HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
“Lower Decks” marks a divergence from the normal TNG formula, and as such, it remains one of the more memorable episodes of season seven. The episode centers the story not around the familiar characters that have dominated TNG’s seven year run but rather around a group of junior officers, showing us their perspective on what life is like aboard the Enterprise. The concept is hardly new, the British Upstairs, Downstairs played with these different perspectives beautifully and even inspired the concept behind “Lower Decks.” However, despite borrowing the premise, “Lower Decks” did something entirely new for the Star Trek franchise, and that newness, that departure from the norm is exactly why the story is so effective, particularly when taken against the backdrop of the rest of the season.
“Lower Decks” introduces new characters as the story focal point. Sam Lavelle, Taurik, Sito Jaxa, and Alyssa Ogawa are all ensigns attempting to navigate their careers in Starfleet while Ben is a civilian waiter who moves between the junior and senior officers by virtue of his position in Ten Forward. The episode opens with Commander Riker and Counselor Troi doing crew evaluations in Ten Forward while the junior officers nervously watch from another table. Ben informs the junior officers that Lavelle and Sito are up for the night ops position and therefore a promotion to lieutenant junior grade.
Later, Sito and Lavelle both participate in a battle drill run by Commander Riker with less than sterling results. Riker seems especially hard on Lavelle, leading the ensign to conclude that Riker does not care for him, thus jeopardizing his chances at the promotion. Captain Picard arrives at shift change and orders a sudden course correction to the Argaya system. Sito gets called to remain at the ops position, and in Engineering, Taurik attempts to share some warp field enhancements with a harried Lt. Commander La Forge. In Sickbay, Dr. Crusher tells Nurse Ogawa that she plans to recommend her for promotion, and Ogawa shares her concerns about her relationship with Lt. Powell. In Ten Forward, Lavelle discusses his woes with Ben in Ten Forward, and Ben encourages him to get to know Commander Riker, mentioning that Riker is Canadian. Lavelle attempts to ingratiate himself to Riker, explaining that his grandfather was Canadian as a point of commonality. Riker flatly informs him that he grew up in Alaska, not Canada. Lavelle flees.
On the bridge, they locate an escape pod within Cardassian space and unfortunately beyond normal transporter range. La Forge and Taurik manage to extend that range so that the occupant can be beamed to sickbay. Taurik initates a scan to determine the occupant’s species but is shouted down by LaForge. Before beaming, Dr. Crusher asks Nurse Ogawa to leave Sickbay. Captain Picard calls Sito into his Ready Room where he dresses her down for her role in the Nova Squadron debacle. Chastened, Sito leaves. In a shuttlebay, LaForge directs Taurik to damage the shuttle Curie. Taurik notes that the damage would be consistent with that sustained by a craft escaping attack, and La Forge dismisses his observations.
Both groups of officers play separate poker games and discuss the day. During the officers’ game, Riker grumbles about Lavelle, prompting Counselor Troi to tell him how similar she finds Lavelle to Riker. Crusher speculates that Ogawa’s boyfriend might be unfaithful. Riker admits that despite his dislike, Lavelle may be the better candidate for the night ops position, but Worf argues that Sito is ready for the responsibility. Ultimately, Riker wins the poker game, and La Forge leaves. During the junior officers’ game, Lavelle laments his failure with Riker, and Taurik speculates that he may have offended La Forge. Ben cleans out the junior officers who call the game just as La Forge comes to get Taurik for additional experiments on the engines. Ben heads up to the officers’ game, hoping to continue his winning streak.
After mok’bara class, Worf calls Sito up to participate in the gik’tal, a challenge required for her to pass to the advanced class. He blindfolds Sito and demands that she defend herself. After failing, Sito removes the blindfold and calls the test unfair. Worf admits that the gik’tal isn’t real and hopes that it takes fewer bruises for Sito to stand up for herself. Sito then goes to Picard and demands that he judge her for who she is now or transfer her off the ship. Picard praises her for her courage and tells her that he asked for her posting to the Enterprise to ensure that she got a chance for a fair judgment. Then, he asks her to attend a briefing with the senior officers.
That briefing reveals to Sito that the Enterprise has rescued Joret Dal, a Cardassian operative, and that they must return him to Cardassia. However, the best way to do that is to provide him a cover. In this case, his cover will be that of having retrieved a Bajoran prisoner that he is returning to Cardassia in order to collect the bounty. While the hope is that Sito will be able to return to Federation space in an escape pod, there is no guarantee she will survive. Sito volunteers for the assignment. Lavelle notices that Sito is absent and presses Ogawa and Taurik for information, though they decline.
Later, the Enterprise scans the Cardassian border and finds only wreckage consistent with that from a Federation escape pod. After intercepting a Cardassian communique regarding the destruction of an escape pod containing a Bajoran prisoner, Picard makes a formal announcement to the crew that Sito has been killed in action. Later, in Ten Forward, Lavelle reveals that he’s received the promotion and speculates that he only did so because Sito died. Ogawa tells him to continue to serve in honor of Sito’s memory. Worf grieves alone, and Ben tells him to join the rest of Sito’s friends. Worf nearly declines until Ben reveals that he knows Sito considered Worf a friend. Worf moves to join the junior officers in their grief.
