WARNING:  The following article contains spoilers for TNG's "Lower Decks".  
Those not wishing to be privy to every secret of the show should stay well away from here.

In brief:  If this is the "Voyager" lead-in, I feel more comfortable about the series to come.  Nice work.

Even without the knowledge that this was a lead-in to the new series, though, it was a damn fine show.  More (much!) after a synopsis:

Riker and Troi, in Ten-Forward, are bulling through the oh-so-riveting task
of crew evaluations in preparation for promotion decisions.  Meanwhile, at a
nearby table, four ensigns -- Lavelle, Sito (a Bajoran), Taurik (a Vulcan),
and Nurse Ogawa -- are sitting before going on duty.  Lavelle in particular
is very concerned about these evaluations, hoping like crazy for a promotion.
Riker and Troi begin discussing candidates for one shift's Ops position, and
both Sito's and Lavelle's names come up -- and a waiter, Ben, passes this information along to both ensigns, who are somewhat nonplussed.

Later, both Lavelle and Sito participate in a stations drill, where Sito errs
slightly at tactical by having to change a phaser lock before firing.  After
Riker passes along some advice to her, Picard comes in and quickly orders a
course change to a system near the Cardassian border, referring to new
orders.  The senior staff retire to a conference, leaving Sito (now at Ops) and Lavelle to wonder what's up.

Meanwhile, in Engineering, Taurik talks to Geordi about simulations he's been
running for a new warp-field configuration that is rumored to be in the
works.  Geordi is intrigued, but tells Taurik that tests on the *real* ship
are out of the question for the time being.  However, he adds, "if you have
any other ideas for increasing efficiency, don't hesitate to run them by me."
"Actually," volunteers Taurik, "I do."  Geordi makes a hasty exit to join the meeting in progress.

After a brief conversation between Ogawa and Dr. Crusher (in which Bev tells
Ogawa that she's likely to be promoted soon, and the two talk of Ogawa's
current flame), Sito and Worf talk in Ten-Forward.  Sito is incredulous that
Riker would even *consider* her for the Ops post, given that she's a security
officer; but her surprise is even greater when Worf reveals that he recommended her for the position.  She promises to try not to disappoint him.

Lavelle, elsewhere in the room, worries aloud about what Worf and Sito could
be talking about.  He is flat-out shocked, however, when Ben, a civilian,
greets an entering Riker as "Will".  Ben reassures him that Riker's not such
a bad guy, and that Lavelle just needs to get to know him a little better.  
Lavelle tries to strike up a conversation with Riker, but what little he
knows (that Riker is Canadian, for instance) turns out to be horribly wrong, and he leaves as quickly as he can.

Some time later, the Enterprise has reached the Argaya system and is waiting
for ... something.  They finally detect an escape pod, but 50,000 kilometers
inside Cardassian space.  Both the bridge crew and the Engineering crew
quickly try to figure out how to retrieve the occupant without crossing the
border.  As Engineering works to beef up the transporter, Taurik attempts to
ID the lifeform inside, only to have Geordi tell him quickly and sternly
not to do that again.  In sickbay, Beverly is ready to receive the occupant, and tells Ogawa that she has to leave now.

Ogawa leaves, and talks to Sito, who's outside standing guard.  Neither is
sure what's going on.  As Ogawa leaves, Picard enters -- and gives Sito a
long, probing look as he proceeds to sickbay.  Later, when he leaves, he
takes Sito with him, much to the chagrin of Lavelle, who exits the turbolift
they enter.  En route to the bridge, Picard confirms that Sito is, in fact, a qualified pilot.

In his ready room, however, he takes a very different tone.  He refers to her
candidacy for the Ops position, but says that he has some serious questions
about her record.  At the Academy, she took part in a dangerous, daredevil
stunt that took the life of a cadet -- and though he is certain she would
not do that again, he takes great umbrage to her participation in the coverup
afterwards.  He tells her that her unwillingness to come forward with the
truth raises profound questions about her character -- and when she protests
that sticking with the unpleasant aftermath of being found out also says
something about her character, he tells her rather brutally that she's made
her bed.  "As far as I'm concerned," he adds, "you should have been expelled
for what you did.  Frankly, I don't know how you made it on board this ship." Sito is dismissed, and leaves as fast as she can.

Some time later, Taurik is assisting Geordi by firing on a shuttlecraft.  
Geordi explains that it's due to a little-known requirement to test hull
resiliency, which Taurik expresses some skepticism about.  He maintains that
the firing pattern he has used would be consistent with making it look like
the shuttle fled an attack and was fired on multiple times.  Geordi turns to
Taurik and tells him in no uncertain terms, "It's an amazing *coincidence*,"
with the clear message that he is to treat it as such from that moment on.
Meanwhile, Bev brings Ogawa into sickbay to help with some emergency surgery,
but tells her that she is *not* to reveal anything of what she sees.  She
agrees, then reacts with shock at seeing the species on the table, as Bev walks away to synthesize some *Cardassian* blood...

