Trek-a-Week #23: Chain of Command Part II

Ben:

So, now — with Part II — Chain of Command has kicked into high gear. We’ve ditched the lame Celtis Three “mission impossible” story and are focused on two things: actions on-board Jellico’s Enterprise and Picard in the hands of Madred. And the latter — the Picard/Madred story — is so compelling that I found it hard to pay a whole ton of attention to much else going on in this episode.

In the previous episode’s write-up, I focused mainly on the Jellico story-line. In Part II, though, this story-line seems almost perfunctory. We know that a big Riker/Jellico dust-up is in the works and, indeed, it happens in the form of the inevitable confrontation between the two about a potential mission to rescue Picard and then gets cathartic with the later “pilot the shuttle” conversation. This arc is well-written and well-acted but we pretty much know how it’s going to go.

I did, though, note this exchange between Jellico and Crusher:

JELLICO: …Beverly, you’ll need to — 
CRUSHER: Have Sickbay ready for the casualties you’re about to send me. 
JELLICO: That’s right. Dismissed.

My guess is that this conversation is intended to paint Jellico as a heartless warmonger, but it hit me quite differently. I see this as a person — a military person — who understands that martial conflict by its nature involves violence. And death. Being in a position to have to initiate this kind of conflict is a burden, a burden one must shoulder, and it seems like Jellico here is simply acknowledging and accepting that reality. Dr. Crusher shouldn’t be snidely barbing him for it.

But, of course, if you ask anyone — even the most casual of fans — about Chain of Command, there’s one thing that you’re going to hear: “There are FOUR LIGHTS!”

There’s a ton to potentially unpack about the Picard/Madred story, but here’re just a few things that I noted:

Madred’s exchange with his daughter is amazing. It’s a textbook case of one of the things good Trek does well: using aliens to make a point about human nature and history.

JIL ORRA: Do humans have mothers and fathers? 
MADRED: Yes, but human mothers and fathers don’t love their children as we do. They’re not the same as we are.”

“Dehumanizing” the enemy isn’t just a turn of phrase; it’s a known and practiced strategy. And kudos to the writers for showing it here in such stark display. From historical examples like portraying Jews as vermin to the present day, this is a tactic that’s as loathsome as it is (sadly) effective.

This exchange was also fascinating:

LEMEC: The Selonis Convention applies to prisoners of war, which means you would have to acknowledge that he was captured during a mission authorized by the Federation. Are you willing to make such an admission? 
JELLICO: No. 
LEMEC: Then he will be treated as a terrorist.

Obviously what’s going on here plot-wise is that Lemic is backing Jellico into a corner rhetorically, but what’s implied by the “Selonis Convention” is that the same actions taken by a state-sanctioned actor would justly be considered terrorism if undertaken by non-state actor. A distinction between state-sanctioned and non-state actions is necessary to the concept of the “law of war,” but this short exchange does a good job of highlighting how morbidly absurd it is that the actual morality or immorality of the actions themselves aren’t the main consideration.

The huge issue that’s front and center in Chain of Command Part II though is obviously torture. I’ve seen this episode framed didactically as an anti-torture narrative — and, sure, there’s a definite absurdity and futility to the Picard/Lemec conflict. Picard doesn’t have the information Lemic wants and so the situation yields nothing. And yet, the message here clearly isn’t what it should be in order for this episode to be the anti-torture story it’s cracked up to be.

The message isn’t “torture doesn’t work.”

Instead, we get the old “captive protagonist as hero who doesn’t break” story, which perversely glorifies torture as a dramatic test of the hero’s will — rather than conveys the true nature of torture: that anyone will say anything if pushed far enough. This casual, almost throw-away line from Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale recalling her torture is far more on-the-nose — and in many ways far more chilling — than anything we get in Chain of Command:

It could be I’ve spilled all this stuff, it’s hard to remember what you say when they’re doing it. You’ll say anything.

Yes, there is of course the final exchange of the episode:

PICARD: All I had to do was to say that I could see five lights, when in fact, there were only four. 
TROI: You didn’t say it? 
PICARD: No, no, but I was going to. I would have told him anything. Anything at all. But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights.

As much as I love Chain of Command (and I do love Chain of Command) there’s something about this scene that reeks of too little, too late — as if it’s tacked on at the end of the Hero Who Wouldn’t Break story as absolution by writers who know that in a more honest assessment of the value torture, Picard would have said he saw five lights long, long ago.

