The last time we saw Will Riker and Deanna Troi in Star Trek: Nemesis, they were happily married and living on Titan together. Yet this was not always the case. Perhaps more than any other character, Troi experienced a myriad of emotional ups and downs throughout the series. Her on-again off-again love affair with Commander Riker was just another loop on the rollercoaster of Troi's time on the Enterprise.
This is not to say Troi spent her nights waiting on Riker. While he was out playing the field as one of the Enterprise’s resident Lotharios and also focusing on his career, Troi had her own work and her own fair share of relationships. Through it all, however, both Starfleet officers modeled healthy behaviors when it came to working out the complexities of their feelings for each other.
In fact, while Star Trek teaches a lot of lessons, a highly undervalued one is that it deemphasized jealousy in Riker and Troi's relationship. For a time, the Next Generation writers even allowed them to simply be friends— an all too rare occurrence for the end of a fictional relationship. What the two Enterprise crewmembers learned together can tell us Trek fans a lot about how to be on good terms with your ex.
The Early Days
Even in their first appearances in "Encounter At Farpoint Part II," it’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of unspoken history between Troi and Riker. Well before we get into the Imzadi ship, the two confirm that they knew each other prior. Later, we discover that Troi and Riker had enjoyed a passionate affair which ended when Riker’s career took him away. Planning to meet up six months from his deployment but never making it, their meeting on the Enterprise bridge was the first time they’d seen each other in two years.
There was little development of their past relationship in season one as Troi wasn’t heavily featured, but once season two rolled around, we started seeing more of our favorite counselor. In “The Child,” Deanna saw herself awkwardly impregnated by an alien entity in the middle of the night, and dealt with it in a surprisingly chill way. This, however, gave us one of the great early moments of Troi standing up for herself and drawing boundaries with Will. As a flustered Riker demands to know the parentage, Troi barely even looks at him except to convey a general sense of annoyance. “This is a surprise,” Riker notes, while Troi shoots back, “Moreso for me.” When Riker tries to impose himself on her narrative, Troi very seldom goes along with it without stating her own thoughts, with equal conviction.
Through the series, it’s hard to tell exactly where Riker and Troi stand with one another as romantic prospects. They both seem sad and regretful that their careers took them away from one another, but generally Troi is written as the one spurned. Yet, they are both professionals, and they almost never allow their emotional connection to get in the way of their work. Even when in “Who Watches The Watchers,” they must accept an assignment to pose as husband and wife, the potential emotional fallout from the mission is barely touched upon. You get the sense that they’re not shoving their emotions to the side (as if that’s something Deanna would even encourage), but that they’re simply mature adults who know how to separate the personal from the professional.
Season three saw the two developing more of a solid friendship with one another, and we see them spending a lot of casual time as friends. It’s also where their boundaries are at their best and most well-defined. They both begin to develop relationships with others. In “The Price,” Devionanni Ral visits the ship and he and Troi begin a romance with one another. It goes fast, with him asking her to run away with him within hours of meeting her. Troi fans couldn’t be pleased with a character who perpetually spoke over her and petulantly challenged her, so it’s for the best that they didn’t end up together.
Later, as Ral and Riker engage in negotiations, Ral attempts to use Riker’s pain over the loss of his romantic relationship as leverage, which causes Riker to smile and say, “That’s the first bad play I’ve seen you make.” He goes on to explain that if Ral truly made Troi happy, then he would be overjoyed. In the following episode, when a visitor walks up on Troi and Riker sharing a conversation, Troi immediately excuses herself to let Riker get his flirt on.
In “Menage a Troi” we see Riker and Troi begin to rekindle their romance when they reflect on their past and he kisses her. But this is derailed when Riker finds himself strangely transported to the future in “Future Imperfect,” and he learns that it is not Troi he eventually marries. We discover she left the Enterprise entirely when Riker took over command of the ship. This future turned out to be illusory, but their romance seemed to cool down again after this, and they both pursued other relationships while continuing to be close friends.
In “The Outcast,” we watch Riker fall for a J’naii named Soren, and while their romance (obviously) does not last, it once again shows what a healthy relationship Riker and Troi have. When it becomes clear that their relationship has the potential to become more serious, Riker embraces that. Most importantly, though, he immediately goes to talk to Troi about it and clear the air. When he asks if things will change between them, she confirms that they will, but that it’s okay, because they’ll still be friends.
Meanwhile, in “Second Chances,” the alternate Will Riker, Thomas, shows up on the Enterprise with no context for his and Troi’s relationship having ended. He rushes forward and embraces her with a kiss, leaving Troi to awkwardly explain that things are over between them. It isn’t until later when he pushes the situation that she reveals her profound disappointment over the direction her and Riker’s relationship ultimately took. Though she’s embraced the professional friendship they had developed on their time together on the Enterprise, she still mourns the love between them. Said relationship was explored more in-depth in the non-canonical novel Imzadi, in which we discover exactly how their affair began and ended.
Yet, Thomas Riker is not Will, and he still lives in the world of Imzadi. He openly pursues Troi, and she finds herself attracted to him. Again, she makes a point to immediately discuss this with Riker and they have a heart-to-heart about it. Riker warns that this past version of himself will make all the same choices that he himself made, and he is right — Thomas accepts a position on another ship and again promises to meet up with Troi in six months. He urges her to leave her own career with the Enterprise, which Troi declines. The boundaries she’s managed to build over her years on the ship and constant interactions with her lost-love-turned-bestie are truly inspiring. Even when her boundaries are challenged due to unforeseen events, she manages to reassert them when needed.
"All Good Things...," Nemesis, Picard, and Beyond
The final season saw Troi become more involved with Worf in a long term affair, a choice that was criticized by fans for not making sense at the time. However, I would argue that it makes a lot of sense, and that the stability and protection Worf offered Deanna would have been welcome after the tumultuous prior six seasons. But, of course, this relationship was not to last.
Both Troi and Riker occasionally act immature or jealous towards one another, but anyone who has put in the work to have a solid relationship with an ex for whom you continue to have strong conflicting feelings knows that sometimes that’s just par for the course. In the final episode, “All Good Things…,” Riker finds himself emotionally compromised and apparently ready to make another play at a relationship with Troi, but she declines in favor of spending time with Worf. Thus the series ended at a stalemate between the two, and if that had been the end of things, we would never have known of their future together. Of course
Fans were eventually able to gain some closure for the couple via Insurrection and Nemesis, witnessing their marriage in the latter film — a union I hope to see still intact on Star Trek: Picard.
While not everyone can or should get back together with their ex, that is what Troi and Riker eventually do. Working together on the Enterprise saw them develop their relationship in all kinds of different directions, and Troi and Riker are two people that were able to fulfill different roles in each other’s lives at different times. Being generally single and sharing a work environment brought out a completely different facet to their relationship.
While this eventually became the platform on which they built their marriage, it’s also important to note that the respect and space they gave one another in the interim is what made that future happiness together possible. Picard won’t air until January 23rd, and I can’t make any huge predictions for that the future holds for the empath and her commander, but I can certainly hope that the foundations of their relationship — communication, boundaries, and friendship — remain strong.
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Sara (she/her) is an artist, writer, and filmmaker who is obsessed with most things. She is good at speaking in public, volunteering her time to various causes, working for most hours of her waking life, and saying quotable things in casual conversation. Keep up with her at www.saracentury.com and on Twitter @saracentury.