marina
Sirtis.  This is part of the reason I didn't quite expect this show to hold
up -- while Frakes has done tremendous work ("Frame of Mind" recently, for
instance), I wasn't sure he'd turn in another great job this close to the
aforementioned show; and I've usually had a lot of trouble finding Troi believable when the Riker/Troi romantic issues come up.

Fortunately, both surpassed my expectations.  Although Frakes did not equal
his star turn in "Frame of Mind", he made it very easy for viewers to tell
which Riker was which.  Despite the fact that chronologically, they were the
same age, Thomas Riker seemed substantially _younger_, and a lot closer to
what the first-season Riker was.  Thomas was also much less calm about most
everything and much more impulsive -- in short, a lot of things Frakes did
as Will Riker back in season 1.  It's impressive that Frakes could call up
that kind of performance for Thomas Riker while still keeping _Will_ Riker
the same one we're now used to.  Most impressive.  (Alas, some of the yelling
still doesn't cut it -- "I gave you an order, Lieutenant!" was not the most convincing of yells.)

Sirtis, on the other hand, gave one of the best performances she's ever done
on TNG here.  I tend to favor "Face of the Enemy" a bit over this, but not by
much -- and here, she's playing Troi in her natural habitat.  Her pain when
she recalls Riker never meeting her on Risa felt more real to me than three
years' worth of the agonizing pain the character's "sensed" time after time,
and it was no stretch to actually *see* the light in Troi's eyes Riker
referred to once she started getting involved with Thomas.  Of all the
romances Troi's had to get the character "away from the Riker/Troi issue",
none had even half the power this did (with the possible exception of Riva
back in "Loud As a Whisper"), and for whatever reason it all worked nicely.   Bravo.

Everyone else did their usual nice jobs (in particular, the Data/Worf
interplay during the poker game was great), but center stage really belonged to Frakes and Sirtis, and I don't want to slight them.

All in all, "Second Chances" was a very admirable piece of work.  It gave the
staff a second chance to finally clarify and address the Riker/Troi relationship, and they proved up to it.  Good for them.

So, with the big stuff out of the way, some shorter takes:

-- As I said above, I really enjoyed the poker game, particularly poor Worf getting stuck with a bad hand.  "...fifty." "FOLD!"  Grin.

-- I'm a wee bit skeptical that after eight years, the two Rikers would look
as closely alike as they did.  Hell, if he broke his arm or something in a
cave-in, why not give him a small facial scar or something, too?  More to the
point, I'm surprised they have _exactly_ the same build, and very nearly
exactly the same hair and beard styles.  I'm a little surprised Thomas had
such a short beard -- either no beard or a longish one would seem in order
after eight years alone -- and given his discomfort around Riker, you'd think
he'd try a little harder to at least *look* different.  (I realize a lot of these are constraints that can't be worked around.  But geez, at least try.)

-- Wait a minute.  Thomas said he hadn't had a decent meal in a while,
because the replicators hadn't work.  Forget a *decent* meal -- how did he survive for eight years at all?  Emergency rations couldn't last _that_ long.

-- Where'd Thomas get the money to join the poker game?  I didn't see anyone give him any of their pot...

That's about it.  Nice job all 'round, really -- glad to see it.

So, the numbers before I head out:

Plot:  8.  As I said, I think something other than the Dreaded Database
        Deadline could have been used here -- but other than the setup,
        everything was fine.

Plot Handling/Direction:  8.  Not bad for LeVar's first try.

Characterization/Acting:  10.  Nice.

OVERALL:  9.  We're on another roll here, it seems -- let's hope it runs through the last two shows of the season.

NEXT WEEK:  A rerun of "Aquiel".  Ack.

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
BITNET:  tlynch@citjulie
UUCP:  ...!ucbvax!
"I am not easy to get along with."
                -- Worf
-- Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...

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