Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Lower Decks"

****

Air date: 2/7/1994
Teleplay by Rene Echevarria
Story by Ronald Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"Lower Decks" is a uniquely rare perspective in the TNG annals. Here's an episode told from two points of view: the regular characters we're used to, and also four young junior officers who serve under them. Seeing this perspective is strikingly refreshing, because you get the sense of how Starfleet is not simply this narrative vessel we take for granted, but an organization made up of many people who also view it as their careers.

These four junior officers are friends who hang out a lot together in Ten-Forward. Ensigns Sam Lavelle (Dan Gauthier) and Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill) are both up for the same promotion to lieutenant. Riker will be the one making the decision of who gets it. Meanwhile, Nurse Alyssa Ogawa (Patti Yasutake) is up for a promotion of her own in sickbay. Ensign Taurik (Alexander Enberg) isn't up for a promotion, but he's ambitious when it comes to engineering enhancements, which can sometimes be a thorn in Geordi's side. Spending time with the junior officers reveals a side of the Enterprise we haven't really seen before, and certainly not in this depth. (We even learn that ensigns must have roommates.)

There's a certain fascination in seeing how the junior officers view their superiors, and vice versa. Lavelle feels intimidated by Riker, who himself finds Lavelle a little "anxious to please"; there's a scene where Lavelle tries to have a friendly drink with Riker and the awkwardness of the situation, however mild, is magnified tenfold simply because of the chasm that separates the ensign from the commander. Similarly, look at how Taurik wants to mass-implement his engineering enhancements prematurely, which seems to annoy Geordi. What Taurik doesn't see — and we do — is the big picture where Geordi has to run an engineering department as a cohesive functioning unit and not simply a lab where a theoretical idea can be rolled out at will.

As sort of a narrative conduit between these two perspectives is Ten-Forward barkeep Ben (Bruce Beatty), who is able to move effortlessly between both worlds because he's a civilian who doesn't have a stake in the career game. He's friends with everybody and can see and hear what's going on from both ends. (One wonders if this character is meant to be a stand-in for Guinan; was Whoopi Goldberg unavailable? But Ben is specifically enough drawn in his social demeanor that I accepted him as just another new character alongside all the others.) There's a standout scene where the junior officers' poker game is crosscut with the senior officers' game, and their complementary discussions are revealing and insightful.

The fresh perspective isn't the only thing that makes "Lower Decks" so memorable. This is also an episode that takes an unblinking look at what it means to be a Starfleet officer (from the more military aspects of the organization) and the sacrifices that come with it. The plot documents political intrigue near the Cardassian border, a secret mission, and a mysterious passenger. The junior officers all get pulled into this mission in one tangential way or another — mostly on a need-to-know basis when it comes to the particulars of the facts. They are mostly in the dark for a long time.

Ensign Sito's role is the most crucial. Sito, you will remember, was the academy cadet who, along with young Wesley Crusher, covered up the death of a fellow cadet who died in a flight accident in the also-terrific "The First Duty." That fact is critical to the effect of "Lower Decks" for many reasons, including the way it drives the plot and characters — but especially in how it makes the arc of Sito's story all the more tragic and affecting than if she had been a character we'd never met before. We are more invested in Sito's fate because we understand why she feels the need to redeem and prove herself for her well-known past transgression.

This is made abundantly clear from the early scene where Picard "tests" Sito by savagely berating her for that past sin. This scene shows just how scary and intimidating Picard can be when he wants to be, particularly as seen from this uniquely vulnerable point of view. (And when we first see this scene, we don't know it's a test; everything Picard says, while harsh, is plausible and grows from past facts.) In reality, Picard brought Sito to the Enterprise to give her the fair shake she might not have gotten somewhere else. But in retrospect, Picard's gambit — to first unload these harsh words and then later recruit Sito into the dangerous mission — almost comes off as a calculated manipulation to get an impressionable young ensign to step up and volunteer.

Meanwhile, Worf's role as Sito's mentor is also a great notion, revealing a corner of a character that you sometimes imagine as existing off screen but rarely get to actually see. He gives her a crucial piece of advice about being judged fairly that moves her to stand up to Picard. (This whole episode feels like an exercise in revealing how the margins of TNG were there all along, waiting to tell their stories.)

