Warning: This article repeatedly refers to sexual assault and the culture of disbelief against victims of rape and abuse.
Once in Star Trek: The Next Generation, secondary to a separate crime, Commander William Riker was accused of attempted rape. The sexual assault of Manua, the wife of a Starfleet allied scientist, Dr Apgar, who was incinerated along with his home, lab and all his valuable research into Krieger waves, a potent radiation. In this episode, ‘A Matter of Perspective’, Riker is brought into question for Apgar’s alleged murder, based on an assumed attraction between himself and Manua, her husband later to find them in adulterous embrace. But Riker is a decent man, a dependable officer, who would never submit to such inappropriate sexual advances, let alone rape. Except, wait. In the former case, he’d prove self-interested on many an occasion to come. ‘The Outcast’, anyone?
His testimony of events leading to the explosion, nonetheless, is set up so we root for him, cheer him on through the fabrications of his opposition. Manua, in her husband’s defence, is built up as deception’s femme, a woman’s recollection so addled by grief and guilt that it falsely frames Riker as the aggressor. Bringing up his attempted rape is only a means to an end. A mere aside to put him across the moral event horizon – if a man can rape, he can surely murder.
This framing of rape as subordinate to a greater guilt, a tool to chip away at the respect of an honest man, is the kind of insidious understatement that builds on the myth that women will lie to make a ruling or rejection fall in their own vengeful favour. That they might be so hysterical as to scrub and rewrite their memory, so there can be no telling where the deception begins or ends.
What might be most disturbing about this episode, however, is how craftily it incriminates Manua in her traumatised state. It is never proved with certainty whether Riker assaulted her, whether their romance was consensual or, indeed, if any advances occurred at all. This whodunnit’s denouement only sets out to prove her false by default, affirming that Riker was not responsible for Apgar’s death. The doctor had been rumbled for his deception of the crew post-mortem, holding out on his already completed research on Krieger waves. A resource to be claimed in altruism and without profit by Starfleet, but considered valuable by other, more vehement forces out on the frontier. Feeling he was on the edge of being exposed, his attempt to kill Riker before word got out quite literally backfired. His wife is just wrong, having warped the truth for her own benefit. Wrong, and abandoned to bide her loss and reflect on her deception.
Strange, though, that the proven innocent protests too much. When presented with Manua’s account of events, Riker is insistent to the point of overemphasis. “This isn’t me,” he says. He goes on, “I wasn’t the one who closed the door.” And again, “I didn’t proposition her and I certainly didn’t try to rape her.” How telling, and potentially incriminating, that he filled in facsimile Riker’s intentions. He was innocent of the murder. As the assault was only ever secondary, he was cleared without a second thought. And so he walks free, a respected man, exalted Commander, and trusted friend.