Spoiler Warning: Spoilers will be present for The Next Generation and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
It’s only a couple of days now until the premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks – at least for viewers in the United States. The franchise’s first full animated series in over forty years looks like it’s going to be hilarious… but did you know that it isn’t Star Trek’s first “Lower Decks”?
On the 7th of February 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired the fifteenth episode of its seventh and final season. The episode was titled Lower Decks, and much like the new show, it took the action away from the main cast and the bridge crew. The episode wouldn’t be broadcast in the UK until April 1996 (that’s when I will have first watched it, as I was an avid Trekkie even in those days!) Let’s hope that ViacomCBS doesn’t plan on making us wait anywhere near as long as two years to get the new Lower Decks.
With the new show coming out, I thought it could be fun to step back in time twenty-six years and revisit the first Lower Decks.
By this point in the history of the franchise, Star Trek shows had expanded well beyond a small cast of regular characters. Where the “redshirts” of The Original Series had been, to put it politely, one-time use characters by and large, The Next Generation had a handful of secondary characters who would augment the main cast. Ensign Ro, Guinan, Chief O’Brien, Lt. Barclay, Nurse Ogawa, and several others all had roles to play, and as the show went on some of them came to be increasingly prominent. This was a concept that Deep Space Nine would expand greatly, and that series had a far larger secondary cast, some of whom – particularly in later seasons – would be incredibly important across whole story arcs.
Lower Decks looks at four junior members of the Enterprise-D’s crew (and one civilian). Only two – Nurse Ogawa and Sito Jaxa – were familiar to us before the episode aired. Ogawa had been a regular character in scenes set in sickbay since the fourth season, and Sito had appeared in the fourth season episode The First Duty. The other three were new for this episode, but all would have significant, interconnected roles in the story. The episode can be overlooked when it comes to thinking about The Next Generation’s best offerings, in part perhaps because its premise means it spends so much time away from the main cast. I confess that I overlooked it myself when I put together a list of ten great episodes from The Next Generation a couple of months ago; I didn’t even consider it a contender! However, it’s a fantastic story and a great piece of television. While it isn’t unique in the Star Trek canon – Deep Space Nine would have many episodes where secondary characters were the focus, and the episode Good Shepherd, from Voyager’s final season, similarly features junior crewmen – it was unusual for The Next Generation, and features some genuinely emotional moments. Stellar performances from all of the guest-stars elevate the episode, and make what was an interesting story into something truly great to watch.
At this point, almost a quarter of a century from when I first saw it (gosh does that make me feel old) I’ve seen Lower Decks a number of times. I wouldn’t like to guess how many, but The Next Generation is probably my most re-watched Star Trek series so it’s been a fair number, I can tell you that! I’m always happy to go back, though, and this will be my first time writing about it and taking a deeper look at some of the moments within.
Lower Decks opens with Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi sitting in Ten-Forward. They’re engaged in something we almost never saw them do in The Next Generation – managing the ship’s crew! On a ship with a complement of over 1,000 people, this must be a huge task, yet with all the other adventures and hijinks that befall the crew, we never really get to see these quieter moments or the more “boring” tasks involved in running a starship of this size. This is actually something I hope we’ll see some of in the new Lower Decks, as I feel it’s an under-explored side of Star Trek and life aboard a Federation starship.
While they discuss officer assignments and promotions, a group of younger officers are seated a few tables away. This is where we meet the episode’s real stars – in addition to Ogawa and Sito there’s Ensigns Lavelle and Taurik, as well as Ben, the waiter in Ten-Forward. While the others are enjoying their evening away from their duties, Lavelle is obsessed with the prospect of promotion. This character setup was great, painting Lavelle as the career-obsessed type and showing that the others find it easier to relax. Setting up Lavelle’s fixation on his promotion will pay off a bittersweet moment for him at the end of the story.
This kind of story can be difficult – in the space of a couple of minutes the show has to set up several new characters and their relationships in a way that feels natural and not like there’s a huge dump of exposition on the audience. It’s really only Nurse Ogawa who’s familiar to the audience; Sito hasn’t been seen in three years at this point, and the others are brand new. So it was a clever scene, and I think it achieved its goal of introducing us to the episode’s main characters.
Riker and Troi’s conversation turns to promotion, specifically for the night-duty Ops officer. This is a role that both Lavelle and Sito are contenders for. Ben, the waiter, overhears, and after the tiniest amount of persuasion from the junior officers spills the beans; I get the impression this is something he takes a lot of satisfaction in doing! Setting up a conflict between the friends is an interesting way for the episode to go, and of course there’s only one job so one of them will be disappointed.