That evening, there's a poker game -- among the ensigns (and Ben).  They all
talk of the rumors about who and what is in the pod, with Ben saying he heard
it was Spock and Taurik being strongly skeptical of the idea.  Ogawa's flame, Powell, had to bow out due to a double-shift assignment.

Meanwhile, in the *senior officers'* poker game, Bev talks about seeing
Powell in Ten-Forward with another woman and wonders what to tell Ogawa.  
Riker tells Worf that he doesn't think Sito's prepared for Ops, and Worf disagrees.

Lavelle then bets as the conversation turns to Sito's dressing-down earlier
in the day.  Sito wonders what she could have said, and if perhaps Picard was
right, but her friends do their best to convince her that she's a fine
officer.  Lavelle says that Sito is more than prepared for a promotion, and glumly adds that he surely won't get it -- "not if it's up to Riker."

Riker, just then, adds that he'll keep thinking about Sito, because he's
not sure about Lavelle *either*.  When asked why, he says that Lavelle's a
little too eager to please, and seems to be kissing up.  Deanna disagrees
that he's only doing it for the promotion, and tells Riker that he and Lavelle are a lot alike.

"What?  We're not at all alike!" "You're bluffing," asserts Bev.

"You think so?" says Lavelle, smirking -- and Ben restates it.  As the hand
continues, Ogawa suggests that Lavelle stop trying so hard to please, saying
that Riker doesn't need to like him, just respect him.  Everyone else concurs, and Taurik, having computed the odds on his hand winning, folds.

So does Worf after a bad hand, as Deanna reminds Riker that *Riker* learned
to play poker on the Potemkin to play with the senior officers, which might
have been looked on as kissing up.  Fortunately, she points out, they didn't
hold it against him.  Riker agrees, and says he'll rethink things about Lavelle.  Geordi, convinced Riker's bluffing, bets big.

Riker shows his cards -- a full flush.  Geordi is rather upset -- "I cannot
beLIEVE this!"  Riker, on the other hand, is generous:  "I am your worst nightmare."

Ben, on the other hand, bets that Lavelle is bluffing and *wins*, much to
Lavelle's chagrin.  Sito and Ogawa leave for the night.  So does Geordi,
although Riker protests that "you don't have to quit just because I'm unbeatable."  

Taurik talks about having inadvertently annoyed Geordi that morning in
Engineering with his simulations, and wonders if Geordi will hold a grudge;
Geordi then answers that question inadvertently himself by inviting Taurik to
help with some late-night work.  Taurik leaves, and Lavelle pleads that he
needs sleep and says goodnight to Ben.  Ben leaves, only to head for the other game to try to clean *them* out...

The next morning, Worf stops Sito at the end of his mok'bara class to give
her an unscheduled test for the advanced-level class.  The test, however, is
blatantly unfair, and Sito realizes it after three falls.  She refuses to
continue, and Worf congratulates her for passing by having the courage to
note that the test was unfair.  In fact, he adds, there is no such challenge,
"but perhaps next time you are judged unfairly, it will not take so many bruises for you to protest."

Sito heads for the ready room, there to confront Picard about his actions the
previous day.  She tells him that, with respect, it is not *his* place to
punish her for the Academy incident, and that he should either judge her on
her record _now_ or let her transfer off the ship.  Picard is impressed by
her courage, and tells her that he was interested in getting her reactions,
not for Ops qualification, but for an upcoming mission.  He asks her to join
the senior officers at 0900 for a briefing, and adds that he does know why she's on the Enterprise:  he *asked* for her.

After Ogawa tells Bev that Powell has asked her to marry him (making Bev
relieved beyond measure), Sito attends that meeting, only to meet Joret Dal,
a Cardassian officer who is also a Federation mole.  He has given them vital
information that will help the security of countless planets, and now needs
to be able to get home.  He points out that the border is heavily guarded,
and that alone he would be unlikely to convince them that he's legitimate,
even in an apparently-stolen, damaged Federation shuttlecraft.  However, he
might be able to pass as a bounty hunter -- *if* he had a prisoner,
particularly a Bajoran terrorist.  Although the mission is extremely
dangerous, Sito volunteers.  She leaves for sickbay, and Joret observes, "I didn't realize she would be so young."

Shortly thereafter, Sito boards the shuttle, cosmetically altered to appear
brutalized by Joret.  She thanks Worf for his confidence in her, and tells
him she'll see him soon.  The shuttle leaves, and Worf stays in the bay, watching, for a long time.

As the shuttle approaches the border and the pair make preparations, Joret
tells Sito that he's doing this, not to be a traitor, but to dissuade the
Cardassian government from pointless wars.  "My people need peace," he adds, surprising Sito.  A patrol ship approaches...

