"Chain of Command, Part 2" (season 6, episode 11, first aired: 12/19/1992)
Or The One Where There Are Lights
I covered the last two seasons of 24 for the TV Club. It wasn't the best writing I've done for the site, not by a long shot. By it's seventh and eighth "Day," 24 had lost the spark that made its earlier seasons such a rush, leaving behind a lot of empty-headed posturing, bad plot-twists, and, of course, torture. I wasn't sure how to respond. For one thing, it's damnably difficult to review individual episodes of a show that's designed as a continuous narrative. But for another, without its energy and intensity, 24 was just a show with politics I didn't much agree with, and it got tedious for me to simply reiterate every week, "Really? Really?". Kiefer Sutherland was great, and there was the occasional twist or action sequence to keep me going, but generally, it was a drag, and the readers were understandably frustrated by my inability to bring anything of interest to the table.
Torture was a part of 24 from the start, but by the end of the show, thanks to outside commentators and the series' creators presumably exaggerated notions of their own philosophical wisdom, it wasn't simply a story-telling device, it was a thematic statement. Jack Bauer, whose willingness to maim anyone necessary in the name of freedom had saved a fictional US half a dozen times, was forced again and again to defend his actions, and again and again, he demonstrated that his methods, while morally questionable, got results, and results were what mattered. It made for some uncomfortable viewing to anyone who couldn't share the same view: a profoundly silly show attempting to align itself with some profoundly unsilly real-world issues. And me, being both a coward and blowhard, was never able to decide if my job was to just talk about plot points, or to actually draw out the very clear signals the series was sending. The latter tack enraged commenters; the former made me feel somehow ashamed.
It's nice, then, that the second part of "Chain of Command" fits in so well with my weak-willed, soft-hearted liberal sensibilities. Not that that's much of a surprise; it's hard to imagine TNG throwing out a "torture is delightful!" episode, especially not by now in its run. What is a surprise is how effective this episode is, even going in with high expectations and following a solid, if not all that remarkable, first half. "Chain" handily wins itself into the pantheon of all-time best Trek episodes (yes, I mean the entire franchise), and it's a big a part of this show's legacy as "Yesterday's Enterprise" or "The Inner Light." But where both those episodes, and indeed, most of TNG's best eps, speak to the resiliency of life and the importance of respect and courage, "Chain" acknowledges that there are some forces even courage and resiliency can't overcome without help. It's a criticism of torture which also doesn't deny the power one person can have over another, and the strength of its message comes from the acceptance that even the best can be broken, but that doesn't make them weak.
Before we get to the heavier stuff, though, we might as well deal with Captain Jerkwad Jellico, who--actually is a bit more interesting than I may have given him credit for. Where part one was all about him making everyone on board the Enterprise uncomfortable, creating drama to distract us from when the real show began, here Jellico largely gets down to the business of kicking ass. Admittedly, he still makes time to take Riker off active duty for insubordination, but, well, Jellico may have a point here. Riker's concern for Picard's safety is praiseworthy, but his sudden willingness to throw all other concerns to the side is unprofessional and ill-suited to the task at hand. It's also somewhat uncharacteristic of Riker, who's shown himself willing to put his duty first many times before. You could chalk it up to Number One being so fed up with Jellico's general behavior that he decides to draw a line, or else inconsistent character writing, but either way, it's hard to fault Jellico too much for putting Riker on the sidelines.
This is especially true when you consider that Jellico is, in the end, largely responsible for getting Picard back safe and sound in the process of thwarting the Cardassians. Sure, Geordi and Riker go on the hardcore shuttle mission to secretly plant mines on the Cardassian fleet, but that mine planting is Jellico's idea, and the new captain even chokes down his pride long enough to ask for Riker's help in the maneuver. That scene in particular muddies the water in the relationship between Jellico and his reluctant first mate, because while everything Riker says to him is right (we can argue all you like, but attempting to force new command routines on a working system mere days before that system is thrown under pressure is just not good thinking), Riker still comes off as much an ass as Jellico does, perhaps even more so.
