“Lower Decks” (season 7, episode 15; first aired: Feb. 5, 1994)
Or The One Where The Extras Have Lines
Supposedly, there are hundreds of people aboard the Enterprise. We hear this referenced every now and again, whenever someone in command is struggling with the weight of his or her responsibility, or if Picard is trying to convey how it would be very bad indeed if his ship were to blow up. The existence of those hundreds is a statistic I’ve internalized, about as much as it’s possible to internalize a statistic, but even with all the extras flitting through the corridors and occasionally paying the ultimate price in the name of planet-jumping, it’s easy to forget that the seven or eight members of the ensemble we see on a semi-weekly basis aren’t the only ones on the ship. Admittedly, yes, there is no real “ship” here, because this is all a fictional construct. We see the scenes we see, and there’s nothing actually going on around them, which means, for all intents and purposes, there really are only seven or eight people on this show, surrounded by a small cast of rotating extras. And yet TNG is a world-building show, so even if those hundreds and hundreds puttering about on the lower decks (episode title!) don’t have an actual presence, we need to believe they’re there.
This can be tricky to pull off, but I think the series has managed well enough. It helps to have a fairly deep ensemble, and TNG has made an effort to fill in the background with occasional details that imply a larger context. Like, say, the crew evaluation chat between Riker and Troi that begins “Lower Decks.” We’ve had scenes like this before, and it’s always fascinating to me how much they show that the chummy, we’re-all-hanging-out-for-the-greater-good relationship that much of the senior staff share isn’t something that necessarily trickles down to everyone else. The not-so-senior members of the crew are friendly with each other, but they are also, for the most part, stressed and worried about their jobs. With the show’s regulars, career concerns arise from time to time, but these are people who are largely confident in their roles. No one is tensely angling for a promotion, like Sam and Sito are at the start of “Decks.” It’s not that Worf expects to be chief of security for the rest of his life, but it’s a good gig; he’s proven his competence, and in a few years, he’ll presumably have a chance for a higher rank. Just like Riker will, if he ever decides he’s ready, have that captaincy.
It’s different when you’re just starting out, though. Confidence takes time to develop, and that time can be stressful, unsettling, and downright unpleasant. “Decks” gives us a glimpse into the lives of young men and women who are trying to prove to themselves and each other that they belong on the Enterprise. There’s Sam Lavelle, a human overachiever convinced that Riker has a grudge against him; Taurik, a Vulcan working in Engineering who's having a hard time bonding with Geordi La Forge; the human Nurse Alyssa Ogawa, who we’ve seen before (and who, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem all that stressed about her job, given her friendship with Beverly Crusher); and last, and most importantly, the Bajroan Sito Jaxa, who we last saw in “The First Duty.” (There’s also Ben, a waiter in Ten Forward, but he doesn’t do a whole lot.) None of these characters have the range of movement and freedom we’ve come to take for granted following the main ensemble, and the episode by and large plays fair with this restriction; we have the luxury of following the entire group, but we’re rarely privy to any information that none of them are privy to (beyond, of course, our own accumulated knowledge from watching the series as a whole), which is always fun. Withholding key pieces of plot until the last minute is a key part of storytelling, but usually, we don’t know what we don’t know because Picard and the others don’t know it either. Here, what would be the main storyline takes place behind the scenes till roughly the finally third of the show. Again, this is fun, because it’s a change of pace, and it also is a nice bit of world-building because you can extrapolate outward from this episode to every other episode of the series. For most of the crew of the Enterprise, every mission is like this.
All that really happens here is that Joret Dal, a Cardassian working as a double agent for the Federation gets in a bit of trouble, and has to use the escape pod on his ship. The Enterprise picks him up and, in order to get him back into Cardassian territory, they provide him with a pre-distressed shuttle to support a story that he escaped from Starfleet’s clutches. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough of a cover, so Picard asks Ensign Sito to accompany Dal as his prisoner. Once he passes a checkpoint and uses her as proof of his loyalty, he can then eject her back into Federation space with another escape pod. It’s a difficult, dangerous plan, and it doesn’t turn out well for Sito, but this alone isn’t enough to support an entire episode.
