A question came up the other day about the usefulness of first officers in Starfleet (what, you don’t think about things like this?) In both TOS and DS9 the first officers had other jobs (Spock was Science Officer and Kira was Bajoran Liaison). In both TNG & Voyager, the first officer was just a first officer. (There was a fifth show? Sorry, that must have been expunged from my memory.) The idea was that the first officer be more of an action hero type and lead away missions while the captain stayed on the ship and was, well, serious. Compare the cultured Captain Picard with the rugged raised-in-the-Alaskan-wilderness Will Riker, or the career science-turned-command officer Janeway with Maquis-vision-quest-guy Chakotay. However since the prototypical Starfleet captain was that ultimate badass James T. Kirk, it turned out people actually liked Captains to lead away teams, and thus we have the ineffective first officer.
There is also something to be said for the dichotomy between types of Trek, namely between TOS and TNG. TOS was, explicitly, a western – Wagon Train to the stars. They were on the frontier, exploring strange new worlds. The captains word was, if not law, close to it. He was ultimately responsible for the lives of his crew. Contrast that with TNG, where Picard is less of a captain and more of a CEO. Decisions are collaborative, there is a conference room & the ship’s empathic counsellor sits at his elbow. By 1987, our world had changed and our image of Starfleet had changed with it. This change, in part contributed to the new position of first officer on TNG. That and the fact that the Enterprise D was much larger than the E. With 1k plus people on board, including families, someone had to be in charge of personnel. Much of the time that seemed to be Riker. He did performance reviews, he liaised with the teachers to organise Captain Picard day, he took the pulse of the ship and relayed it to the captain. But he was also clearly meant to embody Kirk’s wild boy, scrappin’, womanizin’ and adventurin’. Also, TNG was was less about exploring new frontiers than it was about defending bloated borders, and negotiating treaties. Remember Picard’s lament in Insurrection “Dcan anyone remember when we used to be explorers?”
So, it’s as much the new Starfleet that renders Riker a lame duck officer than the fact that he doesn’t have another role other than Administrative Officer (what is that in real-world military terms? Executive Officer?). When we move on to DS9, the writers had recognised the problem and crafted a show that held it’s own solution – the station was on the frontier, and they were just a shuttle ride away from a wormhole and all the strange new worlds they could want. DS9 is a much rougher show, relations are not that sweet and having a first officer who didn’t always see eye to eye with her captain (was she directly in the Chain of Command? She certainly didn’t answer to Starfleet) made for good writing. But importantly she was also Bajoran Liaison. It was a whole other responsibility & it gave Kira another dimension. So one of the things that people used to complain about regarding DS9, that they were just a station that went nowhere, actually after the fact many people say it’s the best of all the series. So we apply this concept to VOY, Starfleet captain and antagonistic first officer thrown together against their will and why doesn’t it work? I’m tempted to say it was the weak writing behind VOY, but that’s a whole blog post on it’s own. Suffice it to say that Chakotay became a slavish ally of Janeway far too quickly and the relationship degenrated into a Picard/Riker relationship of Captain/Exec.