This month’s Star Trek post is a collaboration with fellow contributor Rose B. Fischer. We’ve seen a lot of misinformation floating around about Starfleet’s first officers, so we’re here to spread some knowledge!
Space operas like Star Trek are drawn from westerns, swashbucklers, and naval/maritime epics. So the captain is a combination of tropes from those genres. Usually, it’s one part maverick, one part wandering hero, and one part charismatic leader. Star Trek adds a heavy dose of diplomat, since Starfleet is committed to peaceful exploration rather than conquest, intractable optimism and strong humanistic values. Those are Star Trek‘s defining characteristics and the captain is the show’s mouthpiece, so it makes sense that the character would also be the embodiment of the Federation’s mores. The captain’s first love is the ship, and every relationship is either built around or overshadowed by the siren song of space.
The first officer shares the captain’s love of space, and is a composite of the same tropes as the captain. The first officer is supposed to be qualified to command to ship in the event that the captain is unfit for duty, and has the potential to be captain in their own right, so the two characters will have a lot of similarities in terms of skills sets, moral composition, and affinity for space. They’re meant to be complementary opposites, so their personalities and skills will usually mesh well and benefit the crew as a whole.
The captain’s personality informs the shipwide culture while the first officer’s function is usually to provide balance by meeting the needs of the ship and crew where the captain is less proficient. In TOS, Spock’s knowledge of science and ability to process information are assets to Kirk when the Enterprise encounters new life forms. His adherence to Vulcan logic makes him more apt to advise drastic action when the lives of the crew are at stake, while Kirk’s reluctance to engage in violence usually means the ship gets drawn further and further into trouble. In the end, it’s almost always a scientific edge that helps the crew out of hot water, and a lot of the solutions are facilitated by a combination of Spock’s knowledge and Kirk’s stubborn ingenuity.
I see a lot of TNG critics (and fans) saying that Picard and Riker amount to nothing but a role reversed version of Kirk and Spock. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Riker was meant to be the more physically active of the pair, leading away teams and generally being in the position of the young, handsome hero, but his role is pretty different from both Kirk and Spock. Aside from leading away teams and a tendency to romance alien women, Riker is about as similar to Captain Kirk as I am to a sponge. He’s often shown managing crew assignments, is more approachable, and has a more casual way of interacting with subordinates than Kirk does. His job is as much to relate to the Enterprise crew and manage day to day operations as it is to lead away missions. Captain Picard has the crew’s respect as a leader, but it’s often clear that Picard himself isn’t comfortable with personal interactions where Riker excels. The TOS crew may not have always understood or related to Spock, but unlike Picard, Spock was not shown to be reluctant or uncomfortable with the crew. He related to them on his own terms, as a Vulcan.
The contrast between Spock and Riker especially stood out to me (Hannah) in my grand rewatch, because it’s such a distinct change. They’re very different characters — like Spock and Data are very different, despite constant comparisons — but they also show the transition between TOS and TNG. TOS was more conceptual, and there was less interest in showing a spaceship’s daily operations. Spock’s job as first officer was essentially to advise Kirk. He was technically second in command, but most of the time they were off on the same missions anyway. His role as science officer was much more important, and correlated to his role as the intellectual part of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy soul-mind-heart trio.
When TNG came along, narrative styles were changing, and the show was more interested in daily life. I love the more stylized TOS characters, but this step toward more-realistic ones is a huge factor in why Star Trek has had such longevity. Riker balances Picard’s skills, but he also seems to have a distinct function on the ship as first officer. He doesn’t have an additional role like science officer or anything else. The most obvious thing is that he leads away missions instead of the captain and first officer both endangering themselves, and he advises Picard as needed, but especially in the first season, the captain and first officer almost function like two departments of the ship. They’re advisory to each other, with the captain in charge of decisions, but the first officer in charge of personnel and planning. It makes the ship seem bigger, and gives them both something to do in these stories that include logistics as well as moral dilemmas.
Most episodes understandably focus on ideas and characters over explaining the finer details of how Starfleet works, but it’s really super impressive how well they balance those story roles with ship functions as the show progresses. Plus the role of first officer is about to get even more interesting, since the main protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery is going to be the first officer. But no matter which show, keep an eye out next time you watch, and let us know what you think!