What makes “Decks” work as well as it does is that Joret Dal’s storyline isn’t the episode’s only focus. It’s background noise for much of the hour; mysterious and curiosity-inducing background noise, but Sam’s insecurity, Taurik’s efforts to impress Geordi, and Alyssa’s relationship concerns are nearly as loud. (Well, maybe not Alyssa’s problems. She’s not a terrible character, but it’s hard to get too worked up about her getting engaged to someone we never see.) Sito is arguably the main character of the episode, but her mission with Dal, and the ultimate result of that mission, don’t really happen till near the end. Before then, she’s more confident than Sam, but still dealing with her own demons; namely, the incident at Starfleet Academy that nearly ended her career. When she, along with a few other cadets (including Wesley Crusher) attempted to cover up the fact that their risky flight maneuver cost another cadet his life, Picard realized what had happened, and forced them to come clean. Now Sito is working on the Enterprise, and Worf has put her in line for a big promotion—except it seems that Picard is still holding a bit of a grudge. He asks her into his ready room, only to rant at her about how he believes she should’ve been kicked out of Starfleet completely. Things look bad, but then Worf calls Sito aside and challenges her to a combat test in which the only way to win is to call attention to the unfairness of the test. It’s almost like he’s trying to teach her some kind of lesson…
“Lower Decks” does a good job at establishing the on-going dynamic between the senior bridge crew and the up-and-comers, a dynamic that is by turns paternal, challenging, and even occasionally irritated. (Riker, as is consistent with his character, isn’t a huge fan of some of the more mundane aspects of command.) There’s nothing hugely dramatic about most of this, which helps give it the sense of activity that serves as an undercurrent through all of the ship’s daily routines. Sam realizes he may need to lighten up a bit after a disastrous attempt to bond with Riker in Ten Forward, but the two of them don’t have to face a life-or-death struggle, and there’s no sense that Sam is going to suddenly relax and have all his problems resolved for the rest of his time on the ship. Taurik learns that maybe trying to show off isn’t the best way to ingratiate himself with his boss, but Geordi also comes around on being so standoffish, which is neat. And Alyssa’s boyfriend isn’t cheating on her, but is, in fact, getting ready to propose. Which he does offscreen, which is probably the nicest part about her story.
As for Sito, Picard’s attempts to browbeat her into demonstrating a spine pay off, eventually. That must be the most difficult lesson to teach: that sooner or later, lessons aren’t enough. With a slight push from Worf, Sito gains the necessary self-confidence to meet with Picard again and tell him that either he acknowledge that she’s done good work in the three years since her Academy disgrace, or else transfer her to another ship. This being what Picard was really waiting for all along, Sito’s speech gets her a chance at her first big-time, life-or-death mission. She accepts willingly. And then she dies. Her death is fairly shocking. It happens offscreen, and the crew only learns about it when they find the remains of an escape pod, and learn that the Cardassians are taking credit for killing a fleeing Bajoran. Sito isn’t a regular, of course, and TNG hasn’t shied away from sad endings before, but in her short amount of screentime, she was likable, passionate, and smart. She got what she wanted: a chance to be taken seriously, to prove her worth, and to finally put the stigma of her past misdeed permanently behind her. That she dies for it is less a matter of paying a price, and more a matter of the consequences of committing to the life she chose, that nearly everyone on board the Enterprise has chosen. And it leads to one of the most moving scenes in the history of the show, as Worf, dealing with his own grief over Sito’s loss, joins the rest of her friends to share in their grief. TNG isn’t a grim series by any marker, but its willingness to embrace the fact that no utopian future can completely forestall tragedy makes it a better show. And by presenting us with a slightly different perspective on that tragedy, it shows itself still capable of telling vital, enriching stories in its final season.
- It seems like every time we’ve seen Geordi in the past few weeks, he’s been in a bad mood about something.
- I’m not sure that learning to point out the unfairness of a test is all that great a lesson. Isn’t part of growing up realizing that most tests are unfair, and that you have to take them anyway?
- I don’t think I’d ever want to be an officer onboard the Enterprise.
- Sito’s conversation with Dal, right before they get picked up by the Cardassian authorities, is a nice bonding moment. Which makes the revelation of her death a few minutes later even harsher.
