How A Classic Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode Quotes Akira Kurosawa To Explore Commander Riker's Sexual Politics

(Welcome to Yesterday's Enterprises, a series where we explore every corner of the vast "Star Trek" universe. In this edition: What does "A Matter of Perspective" say about Riker's sexual politics?)

As a commander, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) was, in the original "Star Trek" series, something of a level-headed, military-minded leader. Although the character eventually gained a pop culture reputation of being a ladies' man and a regular violator of the Prime Directive, when it comes to his command style, Kirk was often depicted as clear-thinking, serious, and unwilling to accept guff from anyone, even itinerant gods and omnipotent aliens. He approached problems with the eye of a tactician. Very occasionally, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) or Scotty (James Doohan) would take control of the Enterprise, and audiences would see how their command styles greatly differed from Kirk's. Spock pursued problems logically, but needed to learn to accept input from his follow officers. Scotty, meanwhile, was always ready to start a fight. 

When Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) was introduced on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," audiences witnessed a new kind of command style. Picard was stern, professorial, and relentlessly professional. His decisions and ethics were resolute, but Picard always asked for input from his entire crew. He spent just as much time in the conference room as he did on the bridge. A Trekkie might agree that running themes of differing command styles didn't become a core part of the franchise until "The Next Generation" explored Picard, and, for the purposes of this artle, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes).

Riker's 'jovial' command style

A running story throughout "Next Generation" is Riker's careerism. He was the first officer aboard the Enterprise-D, and it was made explicit from the show's start that Riker was quite interested in commanding his own ship. Riker's interactions with Picard and with the Enterprise crew whetted viewers' imaginations as to what kind of a captain Riker would make. Riker's command style is described rather bluntly in the NextGen episode "Peak Performance" (July 10, 1989) wherein a visiting tactician named Kolrami (Roy Brocksmith) questioned the first officer's casualness and jocund nature. In Riker's defense, Picard says not to confuse Riker's style with his intent. "The test is whether the crew will follow where Commander Riker leads," Picard says. "His joviality is the means by which he creates that loyalty. And I will match his command style with your statistics anytime." 

After that, it was codified: Riker was a jovial leader. He plays poker with his inferior officers, plays the trombone in bars, smiles and — and this is the kicker — flirts a lot. There are several episodes wherein Riker visits other worlds, and makes flirty overtures with presidents and dignitaries ("Angel One" and "Justice" come to mind). Riker is, in fact, the "ladies' man" that Kirk was reputed to be.

One might say that Riker's tendency to flirt is also part of the above-mentioned "joviality." While he never speaks it explicitly, Riker seems to feel that "friendliness" and sexuality are a major part of diplomatic relations. One can easily negotiate a peace treaty, it seems, over a cocktail and a few winks. 

This philosophy, however, had Riker facing a (sadly not fully explored) existential crisis in the episode "A Matter of Perspective" (February 12, 1990). 

'A Matter of Perspective'

'A Matter of Perspective' is a murder mystery episode that takes its storytelling cues from Akira Kurosawa's celebrated 1950 film "Rashomon." After a scientist named Nel Apgar (Mark Margolis) dies in a space station explosion, Riker immediately becomes the prime suspect in his murder. When Picard refuses to extradite Riker into the custody of the investigating officer Krag (Craig Richard Nelson), they agree to investigate the matter together. Using the Enterprise's holodeck, each witness in the case can "play back" their version of events. Naturally, no two perspectives are the same. 

In Riker's version of events, his alleged victim is confrontational and belligerent, constantly asking Riker why his research aboard the station is being interrupted when he is, admittedly, a little behind in his results. Riker claims to have played everything very calmly. Then all the investigators — including Picard, Riker, Krag, and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) –  see the same scenes played out from the perspective of Apgar's wife Manua (Gina Hecht).

In Manua's version of events, Riker stands too close to her. He says inappropriate things to her, knowing she is a married woman. Riker recalls that Manua was flirting with him, and that she was "friendly" and even suggestive. Manua sees Riker as pushy, sexually aggressive, and wholly unsavory. She is made to feel very uncomfortable. 

At the end of Manua's playback, Riker, incensed, explains to Troi that Manua's version of events was wholly inaccurate. Riker was not pushy and did not touch her roughly. Troi, an empath who can telepathically read the intentions of others, points out to Riker that Manua was not lying or trying to deceive anyone. This was, from Manua's perspective, the honest series of events.

The missing ending to the story

Troi mentions to Riker that he should, perhaps, be more aware of how other people see him. He may see himself as a jocular, flirty, friendly dude, but Manua's story reveals that Riker's winking demeanor can come across as creepy, even threatening. In "A Matter of Perspective," Troi gives Riker only the briefest moment to think about this before the plot picks up again and the investigation continues. 

Thanks to some technical minutiae provided by Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Riker is discovered to have been targeted by his alleged victim. In trying to kill Riker, Nel Apgar is hoisted by his own petard. Krag exonerates Riker, apologizes for the accusations, and the Enterprise goes along its merry way. The final shot of "A Matter of Perspective" is the bridge crew together again, smiling that status quo has been restored. 

This jocular ending, sadly, seems to explicitly remove the end for Riker's story. Troi mentions that he is not the fun-loving flirt he sees himself as, but a tall, imposing, sexually domineering presence. His sexual politics are not, it seems, breezy or functional. They can, in fact, lead to fear, suspicion, even terror. The episode should have ended with a quiet scene in Counselor Troi's office. Riker should have admitted his lack of personal consideration when it comes to his sexual demeanor. Troi would have then encouraged Riker to think a lot more about how he is perceived by others. Such an ending could have provided closure to the story and granted Riker a moment of character growth. 

That moment is frustratingly absent. 

Manua's story

The "Rashomon" story of "A Matter of Perspective" loses any kind of thematic heft, falling back on tech talk, plot, and legal technicalities. The plot resolves efficiently enough, but the whole notion of alternate perspectives is left behind. This is notably galling on "Star Trek," a show that so often provides myriad points of view. Problems are solved by committee on "Star Trek." Also, conversations are often held with aliens or androids about the whimsical particulars of human behavior. To let Riker off the hook for not accepting and alternate perspective on himself leaves this particular episode doing a disservice. 

One might be reminded to Ridley Scott's 2021 film "The Last Duel," a triptych film — with each piece written separately by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon — that tells of the same events from the separate perspectives of its three lead characters. From the knight's perspective, he is a wronged victim of nobleman's ambition whose wife supports him unfailingly. From the nobleman's perspective, the knight was a lout whose wife clearly wanted to have an affair with him. From the wife's perspective, her husband was indeed a lout and the nobleman was a sexual aggressor who assaulted her. The wife (Jodie Comer) told the true story. Each of the men saw themselves as braver, nobler, and more dignified than they were. They didn't consider how the Comer character saw each of them. 

Riker eventually marries Counselor Troi, and he becomes the captain of a ship called the U.S.S. Titan. Thanks to episodes of "Star Trek: Lower Decks," audiences have seen Riker's command style, and he is a rough-and-tumble, laughing cowboy who approaches dangerous spatial phenomenon with the grace of Han Solo after three martinis. 

One would hope he learned lessons.