My daughter’s bath toys have dual origins. Half of them come from new things my wife and I have purchased in the past three years — rubber duckies, that damn purple octopus everyone seems to have, little boats, etc. The other half are plastic friends from my own childhood which I’ve begrudgingly bequeathed to a watery fate. Look, I’ve checked on the resale value of my 1993 Commander William Riker Star Trek: The Next Generation action figure, and because he’s been out of the package for so long, I think it’s fine that he — along with Counselor Deanna Troi — have become my daughter’s toys, even if they are swimming more than they ever did on the Starship Enterprise. Not to mention, I love the fact that my kid thinks of Will and Deanna as an essential part of her world, linking our childhoods through some kind of plastic space-time wormhole.
Now, let’s get one thing straight. My kid wasn’t doing viral marketing for CBS. I don’t know why these two specific Star Trek action figures became the two that she chose to play with the most. But it did strike me as pretty weird that of all the actors from The Next Generation to cameo alongside Patrick Stewart’s in Star Trek: Picard, Will Riker and Deanna Troi would just happen to reappear, side-by-side, in the latest Trek series.
In the newest episode (spoilers if you care!), Jean-Luc Picard comes to his old shipmates, Will and Deanna for help. And in doing so, Star Trek gives modern parents — those of us who were once children of the ‘90s — an amazing gift. The characters of Will Riker and Deanna Troi, literal action figures I played with when I was 11, have become, inaction figures. Our childhood toys have grown-up and it’s both terrifying and comforting as hell.
After an on-again, off-again romance on The Next Generation, Riker and Troi got married in the lukewarm 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis. And, unless you’re a hardcore nerd, that’s pretty much where their story ended, about 18 years ago. But, the weird thing about Star Trek: Picard, is that it’s basically picked up exactly two decades later for the characters, too. (Another actor on the show, Harry Treadaway, has compared this to the sci-fi version of Boyhood.) And so, for those of us who grew-up with Troi and Riker as quasi-adult role models, the fact they are now parents living in an idyllic cabin with about the coolest daughter in the universe, isn’t just heartwarming, it’s heartbreaking. Because they are parents, Riker and Troi decided to get out of the hustle and bustle of starship life, and find a nice house, away from the center of all the action, and raise their kid in safety.
Well, kids plural, but not anymore. Part of the new backstory reveals that our once tough-as-phasers Starfleet commanders had two kids, but their older son, died because of a rare and incurable illness. They retired to this planet because it was thought to have healing properties, and even though the convalescence didn’t work for their older kid, they’re not taking any chances with their younger one, their daughter, Kestra. When Picard shows up to basically hide out from robot-hating aliens on an outer space jihad to kill Data’s long-lost-daughter, Deanna Troi is visibly a little shaken. “Stay as long as you like,” she says tepidly. “It’s just that if anything were to happen to Kestra…”
When Picard brings danger to the literal doorstep of the Troi-Riker household, on a surface level, it’s delightful for Trekkies pining for nostalgia. But for parents, it’s a mixed bag, and the writing from showrunner (and well-known thinker of dad-thoughts) Michael Chabon reflects this dichotomy. The happy home of the Troi-Rikers gives the audience both parental fears and parental fantasies simultaneously. As soon as Picard mentions shit could get real, Riker yells “Shields up!” But, the famous Star Trek shields aren’t around a spaceship anymore. They’re around a family home.
Star Trek is no stranger to giving audiences sci-fi allegories to talk about real-world issues, but for parents afraid of the dangerous world for their children, this is the smartest Trek narrative trick yet. I bought a house in suburban Maine last year after living for a decade and a half in New York City. Like the Troi-Rikers, my wife and I wanted to settle down closer to nature and a slightly slower-paced life. Some of this is because parents carry fear with them in a way that we don’t before we become parents. “Oh Jean-Luc,” Deanna Troi says, between tears. “I’m afraid I’m not as brave as I used to be.” Picard correctly tells her that’s because “you’re getting wiser.”
This is the kind of stuff sci-fi heroes generally don’t have to grapple with in these kinds of stories. Other space parents (like Han Solo and Princess Leia) raise their evil kid offscreen. And unlike Tony Stark, when danger comes knocking on their door, Riker and Troi do not leave to join the fight. They stay home with their kid. As they should. These are two people who literally used to fight Romulans with their bare hands, and crash land starships onto rocky planets, are now, like so many of us, trying to carve out a small part of the universe that is safe for a child. Their life is quieter than it was in their twenties and early thirties, but they’re more worried than they ever were out in the depths of space on the starship Enterprise.
As a child, one way Star Trek influenced my world view, is that, for the most part, it presented adults adulting. I never questioned that being an adult was something good. But now that Star Trek has revisited Riker and Troi, and shown them as cautious and loving parents, I realize that I had no idea what it was like to be an adult who was also a parent. And, Troi is right. I’m not as brave as I used to be, and maybe that’s okay. Like these two, I guess I’ll slowly, become an inaction figure.
That said, I still want Riker’s freaking awesome shields for my house. Don’t we all?
Star Trek: Picard airs on Thursdays on CBS All-Access.
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