I won't belabor the meat of the plot of "Lower Decks," although it's first rate, and it smartly ties the ensigns together, who aren't allowed to talk to each other about their involvement in it. There's a mysterious Cardassian patient for Ogawa (who is actually a Federation spy); there's Taurik assisting Geordi in intentionally damaging a shuttle; and there's Sito doing the heavy lifting by accompanying this undercover operative back to Cardassian space — a perilous mission from which Sito, tragically, does not return. Her loss is a punch in the gut for the four friends, and particularly for Lavelle, who ends up getting the promotion in part because Sito doesn't survive to compete for it. In the end, "Lower Decks" is a brilliant episode of TNG that shows how some Starfleet careers are made with some bitter pills to swallow ... while others — who choose to risk all and step up in the name of the uniform — are cut short.

Previous episode: Sub Rosa
Next episode: Thine Own Self

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41 comments on this review

Patrick - Tue, Dec 4, 2012 - 10:38pm (USA Central)
This is a damned brilliant episode, which was inspired by the interplay of the lower rank crewmen in TOS's "Balance of Terror".
karatasiospa - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 6:45am (USA Central)
sometimes i wonder if episodes like this are science fiction at all. I liked the episode very much but it seems to me that science fiction here is just an excuse to tell a story that is not science fiction at all. It could have happen to any military.
Patrick - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 7:54am (USA Central)
@karatasiopa

You realize you're indicting 70% of Deep Space Nine with that statement, don't you?
Paul - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 8:11am (USA Central)
Sorry, Jammer. You're just wrong here. This would have been a great episode with Guinan. It's only a good episode because the Ben character is never seen before or after this.

Ben getting Worf to change tables? What a bunch of crap.
R.D. - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 8:25am (USA Central)
It's too bad Whoopi Goldberg was (probably) unavailable for this... it would have been a far better last episode for her character than "Suspicions" was.
Patrick - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 9:02am (USA Central)
I think Ben is one of Guinan's many children. Outside of his African features, he has her easy going wisdom and he's tending bar in Ten Forward.

Also, it's sad that we never see Sam or Taurik on the series again--even in a throwaway scene. (And Taurik was *not* on Voyager. It was a different Vulcan character played by the same actor).
Paul - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 9:45am (USA Central)
@Patrick: He has Guinan's easy-going wisdom because the role was clearly written for Guinan!
karatasiospa - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 11:18am (USA Central)
@Patrick
well not 70% of it but definitely some part of it
Nic - Wed, Dec 5, 2012 - 6:06pm (USA Central)
Perhaps this episode would have been better with Guinan in it, but it still gets 4 stars in my opinion.

Interestingly this is the second instance of an actor playing two very similar characters on two different series (the first being Nicholas Locarno/Thomas Paris). Royalties can be a b+tch.
Jay - Fri, Dec 7, 2012 - 2:39pm (USA Central)
I like that it was Sito that Picard requested (it could just as easily have been the other woman from the incident); it kind of complimented what Picard said to Sisko in "Emissary" about the bond he has come to have with the Bajorans, a bond that Sisko would of course go on to have writ much larger.
lvsxy808 - Fri, Dec 7, 2012 - 2:52pm (USA Central)
I don't agree that Ben was supposed to be or should have been Guinan, because he clearly follows the pattern of the other junior officers. Each of them is a junior version of one of the senior officers. Lavelle = Riker. Sito = Worf. Ogawa = Crusher. Taurik = LaForge. and Ben = Guinan.
Dustin - Sat, Dec 8, 2012 - 3:54pm (USA Central)
Lavelle = Riker. Sito = Worf. Ogawa = Crusher. Taurik = LaForge. and Ben = Guinan.

Well put, I agree.
grumpy_otter - Sat, Dec 8, 2012 - 8:57pm (USA Central)
I agree with Paul that getting Worf to switch tables at the end was awkward and clunky--it would have been better for Ben to say something like "Well yes, you were her superior officer, but her friends know you cared for her and they'd like your company," instead of the completely untrue "she considered you a friend." That struck a wrong note in what was otherwise a great episode.

The first time I saw this, I thought Worf's gik'tal challenge was going to be a Star-Wars-like "with the blast shield down I can't see a thing!" moment--this was much better in how it played out.

Is it just me, because I hate Beverly, or was her relationship with Alyssa cloying? That's your BOSS acting like a silly schoolgirl over your romance! Just struck me as false.

