“Do you remember what I taught you, Imzadi? Can you still sense my thoughts?”
That moment — that exchange — is what made me a Star Trek fan.
“Encounter at Farpoint” introduced the world to a couple with a bond so profound they could communicate without even speaking; a pair with a rich and complex history, who could “never say goodbye” and who were quick to assure their new captain they knew each other’s abilities. As a young teen girl, I was hooked.
The fact these two characters didn’t dive immediately into a romance was frustrating to my schoolgirl sensibilities, but all these years later, I can say it was for the best. The years Riker and Troi spent choosing not to be a couple were an opportunity for Star Trek to show a healthy, respectful relationship between a man and a woman who had deep and abiding love for each other regardless of whether or not they considered themselves a couple.
Although I couldn’t see it at the time, the years they choose to deepen their friendship rather than to explore romantic love enhanced, rather than diminished, the impact of their relationship on me as a teenager learning to navigate love on my own.
Only minutes after that fateful exchange in the turbolift, the fans got our first look at the impact of Deanna’s empathy on her ability to function. And in the space of an instant, we saw Will by her side offering her understanding and comfort. That series of moments laid the foundation, and upon it grew a long-lasting love we find still intact years later in Star Trek: Picard.
Will and Deanna’s care for each other is woven into the fabric of The Next Generation and shows itself time and again, in big ways and small, in moments of triumph and tragedy, in times of trouble and times of ease. Always and in all ways, the two of them are there for each other.
Their bond is shown to be particularly powerful in instances when other romances enter the equation. Even when jealousy happens, their Imzadi’s happiness is always the first and foremost concern. And the more time that passes, the more certain the two of them are that their bond will endure no matter their feelings for other people. “My relationship with Deanna,” Will says in “The Price,” “stands very well, on its own.” And he’s right.
Whether it’s Deanna’s hope for a continued friendship in the face of her impending marriage to Wyatt Miller, Will’s assertion to Devinoni Ral that “Deanna is just the woman to bring some meaning to your sorry existence,” or his blessing of her relationship with Lt. Worf, they’re never in the business of getting in the way of each other’s pursuits of happiness.
And when things go wrong in those relationships, Will and Deanna are there to mend each other’s heartaches. From Will’s intense but short-lived affair with Soren of J’naii, to Deanna’s moment of nostalgia with Lieutenant Riker, to every other failed romance either of them experiences, their connection is the balm that soothes the pain of loss.
In fact, their devotion to each other shows itself most profoundly in moments of extreme emotional pain. Any time tears are falling, there’s a ready shoulder to receive them. Whether it’s sorrow over Will’s impending departure in “The Icarus Factor,” the fallout of Deanna’s breakdown in “Man of the People,” or any other moment of distress, when one of them is in pain, the other is there to offer comfort.
Will and Deanna share an emotional intimacy that audiences don’t often see. There’s an innate trust that leads them to look to each other for guidance, backup, and encouragement, no matter the danger — no matter the stakes. Although they never let their feelings toward each other get in the way of the mission, they are always there to back each other up and hold each other’s hand.
Where there’s emotional intimacy, there’s often physical intimacy, and Will and Deanna are no exception. A clasping of hands, a cheek against a shoulder, a tight embrace, and even the occasional kiss show us these two aren’t afraid of getting close. But we’re also reminded time and again that they’ve set ironclad boundaries — and neither is going to challenge those without sober, deliberate communication.
In “The Naked Now,” Deanna runs into Will’s arms, practically begging to, “be alone with… [his] mind”. Will, aware she’s not acting herself, scoops her up and takes her to sickbay instead. And when she comes on strong in “Man of the People,” his primary reaction is worry, not passion.
Profound examples of respect and boundary-setting don’t just come when one or the other is out of their right mind. In “Violations,” we see a flashback wherein there appears a real possibility of things getting physically heated, but when Deanna speaks up in a moment of clarity, that’s the end of the interlude.
Even with their history, especially with their history, no means no, and if there’s anything an audience could stand to learn from a pair of favorite characters, it’s that kind of respect for a partner’s agency and autonomy.
Communication, thoughtfulness, deference, closeness when wanted and space when needed are all things that can challenge real-life couples. And these things are rarely portrayed this boldly on television. Riker and Troi set an example of an equal and enduring partnership.Their wedding, their transfer to the Titan, the promise of a happy future for these characters was precisely the resolution I needed to be wholly satisfied with The Next Generation’s years of storytelling.
And when Star Trek made good on that promise 18 years later with Captain Picard’s arrival on Nepenthe finding the Riker/Troi marriage happy and intact, even though they’ve dealt with much loss and heartache of their own, it felt both profound and significant. As a now-grown fan with a happy marriage of my own, it is exceptionally satisfying to see these two beloved characters still together and thriving.
Romantic longevity is a rare commodity in major pop culture franchises of late. Most often, when we check in with beloved pairs from decades past, we find a quagmire of tragedy and sorrow. But Star Trek gave us the opposite by once again doing what Star Trek does best. By giving Will and Deanna a happy and lasting life together, the franchise gave us all a dose of optimism, proving that the foundations of trust, respect, care, and understanding are still the underpinnings of any successful relationship.
May they, and we, live happily ever after.
Amanda Cherry (she/her) is a Seattle area actor, author, roller derby announcer, and full-time nerd. Geek out with her on Twitter @MandaTheGinger
Star Trek: Picard streams on CBS All Access in the United States, in Canada on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave, and on Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries and territories.