5 things you didn't know about Star Trek's original "Lower Decks" episode
The newest Star Trek series comes for a classic TNG episode. Let's talk about the original "Lower Decks."
When Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres on August 6, 2020, it will be a first for the Trek franchise in more ways than one. It will the first animated Trek series aimed at adults. It will be the first Trek series that's primarily a comedy. And it will be the first ongoing Trek series designed specifically to be an homage of the '90s Next Generation era. Which brings us to the title: Lower Decks.
That title comes from a Next Generation episode of the same name that first aired during TNG's final season in 1994. It's a fantastic episode about numerous "background" characters who are briefly given the spotlight. It's not a comedy like the new series Lower Decks, but because the episode looks at the lives of supposed "nobodies" living on the Starship Enterprise, it has an endearing, heartwarming vibe that made it a TNG classic. Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan has publicly cited "Lower Decks" as his favorite Trek episode ever, and the influence on his series is fairly clear.
But what do you know about the classic TNG episode that inspired the new animated show? Here are five things you may have forgotten about the original "Lower Decks," and why you should give it a rewatch faster than someone can say "Make it so!"
5. "Lower Decks" was a sequel to another TNG episode
The story of "Lower Decks" was conceived by Ron Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias and the final teleplay was written by TNG staffer René Echevarria. The basic concept was to follow the lives of four junior officers aboard the Enterprise as they stressed out over upcoming performance reviews that would result in them getting promoted, or not. In other words, like the episode "Data's Day," the concept was to show mundane, normal stuff happening all the time onboard a giant starship.
That said, the episode wasn't entirely without continuity. One of the "Lower Decks" characters was Nurse Ogawa (Patti Yasutake) who had already appeared in numerous TNG episodes. Perhaps more significant was the reintroduction of the character Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill), a Bajoran Starfleet officer who had previously appeared in the TNG episode, "The First Duty." In that episode, Wesley Crusher was nearly expelled from Starfleet Academy for performing an illegal space stunt and then trying to cover it up. In "The First Duy," Sito was one of Wesley's co-conspirators.
This is pivotal in the "Lower Decks" episode because Picard pretends he doesn't trust Sito due to her involvement in that cover-up. It's later revealed Picard was playing mind games with Sito to see if she'd stand-up to authority, but the larger point is that without a Wesley-centric episode two seasons prior, "Lower Decks" wouldn't have worked. Therefore, if Wesley hadn't almost gotten kicked out of Starfleet Academy, the new series Lower Decks wouldn't exist at all.
Wesley also ended up dropping out of the Academy and becoming an interdimensional space traveler in the episode "Journey's End." Any way you look at it, the tradition of drop-outs and slackers is firmly embedded in the DNA of all things Lower Decks.
4. "Lower Decks" debuted a new Vulcan actor who returned in Voyager as his own "twin brother"
Although Vulcans appear throughout TNG, other than Dr. Selar in the Season 2 episode "The Schizoid Man," the writers of TNG were cautious about introducing new Vulcans as regular members of the Enterprise crew. So having Taurik as one of the junior officers in this episode was a pretty big deal.
Played by Alexander Enberg, Taurik paved the way for more new Vulcans (who weren't Spock) to appear as regular characters in other Trek spin-offs. In fact, Enberg eventually played another Vulcan Starfleet officer named Vorik, who was a reoccurring junior officer on Star Trek: Voyager. Co-creator of Voyager, Jeri Taylor (and Enberg's mother IRL) commented once that Taurik and Vorik were probably Vulcan "twin brothers."
3. Ensign Sito was supposed to return on Deep Space Nine
The break-out performance from Shannon Fill as Ensing Sito Jaxa caused such a stir in the fan community, that the producers of TNG immediately started talking about ways to bring here back. In the 2012 book, Star Trek: TNG: 365, writer Rene Echevarria said, "There was a lot of talk about bringing her back, but we never got around to it."
Because "Lower Decks" happened in the final season of TNG, the mystery about whether or not Sito really died could never be resolved on the show. But because of that, the writing staff of Deep Space Nine did intend to bring her back in a future episode. DS9 dealt with the politics of the planet Bajor, and Sito was a Bajoran serving in Starfleet, lost during a top-secret mission with a Cardassian double agent. When you read that sentence back, it almost feels like the last act of "Lower Decks" was a DS9 episode and not TNG.
In the same book, Robert Hewitt Wolfe says that he worked on an episode of DS9 that would have revealed what happened to Sito, but the episode was rewritten to focus on one of the main characters, Chief O'Brien, who, ironically, started out as an unnamed "Lower Decks" style character on TNG.
Either way, Sito never actually returned on screen, even though fans really wanted her to.
2. There's literally no other episode like it in all of Star Trek
An entire episode of Star Trek told from the perspective of characters who are specifically not main characters doesn't really have a counterpart in any other version of Trek. True, while the regular TNG crew do appear in the episode, the stakes aren't really contingent upon those characters getting what they want. But here, the four junior officers — Taurik, Sito, Ogawa, and Lavelle — are the focus, with specific attention paid to Sito; a minor character who originated as a side character in a different episode.
The entire concept of "Lower Decks" would be like an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series that showed you the day-to-day life of one of the "redshirts" and then ended with the death of that character. In fact, Sito's death at the very end of this episode sort of comments on that trope: The lives of "random" Starfleet folks are just as important as the main characters. In real life we know that's true, but in adventure fiction we tend to forget it.
Imagine a Star Wars movie focused on the guys who refuel the X-Wings. That's what the "Lower Decks" episode is like.
1. "Lower Decks" paved the way for Star Trek: Discovery
Although Cadet Tilly and Specialist Michael Burnham are major cast members of Star Trek: Discovery, the first part of Discovery Season 1 introduces them as low-ranking nobodies. Tilly is pretty far from being a major officer to the point that she's even given a roommate in Burnham, a literal Federation criminal.
Tilly and Burnham's scrappy friendship is a huge part of Discovery Season 1, but the idea of crafting a Trek narrative around characters who weren't senior bridge staff was pioneered first in "Lower Decks." With Discovery, the most important things tend to be focused on the characters, not their jobs. One could argue this is true of other Star Trek shows (most recently, Picard), without the original "Lower Decks," this idea could have never really been fully explored.
Star Trek: Lower Decks hits CBS All Access on August, 6. You can stream the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Lower Decks" on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or CBS All Access. It's TNG Season 7 Episode 16.