Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Lower Decks”

“Lower Decks”
Written by Ron Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias and Rene Echevarria
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont
Season 7, Episode 15
Production episode 40276-267
Original air date: February 7, 1994
Stardate: 47566.7

Captain’s Log: Riker and Troi are doing crew evaluations in Ten-Forward. At another table, four junior officers—Ogawa, along with three ensigns, Sito Jaxa (last seen as a disgraced cadet alongside Wes Crusher), Sam Lavelle, and Taurik—are playing a board game. Lavelle is a nervous wreck, as he’s up for promotion and really wants it, despite the urging of Sito to just relax and the mocking of Taurik, who doesn’t think crossing his fingers, closing his eyes, and chanting “Promotion, promotion, promotion” over and over again is a particularly effective strategy for achieving an upgrade in rank. The Ten-Forward waiter, Ben, then lets them know something he overheard: that Lavelle and Sito are both up for the gamma-shift ops position.

Riker runs a battle drill on the bridge. Lavelle is at conn for the simulation, while Sito is at tactical. Riker tells Sito about a trick with locking phasers that will enable her to do so faster in a battle situation, something they don’t teach at the Academy, and he also responds to Lavelle’s overeager “Aye aye, sir” with a bit of a slapdown. Picard then comes onto the bridge and orders a course change to the Argaya system, which is near Cardassian space. The senior officers go to the observation lounge to discuss their change in mission, and Sito takes over at ops, where she and Lavelle chat for a bit.

In engineering, Taurik shows La Forge a new warp-field configuration he’s working on. (“Have you been improvising again, Ensign?”) He’s also been working on other ways to improve efficiency, which La Forge encourages up to a point.

In sickbay, Crusher lets Ogawa know that she’s up for a promotion to junior-grade lieutenant, and they also talk about Ogawa’s burgeoning relationship with Lieutenant Andrew Powell.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

In Ten-Forward, Sito talks with Worf about her assignment at ops. She’s not even sure why she, a security officer, is being considered for an ops position, and Worf reveals that he recommended her. Across the way, Lavelle is wondering what they’re talking about, leading Taurik to snidely suggest he learn to lip-read. Ben also recommends that Lavelle get to know Riker better. He goes over to the bar and tries to chat Riker up and crashes and burns rather spectacularly.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

The Enterprise arrives at the Argaya system. They detect an escape pod in Cardassian space, leading Riker to speculate that “he” had to abandon ship, and Picard angrily wonders how they’re going to get it out of there. He orders La Forge to boost the transporter so that they can beam him out without crossing the border. La Forge and Taurik work to do so (La Forge has to stop Taurik from performing a life-form scan, snapping, “Nobody told you to do that, Ensign”). They succeed, and they beam the occupant to sickbay—Crusher asks Ogawa to leave the room before the transport, and Sito has been assigned to guard sickbay, not letting anyone other than the senior officers in. When Picard arrives at sickbay, he gives Sito a significant look before entering.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

Alpha shift ends, and Lavelle asks Riker if he can take another shift, but Riker says now’s not a good time. Even as Lavelle leaves disappointed, Sito is surprised when Picard exits sickbay and tells her, “Ensign, you’re with me.” As they go to the bridge, Picard asks if she’s a certified pilot, which she confirms.

In Picard’s ready room, Picard expresses concern about Sito’s record, specifically what happened in “The First Duty,” and tells her that the cover-up she participated in speaks poorly of her character, that she should’ve been expelled, and he’s not sure how she managed to get assigned to his ship. And then he dismisses her.

In the shuttle bay, La Forge has Taurik firing a phaser rifle on a shuttlecraft. La Forge says it’s to test hull resiliency, but Taurik figures out that the pattern of firing La Forge has asked for is consistent with a shuttle fleeing an attack while engaged in evasive maneuvers. La Forge insists it’s a startling coincidence.

In sickbay, Crusher reads Ogawa in on the mission, as she needs a nurse for surgery. The patient they beamed on board is a Cardassian military officer, and he needs surgery on a subdural hematoma.

