Star Trek: The Original Series – The Enemy Within (season 1, episode 4)
Written by Richard Matheson; directed by Leo Penn; first aired in 1966
A transporter malfunction creates two Captain Kirks: one unfocused and indecisive, the other a violent sociopath. While Sulu and an away team are stranded on a rapidly freezing planet, Indecisive Kirk and the crew work to repair the transporter and capture Sociopathic Kirk, as he runs amok aboard the ship. Spock and Bones theorize that the two Kirks are “positive” and “negative” halves of one balanced whole, and that using the transporter to reintegrate these two halves will restore the Captain to the strong leader he was … while also saving his life, and allowing him to rescue the away team.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Second Chances (season 6, episode 24)
Teleplay by Rene Echevarria; story by Michael Medlock; directed by LeVar Burton; first aired in 1993
Commander Riker meets Lieutenant Riker, a duplicate created and stranded on an abandoned planet 8 years earlier by – you guessed it – a transporter malfunction. Cmdr. Riker butts heads with Lt. Riker, who resents the Commander both for his luck and for the choices he’s made, personally and professionally, since escaping the planet where the Lieutenant was stranded. Still in love with Counsellor Troi, Lt. Riker tries to convince her to continue the relationship they once had, and to join him on his posting to another starship.
If we’re going to compare Star Trek episodes that deal with similar premises and themes, wacky transporter accidents seem like a sensible place to start. Few tropes are more innately associated with Trek than this one; a technology which is commonplace to the characters, but mysterious enough to the audience that it serves as a kind of all-purpose metaphor machine into which the writers can plug their classic sci-fi premise of choice. The Enemy Within is Trek’s first use of a transporter malfunction-based plot, and we’ve seen so many since that you’d think there should be a sign posted above the transporter platform: USERS MAY EXPERIENCE IRONIC LITERALIZATION OF PHILOSOPHICAL DILEMMAS – STARFLEET IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR RESULTING DEATH, INJURY, OR EXISTENTIAL ANGST.
The philosophical questions made literal in The Enemy Within are classic Trek, as well, for better or for worse: What would happen if the good and bad parts of you were separated from each other? Could the good part survive without the bad? Do we need the bad part of ourselves to be whole, or – as Spock explicitly, repeatedly suggests – to be an effective leader?
The Enemy Within answers that last question with an emphatic ‘yes’, which, I think, weakens the episode. ‘A purely good person would make a poor leader’ may not be wrong, exactly, but it’s not particularly profound, either. As philosophical statements go, it was a pretty reductive one to start with, and it hasn’t aged well at all.
1966: Hey, make sure your leaders aren’t too good and pure and decent!
2017: Yeah, I, uh … I think we’ve got that covered, thanks.
The issue I have here is mainly a matter of degrees. William Shatner’s performance as Sociopath Kirk is easy to mock, based on a shallow viewing of it; I can imagine that this episode did a great deal to cement his reputation for chewing scenery. But on closer viewing, Shatner is actually doing something very specific in this episode. Yes, he’s way over the top as Sociopath Kirk, bellowing and baring his teeth; and it’s easy to imagine him exaggerating the other Kirk in a similar way, playing him as a bumbling, ineffectual strawman. But he doesn’t. His performance as Indecisive Kirk is subtle, downplayed. He very deliberately makes Sociopath Kirk the more extreme of the two halves, by far. And this is supported by the plot, particularly by Sociopath Kirk’s sexual assault on Yeoman Rand.
(While it’s somewhat outside my focus here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are a number of problems with how the assault is dealt with, possibly the worst being Spock’s shockingly inappropriate comments to Rand at the end of the episode. Credit goes to Grace Lee Whitney, as Rand, for not downplaying the awkwardness of that whole ill-conceived interaction).
The way Sociopath Kirk is depicted in general – not just his hyper-aggressive temperament, but the severity of his actions, and the lack of remorse for those actions – is compelling to watch, but it makes Spock’s ‘two halves of a functional whole’ argument pretty disturbing. I chose my nicknames for the two Kirks deliberately: rather than simply calling them the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Kirks, I wanted to draw attention to how uneven these two halves are; how unnerving it is that Spock, and the episode itself, seem to want us to believe that the two halves are equally extreme, and that being indecisive is almost as detrimental, to oneself and to others, as being a violent sociopath. Again, it’s an issue of degrees, of the episode leaning too hard on the dichotomy, and insisting too strongly that Sociopath Kirk is an equal half to Indecisive Kirk, for the sake of making a decisive, but reductive, statement.
We see something quite different when we look at Second Chances. In fact, this episode seems to go out of its way to avoid making a grand moral or philosophical statement.