And with all that said--this one makes me cry every time when Picard makes his announcement.

Shawn Davis - Sun, Dec 9, 2012 - 12:16am (USA Central)
I agree that this was a great episode. Too bad that there was no follow-up to this episode. According to Memory Alpha, there was suppose to be a DS9 episode that was to follow up on the fate of character "Sito Jaxa" and the situation with the cardassians, but sadly the writers with DS9 never followed up to that story.
Jay - Sun, Dec 9, 2012 - 1:36pm (USA Central)
@ grumpy_ - yes, I don't generally hate Beverly, but she could be cloying, and this episode is an exhibit.
John the younger - Mon, Dec 10, 2012 - 2:45am (USA Central)
If only there was more of this in Season 7.
Paul - Mon, Dec 10, 2012 - 9:54am (USA Central)
@lvsxy808

I'm totally fine with Ben interacting with the junior officers -- whose lives up until this episode hadn't been fleshed out.

But, no, Ben -- a character we never saw before "Lower Decks" and never saw again -- hanging with the senior staff of the Federation flagship? A staff whose daily lives (and time in Ten Forward) had been detailed for more than 160 episodes?

Sorry, weak sauce there.
Jeffrey Jakucyk - Wed, Dec 12, 2012 - 2:04pm (USA Central)
I can see how Ben is basically a lame Guinan ripoff, but could you really see Guinan playing poker? Maybe with the senior staff, MAYBE, but not with these kids. I'm guessing the writers originally had her in mind for the part, but just couldn't make it work with her character.
Joseph B - Tue, Dec 18, 2012 - 2:41am (USA Central)
Well Guinan or no Guinan, this was still one of my favorite Season 7 episodes, and so I'm happy to see Jammer reaffirm my affection for this ep with the Four Star Rating.

I remember when this episode first aired if struck me as an immediate "lost opportunity" coming as it did so late in the series run. Something like this should have aired no later than the sixth season which would have allowed for a follow-up in the last season. For those that don’t know, Paramount announced immediately following TNG's fifth season that the series would be renewed for two more years and then would "graduate" to the movies. So the producers, writers, and actors all knew that Season 7 would be the last for TNG as a TV series at least 24 months in advance. And something like this episode was just made for episodic TV as opposed to a movie. A movie -- by its very nature -- has to be *defenitive* in some way for the major characters. There's therefore no time for something like this in a movie.

There was a lot of experimentation in Season 7 which led to it being very uneven in quality. This was one of the experiments that worked. It’s still astonishing to me that neither DS9 nor Voyager thought about picking this up and running with it.
Nick P. - Wed, Dec 19, 2012 - 12:51pm (USA Central)
This was a delightful episode, but I would certainly not give it "classic" Status like some here. I think much like "Pegasus" this episode just looks amazing with the crap around it. You stick this in the middle of Season 3, and I am guessing the reviews hover somewhere around "above average". This was a very good episode, no doubt, but I wouldn't even put this in the top 20 of the whole series.

BTW, the STTNG companion confirms Ben was suppossed to be Guinan, but she wasn't available for filming. I gotta admit, I kind of like Ben MORE than Guinan. I "BUY" that this guy would be a bartender, I never really believed Guinan would be a bartender.
Paul - Thu, Dec 20, 2012 - 1:17pm (USA Central)
@Nick P: Buying Ben as a bartender is an interesting point. However, making him the senior staffs' best friend is just ridiculous. It's too bad he couldn't have shown up in an episode or two after this.

Also, it kind of bothers me that the creators felt the need to replace Whoopi with another African American actor.
Paul M - Sun, Dec 30, 2012 - 8:19am (USA Central)
@"Also, it kind of bothers me that the creators felt the need to replace Whoopi with another African American actor."

A strange thing to say. Only plausible if you approach race from the position "white=default" (which is a problematic idea, to be honest), so anytime someone isn't white, there has to be some kind of explanation.

Utterly strange.
Paul - Mon, Dec 31, 2012 - 11:15am (USA Central)
Huh?

'Only plausible if you approach race from the position "white=default" '

It seems like you're saying that "white or black = default". Ben couldn't have been Asian or Latino?
Paul M - Mon, Dec 31, 2012 - 8:53pm (USA Central)
You're right, I should've phrased it differently. I was trying to simplify my argument. But the point still stands. Why does it bother you that the bartender is black?
Paul - Wed, Jan 2, 2013 - 1:06pm (USA Central)
Other than you questioning why I was bothered by casting choice, I truly don't understand the point you're trying to make.