That night, two poker games are being played. One is in Lavelle and Taurik’s quarters, and also includes Ogawa, Ben, and a very subdued Sito. Ben speculates that the person in the escape pod is Ambassador Spock. The other is in Riker’s cabin, and includes Worf, La Forge, Troi, and Crusher. Both tables range in conversation from Sito’s qualifications for promotion (with Worf very much pushing her as a worthy candidate for promotion, and Sito convinced that Picard will keep her an ensign forever) to Lavelle’s prospects for same (Lavelle is convinced that Riker hates him, and Troi—who knew Riker at that age—pointing out that Lavelle’s a lot like Riker himself, to the latter’s horror) to Ogawa’s relationship with Powell (Crusher saw him with another woman in Ten-Forward, and Ogawa is disappointed that he had to do another shift and couldn’t make it to the poker game). Tellingly, Riker wins big and Lavelle loses just as big. And when the ensigns’ game breaks up, Ben gets up and goes to join the other game, taking La Forge’s seat.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

At the end of the next morning’s mok’bara class, Worf keeps Sito behind, telling her she may be ready for his advanced class. But first she must pass the gik’tal, an ancient Klingon ritual, in which the student is blindfolded and must defend herself. After she gets knocked on her ass for the third time, she rips the blindfold off. When Worf tells her to put the blindfold back on, she refuses, saying it’s not a fair test. Worf nods and compliments her on passing the challenge. Sito also gets him to admit that he made up this challenge, and he says that maybe next time it won’t take so many bruises before she points out that she’s being judged unfairly.

Sito goes back to Picard’s ready room and says that the time for him to complain about her assignment to the Enterprise was when she was assigned, not seven months later, and it isn’t his place to judge her for what happened at the Academy. Her record has been exemplary, and he should judge her for who she is now, not who she used to be (unconsciously echoing Picard’s own words to Q seven years earlier…).

Picard reveals that he was no more being straightforward than Worf was: he was actually assessing her for a very dangerous mission, one that would force her to deal with a situation far more traumatic than a dressing down from her captain. He also reveals that he specifically asked for her to be assigned to the Enterprise, because he thought she deserved a fair shot at redeeming herself.

We finally find out what the heck is going on. The Cardassian they rescued is named Joret Dal. He’s not only a military officer, but also a Federation operative, who has brought valuable intelligence. He needs to be returned to Cardassian space, but his ship was destroyed. He’s going to use the shuttle that La Forge and Taurik distressed and claim he stole it—but the crossing will be easier if he poses as a bounty hunter who has captured a Bajoran terrorist. That’s where Sito comes in: she gets to be the captured terrorist. Once Dal gets past the border patrol, he’ll put her in an escape pod and the Enterprise will pick her up.

Picard won’t order her to go on the mission, but she volunteers, even though, as a Bajoran, she knows full well what Cardassians do to prisoners, particularly ones they think are Bajoran terrorists. Crusher paints some bruises on Sito to make it look good and off they go.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

Back on the Enterprise, Lavelle is speculating wildly about what happened to Sito, but Ogawa and Taurik—who actually have an idea what’s going on, Ogawa thanks to her assisting Crusher, Taurik through his own deduction—gently ask to change the subject. They can’t always know everything that happens aboard ship.

The Enterprise arrives at the rendezvous, but there’s no sign of Sito’s pod. After 32 hours, Worf launches a probe, despite the risk—it’s a treaty violation—and it detects debris consistent with the remains of an escape pod. Later, they receive intelligence that Cardassian Central Command reported that a Bajoran terrorist escaped from the bounty hunter who captured her and was killed when her escape pod was destroyed.

Picard announces her loss over intership, describing her as the finest example of a Starfleet officer and a young woman of great courage and strength of character.

We close as we began, in Ten-Forward. Worf is sitting alone, brooding. Lavelle joins Taurik and Ogawa with his shiny new hollow pip indicating that he was promoted. He feels terrible, thinking he got it only because Sito was killed, but Ogawa and Taurik buck him up. Taurik, with an impressive level of sentimentality, says that the best way to remember her is to excel at his new position.

