This is the one episode that seems to unite all sides of the fanbase. In a rare moment of nonpartisan respect and consensus, hardcore Star Trek fans and the more heretical voices who have been raising their tone in the discourse for the past few years both unanimously agree that “Lower Decks” was A Good Idea. So naturally, I’m going to be the contrarian dissenter who casts doubt on that assumption.
It’s odd, if you think about it, that this would be the one episode from this season that would be universally beloved because it’s so drastically different from everything the party line says is good about Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has next to nothing to do with any of the regulars, and hangs the entire dramatic crux of the story on a bunch of one-shot guest characters (excepting Alyssa Ogawa), including one character who only showed up once in a episode three years ago. Indeed that Michael Piller greenlit this story in the first place earned him more than a few double-takes from the writing staff because it flagrantly violates the first hardline rule he established at the beginning of his tenure: That every episode had to be about one or more of the main characters and that guest stars should not be allowed to carry a story, because that would be “overshadowing” the regulars. The reasoning employed by both Piller and this episode’s fans for letting “Lower Decks” through is that the story shines a light on an important and all-to-often overlooked perspective: The nameless and faceless workaday junior officer who walk in the shadows of giants.
Perhaps it does. Indeed, when I first saw this episode as part of TNN’s reruns in the early 2000s, I loved it for those very reasons: I thought it was terrific how we got to see what the Enterprise looked like from a different vantage point, and I found myself really invested in the day-to-day concerns of the crew’s junior officer contingent. You’d think, if anything, “Lower Decks” would be absolutely right up my alley, what with my constant contention that Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reject anything it might have inherited from the action sci-fi genre. However, as I came to revisit it for this rewatch, my opinion of it cooled significantly. In particular, I think it’s worth considering exactly whose viewpoint is truly being examined here, and what that says about how people are reading the overall climate of this series’ environment.
To those looking for a glimpse at the Star Trek universe’s underclasses, those left behind by master narratives of history and grandiose tales of war, conquest, glory and political heroism, you’ll certainly not find it in “Lower Decks”. These are all Starfleet officers (or all but one), just not bridge officers. Our hero is even Sito Jaxa, disgraced one-time Academy cadet whose presence here (and story arc) is an explicit callback to “The First Duty”, an episode which, regardless of your feelings on it, you must at least grant is controversial.…