Original air date: February 7, 1994
Riker and Troi are in Ten Forward griping about having to fill out crew evaluations and hand out promotions. Little do they realize that the very people whose fates hang in the balance are staring at them from across the room. It's this group of junior officers we'll be focusing on this episode, all ensigns. They are human nurse Alyssa Ogawa from previous episodes, a human helmsman named Sam Lavelle, a Vulcan engineer named Taurik, and a Bajoran security officer named Sito Jaxa (whom we've actually seen once before in "The First Duty"). Their friend Ben, a human bartender, spies for them and reveals that Lavelle and Sito are candidates for the same position at ops.
As the crew goes through some battle simulations, Picard suddenly enters from his ready room and orders a change in course, then calls a conference with his senior staff. When they’re gone, Sito notices that the change in course will lead them near the Cardassian border. Later in Ten Forward, Ben tells Lavelle not to be so intimidated by Commander Riker and recommends getting to know him a little better when they’re not on duty. The plan goes a little awry, though, because Ben mistakenly informs him that Riker is Canadian, and that’s the topic he chooses to start the conversation with. When Riker explains that he’s actually from Alaska, Lavelle notes, "Well, they both get a lot of snow," and awkwardly shuffles away.
Worf picks up an object on the ship’s sensors, which he identifies as an escape pod floating in Cardassian space. Picard orders that the occupant be beamed directly to Sickbay, and Doctor Crusher orders Nurse Ogawa to leave. Ogawa finds Sito standing guard to keep anyone but the senior staff out of Sickbay but neither one of them knows what’s going on. Picard comes by and orders Sito to follow him back to his ready room, where he suddenly starts to chew her out for the incident she was involved in at Starfleet Academy. He tells her she should have been expelled for it and says that he has no idea how she ended up on the Enterprise.
The junior officers are left in the dark as to what’s happening. La Forge has Taurik fire a phaser at one of the Enterprise’s shuttlecrafts, telling him that they’re performing a test of its hull resiliency. Taurik doesn’t object, but does point out that it’s obvious that what they’re really doing is making it look like the shuttlecraft has been attacked. Doctor Crusher, meanwhile, swears Nurse Ogawa to secrecy and brings her in to Sickbay, where she sees that the person they beamed aboard from Cardassian space is a Cardassian!
That night, both the senior and junior officers engage in their own poker nights. The ensigns (and Ben) talk about their superiors and what they think is going on. Nurse Ogawa saying nothing, true to her word. At the same time, the higher-ups gossip about the junior officers and discuss who to promote to ops. Worf sticks up for Sito, while Troi reminds Riker that he and Lavelle aren’t all that different. Another issue discussed at the junior officers’ table is Taurik’s concern that he’s put himself on bad terms with Commander La Forge, but that fear is put to rest when La Forge personally asks for Taurik to help him run some tests that Taurik had suggested.
The next day, Worf takes Sito aside at the end of his martial arts class and tells her she can move up to his advanced class if she can pass a surprise test. The test requires her to defend herself against him while she wears a blindfold and he does not. After he easily defeats her three times, she refuses to continue, saying that the test is unfair. Worf admits that it is and suggests that she stand up for herself the next time she's being judged unfairly. She gets his meaning and speaks with Captain Picard a second time. She tells him that all she can do is be the best officer she can be going forward, so if he's not going to give her a fair chance to do that, he should transfer her somewhere else. Impressed, Picard reveals that he was really just testing her to see if she had the guts to stand up to him because he wants her to participate in a secret operation. He also admits he specifically brought her to the Enterprise so she could have a chance to redeem herself.
The whole secret is finally revealed to Sito. The person in the escape pod was a Cardassian spy bringing secrets to the Federation. To get back across the Cardassian border, he’ll need to play the part of a bounty hunter returning with a captured Bajoran terrorist played by Sito. If all goes well, she’ll be sent back in an escape pod similarly to how they picked up the spy in the first place. Picard stresses that he’s not ordering Sito to go through with this, but Sito willingly volunteers. She and the spy set out in the phaser-burned shuttlecraft to make it look as if he is flying a stolen craft. The Enterprise waits for Sito’s escape pod, but after more than thirty hours, it still hasn’t appeared. In breach of treaty, Picard orders a probe to be launched into Cardassian space. The probe reveals the debris of a destroyed escape pod. Picard makes a somber announcement to the crew.
Lavelle is promoted to ops, but he feels guilty about how he got the promotion. Taurik tells him that the best way to honor Sito’s memory is to excel at his new position. Ben then sees Worf sitting alone and suggests he join Lavelle and the others. Worf protests that he was only Sito’s commanding officer, but Ben tells him that Sito considered him her friend. The episode closes as Worf joins their table.
This episode provides examples of
- A Day in the Limelight: Instead of the main cast, we see things from the viewpoint of several junior officers.
- Audience Surrogate: Nurse Ogawa is the one member of the "lower decks" crew that viewers know, so the younger officers aren't completely foreign.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Lavelle resorts to chanting a mantra of "Promote me!" to will his promotion. He gets it, but definitely not in a manner he would have wanted.
- Benevolent Boss:
- Crusher and Worf come across the best of all the commanding officers, being unequivocal in their support for Ogawa and Sito, respectively. La Forge and Riker flirt with coming across like a Bad Boss, but both redeem themselves more or less.
- Picard is once again revealed to be one. After an unprompted and self-righteous dressing down of Sito, he reveals that it was just a test, and he personally requested her for his crew so that she'd have a chance to redeem herself.