Really, though, while this section of the episode has some good moments (including the sight of Data in a first officer's uniform!), it's not really what anyone remembers about "Chain," and for good reason. The centerpiece of the ep is the battle of wills between Picard and his captor/torturer Gul Madred (David Warner). The entire ruse we learned about last week with metagenic weapons was designed to lure Picard into the hands of Cardassians. They're real intentions are an assault on Minos Korva, a Federation planet near the Demilitarized Zone, and they know that, in the event of such an attack, the Enterprise would be the ship at the head of Korva's defense. Madred's job is to break Picard on the presumption that Picard knows information about how the Federation intends to defend the planet.
Picard doesn't. What's more, the episode dispenses with the question of whether or not Picard will give Madred the information he requires straightaway. In their first scene, Picard is heavily drugged, and responds truthfully and quickly to every question he's asked. He gives them his name, where he was born, and spills the point of his mission to Celtris III, as well as the names of the two people who accompanied him. Instead of making the episode about Picard's ability to withhold information under duress, "Chain" demonstrates up front that the question is, when it comes to torture, essentially irrelevant. When asked about defense measures for Minos Korva, Picard says he has no knowledge of them, and this is the truth. But the torture continues throughout the episode, because the point isn't information. The point is the breaking.
In harrowing sequence after sequence, Madred calmly sets to work taking apart Picard's defenses, his sense of self, his dignity. Even Picard's perception of reality is up for grabs. There are four lights behind Madred's desk. The Cardassian turns them on, and asks Picard how many lights he sees. When Picard tells him the obvious, Madred uses a device inserted in Picard's body earlier in the episode (between scenes) to inflict great physical pain. Because Picard no longer has the right to perceive the world as it is; his perceptions are to be dictated by the one who's really in control. There's a line from Orwell's 1984 that I kept thinking of, watching this (and really, this whole sequence shares a fair amount with Winston's gradual undoing in the Ministry of Love)--"Freedom is the right to say 2 + 2 = 4." Freedom is getting to say the truth, without fear of consequences because it is the truth. Madred's goal is to take this right from Picard. It's not a matter of simple capitulation, but total dominance. For Madred to succeed, Picard mustn't just say "There are five lights" when there are four. He must believe there are five lights, because that is what Madred tells him to believe.
"Chain" succeeds in no small part due to the strength of its performances. Patrick Stewart is, unsurprisingly, excellent, enduring humiliation and conveying distress with heartbreaking sincerity. David Warner more than holds his own. Warner is a terrific character actor, and has played the villain more than a few times before, most notably as Evil in Time Bandits and Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, but Madred trades in Evil's sneers and Jack's basic madness for something subtler, and more unnerving. The conversations between Picard and Madred are often cool, composed, even distantly pleasant, a chat between relative equals during a business lunch. Warner conveys Madred's conviction in his actions, his belief that the degradation and destruction of Jean-Luc Picard are a key part of the maintenance of the Cardassian state, only betraying his emotions when Picard sees through to his embittered, angry heart.
There are plenty of great moments here, and again and again I was amazed at how raw this all felt, how utterly unlike regular TNG. The safety nets were gone; from the start, it's clear that Picard is going to suffer, and that he won't be released from that suffering till the end of the episode, and we're just going to have to deal with that. Of course Picard manages to display some moral fortitude and righteousness. During a casual conversation about his childhood, Madred reveals he was beaten for food in his youth, and Picard realizes that the torture is just an extension of that beating. There's no knowledge to be gained here, no advantage. Madred is just taking revenge on the ones who wronged him, finding his own sense of power by slowly and methodically destroying another.
It's a revelation that could seem facile, but Warner and Stewart make it work. As well, the scene succeeds in the context of the episode because, while it gives Picard a much needed "win" moment, demonstrating that it's possible to hold onto some piece of himself through all he's endured to that point, it effectively changes nothing. Madred doesn't break down and let Picard go, and Picard never finds some way to escape his tormentors and win his freedom. In the end, Madred offers Picard a choice: he can spend the rest of his life in comfort and pleasure, or he can continue down his current path of suffering and pain, for a slow, meaningless death. All he has to do to win the former is tell Madred he sees five lights, not four. Picard hesitates, but before he can answer, other Cardassians arrive as a result of Jellico's ploy, and Picard is informed he's to be released. "There are four lights!" he shouts before he goes, finally defeating his captor.
