Monday, February 13, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 6: Chain of Command, Part II

The Next Generation, Season 6
"Chain of Command, Part 2"
Airdate: December 21, 1992
136 of 176 produced
136 of 176 aired


Captain Picard is being held in Cardassian custody, facing torture. Captain Jellico is staring across the negotiating table at Gul Lemec and the prospect of war seems increasingly more likely. So, just another lazy, kicking-back-with-a-Samarian-Sunset kind of a day on the Enterprise.

Yep. Four!


Kevin: This half of the two parter accomplishes the rare feat of surpassing its first half. Freed of having to set up the problem, we can just dive right in to exploring it. The meatier half is, of course, the Picard torture scenes. I recently found a review of Star Trek 2009 that criticized the Pike torture scene for being a formulaic action scene, citing this episode as an example of Star Trek getting it right. Surviving torture is not merely a case of gritting your teeth against pain, but surving an assault on your personhood. I really can't say enough good things about how the episode didn't flinch from portraying various aspects of torture. The dangling the chance at freedom, the forced nudity, the gaslighting with the lights, etc. are all extremely upsetting to watch. The pain device was a neat way to show graphic torture without being graphic. I also like how the moralizing about torture was still very understated. The comments about how once you can depersonalize one person, you can depersonalize anyone really struck home. The scene where Picard calls out Madred for still being a scared little boy is gripping. And the scene where Picard questions the utility of torture is oddly prescient.

Matthew: I think Stewart's acting sold the pain device more than anything we can credit in the writing. But beyond that, I agree on the solid, interesting, and harrowing portrayal of torture. The psychological jousting between Picard and Madred was totally engrossing, and their dialogue was excellent. I liked the insights it gave us into Cardassian society, as well - apparently they are ruled by an economic central planning military junta, after a long period of economic and political chaos. This adds a really interesting layer to them as a people and villain.

Kevin: My favorite part of the episode is Picard confessing that not only was he willing to say there were four lights to avoid more torture, but that he actually saw lights was chilling and profound. It's serves as both an amazing and vulnerable character moment like "Family" and as a stark indictment of torture. There's a reason we call it "breaking" someone: they're broken. If someone is willing to say literally anything to avoid torture, how can you trust what they say? I like that the writers had the courage to face the issues so bluntly, without cheating by making Picard supernaturally heroic. The entire sequence of events felt neither like the torture-porn of the a movie like "Saw," but not the casual glossing over of an action film.

Matthew: Yeah, this was a fascinating aspect of the story. I liked that there was no clear victor any which way. Frankly, though, I can see arguments for playing it multiple ways. He could have refused and said "four lights" right away, but later admit that he could see five. This would make him obstinate but not superhuman. He could have said "five lights" and given Madred a victory, but then we could see Lemec chastise him. Anyway, the best note for me was that Picard, after returning to the Enterprise, actually seeks out Counselor Troi's advice as opposed to avoiding it in "Family." It shows growth in his character and in their relationship, and is yet another rung in her upward climb towards respectability.

Kevin: The scenes on the Enterprise were enjoyable too. I think the script did a good job of making both Jellico and Riker a little bit wrong. Jellico is being callous to Picard being tortured and he was in fact working with not just Federation sanction, but explicit orders. It's un-Federation to shy away from the consequences of their actions. That said, Riker discussing it in front of Lemec was petulant and stupid. I did find the idea he was the best pilot stupid, like really...better than Data? It was contrived to force a resolution. Also, in the realm of magical non-consequences, Riker was relieved of duty and then...un-relieved. That's it. Still, the scenes themselves were tense and watching Jellico bitch-slap Lemec was fun.

Matthew: The shuttle thing was definitely the Achilles' heel of an otherwise great story. For one thing, if Geordi can outfit the shuttle to resist the nebula, why can't the Cardassians also steel their ships against its effects? Riker being a crack pilot, I can believe. But it would be a lot easier to believe if, even within the confines of this two-parter, it had been mentioned outside of the resolution of this episode. You know, like the conversation between Jellico and Geordi about previous piloting experience? Anyway, I did like that Riker's reasons for being an insubordinate jerk were much more fleshed out than in the previous episode. I liked very much the sticking point of recognizing Picard as a Federation operative and the statutory protection that would grant him.


Kevin: I will, begrudgingly, spare you a rant about the lack of acting hardware for this show. Patrick Stewart has long been an advocate of Amnesty International and watched a great deal of material on torture to prepare, and it paid dividends. His voiceless screaming was haunting and watching him fight it to spar with Madred is probably one of his best performances ever.

