Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Icarus Factor”

“The Icarus Factor”
Teleplay by David Assael and Robert McCullough
Story by David Assael
Directed by Robert Iscove

Season 2, Episode 14
Original air date: April 24, 1989
Star date: 4268.4

Mission summary

Though it’s not on their official itinerary, the Enterprise is stopping at Starbase Montgomery to diagnose some funky readouts, as well as receive “priority personnel directives.” Picard meets his first officer in the observation lounge, where he praises Riker’s impressive manual docking from their first meeting, with a straight face, even. Now he has new congratulations to offer: the captain of the USS Ares is retiring, and Riker has been offered a promotion and his own ship! It’s an assignment way out in the boonies, but it’d be his. He has 12 hours to make his decision, and to help him, a “special attaché” from the Federation has come to brief him on the frontier region the Ares is studying.

Riker goes to the transporter room to meet the attaché and it’s none other than Kyle Riker, Riker’s estranged father. Man-off to commence in 3… 2… 1…

Riker does his best to avoid speaking to Daddy Riker and lets security deal with an escort. They have Issues, you see, mostly relating to his dead mom and feeling abandoned for the last fifteen years. Time for a drink. But just as he’s settled into Ten Forward with his buddy O’Brien, enjoying his nth pan-galactic gargleblaster, Daddy Riker pops in and greets Dr. Pulaski with unexpected warmth. She even asks for a kiss.

RIKER: They know each other.
O’BRIEN: No kidding. I know her too, but we don’t do that.

He swaggers over and demands to have his briefing now, interrupting the good doctor’s reminisces. Of course, when Riker discovers all of the information he needed was on a transmittable chip, he immediately terminates the awkward conversation and stomps off.

Meanwhile, Wesley is finding Worf especially prickly. This is obviously priority 1 stuff, so he brings it to the attention of La Forge and Data. For reasons unbeknownst to reviewers everywhere, the trio decide to conduct a “scientific” experiment by observing Worf, to find out what crawled up his ass. Your tax credits at work! Worf doesn’t appreciate the attention and tells everyone to buzz off. Eventually he decides to talk to Riker about his daddy issues (since everyone else seems to be doing it) and asks to be transferred to the Ares when Riker takes command. Now that’s networking.

Daddy Riker’s also keeping busy, observing Dr. Pulaski’s bedside manner and listening to her berate how emotionless and hollow he is and how sad she was that he wouldn’t marry her. I’d say she dodged a bullet, but pfft, you know women, always trying to tie a man down. Alas, their intimate encounter is cut short by the arrival of the other paragon of her sex, Counselor Troi.

PULASKI: I thought you two should meet. Deanna’s job is to keep us from deluding ourselves.

She sucks at it! But that’s fine, because this whole thing was a setup to get Troi and Daddy Riker alone to discuss Daddy’s issues, namely, being a total jackoff father.

TROI: You’re also very anxious about something. It’s Will, isn’t it? You’re not as close to him as you’d like to be.
KYLE: Oh, I don’t know. We both have pretty good taste in women, wouldn’t you say?

Ew! Unless he means Riker’s got a thing for Dr. Pulaski? Ew! Anyway, Daddy Riker dismisses Troi’s assessment that he’s got serious insecurities about his own success and feels the need to compete with his son. He also takes the opportunity to assert with confidence that Riker is going to take the command, “because I would.” Mm, very persuasive. Glad we got to watch this totally pointless chat in which each of the characters says what they are like instead of the show just showing us.

Daddy Riker goes to check up on his son that he’s totally not competing with.

RIKER: I won’t be pushed into this decision.
KYLE: Oh, come on, Will. Don’t you think you’re ready for the Ares?
RIKER: Starfleet does.
KYLE: Of course. Because you’re the best candidate for the job. I only want you to know I’m here if you need me.
RIKER: I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen. I can take care of myself.
KYLE: Please, spare me the pain of your childhood. I hung in for thirteen years. If that wasn’t enough, it’s just too bad.

Father of the Year, everyone.

