Trek-a-Week #24: Lower Decks
Lower Decks is yet another example of a Star Trek episode that I absolutely love, but which I find difficult to write about. Referring back to that diagram from one of my earlier show analysis, plotting this episode on my Star Trek narrative chart, I’d put Lower Decks about here:
It’s pretty much all character interaction in Lower Decks — in the form of junior officers Sam Lavelle, Sito Jaxa, nurse Ogawa, and the Vulcan Taurik , all of whom are hoping for promotions. There’s really no Big Philosophical Issue™.
I wasn’t aware until recently that this episode of TNG is credited as the origin for what’s now an acknowledged narrative trope: the “Lower Deck Episode:” an episode that’s focused mostly on otherwise minor characters. Seeing this episode now, I was immediately reminded of an issue of one of my favorite comics series, The Invisibles, by Grant Morrison. In issue twelve of the series, “Best Man Fall,” Morrison ditches all of the heretofore major characters of the series and gives us an entire issue focusing on a faceless foot-soldier of the “Conspiracy” (the evil organization in the series) — someone we’ve only seen on a single page a dozen issues before.
This issue of The Invisibles is cover dated September 1995 and Lower Decks aired in February 1994, so there was for sure time for Morrison to have seen and been influenced by it, but it’s interesting that not much turns up in a Google search for “Grant Morrison” and “lower decks.” It’s something I’d love to ask him about at a con.
One of the major things that stood out to me in Lower Decks is Worf’s role. In the first few seasons of TNG, Worf mainly stands around looking mean and suggests shooting things at the first sign of conflict. By now though — seven seasons in — he’s being written as a far more developed character, pretty much stealing the show in this episode with the “gik’tal” test. One of my favorite exchanges in Trek occurs during that scene:
WORF: Stop making excuses. Replace the blindfold.
SITO: No. It’s not a fair test.
WORF: Very good, Ensign. You have passed the challenge.
SITO: What? By taking off the blindfold?
WORF: It takes courage to say the test is unfair.
SITO: Sir, is there really such a thing as a gik’tal challenge?
WORF: No, there is not. But perhaps next time you are judged unfairly, it will not take so many bruises for you protest.
He’s of course referring to Picard’s behavior toward Sito, which also turns out to be a test of sorts, albeit one that comes off as slightly ham-handed narratively — and maybe a bit jerky to boot. Dressing down someone in your command as a “test” of their character has a gross tinge to it that seems more in character for Donald Trump than Jean-Luc Picard.
I’m glad I’d forgotten the ending of Lower Decks because that allowed me to be legitimately shocked and surprised by the death of Ensign Sito. For a show that continually throws its characters into danger, the death of any character other than “red shirts” is surprisingly rare on Star Trek, and when it happens it’s often telling to observe how it’s handled.
I’d cite Lt. Tomlinson in Balance of Terror as probably the best instance of Trek handling the death of a non-major/but non-red shirt character. That Kirk’s council to Ensign Martine (Tomilinson’s fiancée) is followed by him regaining his composure of command and then striding down the Enterprise corridor to the conspicuous lack of music says a lot: death is tragic, but it’s part of the job; now back to business.
How does Lower Decks handle Sito’s death? That she dies at all after so much story and character development says a lot about the would-be realities of long-term space exploration. And yet, having introduced the four junior officers as a set at the beginning of the episode, I’d have expected the episode to address an obvious issue after her death: survivor’s guilt. But it doesn’t. What we get is an obligatory farewell announcement over the PA from Picard and this (when Lavelle gets the promotion he and Sito had been jockeying for before her death):
LAVELLE: It just doesn’t feel right. For all I know, she was going to get the promotion instead of me.
BEN: You shouldn’t feel that way, Sam.
OGAWA: She would have been happy for you, Sam.
TAURIK: The best way to remember her would be to excel in your new position.
OGAWA: We’re proud of you, Sam.
This is 100% lame.
I have mixed feelings about the end of Lower Decks. Part of me has a gut reaction to the corniness of Worf’s inevitable move to join the remaining junior officers’ table at Ten Forward. And yet, this kind of symbolic co-mingling of “upper” and “lower” characters is something works for a reason: it carries meaning. For example: whenever an aristocracy character from Downton Abbey wanders to the servant’s area below.
Because of its narrative structure and premise, Lower Decks is an odd episode to be our penultimate TNG selection, but it’s overall a good one.
- All of the guest actors here are pretty much not-great, other than whoever plays Sito. #Cringe
- The Riker/Canada scene is a top ten Trek hilarious moment. #AlsoCringe
- Is it safe to assume the Worf gik’tal scene is a deliberate reference to/refutation of the “But with the blast shield down, I can’t even see!” bit in Star Wars?
- The cross-cut poker sequence between the games going on in the upper and lower decks of the ship is pulled off really, really well. Shout-out to the director and cinematographer.
