As they wait to learn which of them will be promoted, four junior officers on the Enterprise take part in a secret mission.
Plot Summary: Junior officers Sam Lavelle, Sito Jaxa, Alyssa Ogawa, and Taurik watch Troi and Riker in Ten Forward, knowing that the staff is busy with crew evaluations and some of them may or may not be promoted. Their bartender friend Ben tells them that he hears Sito and Lavelle are being considered for the same position, which confuses Sito since she’s a security officer while Lavelle has spent more time at ops. Later, Crusher assures Ogawa that the younger woman will be highly recommended and asks about Ogawa’s boyfriend, while at the same time, LaForge makes it clear to Taurik that the junior officer is overstepping his position. Sito performs badly during a tactical simulation but is asked to take the ops position when the senior officers are called to a staff meeting, which leads Lavelle to wonder whether Riker dislikes him. After the meeting and a course change ordered by Starfleet, the crew finds an escape pod inside Cardassian space and Taurik is able to help beam its passenger to sickbay. Only senior officers are allowed to see the passenger until Ogawa is called to assist Crusher, at which point Ogawa learns that the passenger is Cardassian. Sito, who has been guarding sickbay, is called away by Picard, who suggests that she may never be promoted because she participated in the cover-up of an incident at Starfleet Academy three years earlier, the same incident that kept Wesley Crusher from graduating with his class. Sito insists that she has become a more mature and reliable person since then, but Picard is unimpressed, though Worf has highly recommended Sito and stages a martial arts test to prod her to defend herself. Sito challenges Picard and quickly learns that Picard’s dismissal of her was a test of sorts as well; he wants to send her on a dangerous mission to return the Cardassian, who is a Federation operative, back to Cardassian space. Because Sito is Bajoran, she will make a plausible “prisoner” for the spy as he passes Cardassian sentries, and because she is a security officer, she will be able to defend herself when she sneaks back across the border in an escape pod. Taurik is suspicious because LaForge has asked him to “test” a shuttlecraft in a way that makes it appear that the shuttle has been attacked, but LaForge silences his speculations. Sito plays her part in the Cardassian’s return, but her escape pod goes missing, and Lavelle is at ops scanning for Bajoran life signs when Data identifies the remains of the pod. Learning from the Cardassians that an escaped Bajoran prisoner was killed, Picard announces that the crew has lost a valuable young crewmember, and Lavelle is promoted, though he no longer values the pip so highly.
Analysis: The final season’s best bottle show, “Lower Decks” has a terrific script that shows the ship and senior officers from the perspective of characters who rarely get much attention: the junior technicians, night staff, civilians, even red-shirts (well, yellow-shirts) who make up the vast majority of the Enterprise’s crew. In an episode centering on Picard, the decision to send Sito on a dangerous mission would focus on Picard’s feelings about what she and Wesley did at the Academy, his dilemma about how to judge her readiness for a crucial mission and his own potential guilt for asking her, a Bajoran, to pose as the victim of a Cardassian who offers invaluable information and whose safe return must therefore be placed ahead of any one crewmember’s safety. For the most part, when junior officers die in the line of duty on Star Trek, we learn about them from the perspective of the senior officer most affected by the death, like Scotty with his nephew from the first motion picture or Voyager’s Doctor with Ensign Jetal from “Latent Image.” Here, we get to know the doomed crewmember quite well, and to see how her friends and colleagues respond to her presence and her absence. There are some obvious parallels between the young newcomers and crewmembers we already know quite well – Ogawa and Crusher are good friends because they have so much in common in terms of their personalities as well as career interests, Lavelle is so much like Riker that the latter’s friends comment on it, Taurik needs to learn the limits of Vulcan logic, Ben is taking over where Guinan left off, and Sito could be Wesley Crusher if the first thing we knew about Wesley wasn’t his youth as a boy genius but only his huge screw-up at the Academy. There’s terrific chemistry among these characters we hardly know, so much so that paralleling the group of friends playing poker with the senior staff engaged in the same pastime really works; those scenes could have been disastrous if it wasn’t as much of a pleasure to watch the next generation as the one we know so well. It’s a funny, nostalgic moment for me, because I’m someone who resented The Next Generation for many years only because it wasn’t the original series and didn’t have the original crew. In “Lower Decks,” we get a reminder that this crew, too, shall pass…that with Deep Space Nine on the air and Voyager in the planning stages at the time of filming, the transition is already underway.
