Tuesday, April 5, 2016

“The Handbags and the Gladrags”: Lower Decks

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. Sito Jaxa is no Ro Laren or Kira Nerys: Like everyone in Nova Squadron, she's a spoiled and selfish child of privilege whose sense of self-entitlement, along with those of her squadmates, resulted in actions so heinous as to be basically inexcusable. She's a serviceman who lied to the public to cover up gross criminal negligence and protect her cabal. If your argument is that the main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation is too distant, aristocratic and unrelatable (more on that in a bit), bringing in “Lower Decks” and Sito Jaxa as your counterpoint does not build your case. Furthermore, Sito's story is one of “redemption”. And what does her “redemption” entail? A heroic sacrifice where she gives her life in the service of realpolitik. As contemptible as her former actions were, I wouldn't like to argue that anyone is more valuable dead than alive. Alive, a person can at least potentially continue to learn from their past transgressions and better themselves, thus bettering the world around them. I'd like to think anyone can change, so long as they're given the chance.

(As questionable as I might find this plot, and ironically considering the reason this episode is so beloved, Captain Picard's treatment within it is entirely on-point. He's a genuine mentor here who is trying to help someone who's lost find their way. He's excellent this week, as is, surprisingly, Worf. Geordi and Commander Riker, by contrast, are uncharacteristically snippy and dismissive.)

Secondly, please think carefully about precisely what you're asking for here. “A glimpse at the Star Trek universe's underclasses”? Does that not, by definition, mean the Star Trek universe has social classes? A post-scarcity utopia where there are still haves and have-nots just like we have in the decidedly not utopian late capitalist modernity? Indeed, late capitalist modernity itself extended far into the future? Underclasses, voicelessness and oppression even out here amongst the stars? And on the Enterprise of all places? And who are these supposed common heroes of the 24th Century oppressed? Overwhelmingly women, people of colour and non-humans, including a few combinations and permutations therein. The implications here quite honestly disgust me, so I don't even want to parse them out. I'll leave that to you.

And even that angle proves fruitless: This isn't a story about young people fighting back against institutionalized oppression and structural hierarchy, it's a bunch of overeager, overstarched Young Urban Professionals sitting around contemplating their navels and hoping the boss will notice them and keep them in mind for that big raise and promotion. I'd love to get a look at the real “Lower Decks” on the Enterprise. I want to see gigantic walk-through aquariums with sentient whale-people navigators. I want to see zero-gravity decks with no floors and winged humanoids working control panels on the ceiling. I want to see four-dimensional soccer and the race of all-female giantesses who live on deck 36. That's not what this episode is. This episode is just a bunch of mopey, punchable yuppies sitting around the watercooler fretting about asking out their coworker in another department and whether or not they're going to get the corner office at the end of the quarter.

(Speaking of, that's another weird part of this story that doesn't sit right with me. I've obviously and thankfully never been in the military so I don't know if this is how servicemen actually talk, but I *do* recognise cubiclespeak when I see it, and that's *absolutely* what's going on here. I've never liked the idea of Starfleet being a military organisation, much preferring to read it as sort of a space-based extension and hybrid of oceanography and astronomy. So what he have here is either a military organisation that operates like an office desk job or a future where exploration has been dumbed down to the point it's become the new investment brokerage or insurance agency. Either prospect is so frighteningly banal it fills me with utter dread.)

No, the real reason “Lower Decks” is so beloved to the point the “'Lower Decks' Episode” became A Thing is because people can't relate to Star Trek: The Next Generation's regulars and this episode, for whatever reason, gave those people someone to project onto. If you are such a person, I'd ask you to please ask yourself why you think that is. Why can't you relate to people like Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Geordi La Forge, Ro Laren, Tasha Yar, Beverly Crusher and Data, even at the base level of wish fulfillment or power fantasy? And if you can't, why have you spent seven years of your life watching their adventures on television every week? I am not meaning to pass judgment on you; this is genuinely something I do not, and likely cannot, understand: I can't get into fiction to the extent I would expend this level of mental and emotional energy on it if there wasn't something about it that really resonated with me on a deep level. I can't just passively watch something, or read about the exploits of characters that I keep at arm's length. Or I suppose I can, but I'm not likely to think about that particular work to the extent I would spend three years writing a blog and a multi-volume book series because of it. Or reading one.

