Boldly Going

The Tenuous Relationship of Torture and Power: Chain of Command Part 2

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

While I will always love rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are certain episodes that take me back to the first time I watched them, every time. The sensation resembles a form of sense memory in how purely visceral it is. “The Best of Both Worlds part one” fell into this category, so, too, does “Chain of Command Part Two.” I honestly expected that reaction, but I did not expect the story to have a new and deeper impact upon viewing it in a post-Abu Ghraib world. While the first episode serves as a great set-up character piece, Part Two really delves into the thematic meat of the story, which is ultimately a meditation on the nature of power.

Plot Ahoy

As with most of the really great TNG episodes, summarizing the story poses no great challenge. Gul Madred tortures Picard on an unnamed Cardassian facility while Captain Jellico and the Enterprise crew attempt to save him without jeopardizing the treaty with the Cardassians. Jellico deduces that a Cardassian invasion fleet waits across the border from Minos Korva, and he has the newly christened First Officer Data whisk the Enterprise to the Federation side of the border, across from the McAllister C-5 nebula. Jellico orders LaForge to create mines and deploys Riker in a shuttle to release mines so that they attach to the hulls of the Cardassian ships. Gul Madred continues to torture Picard, inflicting pain when Picard refuses to tell him that he sees a fifth light in the array of four lights behind Madred’s desk. Jellico successfully convinces Gul Lemec to withdraw and return Picard to Starfleet. When Lemec arrives to procure Picard, Madred tries one last time to force Picard to tell him he sees five lights. Defiantly, Picard screams that he sees only four lights, but when he returns to the Enteprise, Picard confesses to Counsellor Troi that he could actually see five lights.

I don’t think you’re a particularly good first officer.

Before delving into the Picard story, I want to explore a bit of the Jellico/Riker dynamic in this episode. Back in “Part One,” we see the conflict between the two emerging, but it comes to a real head when Riker criticizes Jellico’s decision to recommend that Admiral Nechayev decline Lemec’s proposal to exchange Picard for a complete Federation withdrawal from the sector. Riker mirrors the viewer’s shock and fury that Jellico will, as Riker puts it, use Picard’s life as a negotiation tactic. Jellico then relieves Riker of duty. As frustrating as it is to see Riker so humiliated and Picard’s agony prolonged, especially as we’ve already seen the extent to which Madred tortures him, Jellico’s call is the correct one. While the episode does not make it clear, Minos Korva serves not only as the name of the star but also of a planet with millions of Federation colonists, rendering Jellico’s decision a classic “Needs of the Many” choice.

Furthermore, Jellico correctly deduces that there’s a particular reason that the Cardassians went to such lengths to acquire Picard specifically, and he develops a plan, pushes same through the correct channels, and executes it in frankly exemplary fashion. That fashion just happens not to be the same style as Captain Picard would have used. Riker correctly asserts that Jellico’s command style has destabilized the Enterprise crew, and twelve-year-old Marie both agreed with Riker and was furious on Captain Picard’s behalf. Now in my late thirties, I appreciate Jellico’s decisions here. He refuses to allow the crew’s emotional attachment to Picard dictate a kneejerk action that could have destabilized the treaty and placed colonists at risk. Granted, the colony’s existence fails to come through in the episode, which I believe to be the episode’s only real weakness; the episode as it aired never explains the system’s significance. From Madred’s description of the military-instituted policy of finding new resources, I imagine that Minos Korva had such resources, but as the system is only ancillary to the actual story, we never find out why the Cardassians wanted the system so badly.

Jellico puts aside his dislike of Riker and asks, rather than orders, Riker to pilot the shuttle in the McAllister nebula. Despite Riker’s baiting, Jellico responds calmly, despite having admitted his own dislike for Riker previously. More to the point, even after Jellico relieves Riker of duty for cause, he remains committed enough to the success of the mission that he willingly makes that request, putting aside his own antipathy for Riker. He’s even mature enough to assure the bridge crew that it was an honor serving with them, though notably none of them offer him the same sentiment. On this viewing, I found myself walking away with far less respect for Riker than I had previously.

There are FOUR lights!

Riker accuses Jellico of micromanaging capable personnel, just barely skirting calling him a control-freak, which is an interesting look at Jellico’s understanding of command. Command itself is a form of power, and the Picard/Madred story takes that theme and renders it overt. Madred could clearly have extracted the information he needed from Picard while he held Picard under the influence of drugs. Madred even comments that he believes Picard when he says he has no idea what the defense plans for Minos Korva would be. Madred seems to ask questions about Minos Korva as an afterthought; he tortures Picard purely for the challenge inherent in breaking Picard. He tortures for torture’s sake, and the episode unflinchingly shows us that in all its attendant horror.

Later, Madred allows his daughter into his torture room with Picard sitting, slumped in misery in his chair to teach her about feeding for her pet wompat. Doing so demonstrates his power not only to his daughter, who gets to see her father doing his duty to Cardassia by establishing his superiority over the human, but also to Picard. Madred still has the opportunity to leave the room, to return to a normal and pain-free life. Madred has taken that choice from Picard. Madred also establishes himself as having the ultimate power over Picard’s meals, what he wears (or doesn’t), and Picard’s physical condition. Madred lies to Picard about using Dr. Crusher as a torture subject in order to force Picard to choose to remain Madred’s prisoner, even though Crusher and Worf both escaped. The point, again, is power.

Madred’s real mistake is telling Picard the story of his life as a homeless orphan on Lakat’s streets, giving both Picard and by extension, the viewer the very real insight into why Madred engages in torture. As Picard observes to Madred, torture is known to be at best an unreliable means of obtaining information and an even less reliable means of securing control. Madred’s interest in torture stems from his own need to exert the same kind of abuse over others that he sustained as a child. The torture, therefore, comes not from a place of strength and power but rather from Madred’s own childhood weakness. By forcing Madred to confront that weakness, Picard effectively breaks Madred’s power over him. He tells Madred that he won’t see Madred as a powerful Gul but rather as the starving six year old boy who had his arm broken over a few Taspar eggs.

TNG told us in 1992 that engaging in torture is a sign of weakness. It’s a hard lesson, made even harder by how tempted Picard was to say that there were five lights just to make the pain end. The ability to cause pain isn’t power. Real power comes from the ability to inspire, to bring joy, and that’s something we should all remember.

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. I think it’s a sign of how far Picard has come as a character that he goes straight into the Ready Room to discuss his ordeal with Troi. That’s personal growth there that gets dialed back a bit in First Contact.
  2. David Warner’s performance as Gul Madred is so deliciously good that nearly thirty years later, I still get goosebumps at the Taspar egg scene. It blows my mind that he had three days’ notice that he’d be taking over the character. He did the whole thing while reading cue cards over Sir Stewart’s shoulder.
  3. The taspar egg reminds me a bit of balut, though balut isn’t generally eaten raw. I don’t know that the resemblance is intentional, but it’s a reminder that science fiction often remains grounded in real world phenomena. Nowhere is this more evident than with food. Fruits less-familiar to western audiences such as dragon fruit or Kiwano end up doubling as alien cuisine on Star Trek all the time. It’s nice to see street food making an appearance, even if it’s in less than a completely positive light.
  4. Red remains a pretty good look for Data.
  5. This episode set a new standard for how torture should be depicted on the small screen. Showing these torture sequences took a great deal of chutzpah on the part of the cast and crew. It’s really, really intense stuff.
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