As for why it did, I don't like the idea that the creators found out Whoopi was unavailable and said to themselves, "Well, we need another black actor, obviously!"

Don't get me wrong -- I don't have a problem with the actor not being white.
Paul M - Wed, Jan 2, 2013 - 3:04pm (USA Central)
But that's just the point I was trying to make!

How do you know that's what creators said? In the absence of any evidence, you just come across as someone projecting racial issues where there are none.

Let's have a thought experiment, shall we? Let's say Guinan was, for example, white as they come. So white Peter Jackson would be proud to cast her as an elf in one of his movies. Then, in one episode, for some reason they introduce another bartender, also white. Would you say: "Hey, it bothers me the guy's also white! Obviously,the producers felt the need to get a white actor!"

Somehow, I doubt it. Some people, whether they are conscious of it or not, think of a certain race as being the "default" race, with every other choice "calling attention to itself", and needing to be explained.

In the words of Orwell, all people are colour-blind, but some more than others :)
Paul - Wed, Jan 2, 2013 - 7:37pm (USA Central)
I didn't say I knew it happened. I said the idea of it bothered me.
TH - Wed, Jan 16, 2013 - 3:53pm (USA Central)
This is an absolutely wonderful episode that is one of two or three of TNG that generally puts a tear in my eye. The fact that we are familiar with Sito's back story and we effectively know that it was mainly Locarno who talked the team into the illegal maneuver so like Wesley we feel a bit bad that she took such heat and we also feel like she's a more real character because they didn't just introduce her to die in this episode.

I find your comment that Picard almost backs her into a corner of having to volunteer as an interesting perspective, although I think that most ensigns (especially one like her who had already agreed to the dangerous maneuver at Locarno's insistance) was likely to agree in any event. The fact that Picard essentially tells her that he requested her as a sort of "wipe the slate clean" chance makes it that much more tragic that she dies.

Only thoughts - I think it's implied that the First Duty kids were all from the same year of call. Did Picard also request Ensign Hajar to give her a fair shake too? or did she not make it through in the end?
Jack - Tue, Feb 5, 2013 - 10:59am (USA Central)
@ TH...

I think that since Bajor has such a place in Picard's heart, as stated in "Emissary", that he extended Sito the extra hand.
TH - Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - 5:52pm (USA Central)
I agree with Paul M - there is no evidence that a casting call went out for "male, 20s, african american". They could have auditioned a white girl, an asian man and a russian teen and simply found this actor was the best fit and happened to be black.

Alternatively, and I haven't seen the episode for a while to actually see if this is plausible, but it is possible that given the dialogue may have been written for Goldberg, it may have been more toned towards her style of speaking/her manerisms, which, as she happens to be black, might better suit another actor who is black. That's just hypothetical though.
Nick P. - Wed, Mar 13, 2013 - 8:20am (USA Central)
@TH, if you had read my comments from above, the producers have confirmed that the role was written for Whoopi, and she was just unavailable for the shoot.


further, to defend Paul from "racism", or whatever you are limply accusing him of, african americans make up less than 33% of the american population, and far less in LA's casting halls. Since Whoopi herself is African-American, and Ben is playing a role written for her specifically, how can you say that race was not a factor in that decision?
TH - Sun, Jun 9, 2013 - 2:36am (USA Central)
@Nick; I agree with you, as I said: Maybe it's just possible that the part which was written for Whoopi was written with a tone or dialect that just sounded more fitting coming out of a black actor. Alternatively, maybe it was just coincidence that he was the best audition. We don't know who they auditioned or whether they put out a call for a black actor.

I WILL note tho, that they wrote the part for Whoopi but did not elect to cast a woman in the role...
J - Wed, Jul 10, 2013 - 1:32pm (USA Central)
I find the fact that Paul M and TH felt that Paul was insinuating so etching to be even *more* indicative of a deep social issue than Paul's original comment. Here's a thought experiment: If Paul M's white-bartender thought experiment were true, would Paul M still find the need to provide Paul with a thought experiment as a demonstration of some point? After all, it was Paul M who interpreted the statement as problematic and perceived an issue when no issue really seemed to exist.

