Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Episode Review - Lower Decks (Next Generation, Season 7)

For those who are new to my episode reviews, you can find the post where I establish my point criteria here

Overview – A group of junior officers deal with life on the Enterprise, wrestling with the day-to-day issues such as promotions and social lives. Among them are young career-driven Sam Lavelle, Vulcan engineer Taurik, Bajoran Sito Jaxa, and Nurse Alyssa Ogawa, as well as civilian waiter Ben. Ensigns Sito and Lavelle believe they are up for the same promotion, Taurik is eager to discuss new warp field configurations with La Forge, and Ogawa discusses her romantic life with Doctor Crusher. As the story unfolds, a dangerous mission is assigned to Ensign Sito, and her friends are slowly brought into the mission and its risks.

Score: 9/10 – This is one of those cool idea episodes that shakes up the status quo of the stories, and it succeeds on many levels. For almost seven years we have seen the same basic premise over and over as the senior crew/main characters are given a mission or a problem and they must work together to accomplish their task. In “Lower Decks”, the tables are turned a bit as we focus the narrative from the perspective of a group of junior officers instead. It gives us a refreshing look into live aboard the Enterprise. While we were already familiar with Nurse Ogawa and had a brief introduction to Sito a few years ago as one of Wesley Crusher’s squad members in “The First Duty”, they get some much-appreciated development here. Taurik, Lavelle, and Ben are new characters that round out the group, but they are so well developed by the writing and acting that they seem familiar. In fact, each member of the group serves as a foil to one of the senior officers. Lavelle is obvious as a young Riker-type. Taurik’s logical eagerness is enough to rub Geordi a little bit as an annoyance, Ogawa has always been Beverly’s right-hand nurse in sickbay, and Sito matches up nicely with Worf. Even Ben acts as a barometer for the group, much like Troi does for the main cast. While the action is limited in this episode, it is the characters that drive this story, and that is what makes this episode work so well. Ensign Taurik and Ben seemed to really hit it off with the fans, and rumors that they would return if TNG had gone onto an eighth season ran rampant. While Lavelle’s eagerness to get a promotion tries to take the spotlight and shine it on him, it is Ensign Sito’s road to redemption tale that truly ensnares us and the crew. This is a fitting tie-in to the immensely popular “The First Duty” that gives one of the cadets who were a part of the cover up a chance to fill us in on how life was like for those four. It would have been an obvious choice to have Wesley serve that role, so to have the almost unfamiliar Sito in this spot is a nice switch. When Sito is offered the mission to pose as a Bajoran hostage to a Cardassian who is a Federation operative, we cheered. When it was reported that she was killed on the mission, we wept. The writers of this story successfully gave us a character that had made some big mistakes return and redeem herself in the eyes of the fans. Her loss was felt keenly by the fans, showing the strength of this episode. The only lament I have about this episode is that, with the sole exception of the already established Ogawa, we do not see these characters again. I think I would have been fine without Lavelle, but it would have been fun to have Ben in Ten Forward again. Alexander Enberg, who played Taurik, would go onto to appear as another Vulcan engineer named Vorik on Voyager. I really would have liked it to be Taurik on Voyager, but they wanted a “new character”. Fan theories (and one of producer Jeri Taylor) suggest the two are twins. Most of all, I think the ambiguity around Sito’s death (they never actually found a body) could have led to her character’s return in a later episode, or even DS9. Oh, what might have been.

Relevance - 2 points. A point is scored for the continuation of the tale that began in “The First Duty”. It is tragic, but it does show us that the cadets who continued in the academy had a difficult journey, but Sito was ultimately able to earn her redemption. Another point is scored for the engagement of Alyssa Ogawa, which would lead to her becoming pregnant. This would be an important plot element in a later episode, “Genesis”.

Continuity - 2 points. Character continuity works, although at first I thought that Picard was much to harsh with Ensign Sito. As it turns out, his harshness was a test for the young woman, and that fits well with her character. Universe continuity works out as well. Where I had to take a point away was in story continuity. Sito Jaxa states that the events of “The First Duty” happened three years ago, when they had actually happened only two years prior to these events. I understand why the writers fudged the numbers a bit, as it allowed them to have Sito as a full ensign who had spent several months aboard the Enterprise after having to redo a full year at the academy and graduate. This was a good character that came to mean a lot to us, and other than Wesley this would not have worked with anyone else. So while I understand the reason they fudged the years to make the story work, it still costs them a point.

Character Development – 2 points. This story focusses on the junior officers, so the senior officers need to be treated with a lighter brush than usual or it defeats the entire premise. Still we get some interesting insight into a few of the regulars. Riker sees too much of himself in Lavelle, and shows that he is again at odds with that. Beverly’s friendship with Alyssa is deepened as they discuss the upcoming promotion and wedding for our favourite sickbay nurse. Worf has taken Sito under his wing and goes out of his way to help her make some important realizations about herself. It is Picard, however, that stands out the most to me, though his scenes are much more limited. His test for Sito, followed by his revelation that he specifically requested her to serve aboard the Enterprise to give her a second chance causes him to shine as a leader. Her subsequent death struck a deep chord with Picard, and not since the death of Tasha Yar have we seen the death of a crewmate hurt the captain so keenly.

Social Commentary – 3 points. This episode was such fun as it showed us a new perspective that often gets overlooked. The supporting players rarely get any recognition in many of the TV series and movies these days, so when it does happen, it almost makes us feel like this is a story about us. There is also the redemption angle that can appeal to us. Sito’s journey becomes about as much as anything else touched on in this story. There is also the grief of losing a valued colleague and friend. It doesn’t matter if you are the senior officer or the lowly ensign, you are connected by these moments of loss and suffering, which is shown effectively as Worf joins Sito’s friends in Ten Forward to honor her memory.

Cool Stuff – 2 points. OK, so there are no special effects that are out of this world appear. There are no new aliens or technology. A lot of what we see is familiar. The cool stuff is about the characters and the story. First, a point for mixing things up a bit and making this about a bunch of nobody junior officers instead of the main cast. That was cool. Second, a point is scored for the characters themselves. They were brilliantly cast, perfectly developed in the writing, and wonderfully performed by the actors. If TNG had gone on for at least one more season, it would not have been hard for the fans to see some of them again. You don’t need fancy sets or costumes to give us cool stuff, and this proves it.

Rank – Captain (20 points). Missed Admiral by one point! Oh well, it is still a delightful episode that mixed things up just enough to be memorable. One of the final season’s finest episodes, and also appears on my Top Ten Favourite TNG Episodes list. 

If you would like to read other reviews from the Next Generation, click this link.

If you would like to read an episode review from any of the Trek series, click the following link to get to the series catalog. If the episode you want reviewed has not been done yet, then feel free to request it in the comments and I will see what I can do. 

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