Rene Echevarria wrote the script for “Lower Decks,” and it’s one of his best – witty and subtle, with just the right amount of technobabble in the engineering scenes to convince us that Taurik knows his stuff, while what should sound like boring procedural bridge stuff is kept lively by undercurrents of jealousy and possible hostility, enhanced by Gabrielle Beaumont’s directing where the camera moves when the actors don’t. It’s a tall order to introduce four new characters, plus an ambiguous could-be villain, and make an audience enjoy seeing all of them; Ogawa is the only one with whom we have any significant history, and Sito came off in some ways as the most cowardly of Wesley’s Academy friends involved in the death of a fellow Nova Squadron pilot. In under an hour, we have a strong sense of several new characters and their interactions, so much so that it seems they may be being groomed as a possible future cast (rumors were everywhere after this episode aired that the “Lower Decks” crewmembers would comprise the bulk of Voyager’s crew). We’re left in the dark about several things in the episode, notably the Cardassian’s mission and whether Picard is right to trust him with Sito Jaxa’s life; we know only what the junior crewmembers know as they figure things out, so the big picture is left maddeningly elusive, which must be what it’s like to be an ordinary officer serving aboard a ship involved in so many covert operations. Lavelle, who seems the most immature of the group, keeps asking his friends to share what they know so between them all they can guess at what’s happening, but the others follow orders and refuse to talk. We’ve seen several episodes in which a more senior officer made the decision to violate an order when he considered it an issue of true importance – Riker telling Picard about the cloaking device on the Pegasus, for a recent example – and I can’t help wondering whether Sito’s life might have been saved if someone close to her was keeping a closer eye on things, coming up with a better escape plan than the one that failed her.
Even though the focus is on the four junior officers and the civilian working aboard the ship, we get some nice character details on the main cast too. It comes as no surprise that Riker resents a crewmember for doing exactly the sorts of things he used to do as a junior officer, and that Troi is quite happy to needle him about it. It’s nice to hear Crusher confirm that she considers Ogawa a friend and to see her engaged in gossip after the disaster of her recent plasma vampire romance. But it’s particularly interesting to see Worf as a mentor to a girl who may be having a harder time than he did when he first joined Starfleet: not only does she have her reputation from the Academy to overcome, but she’s a Bajoran, and we know from Ensign Ro that there are misconceptions, prejudices, and a whole host of issues to worry about back home for Bajorans, same as Klingons. I’m not sure his “test” is fair, since she might have stood up for herself much sooner with any other senior officer, yet she seems to know Worf has her best interests at heart and doesn’t hold a grudge even after the bruises (I also like his surprise that she understands enough Klingon to know he might be messing with her head). There’s a lovely scene at the end in which Ben orders Worf away from his solitary table in Ten Forward, encouraging him to join Sito’s friends, which Worf feels uncomfortable doing because he was her commanding officer; he must be convinced that that is not incompatible with friendship in this situation. There’s a real sense of distance between the senior crew and those vying for promotion, even when they’re sitting two meters apart in Ten Forward or in side by side chairs on the bridge. That being the case, Sito looks brave just for the fact that she will Picard about his treatment of her, even overlooking the fact that she tells him – as he once told Q – that he has no right to sit in judgment.
It’s upsetting to see Sito even with the fake bruises Crusher gives her so it looks like the Cardassian spy abused her, and the scene on the shuttle – in which the Cardassian expresses contempt for the Guls whose power plays now dominate the Cardassian military, but he never expresses contempt for the occupation of Bajor – is chilling, particularly when Sito holds out her wrists to be bound so that she makes a convincing prisoner. The Next Generation killed off relatively few red-shirts, particularly recurring characters, so it’s rather shocking when Picard reports that she is dead at the hands of the Cardassians. Did the spy try to save her, or did he not even think twice about discarding a Bajoran life on what he considered to be a mission to aid Cardassia? We will never know. Life on the Enterprise quickly gets back to normal for the senior officers who are probably more used to losing young people under their command than we like to think, except for those closest to Sito, who clearly earned the promotion that goes to Lavelle. Ironically, he’s the one who vanishes from television canon – I believe he played a role in later Deep Space Nine novels – while Ogawa remains a significant character for the rest of this season, and Taurik’s “twin brother” Vorik, also played by actor Alexander Enberg – the son of executive producer Jeri Taylor – becomes a recurring character on Voyager. I know no one is ever really dead on Star Trek if the producers decide they want them around, but Sito never returns, which is too bad since she’s a great character…but it also makes her death one of the most meaningful of the series.