Friday, August 4, 2023

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Episode: "Lower Decks"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 7, Episode 15
Original Air Date: February 7, 1994

"Lower Decks" is told from the perspective of four junior officers and their bartender buddy.  Through them, we learn what it's like to work for our usual heroes.  We also learn what life is like aboard the Enterprise when you don't understand everything that's going on because you're not involved in the top secret meetings in the observation lounge.  

I love "Lower Decks" for so many reasons.  Just as the creators seem to be running out of gas in the stretch run, they knock one out of the park [I enjoy mixing sports metaphors].  The new characters are a breath of fresh air and the behind-the-scenes view of a familiar world is ingeniously executed.  In hindsight, one imagines this could have been a path forward for NextGen.  For the first time in what feels like ages, we're left wanting more - not better, more.  Big difference.  Thank goodness, the concept was finally resurrected 26 years later with the delightful, self-parody animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks.

How can one not be charmed by the episode's principals?

L to r: Taurek, Ogawa, Ben, Sito, Lavelle via Memory Alpha

Fortunately, we already know Nurse Ogawa (Patti Yasutake).  In "Lower Decks," she gets both a promotion and a fiancĂ©.  Originally, her first exchange with Dr. Crusher was supposed to be about a mistake Ogawa had made in the lab.  Instead, it was about her love life.  Bechdel Test fail!  Ogawa is the only one of the junior officers we'll see again.

Sam Lavelle (Dan Gauthier) is a mini-Riker: handsome, talented and ambitious.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have his CO's calm self-assurance just yet.

Taurek (Alexander Enberg) is a bright, young Vulcan in engineering.  A bit of a know-it-all, he clearly gets on La Forge's nerves but Geordi does, grudgingly, admire Taurek's creative problem solving skills.  There was talk of bringing Taurek back as a recurring character but it never happened.

Ben (Bruce Beatty) is the new bartender.  Seriously, why didn't we get more of this guy?  A town gossip who could give Riker a run for his money at the poker table?  Yes, please.  Especially with Guinan out of the picture for Season 7, a new face in Ten Forward is most welcome.  Alas, this is Ben's only appearance.

And the greatest gift of all: the story of Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill).  The character was previously introduced in "The First Duty" as a member of Wesley Crusher's scandal-ridden flight team at the Academy.  Once she convinces Picard she has the nerve for it, he assigns her to a dangerous mission.  Spoiler - she doesn't survive.  The loss is one of the most genuinely painful moments in all of Star Trek.  The initial expectation was that her death was final but, in the end, the creators fell in love with her, too.  We never see a body, only taking the Cardassians' word for it that she died.  There has been talk of bringing her back over the years, particularly as a Cardassian prison survivor in a DS9 episode.  But it hasn't happened.  Yet.  Even in Memory Alpha, she's listed as "presumed KIA."

Game Notes

On top of everything else, "Lower Decks" is a fantastic episode for a game enthusiast.  When the junior officer group first appears on screen, they're sitting around a Terrace board in Ten Forward (see top photo).  Riker and Troi, seated seperately, have a board on their table, too.  Terrace is a frequent prop on NextGen.  It's a real-world strategy game, invented in 1950 but not published until 1991.  It's futuristic-looking but plays a lot like chess.  I've played once.  In the mid-'90s.  I lost.

Poker games feature in the story: one game for the junior officers, one for the seniors.  Ben, a civilian, floats comfortably between both.  

And then, in the final poignant scene, Worf, Sito's CO, sits mournfully at a table by the window with a 3-D chess board in front of him, no opponent to play the other side.

Acting Notes

Dan Gauthier was born in Prineville, Oregon, December 2, 1963.  He went to San Diego State University, recruited by the track team.  He was a decathlete.  He worked as a model after graduating.

In primetime television, Gauthier had recurring roles on several shows including Tour of Duty, Melrose Place and Friends, in which he played Rachel's high school boyfriend Chip.  From 2003-2006, he played Kevin Buchanan on One Life to Live, earning an Emmy nomination in his final season.  Films include Teen Witch, Son in Law and Groom Lake, written and directed by William Shatner.

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