Take a browse through the ever-expanding Urban Dictionary and you will find the phrase "Riker’s Beard." As a Star Trek fan, and perhaps one who, ironically, is celebrating No Beard Day today, you will no doubt be familiar with the term, and here’s how the dictionary describes it:
"Euphemism for a moment in time (typically in pop culture) where something or someone that was lackluster and/or underachieving suddenly and surprisingly became much better and exciting. Taken from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which many fans considered wanting until Commander Riker grew a beard at the start of Season Two, after which the show was solid and well-received for the rest of its run."
The opposite to jumping the shark, Riker’s Beard is nothing but positive, a description of the moment when something average becomes something far better. Not that Jonathan Frakes and his onscreen alter ego Commander William Riker weren’t already great, but that first appearance of the Riker beard in the opening episode of “The Child” in season two was the start of a relationship that would continue for almost 30 years (Star Trek: Insurrection saw the beard take a trip to Risa for a few days, not that Troi was complaining).
The decision to grow the beard was all Frakes'. Tired of shaving, he opted to arrive at rehearsals unshaven and luckily for the actor, the urban dictionary and the rest of the known universe, Gene Roddenberry liked the facial fuzz as well. Speaking at a convention last year, Frakes recalled the moment when Roddenberry made clear his opinion on the beard. “I love the beard. It’s nautical. We’ll keep the beard, we’ll trim it down and shape it. It’ll be decorative.” It took five episodes of tweaking, shaping, shaving, trimming and sticking on hair when too much had been shaved away before the producers were finally happy with the beard's structural integrity.
So, a stylistic choice by the actor, fueled by a desire to not shave every morning created something that coincided with TNG stepping out of the shadow of its illustrious predecessor and becoming very much its own entity. Frakes himself was very clear which version of Riker he preferred:
"Bearded, without a doubt. I’m so proud that Riker’s beard is in the Urban Dictionary, defined as the opposite of jumping the shark. So, I’d have to go with the beard. And I’ve always liked the beard."
As the writer’s strike-stricken second season continued to develop, so the character of Riker grew with it. Will began to evolve from a sharply focused, career-driven first officer into the nurturing, team player full of wise words and encouragement that would eventually take command of the U.S.S. Titan in the final moments of Star Trek: Nemesis 15 years later.
To do the beard justice, perhaps we should highlight a trio of great beard moments. Of course, we can’t forget the bubble bath scene in Insurrection, when the Riker/Troi relationship blossoms once again, and Troi’s unforgettable reaction to kissing her bearded beau.
“I never kissed you with a beard before!”
“I kiss you and you say, yuck?”
The Federation's fateful encounter with the Borg during the events of “The Best of Both Worlds” saw the beard tested to its very limits as its owner pushed the boundaries of his temporary command by making decisions we believe a beardless Riker would have blanched at.
And who can forget the season-six episode “The Quality of Life.” as a trio of bearded Starfleet officers – Worf, Riker and Geordi La Forge (actor LeVar Burton, bearded for the one and only time on TNG due to his own real-life nuptials) – play poker with Dr. Crusher, announcing that she’s suspicious of men who wear beards because they might be hiding something.
"Hide? Don't be ridiculous, Doctor. The beard is an ancient and proud tradition."
And there you have it, a proud and ancient tradition brought to the Star Trek galaxy by an actor who very wisely decided that shaving was no longer for him. Here’s to Jonathan Frakes, William T. Riker and most importantly Riker's Beard.
Mark Newbold has been an avid Trek fan since the 1970's, when TOS was shown on UK TV, but it was the original cast movie series and TNG era that sealed the deal. Mark is a writer for Star Trek The Official Magazine, is editor-in-Chief of Star Trek: The Neutral Zone and was a stage host at Destination Star Trek Germany in 2018. At heart, he's a Niner. Follow him on Twitter.