That aside, Whoopi vs. Ben is irrelevant, the character was a device to provide a narrative bridge between the junior and senior staff that otherwise couldn't have existed. Ben himself wasn't important to this story, only his actions and presence were important.

I loved this episode. Seeing the Enterprise from a junior staff point of view brings so much needed cohesiveness to the Enterprise and the TNG character universe, and serves as a "reality" check -- we, the audience, are so used to an intense level of familiarity with the senior staff that we take it for granted and forget that the ship extends beyond the camera's field of view, and that the bridge crew isn't he only group of meaningful people in Starfleet.

Picard informing the crew of Sitos death is one of TNGs most poignant moments for me, right up with Picard breaking down in front of his brother in Family and Worf accepting discommendation. I give this one 4 stars plus a bonus half.
J - Wed, Jul 10, 2013 - 1:33pm (USA Central)
"so etching" = "something"
William B - Tue, Oct 22, 2013 - 12:26pm (USA Central)
Probably my favourite non-AGT episode of s7, and there's so much to say that I will probably skip talking about it extensively (as I apparently do most good episodes?), but a few quick notes:

* Love Lavelle sitting down in Ten-Forward by straddling the chair the way Riker sits down.

* I have a feeling that Picard opts to give Sito a second chance after "The First Duty" because he sees Wesley as needing a second chance and recognizes that it's not fair to apply that standard only to Wesley.

* In a way, Worf sitting down with the junior officers foreshadows Picard sitting down with his crew in AGT.
Nic - Fri, Oct 25, 2013 - 10:01am (USA Central)
@Shawn: Yes, there was a DS9 episode that would have revelaed that Sito did not die at the end of "Lower Decks" and was instead imprisoned. The focus was changed to O'Brien and became the wonderful episode "Hard Time". Moore explained that the reason for the change was that it would have robbed "Lower Decks" of its great ending, and I absoloutely agree.
mephyve - Wed, Jan 29, 2014 - 9:59pm (USA Central)
It coulda been a contender. The death ruined what could have been an interesting insight into the lives of Jr. officers. Instead we end up with a morbid last days in the life of episode. I'm never entertained by pointless deaths.
1 star
Smith - Thu, Feb 27, 2014 - 8:12am (USA Central)
The junior officers/actors were so cheesy and artificial it made this a tough show to watch (the nurse was a good actress though).

What really hurt the show was the one-dimensional obsession the "officers" had with their military careers and ranks. A very militant/hierarchical show that loses focus from Gene's vision of an evolved human race (Gene HATED the saluting in the Trek movies). To top it off, the subplot focuses on a CIA type infiltration mission to get a spy delivered to infiltrate the Cardassians.
Sonya - Sun, Jul 27, 2014 - 1:50pm (USA Central)

grumpy_otter said, "Is it just me, because I hate Beverly, or was her relationship with Alyssa cloying? That's your BOSS acting like a silly schoolgirl over your romance! Just struck me as false." Yes! I found this inappropriate, especially woven into conversations that involved clearly professional issues such as proportion. Beverly could be accused of favoritism. I don't mind when Beverly and Troi talk about their social lives, but I do mind when scenes perpetuate an inaccurate stereotype that women cannot be professional.

I also appreciated Jammer's observation that Picard's harsh treatment of Sito just before recruiting her into a dangerous mission could be viewed as manipulative. (He even said, while referencing the mission, that he needed to 'test' her.) I thought this was just shy of unethical, but I may be giving Picard the benefit of the doubt because I like his character so much.

There was much to love about this episode. I particularly found Worf's mentorship of Sito enjoyable to watch, the look on his face when Sito showed up with the pseudo-bruised face, and the look on everyone's faces when the Cardassian observed, "I did not think she would be so young." How did I reconcile the seemingly out of character joining of the table at the end of the episode? Worf is big on honoring tradition and ritual, and perhaps he recognized that joining Sito's friends was a way of honoring her memory. (I don't think he did it with the thought that it would make him feel better, even if that might have been the end result.)
Sonya - Sun, Jul 27, 2014 - 1:52pm (USA Central)
proportion = promotion
Taylor - Mon, Aug 18, 2014 - 11:04am (USA Central)
Simply put, one of the finest Trek episodes of any series or season.

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