Meanwhile, Lavelle and the others wonder in Ten-Forward if Sito is on the
shuttle that left.  Lavelle, knowing nothing, speculates as much as he can
about the occupant and the condition of the shuttle -- but Ogawa and Taurik, concerned by what they *do* know, ask him to change the subject.

The Enterprise reaches the rendezvous point and waits for hours, with no sign
of the escape pod carrying Sito back home.  Despite it being a treaty
violation, they send a probe in to search for the pod.  What it finds,
however, is debris -- and debris consistent with the remains of a pod.  When
they later intercept a Cardassian message reporting the death of a terrorist,
the truth becomes all too clear.  Picard announces the death to the crew, lamenting the loss of "the finest example of a Starfleet officer."

In Ten-Forward some time later, Lavelle enters, glum.  He's been promoted to
the Ops position, but now has to wonder if Sito would have gotten it had she
lived.  The others reassure him that he should simply do his best in his new
assignment, and Ben manages to convince a solitary Worf to join Sito's _other_ friends in remembering her as she was.

Whew.  That was long.  Now I hope I have room left for comments.  :-)

Even if I hadn't known in advance that this was in part a setup for
"Voyager", I think I might have suspected it anyway.  When five characters,
all nonregulars, and three of whom you've never even *seen* before get this
much and this strong characterization (with only one getting killed off),
it's a good bet that the goal is to continue with at least some of them.  
Given that TNG has less than a dozen shows to go, it was either move them to DS9 or pack 'em up and take 'em to "Voyager", and I'd have bet the latter.

However, if this is the sort of thing we'll get from "Voyager" on a regular
basis, I've no complaints.  If the characterization is always this strong, we
should be in good shape.  (Of course, the same could be said of Troi in "Face
of the Enemy", or Bev in "Remember Me", and that clearly hasn't been the
case.)  Of the five major characters in the show, only one failed to impress me.

That one, not to waste words, was Taurik.  His lines and attitude made sense,
but Alexander Enberg's delivery just did _not_ strike me as being properly
Vulcan.  He seemed almost snide much of the time (albeit in a very
understated way), which just didn't rub me right.  I've known people who
talked like Taurik, and "Vulcan" isn't the first word that comes to mind when
I think about them.  This strikes me as more of an acting problem than anything else -- as I said, his *actions* were fine.

Sito, on the other hand, was among the best of the lot.  Clearly, it was
necessary to build her up more than the others, because we needed to feel her
death rather keenly, but even so, it WORKED -- more than virtually any other
character in that position I can recall.  I was somewhat underwhelmed by Sito
back in "The First Duty", but it's easy to be underwhelmed by someone who has
all of half a dozen lines.  Here, she was a *person* -- and what's more, one
that had clearly been through a lot of pain.  Even if Shannon Fill's voice
suggests "California girl" [no offense intended -- after all, I teach about a
zillion of same :-) ], everything else about her performance said "young
Bajoran".  I liked her a lot, and I felt a real pang when I realized we'd never get to see her again.  

As for the others:

Ogawa came in with some background, since we've seen her around for a while.  
I have a little difficulty believing Bev's head nurse is only an ensign, but
I'll swallow it for the sake of the show.  Her performance was quite nice,
but I can't help feeling that for the most part she got stuck with some of
the "filler" scenes, most notably the whole subplot with her fiancee.  It was
cute, but I'd have rather seen something else fill the time.  Some of her
better work, though, came in the poker game (more, _much_ more, about that
one later) and when Lavelle is speculating about things she already knows
something about.  Ogawa wasn't handled as well as Sito, but she was still quite nice.

Lavelle was also pretty strong, though it's my hope that next time we see him
he'll have grown a bit from the "young Riker" he was here.  It was hammered
in that Lavelle was meant to be a Riker parallel, and to his credit Dan
Gauthier managed to convey that superbly, but I have a feeling that more than
another show's worth of that would get old rather fast.  Still, he felt like
someone intent on moving up the career track, as I'm sure many ensigns must be.  Given what he was there to do, he did well.

Lastly, there's Ben.  While I had some suspicions about the character towards
the end of the show that turned out to be unfounded, I have to say that Ben
managed to steal virtually every scene he was in.  (Must be that grin.)  As
the unofficial "glue" between the junior and senior officers, he served a
fairly crucial purpose for us; but even so, I got the feeling he didn't much
care that he was on *The Enterprise [TM]*; he just got a kick out of being on
a big ship and hanging out with his friends.  That's kind of refreshing, and I hope that attitude manages to stay with him (within reason).

