Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chain of Command: Continuing a New Trend

by Mojochi

By its sixth season, Star Trek: The Next Generation had reached the height of its popularity. It was likely this success which bolstered their confidence enough to show more than one mid-season two part episode, for the only time during the series' run.

The one which generated the most attention was called "Chain of Command". It was a ground breaking episode for Star Trek, in a couple different ways. Primarily, it marked the first time that a plot revolved around the captain being reassigned and replaced with a guest actor, that being Ronny Cox (Deliverance), who would play the forcefully direct Captain Edward Jellico. This plot created a very fertile landscape, wherein conflict could arise throughout the ranks of the Enterprise crew, as it was quite evident, very early on, that Jellico was nothing like the captain they'd grown accustomed to, during their six years aboard ship.

This made for very interesting exchanges, as the crew attempts to deal with their mission and face unwanted restructuring, while hoping for the safe return of Captain Picard. Such a risk would likely never have been taken with the preceding television cast of the original Star Trek, for it may have been viewed by the creators, at that time, as undermining to the captain's overall character appeal, which leaves at least this reviewer to believe that The Next Generation was truly willing to continue the longstanding custom of being bold, trying new and precarious things, a trait that Star Trek has been much praised for.

The second reason this episode stands out within the "TNG" collection is that it marks the only time in this series, and one of very few times within the franchise's history, where the captain is imprisoned and subjected to eerily realistic torture techniques from Picard's Cardassian captor, for the purpose of obtaining classified information. One can only assume that this specific storyline held great significance for its central performer, Patrick Stewart, who, for many years prior to the filming of this episode, had been one of the strongest supporters of the human rights organization Amnesty International, warranting him the honor of an award named for him.

It's only too fitting that an episode which delves into the study of classic torture methodology, on the Human psyche, should be played out by someone who has stood in opposition to such treatment, alongside the world's most organized group of active objectors. There are many true to life depictions of the tactics used, in this episode, though not necessarily the torture methods themselves. There is even a point, when the character of Picard reflects on the overall proof that exists to dispel with the belief that this form of punishment serves any productive goal, and rather tends to be a self defeating means by which to obtain any desired result.

In fact, this is the very way the episode plays out, with a continued willful resistance by Picard, which reaches its climax with the lines, now infamous among Trek fans: "There are four lights!!!!" This is in reference to the method of torture, where the forfeit of free will is acquired, by forcing the prisoner to participate in an active fallacy, for the exchange of mercy, specifically the admission that there are in fact five lights.

In the end, Picard is forced to recognize, in private counseling, that even he, with his tenacious will, has his breaking point, for just before his reprieve came, he had succumb to the force against him, and was not only willing to capitulate to any and all of his jailer's claims, which luckily never came to fruition, but was also amazed to realize that his own sense of reality has its breaking point, in that he truly did believe he could see five lights.

These are the kinds of lasting impressions that will haunt a person who has been subjected to this kind of treatment. So naturally, I was impressed to see Star Trek depict it as well as they did. Though the incident is never mentioned again, thereafter, it is refreshing to know that the show's writers had become willing to portray the kind of character altering events that take place in reality. Short of his abduction by the Borg, Picard and his shipmates rarely have those kind life changing moments, and the previous Star Trek cast never even got the chance to have any at all, until their cinematic appearances. Such had been the way the show had originally been presented, and embracing a change of that nature took guts, in my opinion.