Since we must have a B-plot, Wesley shows up and tells Data and La Forge he finally figured out what’s up with Worf. With a little bit of detective work and a lot of invasion of privacy, Wesley has learned that this day is the ten-year anniversary of Worf’s age of ascension. If he had been around Klingons and his family were still alive (oh if)  he’d be in the middle of a painstik ritual right now, learning to be manly and stuff. Wesley suggests re-creating the ceremony on the holodeck, to make him feel at home with all of his creepy, prying friends.

Riker, on the other hand, realizes he was being like his dad (a total jerk) and apologizes to Pulaski for getting between her and his dad. She takes this opportunity to Teach Us About Men:

RIKER: What woman would have him with an ego like that?
PULASKI: I would have, in a cold minute. Twelve years ago, Kyle Riker was a civilian strategist advising Starfleet in its conflict with the Tholians. The starbase that he was operating from was attacked. None of the base crew was expected to live, and they all died. All except your father. Your father alone had the will to endure, to face the pain, to live.

Oh well in THAT case.

Our little Hamlet still can’t decide what to do, though, so he decides to talk to not-his-real-dad Captain Picard.

PICARD: I can spell out for you, albeit crudely, what you are choosing between. As the First Officer of the Enterprise you have a position of distinction, prestige, even glamor of a sort. You are the second in command of Starfleet’s flagship, but still second in command. Your promotion will transfer you to a relatively insignificant ship in an obscure corner of the galaxy. But it will be your ship, and being who you are, it will soon be vibrant with your authority, your style, your vision. [BEARDS FOR EVERYONE.] You know, there really is no substitute for holding the reins.

Well, that’s that! He says a tearful goodbye to Counselor Troi (“Are you feeling sad?” “Yes. I am.” FEEL THE EMOTIONS) and confronts his father one last time. Sort of.

RIKER: I’ve practised my best Academy courtesy, now it’s time for you to go.
KYLE: It’s time for us to have a talk, so lower your shields.
RIKER: I’m asking you to leave, or I’ll–
KYLE: You’ll what? You know, it’s a shame there’s no anbo-jyutsu ring nearby.
RIKER: Really? There is. Deck Twelve. The gymnasium.
KYLE: We can clear the air once and for all.
RIKER: You’re on.

What a mature solution.

Meanwhile, Troi has taken Worf to the holodeck. She explains that the whole ship knows about his Klingon secret, and they’ve come to cheer him on. She doesn’t want to watch, but Data, La Forge, Wesley, Dr. Pulaski, and O’Brien have already put on the popcorn. Worf says some stuff about being a warrior and walks through two lines of Klingons holding painstiks, which are exactly what they sound like. He makes it through the gauntlet and at the end, thanks them for giving him this experience.

Shortly thereafter, Pulaski expresses her distaste with the Klingon ritual to Troi:

PULASKI: I’m just glad that humans have progressed beyond the need for barbaric display.
TROI: Have they? Commander Riker and his father are in the gymnasium, about to engage in barbarism of their own.
PULASKI: Don’t remind me. It’s something of which I do not approve.
TROI: In spite of human evolution, there are still some traits that are endemic to gender.
PULASKI: You think that they’re going to knock each other’s brains out because they’re men?
TROI: Human males are unique. Fathers continue to regard their sons as children, even into adulthood. And sons continue to chafe against what they perceive as their fathers’ expectations of them.
PULASKI: It’s almost as if they never really grow up at all, isn’t it?
TROI: Perhaps that’s part of their charm, and why we find them so attractive.

NO IT IS NOT. There is nothing attractive about this. Don’t listen to her!

As if to prove my point, Riker and his father play out their grade school-like antagonism in the ring. Both commit some atrocious acts of Japanese pronunciation and say mean things that show their feelings. Riker wishes his dad had died and not his mom; Daddy Riker says Baby Riker didn’t even know her and has no right to miss her the way that he himself does. Some man-fighting ensues, until Riker discovers his dad has been cheating at the game all these years. Finally both confess their True Feelings, say they love each other, and make up, because that’s how violence works for men. Aww.

Back on the bridge La Forge learns that the wonky readouts are nothing to be concerned about, and the ship prepares to warp away when Riker steps onto the bridge.  He explains that he’s turned down the promotion and chosen to stay onboard.

PICARD: Any particular reason for this change of heart?
RIKER: Motivated self-interest. Right now, the best place for me to be is here.


