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

***Content Warning: Discussion and imagery of torture***

“Chain of Command, Part II”
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 6, Episode 11

What’s wonderful about “Chain of Command, Part II” is how engrossing and unexpected it is as compared to “Part I.Star Trek two-parters often falter a bit in their second halfs, a trend that “Command” thankfully bucks. The interest of “Part I” was mainly in the introduction of Jelico and the shake-up of the crew’s status quo. “Part II” flips that and is perhaps the most memorable (and even meme-able) Picard story. I admire the rug-pull of the metagenic storyline and how quickly the episode eschews it in favor of something far deeper and more interesting. It’s not only a wonderful conclusion to the story, but one of the smartest, most haunting, and prescient stories of Trek.

The late David Warner is yet another legend of sci-fi/fantasy and no stranger to Star Trek, having been in (ugh) The Final Frontier but more importantly, The Undiscovered Country. Pairing these two fine British Shakespearean actors in a battle of wills is stroke of genius and massively entertaining to watch; he’s one of the few actors in the show able to match the gravitas of Stewart. Warner’s voice is of course wonderful, and his long list of VA credits is a testament to its power – calm and measured, flowing out like sticky, malevolent syrup. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, he’s one of the most iconic genre actors for me.

As I elucidated in the description of my favorite scene in “Darmok” (and all of Trek), the power of its campfire sequence was largely in its stripped down, theatrical staging. Just two great actors in a minimal setting – that’s all you really need. Picard and Madred’s scenes in “Part II” are basically the same, but stretched out to episode length and it’s just the best. They all take place in Madred’s office/torture chamber, a dark and expansive cavern of cold metal, brutal architecture, and sudden bright lights. It’s the setting for the savage and hauntingly insightful story that takes place.

The Cardassians had been introduced in Season 4 of The Next Generation as former antagonists of the Federation, and later fleshed out as brutal occupiers of Bajor. But this episode is where their overall personality as a people is illustrated and it would be carried forward on the up-and-coming Deep Space Nine. Warner’s Madred is a wonderfully compelling avatar of this formerly-impoverished people that turned to war to lift themselves up. It’s classic Trek that this new-ish foe is portrayed as a tragic and cautionary example of a people having lost their way to one of the oldest and most basic temptations.

The interplay between Picard and Madred is fascinating in the duality of its civility/savagery. The fact that this Cardassian has a refined British accent is slightly silly on the surface, but ultimately works to the episode’s favor (especially given Britain’s culture and history). Madred sits as his desk and casually chats with Picard about archaeology and the beautiful but long-ago plundered burial vaults of his homeworld. Picard hesitantly indulges him in the discussion, and it seems like they could almost be buds in another setting. Madred seems to think so, and despite the fact that he spends the episode torturing Picard, there’s a curious respect between the two. Star Trek is a cerebral property of words and ideas, and the verbal parry and thrust of the two throughout the episode is so on brand and captivating.

On the surface, Madred is after info on Starfleet’s fleet deployment concerning Minos Korva, a world of strategic value to the Cardassians. However, Picard clearly does not have that information, and in the first scene of the episode, Madred uses drugs to try and compel it from him without success. Later, after inquiring again to a sober Picard, Madred switches tactics and shackles him to a ceiling-mounted winch and leaves him hanging there naked all night long. He informs him that he will no longer be calling him by name and will refer to him only as “human.” Before he uses a dagger to cut away his clothing, Madred asks Picard if he has any medical issues he should know about. There’s a weirdly clinical quality to Madred’s abusive treatment, bolstered by Warner’s calm and measured delivery. State-sanctioned torture is indeed a very weirdly clinical usage of violence and abuse.

Madred returns in the morning and unshackles Picard, proceeding to sadistically enjoy a drink in front of him – “Thirsty?” he asks, and Picard nods. “Yes, I would imagine so…” he says before moving on. He reveals that an implant has been placed inside Picard’s body capable of producing severe pain with the push of a button. It’s a clever detail, because it allows the torture to take place in a more censor-friendly fashion, but also highlights the absurdity of the air of civility Madred is attempting to maintain. Just pushing a button seems almost antiseptic (unlike striking someone – or worse), but the brutality and savagery is all the same. Apologizing first, he demonstrates the device and Picard immediately drops to the floor in agony. He then calmly remarks about the power of the implant with subdued glee and amazement. It’s super weird and unsettling.

Madred activates four lights behind his desk and asks Picard how many he sees, insisting that there are five. It becomes clear Madred is trying to mentally break Picard and shatter his sense of truth, but he resists. As Picard once angrily explained to Wesley Crusher, there is nothing more important to a Starfleet officer than their duty to the truth. Madred’s attempt is a seemingly minor but actually a serious assault on Picard’s sense of truth and reality. As we’ve seen throughout history (and especially in modern U.S. politics), an assault on truth and objective reality is a fundamental tenet of fascism and authoritarianism, which is what the culture of Cardassia has surrendered itself to for the sake of security and strength.

Madred is such a fascinating character, a result of both the superb writing and acting. His actions illustrate both the horror of brutalizers but also their fragility and deep wounds that have led them there. The fact that he has brought Picard into his office – his home away from home of sorts – is interesting and very telling as it plays out in the episode.

Case in point: he has a visit from his young daughter as an exhausted and half naked Picard slumps in a chair mere feet away, seemingly unconscious. The supreme irony of Madred being sweet and nurturing with his own child (as he instructs her on how to be nurturing and caring to her pet) as he horribly mistreats a prisoner is underlined here in bizarrely horrifying fashion. She seems vaguely curious about humans and whether they have children, too. Madred says they do, but they don’t care for them the way Cardassians do.

