You Talking Trek to Me? – “Chain of Command, Part I”

“Chain of Command, Part I”
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 6, Episode 10

“Chain of Command,” from The Next Generation’s Season 6 might be the most interesting two-parter of the show’s entire run. It doesn’t have the singular distinction of the iconic “The Best of Both Worlds,” but it’s a complex story with some great twists and turns, as well as a lot of fascinating and disturbing ideas that make it one of TNG’s most arresting installments.

One of the best qualities of “Chain” is how straightforward it isn’t. Two-part Trek episodes can often have a certain listless quality, feeling like more for the sake of more. Instead, “Chain” maximizes the doubled running time with two divergent episodes and a bevvy of happenings and themes. This is accomplished through the split storylines of Captains Picard and Jelico.

Edward Jelico is one of the most memorable one-off characters of The Next Generation, and represents the show’s occasional foray into shaking up its routine. TNG was a pretty static and hermetic show that did not stray much from its core concept and main cast. There were some exceptions – the tenure of Dr. Pulaski, the departure of Wesley Crusher, the introduction of Ro Laren. In terms of total footprint, Jelico has the smallest one out of all of these temporary characters – just these two episodes – but his impact seems greater because of the actor’s presence and the weight of the storyline.

“Will Riker, pleased to meet you. I notice you have a slight asymmetry in your beard there. I just want to welcome you to my shit list, you’re gonna hate it there.”

The first episode immediately jumps right into shaking everything up as a visiting Admiral Necheyav immediately relieves Picard of command of the Enterprise. It’s a disorienting and daring start and the episode doesn’t let up for its duration. Worf and Crusher are also relieved of their respective duties and along with Picard are placed on a top secret mission. In comes Jelico, played by the indomitable Ronny Cox. Often cast as a villain in sci-fi classics like Robocop and Total Recall, Cox leverages his typecasting to give Jelico a brusque and unrelenting energy. The conception of his character is a little confused, but he’s a successful counterpoint and polar opposite to Picard, who ends up seeming cuddly in comparison.

Despite how much of an unlikable dick he is purposefully made to be, the overall fan reaction to Jelico is interestingly positive, perhaps even overly so. The praise ranges from “Jelico did nothing wrong” to “Jelico’s a better captain than Picard.” Which… obviously, no. But I appreciate how this cantankerous asshole left such a mark with fans, and it’s a credit to the episode’s bravery and Cox’s performance. My own reaction is mixed, which I think is the intention of the episode. Overall, Jelico is technically a good guy and ultimately gets the job done – but he is not nice and not fun to work for. He’s a complex figure, and doesn’t fall into either of TNG’s two default camps for Starfleet officers – unassailably good or completely evil/corrupt.

“Henceforth, Captain Picard Day will now be Captain Jelico Day, and instead of the art contest you will all battle each other for a single morsel of this asshole’s respect. He also doesn’t give out A+’s because of course he doesn’t.”

Arriving on the Enterprise, Jelico immediately makes an impression as a force of nature. Barreling forward both physically and verbally, Riker can barely keep up with the blunt and quick-talking captain. Cox’s physical mannerisms are illustrative of Jelico’s unstoppable momentum, and I like how he keeps his head down as he marches forward – he’s so internally focused on what he needs and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else. His trademark “Get it done” catchphrase stands as an authoritative and rankling contrast to Picard’s gentler and iconic “Make it so.”

The crew is understandably disoriented by the change of both command and style, and their feelings mirror our own. Jelico tears through the ship’s status quo like a hurricane, changing the entire crew’s rotation, micro-managing the ship’s systems, arming them for battle, shutting down entire departments, rearranging bridge stations, and even making Troi wear an actual uniform. Despite the shared feelings of uneasiness with the crew, they do come off as a bit whiny with the changes, especially La Forge. Jelico seems to be of a more old school/modern day military mindset, and although Starfleet isn’t actually a military organization, it still mostly is with its strict command structure and ranks. We saw a similar crew reaction when Kurn briefly acted as the Enterprise’s first officer. Realistically, command changes would no doubt be much more frequent than what we see on The Next Generation, and the static, unchanging senior staff we had for over a decade (counting the films) strains credibility. Turnover and change are no doubt big parts of life aboard the Federation flagship, so the resistance from the staff here paints them in a not great and even unprofessional light.

“All right, listen. It’s up, up, down, right, A, B. Mr. Worf, you missed the mushroom power-up, and Doctor, try to time your jumps right so we can get into the warp zone room.”

But Jelico is an insufferable prick through and through, so we can forgive some of the crew’s grumblings. He completely neglects the human aspect of command and seems to go out of his way to rub everyone wrong – “Get that fish out of my ready room,” he barks at one point. Like, obviously this is not good leadership and strict adherence to the chain of command isn’t enough to endear people to you. Riker quickly earns his wrath over a couple of simple misunderstandings and the two’s relationship steadily deteriorates from there. Jelico is an unforgiving man, and seems poised to immediately rule someone a failure if they don’t conform to his narrow standards.