Sito and Lavelle are left stunned and concerned, and then the title sequence rolls. I will always love The Next Generation’s theme – even though it was, of course, “borrowed” from The Motion Picture!
After the credits roll, Riker is in the Captain’s chair on the Bridge, ordering a phaser lock. Sito is at tactical, with Worf standing over her shoulder, and Lavelle is manning the helmsman’s position next to Data. They’re conducting a battle drill – though that may not have been immediately obvious – and Riker seems a little disappointed with their response time.
Riker seems to be harsh on Lavelle, reprimanding him for saying “aye aye” instead of “aye”, while in main engineering, Taurik is tasked by La Forge with writing up the battle drill report. Sito seems to be the one who really messed up – after the ship changed course she had to re-lock the phasers which delayed firing on the target. However, Riker seemed to take it easy on her, offering her advice instead of cracking down, and compared to how he treats Lavelle it’s clear who he favours.
Captain Picard emerges from his ready-room and orders an immediate course change, postponing a scheduled rendezvous, as the ship has received new orders. Picard summons the main crew – Data, Riker, and Worf – to the observation lounge, and Riker assigns Sito to the ops station next to Lavelle, who seems put out by her being given the role ahead of him. The system they’re travelling to is close to Cardassian space, and there’s some discussion about why they may be going there, and the two share a cute moment when Sito uses the expression “spider under the table” to mean a “fly on the wall” – eavesdropping on the senior officers’ chat.
Lavelle is worried that Riker favours Sito for promotion over him, but it doesn’t seem to hurt their friendship at all – despite knowing they’re effectively in competition their friendship remains solid. I liked this characterisation; if Lavelle became too cold, distant, and unkind toward Sito he’d be much harder to root for as a character.
In engineering, Taurik tries to show La Forge a theory he learned at Starfleet Academy to increase the ship’s engine efficiency. La Forge initially seems interested, but Taurik may have jumped the gun by suggesting it be rolled out to the Enterprise’s engines without completing a simulation first. Taurik has other ideas to help too, but La Forge – seemingly annoyed – basically tells a confused Taurik to get back to him later.
Two things come out of this for me: the first is that Lavelle and Taurik have comparable issues with their commanding officers. And secondly, we see how a junior officer can feel that they’re being treated not necessarily unfairly, but perhaps that they feel they’re taken less seriously. The Next Generation in its first few seasons would sometimes put the character of Wesley Crusher in a vital position where his ideas and plans were listened to by the whole crew; this episode feels, at parts, like a total reversal of that. The way Taurik is treated by La Forge here is just one example.
The next scene features Nurse Ogawa in sickbay. In contrast to how Taurik and Lavelle have, at best, complicated relationships with their superiors, she and Dr Crusher are on much more friendly terms. To the audience this undoubtedly makes sense – Ogawa is a character we’re much more familiar with as by this point in The Next Generation’s run she’s already made thirteen appearances going back over three years; she’s a character we’ve seen in sickbay often, and her relationship with Dr Crusher has been touched on previously. Ogawa is being recommended for a promotion to lieutenant – if only it were that easy for Sito and Lavelle!
Dr Crusher uses Ogawa’s first name – Alyssa – and they talk about her personal life and who she’s dating. Ogawa treats her as a friend, and I loved this dynamic.
The ship drops out of warp, and back in Ten-Forward, Sito is talking to Worf about her brief stint manning the ops console. Worf is the one who recommended Sito for the position – and on the other side of the room, Taurik, Lavelle, and Ben the waiter are looking on. Ben is on first-name terms with Commander Riker, much to the shock of Lavelle. Taurik and Ben convince him to strike up a conversation with his commander, as getting to know him on a personal level might improve their relationship.
What follows has to be one of the best scenes in the episode. Lavelle makes a truly cringeworthy attempt to talk to Riker, mistakenly believing him to be from Canada when he’s in fact from Alaska, and generally making a fool of himself in a moment that I certainly could relate to – and I’m sure lots of people who’ve made conversational missteps can too! As mentioned, Lavelle could have come across as a kind of selfish and egotistical glory hunter, chasing his own promotion and ignoring his friends if the character had been less-well written. But this moment, and the other with Sito on the bridge, go a long way to humanising him and making him relatable.