This is one of those Riker episodes that only works in rose-colored retrospect. The dilemma that Riker faces is a natural one. Should he take his own command, or stay aboard the Enterprise?  It was going to happen sometime, right? A promotion is a promotion, but what about his friends on board, the prospects (if any) of glory in what is really a pretty dinky ship out on the edge of nothingness, and giving up the kinds of adventures that the flagship is likely to encounter? I wish the episode had spent more time evaluating the actual offer and ditched the daddy issues, which serve only as a distraction to the problem before him. As a mid-season episode you know Riker’s not just going to abandon ship (ho ho), and after all the hemming and hawing he does, in the end he just shows up on the bridge without explanation. You have a character arc that culminates in this particular monumental decision, and the answer is “the best place for me to be is here”? What is that supposed to mean? It’s a total cop-out on what should be a fundamental question that illuminates a facet of Riker’s identity–a question he should have been thinking about long before the opportunity presented itself.

And then, sigh, there are the daddy issues.  As far as Worf goes, it just seems uninspired. Ten years after his bar mitzvah he has to become a man all over again? Why? They don’t even bother to come up with a flimsy story to explain this nonsense. And how is a ritual that’s this important something that Worf can breeze through totally unexpectedly? Shouldn’t he, I don’t know, prepare? In a subplot that’s supposed to focus on how Worf has all these friends he didn’t know he had, it seemed to only highlight how crappy those friends were. He doesn’t blink an eye at transferring and leaving the Enterprise behind, so it’s pretty one-sided, and his coworkers only know about this crucial time in his life because they spied on him and looked into what I hope was a private personnel file. It just feels wrong, all of it.

And then, of course, there’s Kyle Riker. Loathsome, loathsome Kyle Riker. I love that they cast this mild-looking, sexless, middle-aged nobody to be the embodiment of hegemonic masculinity. Emotionally distant fathers: okay, yeah, I can deal with that. But that trope wasn’t enough. They had to make him even manlier. When Dr. Pulaski gives the speech about how he was the only survivor of a disaster because only he could cope with the EPIC PAIN, I very nearly turned off the DVD. This idea isn’t just stupid and cliche, it’s the kind of poisonous bullshit that corrupts the way we think about strength and pain and human behavior as a whole. There’s nothing weak about succumbing to pain and suffering (i.e. “losing one’s fight” with cancer, and other such toxic metaphors that make it seem like only weak people die). There’s nothing strong about hiding it from everyone until it consumes you (it’s far more difficult to acknowledge your troubles and come forward for help). And of course the climax of the episode has two men sharing their feelings the only way Real Men (TM) know how: through violence.  I realize that they’re probably not trying to make these points, but this is what happens when you let lazy writing do the work for you, rather than really examine what it means for a father and son to compete with one another.

While this kind of dick-waving expresses pretty much everything wrong with our culture (and everything the Federation has presumably rejected!), Troi nonetheless claims it’s “endemic to gender.” Oh goody, aren’t you glad you’ll be living in a future of sexual determination and fatalism? I sure am! Why isn’t this relationship considered a sign of dysfunction rather than an exemplar of Male Human Behavior? Isn’t it possible that the Rikers are just (skeevy!) jerks? Or maybe something is just deeply wrong with Alaska?

You want daddy issues done well in Star Trek? Watch “Journey to Babel” and forget this ever happened.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 1 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: How could I overlook the glorious American Gladiator look? The best part isn’t even the silly padding or the color scheme, it’s the appropriation of generic Japanese characters (“star,” “water,” “fire”) that they added to lend some measure of authenticity to the whole thing. If you’re going to do that, at least ring your nearest East Asian Languages department for a pronunciation guide!

Best Line: WORF: With all due respect, BE GONE! Sir.

Trivia/Other Notes: The director, Robert Iscove, was constantly thwarted by Roddenberry in his attempts to inject anger, resentment, and other common barbaric emotions into filming. Though he was invited back to the show for future directing opportunities, he refused to return.

Two of the holographic Klingons are wearing boots from Planet of the Apes because all of the Klingon costumes were tied up in the filming of Star Trek V.

One of the Klingons is John Tesh, who was apparently a huge Star Trek fan because as a kid it was the only show his parents let him watch.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 13 – “Time Squared.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 15 – “Pen Pals.”

About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.