TNG’s ‘Lower Decks’ Episode Is a Perfect Peek Behind Star Trek’s Curtains

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Before there was Boimler, Mariner, Tendi, and Rutherford, there was Lavelle, Jaxa, Ogawa, and Taurik.

Before there was Boimler, Mariner, Tendi, and Rutherford, there was Lavelle, Jaxa, Ogawa, and Taurik.Screenshot: CBS

This week, Star Trek returns to the world of animation with Lower Decks, a new series dedicated to the motley officers who make up the bottom rungs of Starfleet’s finest. It’s a chance to goof on the series at large from the perspective of its unsung heroes—but going back to The Next Generation episode that inspired it has us hoping the new show doesn’t forget what made the idea so compelling in the first place.

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Revisiting The Next Generation’s seventh season to see “Lower Decks” in the wake of, well, Lower Decks, is in equal parts surprising and re-affirming. In some ways, it almost feels like we’ve retconned “Lower Decks” into an altogether different beast over the years—a tale of scrappy underdogs where we focus on what they’re up instead of following the usual bridge crew, a nice break from the typical Star Trek action—in a way that such an idea being turned into an animated comedy from a Rick and Morty alumni makes a semblance of sense. But “Lower Decks” isn’t… really that memory we have of it?

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The tone is, of course, still TNG, and is in fact arguably bleaker than your average episode. For all the foofaraw that the officers—Bajoran Security Ensign Jaxa (Shannon Fill), Vulcan Engineering Ensign Taurik (Alexander Enberg), and two humans, Medical Ensign Ogawa (Patti Yasutake) and Command Ensign Lavelle (Dan Gauthier)—are the ostensible protagonists, the main cast of TNG still has a prominent presence throughout, and arguably drives it more than the ensigns do, sweeping them up in a tale of Cardassian subterfuge. We don’t really learn much about their lives outside of some fleeting nods to Nurse Ogawa’s (potentially disloyal) partner, or the necessary background of Jaxa’s academy history to make the culmination of her arc as tragic as it is. And what we do learn is in service of the dilemmas our usual bridge crew stars go through, rather than because we’re actually getting to know these “lower deckers.”

Riker doesn’t like the cut of Sam’s jib.

Riker doesn’t like the cut of Sam’s jib.Screenshot: CBS

There are some elements we can see that have parallels to the upcoming show beyond a shared name, of course. In Ensign Lavelle—increasingly anxious over whether or not his clumsy relationship with Commander Riker is going to cost him a promotion to Ops for much of the episode—you have a parallel to Lower Decks’ Boimler, the by-the-books Starfleet diehard who’s just achingly desperate to rise through the ranks and be like the people he admires so much. But “Lower Decks” also really nails the hierarchical disparity between this group of ensigns and the people in command of them.

Much of that is the intent of the story, of course—the audience, just like our ensign “stars,” is meant to be in the dark on just what seemingly top-secret mission the bridge officers are working on, and expected to just shut up, not say a word, and do as they’re told. But the episode also captures the smart dynamics of power the officers have in their relationship with these ensigns in fascinating ways. With Jaxa, you have Worf and Captain Picard alike using their status to test her, albeit for what they see as noble reasons—to consider using her Bajoran heritage to aid a secret liaison with a Cardassian double-agent—but they’re initially presented as almost uncharacteristically cruel attitudes, especially Picard’s dressing down of her for a past mistake in Starfleet Academy.

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Picard may have noble intentions behind grilling Sito, but it’s still a stark reminder of the power of his position.

Picard may have noble intentions behind grilling Sito, but it’s still a stark reminder of the power of his position.Screenshot: CBS

With Lavelle and Taurik, you have Riker and LaForge respectively alienating their desire to please their commanders with a sense of curious insincerity (Riker especially holding Lavelle to double standards, as Troi points out to him over poker). Even Ogawa and Dr. Crusher have a strange power imbalance, as the latter, upon hearing gossip that Ogawa’s partner had been spotted on the ship potentially flirting with another crewmember, contemplates using her position as Ogawa’s senior to pry into the relationship (one that turns out is actually healthy—Ogawa reveals her boyfriend’s marriage proposal just before Crusher has a chance to ruin it!).

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And yet, for all that distance, “Lower Decks” also crucially shows us that these ensigns are not all that different from our TNG heroes. The fact that they also happen to have a poker night is a little chintzy, sure—even if at one point it makes for an excellently cut scene that deftly weaves between the conversations and card games of these two disparate groups—but what matters most to the story is how the ensigns are thematically connected to the main crew: why they’re in Starfleet in the first place and that deep down, they all just really love what they do.

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Geordi’s just as excited to geek out over new warp modulation theories as Vaurik is. As Troi playfully needles Riker over poker, Lavelle’s eagerness to please him is just like a younger Will in his own path to commander. Ogawa’s not just a nurse that Crusher trusts, but a friend, close enough for her to confide not just her excitement about promotion in the next crew evaluation, but her own doubts about her personal relationships. Sure they may not be as comedically misfit as the crew we’re about to meet in the animated Lower Decks, but the through line is there: these people, ensigns and bridge officers alike, have an earnest sincerity about how much they enjoy Starfleet.

See? They’re just like those guys you like so much.

See? They’re just like those guys you like so much.Screenshot: CBS

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Which brings us to Jaxa’s tragedy—her earnestness and pride in what she’s achieved aboard the Enterprise, compounded by the accident in her time at the academy that Picard rails her over in his “test” is what anchors the whole episode. It’s what brings heartbreak when, after having proven herself not just to Worf (who in turn is proud to recommend her for promotion and for the mission with the Cardassian operative) but to her captain and earned their trusts, she is sadly killed in action when the mission goes sour. It’s emblematic of the passion her fellow ensigns feel for what they do across the episode. That they all cared and believed in what they were doing is why Jaxa is so willing to risk her life taking on the mission in the first place. Worf and Jaxa’s friends ultimately realize that passion as they separately mourn her, only to then choose to bond over that memory of her in Ten Forward as the episode ends. In the end, that’s what “Lower Decks” is about, that earnest, sincere passion for what these people do, even when it’s bittersweet.

In grief, Worf crosses the divide between bridge officer and humble ensign.

In grief, Worf crosses the divide between bridge officer and humble ensign.Screenshot: CBS

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We already know Lower Decks the animated series is bringing something new to the table compared to the episode that inspired it. Its zany humor, riffing on all the things we love to riff on as Trek fans, is in stark contrast to its namesake’s ultimately somber tone. But if beyond that humor Lower Decks can capture what makes “Lower Decks” so compelling after all these years—and express that earnest passion for what Starfleet is to these people with a heart that’s already clear in its self-aware jokes—we’re in for a treat. It’ll be that heart that’ll make us care as much about this particular next generation of ensigns as much as we did the quartet we first met 26 years ago.

Lower Decks is set to premiere this Thursday, August 6 on CBS All Access, where you can also conveniently find this and all the other TNG episodes.

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