Though Lavelle doesn’t see it, as he excuses himself and slinks away, there seemed to be a moment of hope for his cause at the very end; despite everything, Riker was at least amused by the conversation and smiled to himself.
The Enterprise-D is holding position 5,000km from the Cardassian border – which is practically a stone’s throw when dealing with the vastness of space. Captain Picard is concerned, seemingly waiting for a ship to arrive, when Worf detects a small object that could be an escape pod. The pod is 50,000km inside Cardassian territory, and the captain wonders aloud how it will be possible to retrieve it. The only one of the ensigns present on the bridge in this moment is Lavelle, and from this point on the episode begins to split the characters up for important events.
I love this setup – each of the characters, as the episode progresses, will learn part of what’s going on, but it won’t be until the very end that they can put all the pieces together and establish the whole story. This is what really gives the episode its unique feel; following the junior officers who don’t know everything that’s happening but must carry out their orders regardless.
In engineering, Taurik and La Forge work to increase the effectiveness of the transporter to be able to beam the individual from the life support pod onto the ship. I have to confess at this point that I feel that 50,000km seems like a very limited range for the transporter. I wouldn’t like to say with certainty, because Star Trek in general can be vague with things like distances in the few instances where we get specifics, but I’m reasonably sure we’ve seen the transporter used over greater distances before with no issues.
Interestingly, and continuing the theme of the junior officers not knowing the full story, La Forge orders Taurik not to scan the life pod’s occupant to determine his or her species. Again – this seems like something that might be helpful or even necessary for using the transporter, but Star Trek’s technology is vague enough that it can be made to fit circumstances like this!
In sickbay, Ogawa helps Dr Crusher prepare for the arrival of the mysterious figure, but when they’re ready Crusher orders her to leave the room. In the hallway she meets Sito, who has been posted at the entrance to sickbay in her capacity as a security officer. They wonder aloud what’s going on; Sito isn’t letting anyone but the senior officers inside. As Ogawa departs, Captain Picard arrives and seems to briefly hesitate when greeting Sito.
Lavelle asks Riker on the bridge if he can work another shift; he says he needs the extra training, but Riker tells him it’s a bad time. Captain Picard leaves sickbay and orders Sito to accompany him. En route, he asks her if she’s a qualified pilot, and in his ready-room queries her past record from the Academy – the events of the Season 4 episode The First Duty. In that episode, Sito, Wesley Crusher and a couple of other cadets were involved in a plot to cover up the death of a fellow cadet who died during an illegal flying manoeuvre. Sito defends herself to the captain, and defends her record and her character.
We see Picard being far more harsh than usual, and something definitely seems “off”. Picard has always believed in telling the truth, as indeed we saw in the episode in question. But he’s also a believer in second chances; Sito would never have been allowed aboard the Enterprise-D without his permission, so his words seem overly critical and perhaps even unfair.
In one of the shuttlebays, Taurik is using some kind of beam on a shuttlecraft. It wasn’t obvious at first, at least not to me, but it’s revealed in short order that he is in fact firing a phaser rifle at it, “intentionally damaging” it as he puts it. La Forge tells him it’s a requirement to test shuttles in this manner from time to time, but like Taurik, the audience is just as surprised at such an odd regulation!
Taurik cottons on pretty quickly – La Forge is making it seem as though the shuttle was escaping an attack. He tells the junior officer it’s a coincidence – but both of them know that the other knows the truth. The way Taurik is presented is very much in line with other Vulcans – he’s very clever, but also not at all subtle about concealing the fact. Instead of keeping to himself what he knows about the work he’s doing on the shuttle, he shows off to La Forge that he’s figured it out – in spite of the fact that it could potentially cause problems for him.
In sickbay, Dr Crusher swears Ogawa to secrecy before revealing their patient – a comatose Cardassian! It couldn’t be anyone else this close to Cardassian space, right? The seventh season of The Next Generation was running concurrently with Deep Space Nine’s second season – in fact, the day before Lower Decks premiered, the 14th episode of Season 2 had aired. So by this point in the history of Star Trek, the Cardassians have taken shape as a significant antagonist faction.
The junior officers – and Ben – are playing poker while off-duty in the next scene, and of course conversation turns to why they are where they are and what might be happening. Sito is of course upset because of her conversation with Picard. Playing poker has been a hobby of the Enterprise-D’s crew for the whole run of the series, and giving the junior officers the same hobby ties the two groups together neatly (if somewhat transparently).