During a meeting with Picard, Jelico bluntly states that he’s probably not coming back from his mission alive, and reminds Jean-Luc that the Enterprise is his now. “Here’s hoping you beat the odds,” he casually tosses off as he hands Picard a tome that once occupied his former ready room. A horrified Picard silently takes it and leaves. Jesus! The episode perhaps goes a little too far in making him unlikable – it’s hard to imagine this kind of guy succeeding in the softer and more humane organization of Starfleet (as opposed to an armed forces branch) – but I do admire the gutsiness of it and the risk the episode takes.

“I was going to use this as toilet paper, but I guess you can have it back. Good luck not dying, you’re gonna need it you future corpse, ha ha. Now git the fuck outta my office.”

As the crew runs itself ragged trying to please Jelico, Picard, Crusher, and Worf endure grueling training in the holodeck for their secret mission to infiltrate a Cardassian subterranean base. Turns out that the Cardassians are developing metagenic weapons, horrible biological agents that can strip a planet of all life and leave them open for conquering. At the same time, their fleet (which has pulled out of their occupation of Bajor) has redeployed along the Federation border and Starfleet believes them to be readying an incursion. So while Picard and his team infiltrate and neutralize the metagenic weapon base, Jelico and the Enterprise negotiate with the Cardassians to find a diplomatic solution.

Of course Jelico is the absolute worst person to be diplomatic with the Cardassians (and seems pretty racist, even). In meeting with them, he pulls some silly power moves to gain dominance. “He seems sure of himself,” Riker allows, but Troi disagrees. The episode doesn’t really follow this plot thread up, and it implies that despite his confidence and swagger with the Cardassians, Jelico is not as confident as he seems – in over his head, even? I wish Troi’s comment was expanded upon, but that’s kind of Troi 101 – vague statements that don’t really factor into the plot.

“Now captain… I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement…”
“If you think sensuously flaunting your kneecaps is going to distract me, you’ve got…! I mean, you won’t…! I’m sorry, what was I saying? Is it hot in here…?”

During their meeting with the Cardassians, Jelico jumps out of his seat and flies into a rage, possibly as another tactic from his Michael Scott guide to negotiating. I think it’s supposed to be the ol’ “hold me back, fellas” gambit, but the Cardassians don’t seem impressed or intimidated. Or he really is just an out of control hothead. Either way, not good. It’s a bit of a misstep, because ultimately Jelico is victorious against the Cardassians (and rescues Picard) and it seems like someone softer and more diplomatic (like Picard) might not have succeeded in the situation.

Meanwhile, Picard and co. end up reaching their target, only to find a fake signal emitter instead of a metagenic facility. Realizing it to be a trap, they try to escape but Picard ends up captured by the Cardassians. He is brought before Gul Madred (played by none other than the legendary David Warner), who confirms that the entire metagenic weapon scare was a ploy to lure Picard into his clutches. Uh oh.

“Well, it seems as though you’ve fallen into my trap, detective. That’s what I call people instead of ‘bro.'”

The unexpected twists of this first part make for an uneasy hour, but it ultimately works to the episode’s favor. Considering the comfortable routine the show has settled into, throwing a huge wrench in everything at such a breakneck pace leaves everyone feeling disoriented. But it successfully sets the stage for one of The Next Generation’s greatest episodes.

Stray Observations:

  • Starfleet’s plan of Picard, Crusher, and Worf infiltrating this Cardassian base is very odd. Picard’s in excellent shape for a guy his age, but… c’mon. And Crusher? She’s a (medical) doctor, not a bio-weapons expert. Worf’s the only one who makes sense on the team, but he’s not really a special ops kinda guy. Even if Starfleet wanted these three, you’d think they’d surround them with a team of whatever their equivalent of special forces are that are used to doing these kinds of operations (a la The Rock). What I wouldn’t give to see some Starfleet Green Berets or SEALs!
“Uh, I guess we know how to do this? Put your thingie into the ground, clench those buttocks, and… REPEL!”
  • Funnily enough, getting Troi into an actual uniform is this episode’s greatest lasting impact. Which is ultimately a good thing. She technically wore one in the pilot, but it was a super short skirted version (which Sirtis reportedly referred to as the “cosmic cheerleader” outfit).
“I’m still concerned, but it’s a professional concern now.”
  • There’s a pretty pointless and cringey scene of Picard, Crusher, and Worf visiting a seedy bar to get a ride from a Ferengi. TNG was a pretty squeaky-clean show, so it’s funny whenever the crew slums it in some kooky alien dive. “Unification” was the best example, as they made the effort to set the scene and give it some personalities that made it memorable. This one’s pretty dumb, and I love how as stupid as this Ferengi is, he’s immediately onto the three of them as Starfleet operatives. Like, obviously you guys are. Crusher comes onto him and strokes his ears until he’s just literally trembling in horniness and submits to her will. She then gives Picard this big dumb smile in front of him, as if to say “We did it!” It’s so silly.