- No joke: the last scene with Worf made me tear up a little.
“Thine Own Self” (season 7, episode 16; first aired: Feb. 12, 1994)
Or The One Where Data Loses His Mind, And Troi Gets Testy
TNG has managed to creep me out before, both intentionally and unintentionally. I’ve been frightened by bizarre, nightmare-inducing aliens; I’ve been made uncomfortable by Data’s behavior; and I’ve been horrified by Lwaxana Troi’s laugh. But I don’t think I’ve been as viscerally unsettled watching the show as I was during “Thine Own Self.” This is an odd episode, although its basic structure—memory loss, stranger in a strange land, outsiders fear what they don’t understand—is familiar to the series, and to science fiction in general. What makes “Thine Own Self” odd is in the margins. Like the subplot with Troi becoming a commander. Or the fact that by the end of the episode, Data has half the face of his skin ripped off, gets stabbed through the chest with an iron rod, and then buried underground by a group of somewhat guilty townsfolk. Or, and here’s the bit that really got to me, the sight of ignorant people casually handling radioactive material. One little girl actually wears a piece of the metal as a necklace.
“Thine Own Self” doesn’t have the coherency of an episode like “Lower Decks,” but it nearly makes up for this by telling a pair of entertaining, clever vignettes, the first centering on Data encountering difficulties during a fairly routine recovery mission, the second detailing Troi’s attempts to pass the Engineering portion of the commanding-officer test. Data’s story, which gives the episode its title (you could make an argument that Troi is also being true to her self by following her ambition, but Data’s the one who loses his memory), is the main plot, but Troi’s is actually one of the best storylines the character has ever had, allowing her to operate in realms beyond the usual spheres of sensing and something. Neither of these plots connect, really, and while I appreciate that the show doesn’t try and force thematic resonance where none exists, that lack of connection does make the episode feel a little less than whole. Plus, Data’s adventures in Vaguely Renaissance Land come just a hair or two shy of entirely working. Overall, though, this was a solid “B+” of an episode; not a classic, and probably not to all tastes, but just loopy enough to keep me guessing.
When “Thine Own Self” begins, Troi is returning to the Enterprise after a school reunion. She finds Beverly on the bridge, and in the course of their short conversation, Troi learns that Data is off on Barkon-4, a planet with a pre-industrial society. A ship bearing radioactive materials crashed on the planet in an unpopulated area, and since radiation doesn’t affect Data the way it affects organic life, he’s been sent on a solo mission to clean up the crash. Troi also questions Beverly as to what prompts her to volunteer to captain the ship during the night shift, and while Beverly’s answer is a good one (because really, if you had the chance to, wouldn’t you want to captain a starship?), it’s clear that Troi has already got the proverbial bee in her bonnet. Going to her reunion and seeing what her friends have accomplished may have jumpstarted her ambition, but what really got her going on this was back in season five’s “Disaster,” when Troi briefly commanded the Enterprise during a, well, disaster. She’s ready for the next step, but taking that step isn’t as just as easy as wanting to.
It’s at this point that our stories split neatly in two. When we first see Data on Barkon-4, an accident has blocked much of his memory. He arrives in town (after a 100 kilometer walk) just in time to meet a local man named Garvin, and his daughter, Gia. Data confesses his lack of memory, and Garvin takes him home, where the town doctor (who isn’t exactly a super genius) looks him over and declares that he’s an iceman from the mountains. Apart from his clothes, all that Data has with him is a case marked “Radioactive.” Since no one knows what that word means, they decide to open the case to see if it has any clues as to Data’s identity inside. Instead, they find a bunch of rocks. Rocks that Garvin sells to the town blacksmith, although he keeps a few for himself. Pretty soon, Garvin starts feeling ill. Sores and burn marks develop on his flesh, and he takes to his bed. Then Gia gets sick. Then the blacksmith. And so on.