The scene is juxtaposed with the senior officers’ poker game – where the topics of conversation are the junior officers! Riker disagrees with Worf recommending Sito for the role at ops, and Dr Crusher has spotted Ogawa’s boyfriend talking to someone else in Ten-Forward. The scenes jump between the two poker games in what is a pretty clever sequence.
I once again liked Lavelle’s conversation with Sito – despite wanting the promotion for himself, he reassures her when she’s feeling low after her dressing-down from Picard, strongly emphasising their friendship is what matters most to him. The poker games draw a comparison between Lavelle and Riker, something which Troi also picks up on, to Riker’s annoyance. Riker wins his hand, but Lavelle loses; he was bluffing. Perhaps that says something about the positions the two men are in?
As several people depart each poker game, La Forge arrives at Taurik and Lavelle’s quarters to summon Taurik to engineering.
Ben is the only character who’s able to flit between the two groups – and as Lavelle retires to bed, he joins the senior officers’ poker game. The next day, Worf springs a surprise test on Sito in her martial arts class – he claims it’s a Klingon ritual that the test must be unannounced. He blindfolds her and proceeds to beat her several times in a row.
Sito eventually protests; removing the blindfold she declares is isn’t a fair test. Worf tells her that she has passed – the test was not about defeating him while blindfolded, but about standing up for herself. Combined with what she’s just been through with Picard, the sense that the senior officers are all testing her is starting to build!
Inspired by the lesson from Worf, Sito heads straight to Captain Picard’s ready-room to respond to what he had told her earlier. Standing up for herself, she insists that if he won’t judge her fairly, she wants to be transferred to another ship.
Captain Picard wasn’t being unfair or unduly hard on Sito for no reason. As we suspected, he had an ulterior motive. The ops position will have to wait; Sito is being assessed to see if she’s capable of being given a very dangerous assignment – she’ll learn the details at a briefing with the senior officers. I’m glad that Captain Picard had a proper reason for treating her the way he had earlier; it seemed to run very much against his character and it needed an explanation!
A brief scene in sickbay sees Ogawa telling Dr Crusher that her boyfriend had proposed – Dr Crusher had been seconds away from telling her about seeing him with another woman! The action then cuts to Sito’s briefing. Captain Picard, Riker, and Worf are joined in the briefing room by the Cardassian from the escape pod. His name is Joret Dal, and he’s a Federation spy who brought them information about Cardassian military operations, and he now has to get home.
The mission sounds very dangerous – Sito is a bargaining chip to help Joret Dal cross the border, and when he makes it he’ll launch her home in an escape pod. The border is heavily militarised, and crossing it will almost certainly mean they’ll be intercepted by the Cardassian military. However, he believes that if he has a “prisoner”, it will make the crossing easier.
It isn’t clear how or why Joret Dal came to work with the Federation, but Sito readily agrees to the mission. Earlier, Captain Picard had told her he asked for her to be assigned to the Enterprise-D to she could have a chance to “redeem” herself after the incident at the Academy; I can’t help but feel she sees this mission as her shot at redemption.
Sito is ordered to report to sickbay, and to keep the mission secret from everyone – which of course includes her junior officer friends. Out of everyone present, it’s Worf who seems to be most concerned for her safety. Captain Picard didn’t order her to undertake the mission, but in a way, being in the room with the captain, first officer, and the Cardassian spy put her in a very uncomfortable position if she had wanted to refuse. Combined with what Captain Picard said earlier about redemption, there’s an element of psychological persuasion going on that isn’t acknowledged, but is definitely present. Despite the way it’s presented as being Sito’s choice, I confess I find the circumstances a little concerning. She wasn’t coerced, not exactly. But she was certainly placed very deliberately into a position where refusing the mission would have been very difficult.
As Sito departs, Worf looks very concerned. Joret Dal says “I didn’t realise she would be so young”, clearly foreshadowing what’s to come. At the damaged shuttle, Worf and La Forge are with Joret Dal. Sito arrives, having been made-up by Dr Crusher to look as though she had been hurt. Worf is even more alarmed at seeing her; he clearly cares deeply for her – in a platonic way, of course.
Sito expresses her thanks to Worf before departing aboard the shuttle – again, more foreshadowing and setting up what’s about to happen. After telling him she’ll see him soon, Worf is left to stand watching as the shuttle door closes, leaving her alone with Joret Dal and about to undertake the mission. Seeing a sensitive side to Worf may not be something I would’ve thought I’d have wanted to see, but it absolutely was. He was almost behaving like a father or older brother to Sito, building up her confidence and looking out for her. It’s a side of him that we don’t see often, despite him having a son of his own.