Do you think the Star Trek: The Next Generation regulars are too elitist and aristocratic? You'd certainly not be in short company-That is, after all, the exact line of thinking that gave us Ro Laren to begin with. If anything, it's me who's standing alone. It wouldn't be the first time, and it won't be the last. I just think it's just as easy to see an adventure archaeologist inventor-pirate, a north woods bushman, a foul-mouthed blonde knockabout from the streets and a black blind seer storyteller, and a great deal more fun, than to see a stuffy diplomat, his bland womanizing yes-man and his pampered princess girlfriend. But this is all probably my obvious biases showing through. I may well be too close to this cast, this crew and this show to keep too much of a distance from it. There's textual evidence against me, although I maintain there's a nonzero amount of it for me too, or at least that can be redeemed and reappropriated. I tend to find the more interesting of a given set of potential readings to be the more rewarding, but that could be my unconditional love blinding me.

But I'd rather be blinded by love than by cynicism.


  1. I've really been loving your readings recently. It's good to get a different take on 'Lower Decks'. Like the UK Office nod in the title.

    Presumably due to your accusation of the Enterprise-D coming across often as a 'cosmic brokerage' too often, filled with 'cubiclespeak'.

    This chimes with me, as I recently caught 'Tapestry' on TV with my flatmate and we both noticed the scene where alt-Picard (the risk-averse 'wimp' as the show would have it) approaches Riker and Troi about his prospects for career development. It comes across like the most acute sort of sitcom HR officer cringe, which we both noticed.

  2. Great analysis.

    A small shoutout to Crusher may be warranted here as well; she's a wonderful mentor and friend to Ogawa in this episode and I enjoyed seeing the closeness in their relationship that was shown to viewers here, in contrast to other episodes Ogawa appears in.

    I remember that the first time I saw this episode I thought that as an ensign it would be awesome to serve under Crusher, but the shits to serve under Geordi.

    1. Yikes. Obviously nothing against Bev, but that sort of says everything, doesn't it?

    2. Yeah, I get the impression the writers wanted to portray different types of relationships between ensigns and commanding officers; this ended up working more to Picard's, Crusher's and Worf's advantage, and to Riker's and LaForge's disadvantage since they had relationships with ensigns that were a little more conflictual. LaForge in particular though ended up looking like he had no depth of character compared to the other senior officers, which is reprehensible.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. From speaking with friends who have been in the military, the vast majority of military work is really very boring, and does resemble modern office work. A lot of it involves paperwork. A great deal is trying to figure out what is supposed to have gone where when, and why it didn't. And a lot of cleaning.

    The friends who were on ships in the navy found it quite monotonous, outside of the times when they could sneak off to drink rocket alcohol. Incredibly loud, also, because the constant roar of the ship engine filled the metal interior so omnipresently that you were supposed to have your hearing checked semi-regularly ("supposed to" being the operative phrase here), because after a while you didn't notice it until you were on shore leave and that meant permanent damage had probably occurred. If you enjoyed fixing things that broke, it was a little better, but things like watch were pretty uneventful and boring, though important and potentially terrifying. It really depended on rank and personality.

    The folks involved in "actual" combat (infantry and the like) spent a lot of time playing video and role playing games, watching movies, working out, going to church, and doing everything in their power to ignore the 1% of the time they were out in the field with the potential to be killed.

    I've been told that whoever described it as 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror was completely correct.

    1. As someone who works with a lot of active military people, yeah, most of the time the only difference between my job and theirs is that they can stay on the clock if they go to the gym.

  5. Great perspective on the episode! I think I always loved the idea of this more than the episode itself. I'd always thought that there wasn't a separation between the 'classes' on the ship but that everyone had a skill set that was regarded as important - not position or place as that suggests that people are not mobile. So yes as you say, underlining the class here just undercuts the idea of utopia here and removes any sense of wonder.

  6. "I want to see gigantic walk-through aquariums with sentient whale-people navigators."

    So you're aware of the dolphins. They're in the blueprints. :)