Star Trek: Discovery's Redshirts Follow Classic TNG Episode Lower Decks

Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before DSC Premiere #6
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  • Science Fiction

As the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery approaches, Player.One will profile essential episodes to watch for a better understanding of the characters, species and history informing the first Star Trek series in over a decade.

Beyond its much-discussed serial storyline (DS9 did it first!), Star Trek: Discovery hopes to innovate narratively by telling more stories set below decks, focusing more on people other than the bridge crew. This will most likely be accomplished after the pilot, in which First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) makes a fateful decision that not only results in demotion, but a stint in the brig. Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) later gives Burnham a second chance aboard his ship, the Discovery NCC-1031.

“The advantage to [Burnham] not being in charge of the bridge right now is we get to tell stories from a different point of view. It’s a fresh feeling because we’re not on the bridge all the time,” Aaron Harberts, co-showrunner of Star Trek: Discovery, told Entertainment Weekly.

From the bridge of a Constitution or Galaxy-class starship, the captain and his bridge officers can not only treat with Klingons and previously uncontacted alien species, but also manage the day-to-day operations, overseeing ops, engineering, navigation and helm stations. From that vantage, the primary narrative perspective of every Star Trek show (even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, set on a space station, had its operations center) excludes hundreds of unseen crew members — the civilian personnel, researchers, doctors and junior officers supporting a ship’s ongoing mission from lower decks and living in unseen berths.

But what do those crew stories actually look like? For answers, look to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 episode “Lower Decks,” which follows a typical Trek episode adventure from the limited perspective of four junior officers.

“Lower Decks” opens on Ten Forward, a communal lounge where officers, the enlisted and civilians mingle. First Officer William Riker and Ship’s Counselor Deanna Troi sit at one table and discuss crew evaluations, debating the merits of various candidates for promotion. Two tables away, Ensigns Sam Lavelle, Sito Jaxa, Taurik and Nurse Alyssa Ogawa fret over their futures in Starfleet, casting nervous glances over at the superior officers deciding their fates. The stakes feel very high for some — even the Vulcan Taurik does his best to impress his superior in Engineering, Geordi LaForge, during the evaluation period.

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"Lower Decks" sidelines the typical TNG ensemble to follow the lives of four junior officers and a civilian personnel member aboard the Enterprise. Photo: CBS Television Distribution

And already, at the very beginning of “Lower Decks,” we learn something important about Burnham’s experience in Star Trek: Discovery. “Promote me please, so I can make lieutenant… and have my own room,” Lavelle says to himself. Aboard the Discovery, Burnham has a roommate: Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), suggesting Burnham’s actions in the Star Trek: Discovery pilot get her busted down from lieutenant commander, perhaps all the way to ensign.

More than just the junior officer perspective on life aboard the Enterprise NCC-1701-D, “Lower Decks” shares more of the normal operations of a Starfleet vessel than most Star Trek episodes. Whereas episodes focused on the core ensemble — Data, Troi, Worf, Picard, Riker, Dr. Crusher and LaForge — treat the characters like inexhaustible institutions, alert and present for every dramatic moment, “Lower Decks” spans training simulations, shift changes and time off-duty, settling into the rhythm of life in a way few episodes do (TNG Season 4 episode “Data’s Day” is another great example).

“I only filled in at Ops for half an hour, but I had to degauss the main deflector dish, recalibrate the navigation grid and use the internal sensors to find a lost puppy.”

“Lower Decks” is also remarkable for the visible friction it portrays between lower-ranking characters and their commanding officers. Picard berates Jaxa, a Bajoran ensign struggling to earn a place aboard ship after her disgrace in a Starfleet Academy scandal (seen in Season 5 episode “The First Duty”). Meanwhile, Lavelle struggles to ingratiate himself to Riker — a rare demonstration of social awkwardness among chummy 24th century comrades. And all four of the “Lower Decks” one-off ensemble visibly struggle with the mysterious orders passed down from the senior officers, who are too busy with spy games along the Cardassian border to worry about how their curt commands come across.

“Lower Decks” anticipates Star Trek: Discovery ’s plans to tell stories outside the parameters of Gene Roddenberry’s infamous prohibition against crew conflict (largely an over-hyped relic of the first few seasons of TNG, when Roddenberry had sniffed too many of his own farts). The Starfleet junior officers of “Lower Decks” make incorrect assumptions, misinterpret motives and obsess over minor slights. They’re still good to each other and committed to the United Federation of Planet’s utopian project, but there’s an appreciable difference between these one-time characters and the swaggering confidence of Riker or Picard’s refined never-wrongness (even his disgust at Jaxa’s past is revealed to be a tactical feint).

Major spoilers for the end of “Lower Decks” ahead.

“Lower Decks” ends with a surprising gut punch: a redshirt death viewers will actually care about, for once. The secret mission to reinsert a Cardassian spy results in the death of a junior officer we’ve just spent 40 minutes getting to know.

“Her loss will be deeply felt by all who knew her,” Picard tells the crew, perhaps unaware that only the senior officers and us, the audience, know the full context of her death. For her friends, the workaday crewmembers, destined to fade back into the bowels of a starship with a thousand other people aboard, there is only a hole where their friend once lived and the slim comforts of duty and honor.

Star Trek: Discovery premieres Sept. 24 on CBS and CBS All Access, when we’ll learn whether Star Trek can tell moving and powerful stories in the decks below the bridge. If Discovery achieves anything approaching the end of “Lower Decks,” with Worf joining our temporary protagonists to share their grief, then its troubled production will have been worthwhile.

More Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before Star Trek: Discovery

  1. Star Trek: The Original Series “The Cage,” model for DSC protagonist Michael Burnham.

  2. Star Trek: The Original Series “Errand of Mercy,” our introduction to the Klingons.

  3. Star Trek: The Original Series “Journey to Babel,” the first Sarek episode.

  4. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Sarek" and the decline and death of Spock's father.

  5. Star Trek: The Animated Series "Yesteryear" reveals what life was like for a young Michael Burnham as a human on the planet Vulcan.

  6. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Lower Decks" explores stories and characters away from the bridge.

  7. Star Trek: The Next Generation “Rightful Heir” resurrects Kahless, the most important Klingon religious figure.

  8. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the best-yet depiction of Federation-Klingon relations.

  9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Trials and Tribble-ations” explores the limits of nostalgia.

  10. Star Trek: The Original Series "A Private Little War" takes Kirk, Bones and Spock to Vietnam.

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