To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, every week throughout 2016 we are looking back at a Star Trek episode picked by one of our team or by a guest contributor. Today Nev Sutton sees four lights...
Sweeping narrative is something Star Trek excels at, and so it's no wonder
that that last three seasons of The Next Generation contained more two-part episodes than
the four that preceded it. But Chain of Command is unlike the majority of Star Trek two-part adventures, this is because the second half is superior to the first. Many other two-part stories, whilst still always good if not great, would often not quite deliver on the set-up and premise executed throughout the first 45 minutes. Here both parts are excellent examples of The Next Generation at its very best, with the second half offering one of the most intense experiences Star Trek, or indeed any other serialised science fiction offering, has presented in prime time.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) are assigned by Starfleet on a covert mission to destroy a Cardassian biological weapons installation on Celtris III, a Cardassian border world. It may at first seem implausible that an ageing captain, a doctor with no combat experience and a chief security officer would be sent on a dangerous espionage mission, but thanks to the script we are given good and justifiable reasons which set the stage.
In Picard's place, Starfleet assigns Captain Edward Jellico (played stunningly by Ronny Cox), who exhibits a vastly different style of command and decorum to the Enterprise crew who are forced to work harder, faster and better. William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) becomes an intermediary, an emissary for the misgivings of the crew. His stunning ambition and Kirk-esquire attitude sends sparks flying when Jellico steamrollers over the comfortable routine. The Riker-Jellico conflict alone is enough to make the first part of Chain of Command an essential Star Trek episode, but we are also given the immaculate setup of Picard's capture when, after the Captain, Worf, and Crusher discreetly arrive on Celtris III and find no signs of biological weapons, they soon discover their information was a Cardassian trap. Worf and Crusher escape, but Picard is taken to an interrogator, Gul Madred (David Warner).
The two main plots have been intertwined well - both the away mission to
discover the Cardassian base and the shake-up of the Enterprise mirror
each other in intention, but they work so well because of the contrasting
execution. Indeed, there is extensive use of dark and light between the
plots, further adding to the contrast. This continues into the second part where Jellico must negotiate a workable agreement with the Cardassians, and Picard must endure torture of the most degrading sort. This is not just physical pain, but mental manipulation too. In both cases, the tormentor and the tormented change during the course of the episode, masterfully. When one appears to be holding all the cards, external factors are altered and force a radical rethinking of survival tactics. Both Captains are forced to look inward, to reconsider what they think is right and to admit to at least a little defeat to achieve an advantageous goal - Jellico must barter with Riker, Picard must hold on to his hope while wearing down Gul Madred.
As strong as the Riker-Jellico scenes are, it is the Picard-Madred thread of the story which makes Chain of Command my favourite episode from any Trek series. Primarily it is the work of Patrick Stewart who has often been responsible for the best moments of any show or movie he happens to be in. Even some of the more mediocre works he has appeared in can be raised by one of his grandstanding, completely compelling speeches. Thankfully, Star Trek frequently gave Stewart the exposure he needed to really capitalise on his skills. Here he is given that and David Warner, a sparring partner so evenly matched that the tension of their scenes are a sight to behold.
Warner's Madred uses a number of torture methods of Stewart's Picard, including sensory deprivation, sensory bombardment, forced nakedness, stress positions, dehydration, starvation, physical pain, and cultural humiliation to try to gain knowledge of the Federation's plans for Minos Korva, but Picard refuses to acknowledge Madred's demand for information. Madred attempts another tactic to break the Captain's will: he shows his captive four bright lights, and demands that Picard answer that there are five, inflicting intense pain on him if he does not agree. This is a direct homage to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which O'Brien tortures Winston Smith until Smith admits that he sees five fingers when O'Brien only holds up four.
The torture scenes are intense and brutal. The tension between the two men palpable. Take a look at Stewart's facial expressions. Hear both his and Warner's subtle vocal inflections, and see the haunted look one man demonstrates when the other manages a riposte he could not have anticipated. Both run the gamete of emotions - anger, passion, love, hatred, despair and many more - and it makes for compelling viewing. Their scenes raise the medium of the television show to the heights of classical theatre.
The tension between the scenes with Jonathan Frakes and Ronny Cox comes very close to matching these heights too: with both plots seamlessly edited together and topped off with an exceptional musical score, the end result is mesmerising.
There are not enough superlatives to do this two-part story justice. Equally, there are not enough superlatives to describe the quality of Patrick Stewart's acting. But if you want to see him at, arguably, his very best, surrounded by a supporting cast of near equals, then I feel you'll find no better example than Chain of Command.
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