Matthew: Stewart had a big challenge in this episode, and that was making an internally implanted sci-fi pain device not seem silly. Mission accomplished! His pain, both physical and psychological, seemed very real, and the physical acting he engaged in during the torture scenes was very good. Holding his arms up to indicate the physical stress from hanging by them all night was really effective. His acting touches after returning to the ship were great, too. When he took command from Jellico, there was just a little something in his demeanor that communicated both relief and remaining apprehension. The way he was wringing his hands while talking with Marina Sirtis was subtle but very effective.

Kevin: David Warner topped his performance of Gorkon. The veneer of elegance over an acid core was amazing. His last speech promising Picard an anonymous death probably scared me more than anything ever had at the age of 10 when I first saw it.

Matthew: I've sung the praises of David Warner before, and I hope just about anyone can see why after watching this episode. The way he reads his lines, trying to goad Picard with threats against Crusher, later offering him a life of ease, talking about Cardassia's past and his own childhood, show him to be an actor of the first order. I think his performance here puts him in the top two or three villains in Trek history.

Kevin: The main and guest stars back on the Enteprise did the same awesome job they did last time, so I don't really have a lot to add on that front. Well done, all.

Matthew: I liked Frakes quite a bit more in this episode than the last. Part of this is the script, sure, but also  I think there might be a greater belief in the script on his part. His confrontations with Ronny Cox, both while being relieved and then when the "ranks were dropped" were a lot of fun to watch.

Production Values

Kevin: The torture room was appropriately dark and atmosheric. It's a credit to the episode that so much was accomplished with so little in terms of design. The Galor-class ship lent for some nice establishing shots, but it was almost a bottle show beyond that. I thought the prop-work was particularly good. The live egg was appropriately nauseating and the control device for the pain device looked great.

Matthew: I agree that the torture chamber looked nice. It had  a nice color scheme, looking very clinical and severe. I'm glad they didn't feel the need to dress it up too much. I will say the "jevonite" dagger wasn't as impressive as Madred made it out to be, perhaps because of the lack of close-up. I also liked the shuttle trip, I thought the nebular cloud looked nice through the windows.


Kevin: This episode tackled a real world issue with such depth and sensitivity that giving less than a 5 feels like an insult. This is one of the most ambitious episodes in the franchise and except for a niggling concern about the ranking of pilots on the ship and the lack of consequences for Riker, there is nothing wrong with this episode. Two classically trained actors give what I can say with a straight face was among the best of their careers. It's also a bit of a hat trick in that exceeds rather than fails the setup of the first part. It is a solid 5.

Matthew: I agree with the 5, mainly on the strength of the acting. We've really not gotten such a high octane pairing yet between a hero and villain, and the actors behind them, in the franchise so far. The minor story deficiencies, and the relative lack of science fiction yet again, don't really dilute the impact of the Picard-Madred conflict. This is a drama that would be worth watching no matter the setting.  It certainly deserves our combined 10.


  1. I have always wondered why they let Picard go back to being Captain so quickly. You would think he would need some testing to make sure he was not damaged in the head.

    I wonder if the fans of Waterboarding would call this torture or enhanced interrogation?

  2. This has long been one of if not my absolute favorite episode.

    The chills that it sends down my spine with every single viewing never diminish.

    One of the most powerful things is the way that Picard, when Jellico is handing the Enterprise back to him, seems to be puffing himself up to look like his normal self, as if to fill the space he'd normally fill he had to make himself bigger. To have to make yourself bigger to fill your own footprint because you've literally become too small for it... *shiver*

    Even when I was a kid... this episode scared me in that wonderful way where you learn from your fear. I became fascinated with the psychology of what one person can do to another, but never found another movie or TV show that did it nearly as well as this. The tendency to go over the top from realism into fantasy (or torture-porn, as you put it) is apparently irresistible to Hollywood. And once you do that, it's not useful as a teaching tool any longer. It's a caricature at that point.

    I'm glad they ended on the line of dialogue they did, and not with Troi's reaction. It lets the moment sink in, without the cue of, "This is what you should think. We will demonstrate." I'm also terribly glad that they didn't shy away from making the statement that he was in the process of breaking. Most shows would let you wonder. They'd leave the possibility open, but they wouldn't confirm or deny.

    THIS is why I love Star Trek. When they decide to look at an issue, they really LOOK at it, without being squeamish about looking at ALL of its aspects. They do a thorough examination, and trust the audience to take the information presented and form a personal opinion on the matter.