“Lower Decks” brings Sito Jaxa back from “The First Duty,” where she was involved with the disaster that claimed a cadet’s life and set Wesley Crusher back a year. Originally, she was likely Command track, but we see her now in Operations gold, working security. The shift doubtlessly relates to the fact no other cadet would fly with her. As she explains, her Academy career post-Nova Squadron was highly unpleasant and isolated, and her life since “The First Duty” has not been an easy one. However, despite that adversity, she makes it onto the Enterprise, develops a friend group, and even wins Worf’s respect and mentorship. Thus, when Captain Picard pulls her in to his Ready Room to give her an abrupt dressing down, the audience is already primed to take her side, even if we’re equally primed to believe the best of Captain Picard. From there, we see Worf fake a Klingon ritual to teach her a lesson, one that she would not have learned any other way but by doing. She goes back to Captain Picard and stands up for herself, respectfully protesting unfair treatment, which is exactly what Picard wanted her to do. Her newfound sense of agency then sparks her decision to embark on the mission that will ultimately take her life. The choice to kill Sito off is a deliberate one, designed for maximum impact, not only for the audience but also for her friends—Sam Lavelle, Taurik, Nurse Ogawa, and Ben.
All of this would be fine if “Lower Decks” were Sito’s story, but it isn’t. “Lower Decks” is not a redemption arc for Sito; it’s both a story about Starfleet and how her death forms a watershed moment for her friends. Sure, Sito gets an opportunity to come into her own, but that makes it so much worse when she dies so senselessly. Scriptwriter Rene Echevarria at one point during the audio commentary observes that death is “occasionally the price that gets paid.” The problem is that it remains unclear what Sito’s death buys in this episode. Yes, she aids Joret Dal’s return to Cardassia and therefore ensured a flow of information that Picard informs us will help reinforce the security of Bajor and other Federation worlds. However, the Cardassian conflict is over at this point, and while the Dominion War will eventually vindicate Joret Dal’s concerns, it’s not a plot development that’s on the horizon quite yet.
From the perspective of the lower decks crowd and therefore the viewer, Sito’s sacrifice accomplishes nothing in the greater scheme of Federation geopolitics. Not every death should have huge, overwhelming consequences; telling a story about how terrible things sometimes just happen in the line of duty is perfectly fine. However, TNG normally doesn’t tackle those kinds of stories, so using a “slice of life” story to do that seems a little off brand. Moreover, choosing to end the episode with Lavelle’s promotion and his resolve to live a life to honor Sito’s sacrifice takes her death and converts it into a driver for Lavelle’s story. Ben even talks Worf into going over to grieve with the ensigns because Worf was her friend, too, doubling down on the same mechanism. Sito’s death is also a catalyst for Worf getting to express some emotion. While the episode’s ending probably means to imply something about how life moves forward, even when doing so is bittersweet, I find myself left feeling a bit uncomfortable with just how raw a deal Sito Jaxa gets.
I don’t want to give the impression that “Lower Decks” is not a fantastic episode because it very much is one of TNG‘s best. Rene Echevarria quite successfully plays my heartstrings, especially when combined with the earnest goodness with which Shannon Fill imbues Sito Jaxa. I also recognize that Sito gets the opportunity to choose the mission, even knowing that it could result in her death, but with Picard standing right there, I don’t know that Sito could have made another choice. A more cynical viewer could deem how Picard handles Sito a form of manipulation. He denigrates her as a test, and once she passes, praises her courage and explains that she owes her position on the Enterprise to him just before he tells her about the briefing.
Beyond the somewhat sour note Sito’s death presents, “Lower Decks” does a beautiful job highlighting just how passionate the ensigns are about what they do. Taurik awkwardly geeks out about potential warp field advancements. Nurse Ogawa’s faith in both Dr. Crusher and Starfleet’s mission is heartening. Lavelle’s passion certainly flows from his response to Sito’s death, but there are enough glimmers of it to indicate that it’s genuine. Beyond that passion, “Lower Decks” fleshes out the greater world of the Enterprise, and it gives Michael Dorn the opportunity to give Worf depth and emotional sensitivity he so rarely gets to demonstrate. From a productive perspective, “Lower Decks” gives us a fantastically cut sequence comparing and contrasting the two poker games, so it’s visually stimulating as well. All of these elements ensure that “Lower Decks” is one of those episodes that sticks with me, even twenty seven years after I first watched it.
Four cups of Earl Grey Tea and a saucer
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- If you’re a Voyager fan new to TNG, Taurik likely looks familiar. Alexander Enberg, producer Jeri Taylor’s son, would come back on Voyager to play Vorik, ostensibly Taurik’s twin brother.
- There was some discussion about bringing Sito Jaxa back in DS9 or later in TNG had the series continued beyond season seven, but nothing ever came to fruition. Ultimately, that’s a good thing because Sito’s death gives this episode the legs it needs. Had she come back, “Lower Decks” would have lost some of its impact.
- Bajorans place their family names first, hence referring to her as “Sito” throughout this column.
- I’m still not entirely sure what Ogawa’s beau was up to in Ten Forward. That line of conversation kind of dies entirely. Here’s hoping Dr. Crusher just read the room wrong?
- The senior officers do actually play a significant role in the episode, particularly Riker and Worf, so “Lower Decks” isn’t entirely the junior officer story we all remember. That’s in keeping with its Upstairs, Downstairs inspiration.
- Fun fact, “Lower Decks” gets its own TV Trope.