Friday, February 26, 2016

TNG Flashback: Lower Decks

In my recent review of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sub Rosa," I noted that in being a Gothic romance, it was a big break in format for the series. Another huge break from format came in the very next episode, "Lower Decks."

Alyssa Ogawa, Sam Lavelle, Sito Jaxa, and Taurik are all junior officers aboard the Enterprise, jockeying for promotions and trying to get on the good side of their superiors. Along with their civilian friend Ben who works in Ten Forward, they're often left relying on gossip to piece together full details on the ship's assignments. But they're all about to get much closer to the center of the action than they ever have before.

This unusual episode puts the main characters in supporting roles as we follow the stories of five minor characters who, in a more traditional episode, would have little more to say than "aye, sir." Freelancers Ron Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias (who had previously sold the episode "Lessons") had an equally unusual way of pitching their premise, creating detailed character notes on the people they hoped to feature. Showrunner Jeri Taylor loved the idea, but unfortunately felt that production was under too tight a deadline to allow the freelancers to develop it themselves. So the actual script assignment fell to staff writer René Echevarria, who felt inspired, in the manner of the classic TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, to "show the downstairs."

There was reportedly some initial discussion over just how far to take the premise, but Michael Piller (running Deep Space Nine, and still involved with The Next Generation) really gave his blessing to go all the way. It has been his arrival on The Next Generation in the third season that heralded the era of storytelling always based in the main characters. And he agreed that for this episode, the main characters needed to step aside in favor of the guest stars.

The result was five characters so fully formed that rumors started among the fans that they'd been developed here to later star in the upcoming Star Trek: Voyager. (Jeri Taylor said this was flatly untrue, and that she was "just mystified as to why people thought that three middle-aged people – Rick [Berman], Michael [Piller], and myself – would ever create a series that had nothing but a bunch of young 90210 people on it.")

Of course, not all the characters were starting from zero. Nurse Ogawa had been appearing occasionally for several seasons, and here stands out as the one junior officer who actually has an easy and comfortable relationship with her superior. It's perhaps unfortunate from a Bechdel Test perspective that her conversations with Dr. Crusher in this episode center around doubts in her love life, but the scenes really do show that there's a friendship there (not just a strictly professional relationship). It also serves as a reminder that while the main characters may stay steadfastly single for narrative purposes, there are people on the Enterprise falling in love and starting families.

Sito Jaxa is also a returning character, after first showing up as a misguided cadet in "The First Duty." She winds up being the real focus of this episode, in a role that stirs up a wide range of emotions. She's dressed down by Captain Picard in a palpably uncomfortable one-on-one. She recovers her own self worth and stands up to both him and Worf. (Actress Shannon Fill holds her own in these scenes, with both Michael Dorn and Patrick Stewart.) Sito sets aside prejudice by working with a Cardassian. And then, in a truly bold ending, she is killed in the mission for which she volunteered. In just 40 minutes, we go from hardly knowing her to being profoundly moved by her death.

Sam Lavelle is deliberately a young Will Riker type, a recognizable character you can empathize with as he frets over whether his boss likes him. The script does a great job juxtaposing the similarities in the two characters, particularly during the poker game. And the performance by actor Dan Gauthier is pitch perfect; at one point, he even performs the "Riker maneuver," sitting in a chair by stepping over its arms and back and plopping down on it.

Taurik is hardly the first Vulcan on The Next Generation, but he really is the first new one we spend any significant amount of time with. In a combination of script and performance, actor Alexander Enberg serves up a take on classic Spock that is familiar but also welcome. You get that this Vulcan is repressing emotion, not that he's without emotion. You can't help but feel that deep down, he's stifling a brief burst of pleasure when he goads Lavelle or LaForge. Enberg definitely studied Leonard Nimoy for this performance. (And reportedly earned the part on his own; though he is the son of showrunner Jeri Taylor, the different last names kept this fact mostly secret, and Taylor didn't help lobby for him.)

The character of Ben was an addition by René Echevarria to put a civilian element in the mix. He says he never gave any thought to putting Guinan in this role of "Ten Forward bartender who bridges the gap between junior and senior officers," though it's easy to imagine it could have been intended that way but for Whoopi Goldberg's lack of availability. One difference that Ben clearly offers is a carefree attitude. Unlike Guinan (and more importantly, the other four guest characters), he clearly doesn't worry about what goes on in any given episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's hitchhiking around the universe and seeing the sights. It's quite a different thing for Star Trek to show us a character who's there mostly for kicks, adding something to both the episode and the universe overall.

But great as these five characters are, and commendable as it is for the episode to give them room to develop, the episode really shines because it doesn't completely sideline the main characters. Instead, it leverages our knowledge of them at every step of the way to support this tale of the newbies. We know Riker probably doesn't have it out for Lavelle, because that's not his way. But we also know that maybe, just a little bit, he does -- because Troi needles him about it. We know what it takes to earn the respect of Worf and Picard, so the fact that Sito does speaks volumes. We know the depth of that respect, because when Picard orders a probe launched in explicit violation of a treaty, we know that's an action he'd never take lightly. Essentially it's not just five characters being given great scenes in this juggling act of an episode, it's eleven. Among the main characters, only Data doesn't get a notable scene (understandably). And Worf and Picard in particular get quite powerful ones.

And I think it can't be a coincidence that this tale of marginalized people getting a chance to shine soars as it does under a female director. Gabrielle Beaumont had directed previous episodes of The Next Generation, but unless I'm mistaken was at the time of this episode still the only female director to work on any incarnation of Star Trek. To this day, over 20 years later, there still aren't a lot of women directing in Hollywood, and fewer still getting any kind of acclaim for it. I don't know Beaumont's personal history, but it sure feels like she brought to this episode an understanding of what it is to be on the outside looking in.

Other observations:
  • Another great way this script uses our knowledge of the main characters is when bad information is given to Lavelle. The moment Ben tells him that Riker is Canadian, fans are already thinking, "uh oh."
  • You could argue that there's even a twelfth character who gets a good scene in this episode. Joret Dal doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he's nicely nuanced compared to the Cardassians we usually meet.
  • I praised the boldness of killing Sito Jaxa in this episode, but that didn't come easily. Apparently, early drafts were more ambiguous on this point, until Michael Piller argued: "Absolutely not, she's dead. She stays dead. [Not killing her] would undermine the whole episode." Yet when he saw the finished episode, he was so moved that he changed his tune to: "We can't let her stay dead. We've got to bring her back. She was wonderful."
  • To that end, an episode for Deep Space Nine began development that would have revealed Sito was not killed in action, but had instead been captured and imprisoned by the Cardassians. The idea never really got off the ground, though pieces of it eventually came together for the episode "Hard Time" (which put perennial punching bag Miles O'Brien in a similar predicament).
  • Taurik also made an impression on the writers, and was apparently considered as a recurring character. With the series just half a season from the end, there was never really time for this. Alexander Enberg would return, however, to play another Vulcan on Star Trek: Voyager. Some joked that this character -- Vorik -- was perhaps the twin brother of Taurik.
  • The "Lower Decks trope" is often said to have originated here, with many other television dramas subsequently making one-off episodes to feature minor characters instead of the main cast. In some cases, this wasn't just an homage, but a case of Star Trek writers moving to other shows and reusing an idea that had worked once before. CSI, for example, did an episode about the "Lab Rats"; Naren Shankar was a staff writer on both series.
I'm simply stunned at how effectively this episode takes a group of characters who were near- or total strangers at the start and leaves us profoundly moved by them at the end. "Lower Decks" is a highlight not only of the final season, but of the entire series. I give it an A.

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