Next week, Star Trek: Lower Decks kicks off, giving us a whole show in the canon dedicated to the most unsung Starfleet officers of all: the Ensigns. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young officers just starting off their careers are the stalwarts of any good Trek. So before they get their moment in... some kind of spotlight, let’s remember the best of the not-yet-best.
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Long before Lower Decks, Star Trek: The Animated Series provided a chance to bring much more variety to the crew of the Enterprise than the live-action Trek’s budget could at the time. We got Lieutenants M’Ress and Arex, alien bridge officers, unlike anything we’d ever seen in the show before. But the show also occasionally let the series strive for more of that egalitarian future Roddenberry’s vision purported to believe in, even if on-screen it came in fits and starts. Case in point: Ensign Dawson Walking Bear, Trek’s first Native American officer.
Ensign Walking Bear only appeared in one episode—“How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”—but he played a vital role, navigating the history of the Kukulkan for the officers around him who couldn’t recognize its roots in some of Earth’s oldest civilizations and cultures.
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Yeah, it’s cool to hate on Wesley. Even his peers went about yelling at him to shut up. But a) he’s a child, Picard should know better, and more importantly, b) he’s a child and he still got to operate on the bridge of one of the most important flagships of Starfleet. First as acting, and then provisional Ensign, Wesley got to do the actual job of people way older and more experienced than him, and was only a snotty brat about it... let’s go for a good 60% of the time. But hey! He’s a kid doing the job of an adult while also, like, being on the bridge of a starship during first contact and combat situations?
And that was before he even actually went off to the Academy! He may have only been a provisional ensign on the Enterprise, but he was an actual ensign in our hearts.
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Poor Lemli. Out of his many appearances as a background character in the original series, he has a single line of dialogue in the very last episode of the show. He barely even had his name mentioned on-screen, with Kirk and the crew simply calling him Ensign more often than not. But you don’t make 33 appearances in classic Trek as an Ensign—a security Ensign!—and come out of the other end of it having not been killed off on an away mission without doing something right. That’s not just consistency, that is a killer survival instinct aboard the Enterprise.
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The life of an Ensign is hard enough, given all the menial tasks you need to do but with none of the recognition, regardless of your division. But Samantha Wildman had to do all that while also becoming a vital guinea pig in Voyager’s long trek home: having become pregnant before the ship was sent into the badlands (and promptly flung into the Delta Quadrant), Sam had to go through pregnancy while on the job—that job being her normal job and also “Oh god, survive in space 70 years away from Earth with no support and with occasional angry aliens trying to steal your ship or kill you”—give birth to her daughter, Naomi, and be a mom that had to prove whether, should the need have arisen, Voyager was capable of being a generational vessel. You do you, Ensign Wildman.
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A lot of the Ensigns we’re highlighting here are on the list because they’re the very model of what good Starfleet Ensigns should be, but Ro Laren is on here for being... well, the opposite. And cool as hell.
A Bajoran who grew up at the height of the refugee crisis created by the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, Ro’s career in Starfleet was a wild one, to say the least. Originally court-martialled for disobeying orders that got multiple people killed on an away team, Ro was re-recruited first as an undercover officer on the Enterprise before Picard saw her potential and asked her to stay on board after her real mission came to light. That push and pull between the trauma of her upbringing and the desire to live up to that potential defined Ro’s arc on TNG, and even when she ultimately left Starfleet behind, it made her one of the most fascinating Ensigns the franchise has ever given us.
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Enterprise thrust some of the most vital tasks on its lowest rung on the chain of command (shoutout to poor Ensign Mayweather, the helmsman that the show... mostly forgot about?). Hoshi wasn’t just an important part of the bridge crew as the NX-01's comms officer, sometimes, she was literally a universal translator, using her xenolinguistics background to step in where tech failed. An Ensign! Guys, I get you’re meant to be scrappy humans badgered by snooty Vulcans at this point, but c’mon. Give these Ensigns more respect.
Also, she did all this despite spending early parts of Enterprise absolutely out-of-her-mind petrified of being on a spaceship. Which, to be fair, would probably be most of us on one of humanity’s first long-range exploration missions into the great beyond Trek’s earth had found itself flung into. But Hoshi grit her teeth and got on with it regardless.
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Ah, Trek’s first “hero” Ensign! Chekov may have often been portrayed as the naive young kid aboard the Enterprise bridge, helping Sulu at the helm, but he was absolutely just as heroic as any one of the original show’s legendary stars. Chekov set the standard for all Ensigns to come after him, that playful mix of inexperience and knowledge that thrust him at the heart of the action, showing more often than not that he could stand shoulder to shoulder with his higher-ranked peers.
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On DS9, Nog faced many prejudices—from his Federation peers to his own family—when he revealed his desire to join Starfleet. But not only did he defy those prejudices to nail his entrance to the Academy, he found himself flung into the heart of the Dominion War, one of the most hellish conflicts the Federation had seen in centuries, as a newly commissioned Ensign. Nog’s early life in Starfleet wasn’t doing menial tasks for the officers around him, it was fighting on the front lines, watching the officers above him get blown apart or crumble under the strain of war. He faced tragedy himself, learning to cope with the trauma of survival, all while he was practically still a kid, barely out of training. It was the least they could to make him a Lieutenant in the finale, frankly.
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Sure, sure, Tilly captured our hearts as a Cadet before she got promoted for like, you know, helping end a war that nearly destroyed the Federation. Plus, she’s always got her eye on the next rank up, eager to become a Captain much more than she ever was an Ensign.
But Tilly represents that eager, excitable wanderlust that defines the very best of Starfleet’s junior officers: she can’t hold in her passion for the work she does, even if sometimes that passion and can-do attitude mean she like, gets bonded with weird fungal aliens from a layer of subspace from time to time. God bless you, Tilly. Hopefully, now you’re far-flung into the future someone will see that you’re well due for that promotion.
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Ah, Harry. Harry, Harry, Harry. If all the other Ensigns on this list have been emblematic of the Ensign rank’s most noble traits, Harry is emblematic of Ensigns because... well, he did so much shit while Voyager was stranded in the Delta Quadrant and never got credit for it!
Imagine watching all your friends around you on the bridge getting promotions despite being zillions of lightyears from Starfleet command. Imagine dying like, what, a year into the whole ordeal and getting replaced by an alternate reality version of yourself? Imagine going up against that weird horny fear clown! Imagine watching Tom Paris—Actual Convict—get promoted over you, demoted, and then re-promoted above you. Harry went through all that, and more, and you know what? He did it with a smile. Sure, he’s a bit of a dweeb at times, but he never got frustrated that he was seemingly perpetually doomed to never get his due—Harry still persevered. That is an Ensign spirit. Ensigns get the job done, even if they don’t always get the recognition for it.
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If they hadn’t decided to bring back Dax as Ezri in Season 7, I thought it would’ve been cool to bring in Michelle Forbes for a year to give Ro a wrap-up/redemption arc. The novels did all sorts of things with Ro, but it always struck me as odd that they never brought her in for even for a guest appearance on DS9, especially since she was originally going to be the first officer.