Ben goes over to Worf and claims he has to move the table he’s using, but there’s a spare seat over at Lavelle’s table. Worf sees through the ruse, and says he was only her CO—they were her friends. Ben—serious for the first time all episode—assures Worf that he knows for a fact that Sito considered him a friend.

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: At the Academy, Taurik got to see some preliminary work by Dr. Nils Diaz on warp drive that hadn’t yet been published—so La Forge is unfamiliar with it. However, Taurik does apply those theories to his proposal for reconfiguring the warp engines, including an uneven plasma flow to the nacelles.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi dings Riker for judging Lavelle too harshly, reminding him that he was just as eager to please at that age—for example, he joined the poker game on the Potemkin so he could hang out with the senior officers.

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: For the first time, we get to see how Worf interacts with the people under his command. He has taken on the role of Sito’s mentor, recommending her for the gamma-shift ops position and also encouraging her to stand up to Picard. Even though both La Forge and Worf are supposed to be in charge of entire staffs, we rarely get to see them in the role of supervisor—La Forge has been able to a couple of times, at least, but this episode gives us a long overdue look at that element of Worf’s job as security chief.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

In the Driver’s Seat: Lavelle serves at conn throughout the episode, and does well during a battle drill. At the end of the episode, he’s promoted to junior-grade lieutenant and becomes the gamma-shift ops officer. Sito’s piloting ability also comes into play for her mission, since she serves as the copilot on the shuttle.

No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Ogawa expresses concern about the direction her relationship with Andrew Powell is going—right up until he asks her to marry him, which she accepts.

I Believe I Said That: “Do you think Worf is chewing her out?”

“No, he always looks like that.”

Lavelle and Ben while observing Worf and Sito’s conversation from afar.

Welcome Aboard: Patti Yasutake gets her biggest role to date as Ogawa, and Shannon Fill reprises her role as Sito Jaxa from “The First Duty.” Alexander Enberg, having previously played a reporter in “Time’s Arrow, Part 2,” plays Taurik; he’ll be back in the recurring role of Vorik on Voyager. (Why they didn’t just carry the character over to the new show is an exercise in speculation left to the reader, since Vorik is basically the same person doing the same job, but whatever.) Rounding out the cast are Dan Gauthier, delightful as the eager-but-nervous Lavelle, Bruce Beatty, hilarious as the rumor-mongering busybody Ben, and Don Reilly, convincingly patriotic as Dal, who does not consider himself a traitor, but who wishes to save Cardassia from the corruption of Central Command.

Trivial Matters: This episode serves as a semi-sequel to “The First Duty,” following up on Sito, one of Nick Locarno’s group of disgraced cadets. (Wes will get his own followup in “Journey’s End” later this season.)

The producers considered the possibility of an episode of Deep Space Nine that had Sito being found in a Cardassian prison camp, but it never got produced. Former Simon & Schuster editor Marco Palmieri, who was in charge of the post-finale DS9 fiction, also considered bringing Sito back in a similar manner. Neither came to fruition, which, in your humble rewatcher’s opinion, is for the best. The episode is stronger if she really does die.

Speaking of DS9, this episode makes use of the deepening of the history between Bajor and Cardassia provided by that show, particularly in the conversation between Dal and Sito in the shuttle.

Taurik and Lavelle have continued to be used in tie-in fiction, especially the former. The pair of them played a large supporting role in the Dominion War novels Behind Enemy Lines and Tunnel Through the Stars by John Vornholt. An alternate future version of Lavelle also appeared as an aide to Admiral Riker in Michael Jan Friedman’s novelization of All Good Things… (Ben appeared in that novel as well.) Taurik, meanwhile, appeared in the short story “’Twould Ring the Bells of Heaven” by Amy Sisson in The Sky’s the Limit, and he has been a regular in the TNG novels starting with A Time to Sow by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, and in lots of TNG fiction published since then, serving on the Enterprise-E as La Forge’s deputy chief engineer as a full lieutenant, being promoted to lieutenant commander in the Typhon Pact novel Paths of Disharmony by Ward.

Nils Diaz was named after scripter Echevarria’s godfather, a Cuban nuclear engineer who is a propulsion systems researcher.