Except... he didn't, really. Whenever anyone references "Chain" these days, the four lights line is what people remember, because it's the easiest element of the episode to remember, and because we can use it as an example of Picard's will. But that's forgetting the long pause before the other Cardassians arrived, and it's forgetting what Picard tells Troi at the very end of the episode, having returned to his command of the Enterprise slightly worse for wear. In that last moment alone with Madred, Picard would've given in if they hadn't been interrupted. "But more than that," he says, "I believed that I could see five lights." Everyone can be broken, given enough time. It doesn't even require that much skill. We're all meat and nerves and soft tissue, and we all have our limits, and there's no weakness in admitting yours. It's what makes us human, and it's what makes freedom from oppression (and a refusal to oppress in turn) so valuable. It's impressive that TNG would deal with such an unpleasant and unsettling subject, but the show's willingness to be honest when a lie would be so much more comforting is what makes this great art.
- Apparently, the torture sequences in this episode were inspired by Closetland, a 1991 film starring Madeline Stowe and Alan Rickman. I've been meaning to see that for years, although I may wait a few weeks now.
- That is Patrick Stewart hanging naked when Madred has Picard's clothes stripped off. The man commits.
- "How many lights do you see?" "I see four lights." "No. There are five."
- This pretty much ruins any other scene in the series where a character was tortured, doesn't it.
- Dick or no, how awesome was Riker's shit-eating grin when he had Jellico at his mercy? "I won't order you to fly this mission." <cue grin> "Then ask me."
- "In spite of all you've done to me, I find you a pitiable man."
"Ship in a Bottle" (season 6, episode 12, first aired: 1/23/1993)
Or The One Where the Monster Demands a Mate
And now for something completely different.
Our second holodeck-centric episode in, what, two weeks? Three? And blah blah, the holodeck is nonsense, ridiculous it should still be on the hip, and it's treated far too cavalierly by all involved. Let's just get that right out of the way, because "Ship" is actually a lot of fun (especially after the darkness of "Chain"), and more than earns the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy it. This is a very clever episode, and it's clever in the most fun way possible, creating puzzles without telegraphing their solutions and relying on the audience to keep pace with some surprisingly complex ideas. As well, it gives us the best kind of villain--someone who's resourceful, smarter than our heroes give him credit for, easy to empathize with, but not all powerful. Even better, the villain is a familiar face: a character from one of TNG's few strong season two episodes, one whose story we had no real reason to believe we'd be returning to, but whose return here makes perfect sense.
In "Elementary, Dear Data," Geordi asked the Enterprise computer to create a holodeck opponent that would be capable of defeating Data in a game of crime and punishment. Data and Geordi had been playing at Sherlock and Watson, only Geordi wasn't impressed by Data's deductive abilities--the android wasn't solving mysteries as much as he was remembering the details of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and applying them as needed. So, Geordi decided to the up the stakes, and Moriarty (Daniel Davis) was born, the reincarnation of Holmes's greatest foe. Except Moriarty was just fiendishly smart, he was so smart that he was able to deduce the limited realities of his own existence, a program that became self-aware. There was a bit of struggle, Dr. Polaski was briefly kidnapped, and in the end, Picard stepped in, assuring Moriarty that he and the brightest minds of the Federation would get to work to find a way for the holographic human to step into the real world.
Jump four years ahead, and Geordi and Data are back to elementarying and game afooting to beat the band. The cold open has a standard "Sherlock pulls together all the evidence scene," except that in Data's triumphant moment, a flaw in the system undoes his reasoning. The holodeck is having problem with spatial relationships, which turns a left-handed character (a character who needs to be left-handed for the story to properly resolve) into a right-handed one. Showing an attention to detail and a foresight which is relatively unheard of when it comes to dealings with the holodeck, Data notes the problem, and gets Barclay to look over the system. In the process of trying to find the problem, Barclay stumbles over a few lines of blocked memory, releases them, and Moriarty pops back in to existence, politely indomitable as ever, and more than a little miffed at being put off for so long.
I remember enjoying Davis's first appearance on the show, and he's a lot of fun here as well. What makes the character so effective is he's a mixture of two sci-fi staples: the Frankenstein monster demanding the rights of the living from a creator who doesn't know what to do with him; and a brilliant criminal mastermind. This version of Moriarty isn't evil, and he certainly isn't a patch on his literary inspiration in terms of diabolical intent, but this is the skill-set that the computer has given him. His goal is understandable, and, in its way, admirable: the goal of all sentient life, to be allowed the freedom to aspire to his own destiny. (Or something along those lines. Basically, he wants to get laid and go on a nice vacation, buy, y'know, poetical.) Picard isn't able to grant him this desire, through no fault of the captain's own, and Moriarty responds in the only way he knows how: by taking over the ship and holding it hostage until Picard gives him what he wants. Which Picard can't do, because of those pesky laws of physics.