Aboard the shuttle, Joret Dal tells Sito he doesn’t consider himself a traitor for working with the Federation. He feels that the Cardassian military engages in too many pointless battles with the Federation, and no longer serves Cardassia properly. His motivation isn’t that of a spy, but of a patriot. His character, which doesn’t get much screen time and thus could have come across as wholly one-dimensional, ends up feeling very real and well-rounded in just this short scene.
Sito and Joret Dal share a moment – they both realise that they have at least over-generalised each other’s people. She never thought she’d see a Cardassian who was tired of war, and he never thought he’d meet a Bajoran who would help him. There are two strong moral lessons in these moments for us as the audience: war and international relations are far more complicated than it may ever seem, and it’s possible to misjudge someone on the basis of their background or even their race.
The scene ends when a computer alarm signals a patrol ship is moving in. Sito moves to the back of the shuttle where Joret Dal handcuffs her. She looks anxious as the mission approaches its most crucial phase.
In Ten-Forward, Lavelle, Taurik, Ogawa, and Ben are wondering where Sito has gone. Lavelle is convinced that she left aboard the shuttle, and he knows it was heading across the border. All four are concerned. Taurik has the most telling line: “we have to accept that we’re not told everything that happens aboard the ship.” Lavelle wants the three to share what they know, and is upset that Ogawa and Taurik can’t share what they know.
Thirty hours later, Sito hasn’t returned to the rendezvous point in her escape pod. On the bridge, Lavelle, Data, and Riker are attempting to locate the pod. Worf recommends launching a probe, and despite launching a cross-border probe being a violation of the treaty with the Cardassians, Captain Picard okays it.
The probe almost immediately detects debris – Data confirms it’s the right consistency to potentially be the escape pod. Later, the Enterprise-D intercepts a Cardassian message confirming they destroyed the pod, and that Sito was inside.
Captain Picard makes a statement to the crew via the intercom, letting them know that Sito has died. Taurik hears it at his post in engineering, Ogawa at hers in sickbay, and Lavelle at his station on the bridge. Ben was, sadly, omitted from this sequence. However, even now, even after seeing this episode so many times over the years, this moment packs an emotional punch. Captain Picard speaks about Sito in glowing terms, in sharp contrast to his first conversation with her, and her death clearly has a huge impact on her closest friends.
In Ten-Forward, Worf sits alone and doesn’t even acknowledge Ben, who has brought him a drink. Lavelle joins Taurik and Ogawa and reveals he’s been promoted to lieutenant, though he feels absolutely no joy in getting what he wanted at the beginning of the story. He’d trade it in a heartbeat to have Sito back.
Taurik, Ogawa, and Ben comfort him, telling him Sito would have been happy for him, and to honour her by performing his new role to the best of his ability. Ben talks to Worf, inviting him to join the others in mourning and remembering Sito, telling him that she considered him a friend, not just a superior officer. He joins Lavelle, Ogawa, Taurik, and Ben silently, and the episode ends as they prepare to remember their friend.
So that was it. The first Lower Decks. What started out as a story with an interesting premise turned into one of the emotional high points of the whole season. It’s a story which still has me tearing up a quarter of a century on, and despite the fact that we didn’t know Sito or her friends terribly well, the episode did a phenomenal job getting across their relationships, which were at the core of what made the story so emotional.
The new series may have its emotional moments too – we don’t know for sure yet, but many comedy shows have a balance between funny and emotional moments. I’m looking forward to seeing what Star Trek’s latest show, and first animated series in four decades, will have to offer, and it provided a great excuse to step back in time and re-watch the first Lower Decks.
If I were thinking of characters to bring back for a future iteration of Star Trek, the junior officers we met in Lower Decks would absolutely be contenders. I wonder if the new series will make any reference to them, or to the events of this episode. If it did, it would be a neat little tie-in between The Next Generation and the new Lower Decks.
It’s only a couple of days now, so I hope you’re ready! Check back here regularly while Lower Decks is on the air for episode reviews, theories, speculation, deep dives, and more.
Star Trek: Lower Decks begins on the 6th of August for viewers in the US and Canada. The Star Trek brand – including Lower Decks and The Next Generation – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.