Story-wise, "Lower Decks" was another example of something I consider both
pleasant and distressingly rare:  storytelling from someone's POV other than
that of the regular characters.  "First Contact" did it a few years ago to
expert effect, and "Face of the Enemy" did it to an extent -- but for the
most part we see TNG through the regulars' eyes.  That's only natural, but it
means we never get anyone else's views.  Here, we *did*, and in ways that brought out some other ideas about the characters we _do_ see every week.

Take Riker, for instance.  From _our_ POV, he's the "fun-loving" commander in
many ways, and he's also far less important (in my experience, anyway) to the
grand scheme of things than Picard.  Not, however, to the ensigns who serve
on the bridge:  there, Riker is the one who'll kick your ass if you screw up,
the one who is so focused that he "probably sleeps in his uniform", and the
one who you have to pay attention to if you want to know what's going on.  
Picard is too remote to make an impression (except when you have something
like Sito's case, when the captain himself is giving you a dressing-down in private).  Very interesting.

Similarly, we usually see Geordi as more of an underling, though that word's
a bit too strong.  He's the one carrying out Picard's orders, the one who has
to make things _work_.  Not here.  Here, we see him as "da boss", at least in
Taurik's case.  He reprimands people who overstep their bounds, at least when
he's under stress.  He has to delegate authority -- and he gets edgy when other people try to usurp it.  Good Lord, he's a person.  :-)

It's a wee bit implausible that the only ensigns who find out much of
anything about what's going on are all friends -- but then again, that's
probably not true.  There were undoubtedly some low-deck workers in the
shuttle bay when Joret and Sito left, for instance; and I'd be surprised if
Bev had been the *only* one in the entire sickbay when Joret was first beamed
in.  What's more, not everyone did find out much; Lavelle knew almost
nothing (and Ben didn't know anything, which was very good).  So, thinking about it, I'm not so sure there's much of an implausibility at all.

The actual plot unfolding was standard "get the spy back home" stuff that
we've seen before, but that's okay; the point was to see it from other
characters' perspectives, which we did.  What's more, we got to see a bit
more about how people were *chosen* for missions, which is intriguing to say
the least.  More to the point, this wasn't a show that was designed for
earth-shattering, head-spinning plots; this was one where we needed to get
into the *people* involved, and too intricate a plot might have proved distracting.

Direction-wise, I was remarkably impressed.  Between this and "Face of the
Enemy", I can comfortably forget that Gabrielle Beaumont also did things like
"Disaster".  :-)  As I said, the Bev/Ogawa scenes sometimes seemed a little on the dull side, but all in all she did a terrific job.

Of course, the highlight in terms of direction was the double-poker sequence.
I don't think I've laughed that hard in a long, LONG time.  Besides showing
that Lavelle has a ways to go before he'll be Riker-caliber (and showing
Riker actually *holding* a winning hand for a first!), it was just pretty
damn funny.  Cutting between one game and another the way they did is a
director's conceit, but when it gets pulled off this well directors can be as
conceited as they like.  :-)  (Besides, I absolutely cannot resist Riker's
line as Geordi leaves:  "you don't have to quit just because I'm unbeatable!" Hee.)  Nice, nice job.

All in all, then, "Lower Decks" was a very strong show.  A few short takes, then, and I'll be on my way.

-- It may have been poor planning to air this right after "Sub Rosa".  When
Bev talked about how if she were in Ogawa's shoes, "he'd have to do a lot
more than cancel a date to make me suspicious," my response was "yeah, like
re-animate my dead grandmother or something."  Cheap shot, I know, but richly, richly deserved.  ;-)

-- I didn't realize ensigns had to share quarters, but I suppose it makes sense.

-- In terms of dialogue, I also very much liked Ben's reaction when told Riker hated Lavelle:  "Why?  Did you crash the ship into something?"  Heh.

-- I have to wonder about the time-frame question yet again, though.  Sito
was a third-year cadet in "The First Duty".  Now, if she was held back a year
like Wes and has been here for seven months, then three years (as stated)
makes sense.  However, two seasons _doesn't_ make sense as three years and never has.  Is anybody checking time continuity these days?

That's about it.  "Lower Decks" is the first TNG I've really enjoyed since
"The Pegasus" -- I hope it's the beginning of a run of good ones up through the end.  (Certainly, next week looks and sounds intriguing.)

So, time to wrap up.

Plot:  Basic, but that's all it needed to be.  Sound.
Plot Handling:  Marvelous.  Great change of perspective.
Characterization:  Rich.  The Bev/Ogawa scenes were a little flat sometimes,         but that's about it.

OVERALL:  9.5.  Almost perfect.  Keep it up, folks...


Data ends up on a planet where he's a mystery to everyone - including himself.

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
BITNET:  tlynch@citjulie
UUCP:  ...!ucbvax!
"Perhaps next time you are judged unfairly, it will not take so many bruises
for you to protest."
                        -- Worf, to Sito
-- Copyright 1994, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...


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