So, we've got the right construction for good conflict, with Moriarty's irresistible force meeting reality's immovable object. "Ship" handles this conflict by introducing a magic trick, and then taking its sweet time to reveal how the trick was done. Moriarty's apparent exit from the holodeck is a great moment, even if you already know the secret of what's happening, because it plays so wonderfully with our expectations. Picard has demonstrated to Moriarty how a seemingly solid object on the holodeck vanishes the instant it hits the real world, but Moriarty determines to walk out the door anyway, arguing that consciousness overrides intangibility. Now, we know that Moriarty isn't just going to disappear; you can't just bring back a major character and vanish him ten minutes into the episode, without any sort of storyline to take his place. But we also know that Moriarty can't simply leave, because that violates one of the show's core principles. We can have magic aliens, we can have god-like beings, but what happens on the holodeck stays on the holodeck.
Moriarty "escape," then, is a kind of surprise that sci-fi shows (especially one this long in the tooth) rarely get to pull off. We're trained to expect time travel and wormholes and monsters, but this is, apparently, breaking one of the rules of the reality we've been presented. Even better, Picard is astounded by what he sees, which sells the trick--he's as amazed as we are, and his constant refrain to Moriarty that they have no idea what just happened helps keep the heart of the illusion a secret for longer than it might have been. See, Moriarty doesn't actually exit the holodeck; he just creates a program inside the holodeck to make it look like he's leaving, a program that recreates every other crewmember on board the ship who isn't Picard, Data, or Barclay. And while Picard and the others scramble to find a way to help Moriarty's beloved Countess follow him off the holodeck, Moriarty holds them hostage, even tricking Picard into giving up his access codes so that Moriarty can take control of both the ship in his simulation and the real one.
Yes, we could nitpick here. It's an impressive that the ruse lasts as long as it does, and a little unnerving. Data realizes what's going on when he discovers that the fake Geordi, like the character from the Holmes story earlier, is left-handed instead of right-handed. Which means that neither he, Barclay, nor Picard noticed anything different in the personalities of their friends and co-workers. Admittedly they were under some stress and shock at the time, but it's maybe stretching credulity that the computer would be able to recreate everyone else quite so well. Bringing fictional characters to life is one thing, but mimicking the conversational patterns of those nearest and dearest to you? I'll buy it, but I can see having problems with it. Also, it's odd that nobody simply tries to repeat their earlier successes when Moriarty asks Picard to bring the Countess out. Picard resists, in typical Frankenstein fashion, because he doesn't want to move forward before they understand the ramifications of what they've inadvertently accomplished. But once Moriarty holds the ship hostage, why not just ask the Countess to walk off the holodeck like her mate? Couldn't hurt to try.
But like I said, these are nitpicks. I enjoyed "Ship," because it uses the holodeck in a way I don't think we've seen before, and because Moriarty's a great character. And man, that ending is just so cool. Picard and the others simply turn Moriarty's game back on him, and program the holodeck inside the holodeck to make yet a third Enterprise, one where both Moriarty and the Countess can leave the confines of their electronic cell, and spend the rest of their lives traveling the galaxy. Maybe it's a little too neat, a little too convenient, but it's such a good-natured ending that I can't really look at it too hard. Moriarty can't really get what he wants (I remember the Doctor on Voyager wandering around outside Sick Bay, but that may just have been because Robert Picardo is awesome), but, instead of being destroyed or exiled back to electronic oblivion, he gets what he needs: universes to explore, and a charming, beautiful companion at his side. As sequels go, this was a fine conclusion to an idea that deserved a second chance.
- Interesting use of Barclay in this episode--he doesn't really do anything, but it's nice to have him around. (And he gets a great last line.)
- I love listening to Patrick Stewart and Daniel Davis talk at each other. The enunciation is intense.
- Faux-Geordi: "He's brilliant in any century." Also, a bit of an egotist.
Next week: Geordi does some investigating of his own in "Aquiel," and Deanna looks in the mirror and finds the "Face of the Enemy."