There is something deeply and immediately unpleasant about watching Garvin and the others casually toss around radioactive metal, and in its way, it’s a great argument for the Prime Directive. The Barkonians are totally unprepared for this kind of danger. Not only do they not recognize radioactivity for what it is, they have no comprehension of the threat it represents, and only the simplest conception of elements and the core substance of the universe. Again and again, the arrogant (but well-meaning) town doctor exposes her ignorance, and it’s actually impressive that Data manages to stay on everyone’s good side for as long as he does; another character, i.e. someone without Data’s lack of anger and innate calm, would’ve argued harder, and probably gotten stabbed a lot sooner. Sure, if you ignored the Prime Directive, you could try and explain everything about what was happening, as Data does his best to do, but you can’t guarantee that those explanations would go smoothly. Honestly, the biggest lesson to take away from this is that any contact with a civilization that’s not ready for outsiders will probably end badly; and even more troublesome, contact is going to happen from time to time, no matter how much you want to prevent it. The best you can hope for is to minimize the danger, which, at its best, is really all the Prime Directive is about.
Meanwhile, Troi is struggling with her exams. It’s the Engineering test she can’t get a handle on; it takes place on the holodeck, during a simulated ship meltdown, and no matter how many times she takes it, she can’t stop the ship from blowing up. It gets to the point that Riker finally tells her he can’t test her anymore—he doesn’t think she’s cut out for command, and this is the kind of test where you can’t give someone advice. Either they realize their mistake, or they don’t. Finally, a comment about duty gives Troi the answer she needs: She has to be willing to sacrifice a crewmember, even someone she knows and cares about, for the good of the Enterprise. It’s a lesson that ties in well with what we saw in “Lower Decks,” and one of the overarching themes of the series. The original Trek had its deaths, but we never lost anyone we really cared about, and Kirk’s grief over a dead red-shirt tended to be contingent on the dictates of the plot. TNG is more serious than that. I’ve said that this is a show about the consequences of crazy science-fiction ideas, and as consequences go, it doesn’t get more serious than death. Where TOS was pulpy, iconic fun, the writers of TNG decided to take the premise as straight-faced and realistically as possible. (For a given value of “realism.”) Which means that not every ending is a happy one, and that being in a position of command means being willing to send people to their deaths if need be.
So Troi eventually passes her test, which is nice for her, and Data (who can’t remember his actually name and is going around calling himself “Jayden”) is trying to figure out why everyone around him is dying. There’s some nifty low-tech science here, although I’ll leave it to you to determine if any of it would actually work. If I had any problem with this section of the story, it’s that, apart from the slow death-by-radiation that hits so many of the townsfolk, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot here that isn’t easy to chart out in advance. It’s done well, and there are plenty of effective, eerie images here, but the actual Barkonians fail to make much of an impression; apart from the upside down U’s they have tattooed on their foreheads, they don’t have much in the way to distinguish them from a dozen other races we've seen on the show. But on the plus side, I was impressed at how far “Thine Own Self” was willing to take the paranoia and suspicion of the townsfolk. Seeing Data get Two-Faced was unexpected, and see him get stabbed through the chest and buried was even more so. You could almost imagine this episode playing out with a different, non-starring castmember in Data’s role. The memory loss would be harder to explain, but the burial would be a poignant and haunting, as opposed to just a minor inconvenience.
Some episodes are frustrating because they fail to live up to their potential; others are difficult to watch because they had no potential in the first place. “Thine Own Self” is solid. It could’ve been better, but its flaws aren’t so obvious as to be distracting, and not every episode is going to be a classic. Season seven has had a lot of uneven material, so it’s comforting to see something like this, an overall unremarkable but still entertaining hour of television, one that offers a few moments of insight and wit, a few memorable images, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Just like this review.
- Data schooling the doctor on proper science is all kinds of badass.
- Oh hey, Data got (most) of his memory back. I think these recovery missions could be better managed, honestly. While Data is the only one who can get close enough to the radioactive material to handle it, there’s no reason I can think of not sending someone else along to hang back at a safe distance and make sure the android doesn’t lose his memory and wander off.
- Strange that Data can remember how to build a microscope, as well as grasp the fundamental principles of science, and still not understand the word “radioactive.”
- Every time someone called Data “Iceman,” I wondered when Goose and Maverick would show up.
Next week: We take a look at what’s beyond those “Masks,” and make the best roll we can against the "Eye Of The Beholder."