Story writers Wilkerson and Matthias—who also wrote “Lessons”—were partly inspired by the 1970s British TV show Upstairs, Downstairs.

Make it So: “Her loss will be deeply felt by all who knew her.” One of my consistent frustrations with all the Star Trek series has been that they take place on ships (or a space station) that has a crew complement in three figures or higher, yet the same group of less than a dozen people seem to do all the work. Part of that is the simple nature of television and actor availability (and the need for your opening-credits regulars to have something to do most every week), but it’s still maddening. Indeed, when I was developing the Starfleet Corps of Engineers eBook series for Simon & Schuster with John J. Ordover back in 2000, one of the things I insisted on was a small ship with only 42 people on it, so we could better show everyone involved in the ship’s operation.

So an episode like this one is particularly welcome to me. I always prefer it when Trek shows give a good idea of the larger community on board ship (or station), and this is the gold standard for such.

For all those reasons, I adored this episode when it first aired, and it charms me more every time I rewatch it. It’s nice to get the perspective the lower ranks have on the senior staff, see how the “extras” respond to them going off and having secret meetings and flying near enemy borders and things.

What’s especially entertaining is the different dynamics, which reflect the area of the ship the people work in as much as anything. Lavelle and Sito are intimidated by Riker and Picard, respectively, though Sito is able to overcome her intimidation with a push from Worf—but they’re bridge officers, where discipline must be tight. Down in engineering, where tinkering and futzing around is encouraged, Taurik is utterly unintimidated by anybody, and gets an interesting combination of encouragement and discouragement from La Forge. And then there’s Crusher and Ogawa in sickbay, who spend as much time gossiping as friends as they do discussing duty, and the ranks are almost irrelevant—though the importance of that “almost” comes into play when Dal is beamed on board.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Lower Decks

Worf gets to be in an interesting middle ground here—yes, he’s a senior officer, but he’s also only two grade ranks ahead of Lavelle, Taurik, Sito, and Ogawa, so he’s kind of a bridge between the upper and lower ranks. This is something Ben reminds him of at the end.

Speaking of which, there’s also Ben, the civilian, who doesn’t give a good goddamn about any of that military crap. He flows easily from one table to another, bantering as much with Riker and Troi as he does the ensigns, and able to go from one poker game to the other without it being a problem. I also love how much misinformation Ben spreads—that Riker’s Canadian, that they beamed Spock on board. The civilian population on board the ship has been even more neglected than the Starfleet crew, so Ben is a particularly nice breath of fresh air.

Best of all, though, is that this episode gives us five compelling characters whom we come to care about a great deal in a short time. Really, they’re all new characters, aside from Ogawa—yes, Sito was in “The First Duty,” but her actual role in that episode was minor—and yet we get to know them well and intimately. The teaser is a tour de force, establishing Lavelle and Taurik’s relationship as roommates, Lavelle’s nervousness about his career, Taurik’s snottiness, and Ben’s gossip-mongering ways.

The acting is stellar throughout. Dan Gauthier deserves particular credit for not making Lavelle as obnoxious as the role could have been—his eagerness doesn’t bleed over into annoying. Alexander Enberg is also magnificently snotty as Taurik, and Shannon Fill is incredibly compelling.

The regulars also shine here, especially Michael Dorn and Jonathan Frakes, but tremendous credit should go to Sir Patrick Stewart. His dressing down of Sito is utterly convincing, because he was similarly hard on Wes in “The First Duty,” but so is the revelation that it was a test of character—and that Picard in fact gave Sito the chance to redeem herself that another captain might not have.

Without a doubt, this is one of the finest episodes of Star Trek ever produced. In fact, it even has its own category on TV Tropes, and if that’s not a sign of greatness, well, then, I don’t know what is…

 

Warp factor rating: 10

 


Keith R.A. DeCandido is at MystiCon 2013 this weekend, along with Peter Davison, Orson Scott Card, Larry Elmore, Bella Morte, Rich Sigfrit, Tom Angleberger, Steve Long, and Mike Pederson, and many others. Keith’s schedule is here.

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