Lower Decks is an episode that primarily examines relationships, not with life forms encountered outside the Enterprise, but with those living together on the ship. There is a variety of people working as crew members which allows for the juxtaposition of human and non-human, younger and older, technical and managerial. Comparisons like these are often used to illuminate differences that are perceived to divide us so that Star Trek can then show us that we all share in the human condition. I do not, however, think Lower Decks is a particularly good example of this type of story-telling. And I was totally unprepared [spoiler alert!] for the death of a promising young ensign at the end, especially given the somewhat flippant tone of the rest of the story.
The episode opens in Ten Forward where Riker and Troi are pulling a late night working on crew evaluations and ordering coffee. At another table we see four younger crew members worrying about whether they will be promoted and wondering what is being said about them. One thing I do think is well-done in Lower Decks is how the pervasive lack of trust endemic to younger people is shown. Early in a career, or in a personal relationship, it is very easy to have a lack of faith in one’s abilities or in another’s feelings. Confidence grows with experience. So the portrayal of younger employees worrying about their position, with their boss or their significant other, is pretty accurate.
In one scene, Picard calls a Bajoran ensign (Sito) into his office and reads her the riot act about her behavior during an incident at the Academy. It seems uncharacteristically harsh for Picard. Sito is later tested by Worf who blindfolds her during a martial arts exercise. She finally protests that the contest is unfair and he reveals that her ability to make this assertion was the true challenge. Worf also tells Sito that it was he who recommended her for an assignment. It seems that Worf, being Klingon, and Sito, being Bajoran, have somewhat of a bond as they are both serving on a ship where, as non-humans, they are minorities and have to work harder for recognition. Picard’s confrontation was also a test for Sito to prepare her for going behind enemy lines to help a Cardassian spy return.
The associations between senior and junior officers as portrayed in this story are something I have trouble with. While I see how Worf could be a valuable mentor for someone like Sito — and in this case it seems to be a symbiotic relationship — in some situations there is a direct manager/underling hierarchy. And I just don’t think that you can or should be that chummy with your boss. All of the junior officers in this episode are bright and obedient crew members. They may have ambitions or doubts or even make small errors in judgement. But when they are given orders, they follow them.
This is absolutely not the case with some workers. And what do you do if you’re friends with your employee but they don’t do what you’ve asked or, worse, they’re just bad at what they do and you have to correct or even fire them? Because of the power differential, it’s impossible to know if you’re befriending a person because you have genuine interest or because you’re trying to climb the corporate/military ladder. As an organizational psychologist points out in this article, trying to be pals with your boss takes on a “Machiavellian tinge” if you’re doing it to gain favors. Maybe if you’re a millennial it seems normal, and I’m not saying I don’t really like my manager. But I find it very weird to be buddies with the person who is supposed to objectively evaluate your performance.
Despite Ben’s objections that I am a “hater”, I do actually like the character of Beverly Crusher. But why, oh, why, have they given her this girl-talk dialogue with Alyssa, her employee whom she chooses to recommend for a lieutenant position, about her boyfriend?! Crusher and Alyssa end up having to medically treat the Cardassian spy beamed aboard the ship, an incredibly sensitive and potentially dangerous situation. Yet they spend their time in between cases discussing whether Alyssa should be worried about whether her future fiancée is still interested in her. Gack.
The relationship between Geordi and his padawan Taurik, a Vulcan, seems the most sensible. Taurik sounded a bit like Spicoli to me, which is kind of an interesting Zen-like twist on the whole Vulcan thing. But he seemed to have the most respect for the manager-employee dynamic. And Geordi, in turn, seemed to treat the relationship as an opportunity for both to learn from each other with the implicit understanding that he is ultimately in charge, e.g., “I’d still need to see your simulation before I authorize any tests.” Taurik is irritating but earnest in his efforts to please and impress his senior officers with his knowledge. And you won’t hear him confide in Geordi that he’s concerned his girlfriend isn’t paying enough attention to him.
All my crabbing about this episode dwelling on personal relationships aside, the actual story of Sito volunteering to pose as a prisoner to try to help the Cardassian spy return, and ending up dead, was heart-rending. Worf’s genuine concern for Sito, her unhesitating willingness to assist with an important mission, the wonder of the Cardassian at a Bajoran risking her life to help him promote peace for his people: all this was beautifully done. Even the coming-of-age theme as the young crew members realize that there are ideals and missions more important than their trivial need to share secrets was a decent moral for the episode. I just wish it had all been communicated without the awkward banter. Is it just coincidence that 1994, when Lower Decks aired, was the same year that spawned TV shows Friends, ER, My So-Called Life and Party of Five, which People magazine calls “dramas about angsty, lovelorn young people?” It seems incompatible with TNG so maybe this is the signal for the end of an era.
Next episode: All Good Things