The closest we get is a brief conversation between Data and Worf, near the end of the episode, about why the two Rikers are so hostile towards each other. Data posits that humans might be troubled by the idea that they are not unique, while Worf wonders if meeting his double has forced Cmdr. Riker to face things he doesn’t like about himself. The episode seems, at times, to favor Worf’s take: Cmdr. Riker’s warning to Troi about continuing her relationship with the Lieutenant – that if Lt. Riker had made if off the planet, he would have prioritized his career over their relationship, just as Cmdr. Riker has – seems tinged with regret, or at least sadness, over the choices he’s made in the last 8 years. But Worf’s reading of the situation is deliberately presented as just one possible interpretation. We’re not told what Riker being split into 2 people means; Riker’s situation isn’t turned into a definitive philosophical statement, as Kirk’s was.
Instead, what we get in Second Chances is the opportunity to simply spend some time with these characters – the two Rikers and Troi, primarily – as they experience this very odd, awkward situation. The transporter accident in this episode isn’t treated as a metaphor, but simply as a thing that happened … a thing that happened 8 years ago. This isn’t a temporary disruption to the status quo for these characters. It is, now, simply a fact of life that they must deal with and adjust to. Of course, owing to TNG’s highly episodic nature, the existence of Lt. Riker won’t really be addressed again in the run of the series (though he will appear in an episode of DS9). But it is still striking that the status quo isn’t fully restored at the end of this episode, as would be the impulse on, again, a show as episodic as TNG, whose audience, when it aired, would have been accustomed to TV shows that reset to zero at the end of each episode, and started there the following week. I watched this episode when it first aired, and I can’t remember if I thought Lt. Riker was going to die in the accident involving both Rikers near the end of the episode, but that certainly would have been the resolution audiences at the time would have been trained to expect. But no, he survives, and says his awkward, not-entirely-satisfying goodbyes to Cmdr. Riker and Troi, and simply moves on to serve aboard another starship.
It’s notable that the accident near the end of the episode – just a few moments, really, during which a bridge collapses under Lt. Riker and he struggles, with the Commander’s help, to pull himself to safety – is really the only action, or even melodrama, in the episode. It’s remarkable how quiet and subdued this episode is allowed to be, focusing almost entirely on conversations between different combinations of those three characters. The performances, too, are subtle and understated. Marina Sirtis, in particular, does an impressive job of subtly communicating Troi’s feelings when, for example, she volunteers to put herself in the very awkward position of speaking to Lt. Riker as ship’s counselor, or when she calmly points out to Lt. Riker that his assurances about the future of their relationship are the very same ones he gave her before he was stranded – assurances that Cmdr. Riker, after escaping the planet, failed to deliver on.
Just as it’s easy to imagine a version of The Enemy Within in which Indecisive Kirk is played as a bumbling loser, I can picture an alternate Second Chances in which the emotions are turned up to eleven – in which Troi and the Rikers yell and vent at each other, and in which Lt. Riker’s goodbye is not bittersweet, but just plain bitter (in fact, that’s exactly how I would expect a story like this to play out if it were airing today). But as it is, Second Chances presents a refreshingly mature take on relationships, one that acknowledges that relationships aren’t just about passion and heartbreak, they’re about choices. What seems to frustrate Lt. Riker most about Cmdr. Riker is not just that he disagrees with the decisions the Commander has made over the last 8 years, but that he finds those decisions inconsistent: Cmdr. Riker prioritized his career over his relationship with Troi, then passed up the opportunity to significantly advance that career just so he could stay on the Enterprise, where he serves with Troi anyway. Seen from the Lieutenant’s perspective, learning about the last 8 years all at once, these decisions seem contradictory, even foolish. But as Cmdr. Riker and Troi both point out, however Lt. Riker feels now, it seems likely that he would have made the same choices if he had been the one to make it off the planet.
This is what I find most interesting about Second Chances. More than the question of whether I would get along with a double of myself, I’m interested in the question of how it would feel to meet myself, 8 years older, and second-guess every choice the other me had made in those 8 years … or to meet myself from 8 years ago, and be second-guessed by him. Like Riker’s, would my choices seem confusing, contradictory, even self-defeating? Maybe. Because none of us make 8 years’ worth of decisions all at once, do we? We make our choices as we go, one after another, and it’s inevitable that some of those choices will make less sense in retrospect than they did at the time.
Where The Enemy Within claims to tell us what makes a whole, functional person, Second Chances acknowledges that the very idea of a ‘whole person’ is problematic: we are all works in progress, dealing with our past and planning for our future imperfectly, as best we can. And the fact that these two episodes can use such a similar premise to explore such different territory – to ask such different questions about the world we live in – is a great example of why I love, and write about, Star Trek.