- Call-Back: To the Season 5 episode "The First Duty" where then Cadet Sito, along with Wesley and the rest of their team, got in trouble for engaging in a cover up to hide the fact that a risky and illegal flight maneuver is what killed their fellow teammate.
- Child Soldiers: Sito isn't exactly a child, but the Cardassian agent and the Enterprise crew all lament how young she is.
- The Dead Have Names: Picard personally makes a shipwide announcement to inform the crew of Ensign Sito's death. This is underlined by the fact that it's only now that we learn her given name (Jaxa).
- Disqualification-Induced Victory: Done tragically with Sito's death clearing Lavelle's path to promotion, one last bitter pill on top of an already terrible day.
- Downer Ending: Sito is killed before she can return to the Enterprise.
- Hold Your Hippogriffs: Sito says she wishes she was a "spider under the table" as Riker and Worf discuss crew evaluations. Lavelle asks if she meant "fly on the wall."
- I'm Your Worst Nightmare: Said word-for-word when Riker reveals his flush to a frustrated La Forge.
- I Knew It!: In-Universe. Ben says this word-for-word when calling Lavelle's bluff and wins.
- I Know You Know I Know: Geordi and Taurik on damaging the shuttle craft to appear as if it had been attacked.
- Irrational Hatred: Lavelle is convinced Riker has this for him, though he eventually realizes he's only been telling himself this so he won't have to blame himself if he doesn't get the promotion. Ironically, his attempts to make good with Riker actually end up causing the first officer to develop a dislike for him, as Riker starts to suspect Lavelle of being a brown-noser.
- Locked Out of the Loop: When Sito goes on the secret mission, Lavelle is the only one knows nothing about what's going on; as Ogawa knows there was a Cardassian on board, and Taurik knows about the intentionally damaged shuttle.
- Lower-Deck Episode: Trope Namer. The main characters have plenty of screen time, but the focus of the story is on Sito and her friends and how the crisis of the day looks from their perspective.
- My Species Doth Protest Too Much: Why the Cardassian agent is helping The Federation. He knows that a war with the Federation would be devastating to Cardassia. He also knows that the Federation would never start such a war, but there are factions in Cardassia's government that would.
- Never Found the Body: Sito is presumed dead after the wreckage of her escape pod is found. The writers considered bringing her back for DS9 as a rescued prisoner, but decided that doing so would rob this episode of its poignancy (among other, more practical reasons).
- Not So Above It All: The Vulcan Taurik reacts with dull surprise to everything throughout the episode (it comes with the territory). However, in his brief final scene, he is visibly shaken at Picard's announcement of Sito's death.
- "Not So Different" Remark: Riker doesn't like Lavelle, seeing him as too much of a brownnoser, but Troi reminds him that the reason Riker's so good at poker is because he starting playing way back as an ensign to ingratiate himself with senior officers.
- Not So Stoic: Worf is visibly saddened by Sito's death but feels it would be presumptuous to mourn with her friends, as he was only her commanding officer. Ben points out that Sito considered him a friend, which encourages him to join them.
- Pet the Dog: After a tactical drill, Riker gives Sito a bit of advice, specifically noting that it isn't included in the academy.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Lavelle gets promoted to Lieutenant, but feels that the death of his friend Sito has cost him more than he's gained. Ogawa and Taurik encourage him to do his best in his new position as a way to honor her memory.
- Redemption Equals Death: Sito does everything in her power to atone for her actions at the Academy three years earlier. After much hassle, she emerges successful in proving her worth to her commanding officers, and it begins to look like she will have a long, promising career ahead for her in Starfleet. Sadly, this all becomes moot when she is killed by Cardassians during a top-secret mission.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: When Riker says he isn't sure he should promote Sito or Lavelle, Worf counters that Sito has his full confidence. Riker merely says "I'm listening", and lets Worf make his case.
- Reformed, but Rejected: Sito to Picard. Subverted when it turns out that Picard's rejection of Sito is actually a Secret Test of Character. In fact, he reveals he brought her onto the Enterprise specifically to prevent her from being this to some other captain.
- Remember the New Guy?: We haven't seen Ben, Lavelle or Taurik before, nor have we seen Sito on the Enterprise. Sito has specifically been around for seven months following her (delayed) graduation from Starfleet Academy.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Picard agrees to breach the treaty between the Cardassians and the Federation to search for Sito, risking a diplomatic incident for the life of his brave crewmember.
- Secret Test of Character: Worf gives Sito one by blindfolding her and ordering her to block his attacks. She eventually protests that the test isn't fair, which turns out to be the entire point of the lesson, to speak up when being judged unfairly. This motivates her to do the same to Picard for his earlier "The Reason You Suck" Speech, which it turns out was the same sort of test.
- Similar Squad: The ensigns share a similar composition with the Main Characters they work with, as seen in the poker game. Sito works in Security under Worf, Taurik works in Engineering under La Forge, Ogawa works in Medical under Crusher, Lavelle works in Command under Riker, and Ben is a bartender under (in the civilian sense) Guinan. The ratio of two women and three men is also maintained. Ben plays the informal counselor and Troi observes, much to Riker's discomfort, that he and Lavelle are quite alike.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Ben for Guinan. He's a black bartender who is free to fraternize with both junior and senior officers. Originally Guinan was going to be a part of the story, but Whoopi Goldberg wasn't available.
- Trojan Prisoner: Sito was to pretend to be the prisoner of the Cardassian spy in order to allow him to cross the border in a Starfleet Shuttlecraft. Everything goes well until her escape pod is destroyed.
- You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: La Forge is incredulous when Riker makes his flush during the Poker game.