What if you had lived your life differently? What if you could encounter a different version of yourself, one who developed differently from you? What if this ‘you’ was able to choose paths you had given up?
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Second Chances,” Commander Riker experiences just that. Eight years after a transporter accident clones Lieutenant Riker without his knowledge, the Enterprise and Commander Riker encounter the lieutenant — who had been living in solitude on Nervala IV’s surface since the malfunction.
After scanning both Rikers, Dr. Beverly Crusher observes, “Brain organization patterns are as unique as fingerprints. Except for minor, minor differences, theirs are identical. [Brain patterns] are determined by experience, mostly from early childhood.”
Later, Picard comments of the situation, “You and Lieutenant Riker have lived very different lives for the past eight years, you are now very different people. I suppose it's a little like meeting someone's twin.”
This sounds like pure sci-fi, but “Second Chances” is reminiscent of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s investigations into the case of identical twins Yufe and Oskar Stohr, one raised by Nazis and the other by a Jewish family. The twins, when they finally met at age 21, were disturbed by one another — they both had the same receding red hair, thin mustaches, and identical outfits in identical colors. Too similar without being the same — eerie. But there was something more than that.
When once asked if he loved his twin brother, whom he only met once, Yufe Stohr replied, “Love each other? We don’t even know if we liked each other.”
Similarly, neither version of William Riker likes the other. After a particularly tense argument between the two Rikers while trying to decide how best to retrieve the database from the station on the planet Nervala IV’s surface, Data and Chief Security Officer Worf are left alone to discuss the Rikers.
Intrigued by the Rikers’ dislike for one another, Data says to Worf, “I have found that humans value their uniqueness, that sense that they are different from everyone else. The existence of a double would preclude that feeling. Could that be the source of the friction?”
After a pause, Worf replies slowly, “Or perhaps it is more a matter of seeing something in your double. Something you do not like in yourself.”
Each Riker represents the different road the other could have taken — the life direction Commander Riker willingly gave up makes Lieutenant Riker livid.
“Take it,” the lieutenant says to Commander Riker, folding his hand during a poker game, effectively giving the money away without seeing the other Riker’s cards. “You always had the better hand in everything.”
Based on his findings, Steven Pinker asserts in his book The Blank Slate and his 2003 TED Talk, the biggest influences on the outcome of a child’s development of a personality are their DNA, peer group, and chance — random life events, such as being stuck in isolation on a strange planet’s surface. Even though the Rikers have the same DNA, the trajectory of their respective lives created two different individuals. This is summed up in the episode’s final scene.
By the time the final scene arrives, the two Rikers have forged a tentative truce but do not wish to further build a relationship. Lieutenant Riker is leaving to take a posting on the Gandhi and decides to go by his middle name, Thomas.
“I guess we really are different,” Commander Riker muses. “I never cared for that name.”
This final solidification that the two Rikers are, in fact, individuals rather than exact copies illuminates an earlier conversation between Counselor Troi and Lieutenant Riker.
When Deanna Troi asks, “But if you hadn't been [stuck on the planet], what would have happened between us?” She’s asking the wrong question; she already knows the answer. This is why Commander Riker warns her of the new Riker’s motivations and how he might proceed with his life — and her.
The Rikers were the same person with the same experiences then. If the transporter malfunction had never happened, Riker would have made the same decisions. But the newly dubbed Thomas RIker doesn’t have the same motivations as Will Riker. When their paths deviated, so did their selves — the foundation may be the same, but they have unique scaffolding headed in different directions. They’re two separate trees with the same root system.
In truth, the only person getting a true second chance is Deanna Troi — a second chance at having a romance with Riker, even if it’s not precisely the same version of him she knew before. But, of course, she has grown over the course of eight years as well. Change is a core part of second chances, even when they’re not ours.
This article was originally published on February 26, 2020.
Brooke Knisley (she/her) teaches writing at Emerson College and has written for Playboy, VICE, McSweeney's, The Boston Globe Magazine, and others. She has balance issues. Find her on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.