Just two stray observations:

  • Riker’s angry “You’re welcome” to Jellico after their confrontation should really be followed by the song from Moana.
  • I’m losing track of how many times the/an Enterprise goes into a nebula during a space battle, but I’m not complaining here, because it sure looks great in HD.

Katherine:

This episode is a continuation of Chain of Command Part 1 in which Picard is relieved of his captaincy to be sent on a secret mission to investigate a suspected Cardassian weapons lab. The remaining Enterprise crew are left to deal with a new leader, Jellico, who has a very different style of command. At the end of the first half, we find that the weapons lab doesn’t exist and was set up to lure Picard specifically to be captured by the Cardassians. In part 2, Jellico does some searching and correctly assumes that, if Cardassians invade Minos Korva, a planet in a sector patrolled by the Enterprise, they will expect Picard to know of potential defense plans. Picard is now being held captive — having been accused of invading a Cardassian facility — and is interrogated by a Cardassian named Madred.

What follows is a series of torture in which Madred tries to discover information from Picard in order to give the Cardassians an advantage in making a military incursion. These scenes delve into the character of Picard but also give insight into what happens to the tortured and, more interestingly, to the torturer in these situations. On the surface we have a Hollywood-type ideal of the heroic captain being physically and psychologically tested and proving his strength of will by resisting. I suspect that very few of us will ever be tried in such a horrific way. But I think we all would like to believe that, if we were, through force of will, we’d be able to withstand breaking under torture.

Pain is a unique sensation in that it is unsharable in a way that other states of consciousness are not. For example, you have feelings for someone, thoughts about an issue, sights and sounds of things, all of which can be perceived by other people. Shirley Spitz in her publication on the psychology of torture goes on to describe how pain eventually destroys language itself as the victim regresses to a pre-verbal state. Madred first strips Picard of his clothes and then has him handcuffed with his arms raised over his head and leaves him for the night. The next day it is revealed that an implant has been put in Picard which Madred can control to cause intense pain. With no external signs of bodily harm, the torture seems even more internal to the captain alone.

The physical pain, combined with an attack on Picard’s very identity, is intended to chip away at his mental defenses. Because victims are unable to protect themselves, their sense of invulnerability is shattered, as well as their sense of self. The interrogation that is a part of torture is actually more an excuse than a reason for inflicting pain. Madred’s question to Picard, “How many lights do you see?” is irrelevant to the information he claims he needs. Torture also mocks the intimacy of human relationships in that the questioning of the victim is a social interaction that, in this case, is not meant to create trust between two people but to establish domination and harm. The brutality of Madred’s actions is made all the more stark by the seeming refinement of both characters’ English accents as they converse.

At one point Madred lets his young daughter into the room while the abused Picard is present. When she inquires about humans, she is told plainly, “They’re not the same as we are.” Societies that practice torture differentiate between groups of people to the point that “they” vs. “we” become sub-human and torturers often feel like they are doing work for the benefit of their nation. When Picard references the peaceful history of Cardassians, Madred claims it resulted in people starving and dying. He seems intent on justifying the actions of their military as making life better for Cardassia. [Isn’t this what the Borg said?]

Back on the Enterprise, Jellico refuses to plan a rescue mission for Picard, which, honestly, is the most pragmatic choice. He does continue to play hardball with the Cardassian envoys, eventually making a gutsy gamble that they’re planning to invade Minos Korva and sending Riker as the shuttle pilot — after having to eat some crow and ask him to lead the mission — to secretly plant mines on the Cardassian ships. Jellico dials up the Cardassians and demands that all ships drop their phasers and leave. He has to detonate one of the mines to convince them before successfully shooing them away and getting them to send Picard back.

Picard has nearly cracked before it’s all over. He does have one moment of triumph when he accurately recognizes Madred as acting like a weak child unable to protect himself and taking out his misery on others. Picard calls him “pitiable” which brings back all the identity and emotion and power that Madred had been trying to kill. Minus the showdown with the Cardassian ships, the whole episode is focused on character examination. This could have been boring in other shows. But in Chain of Command, the scenes are well-timed and the deterioration of Picard, with the few flashes of his original self that emerge, make for an engrossing story.

Jellico gives command back to Picard and no one cries when he leaves. We end with Picard in a therapy session with Troi, telling her that, not only was he to the point of telling his torturer whatever he wanted to hear, Picard would have believed the lies himself. The mental impact of torture, which is nearly useless in extracting information, is so cruel and enduring that victims are left to suffer, sometimes for their entire lives. As much as we want to be defiant — “There are four lights!” — I’m glad that Star Trek kept closer to the reality of the futility and detrimental effects of torture.

Next week: Lower Decks