As we’ve seen often in Trek, one of the greatest moral hazards is to dehumanize one’s enemies. It makes it easier to hurt someone if you’ve convinced yourself (or others) that they don’t have the same kinds of thoughts and feelings you do, and it’s disturbing to see that impressed upon a young child here. Of course, Madred has explicitly dehumanized Picard by refusing to use his name in addition to all this other crap he’s putting him through. After complimenting Madred on his lovely daughter (again, the civility at play highlights the brutal absurdity of the situation), Picard expresses dismay that he would allow her to see someone that her father is abusing. I love that despite being tortured by this guy, Picard seems genuinely curious as to the mindset that allows one to hold such a glaring cognitive dissonance. Madred is an otherwise intelligent and civilized person, so it’s hard to wrap one’s head around his behavior.

Madred matter-of-factly answers that all Cardassian children are taught that they have enemies, and that those enemies deserve their fate. Picard astutely points out that if someone is taught to devalue one life, it’s all too easy to devalue any life, even their own beloved parent. As with the lights and the danger of surrendering truth, there is also a similar danger to harboring a disrespect for life, and there’s a fateful Rubicon one crosses when they do that.

Madred cruelly and insultingly dismisses this, and they get into a discussion of Cardassia’s history. They were once a peaceful a spiritual people (much as the Bajorans were…), but an impoverished one where people starved by the millions. Ultimately, wars with other peoples (such as the Federation) energized their society and they acquired territory and resources that allowed them to survive and feed themselves. It’s all so wonderfully conceived and written – of all the alien races, the Cardassians were the most complex and multifaceted. Deep Space Nine did a lot to expand upon them, but so much of that groundwork was laid in this episode. Like Madred, the Cardassian people are wounded and traumatized, and have responded by turning that abuse outward at others (like the Bajorans).

Madred boasts that because of all of this, his daughter will never be hungry. “Her belly may be full, but her spirits will be empty,” Picard skewers him with, which prompts an actual physical strike from Madred – the first and only such act in the episode from him. That struck a nerve. The script here is just A+, and there are so many wonderful lines and ideas – evergreen pearls of wisdom that need to be carved in stone for all time. Activating the lights again, he poses his question to Picard who defiantly asks “What lights?” before being zapped into submission.

Meanwhile, ol’ Captain Jelly of the Enty-D is getting up to his normal shenanigans! The shake-ups on the Enterprise caused by Jelico are in the past and his bits of “Command, Part II” see him running the ship, which is interesting in its own way. He’s slightly less of an angry moron in negotiating with the Cardassians here, who reveal that they captured Picard trying to break into one of their bases – oh, and that their team killed dozens of innocent people during this savage, unprovoked assault. Ha ha, totally.

Riker retrieves Crusher and Worf at the rendezvous spot. The Cardassians prove very clever as Gul Lemek ask whether Jelico is willing to acknowledge that Picard was on a sanctioned mission from Starfleet. If so, then he would be a POW and treated with interstellar protections, but that would weaken Starfleet’s position at the negotiating table. Jelico is unwilling to do this, which enrages Riker. The two get into a shouting match which ends with Riker relieved of duty.

It’s an interesting story development because it’s not really a cut-and-dry issue as far as the episode is concerned. As discussed, the opinions on Jelico (and the crew’s response to him) are very mixed, so who gets the sympathy in this conflict is highly subjective. Admitting that Picard was under orders does seem like a tactical disadvantage in these negotiations so Jelico has a point. Of course, the Cardassians are very much deceitful liars, so who really cares about being honest with them? And without the POW protections, Picard must endure all the agonizing torture he goes through here. Not good.

Riker is of course loyal to Picard and wants to do anything he can to rescue him, and is dismayed by Jelico’s complete lack of concern for him. As I mentioned previously, the human aspect of command is one that Jelico puts zero stock in and is what leads to their argument. A little bit of sympathy and a perfunctory “we’ll see what we can do” could have gone a long way to placating Riker, but Jelico is completely unwilling to even do that. His attitude is that everyone serves him and his authority is absolute, but even in a military hierarchy there is still a give and take between command and crew. They serve you, but you have to serve them in return. And lest we forget, it’s not just Riker that cares about Picard but the entire crew as well. A leader with even a speck of emotional intelligence would know enough to not carelessly throw their beloved prior captain under the bus. But that wouldn’t be very #getitdone, so fuck their feelings.

Aside from that, Jelico performs pretty admirably here (or, uh, captainaly). Working with La Forge and Data, he’s able to deduce where the Cardassians have been and what they’re really after – recapturing their precious Minos Korva system. The Cardassians are hiding ships in a nearby nebula and he devises a plan to mine both the cloud and all the ships in it. In a nice scene, Jelico softens a bit as he reminisces with La Forge about being a pilot in academy days. Although he always plays an asshole, Cox does have charisma and can be likable so it’s nice to see him channeling that to make Jelico multifaceted. La Forge gives Jelico the bad news that the man he really needs for this mission is the one he fired – William Riker.

Jelico visits Riker and after a brief half-assed attempt to get to know him, drops the pretense and tells him what he really thinks of him. Riker, smug as can be, relishes the moment and returns the favor. Jelico’s reasons for not liking Will don’t really hold any water, but everything Riker says about him is spot on. He is arrogant, close-minded, and runs the ship so tight there’s no joy in anything. Maybe Riker and the crew are being babies, but this guy really does suck so you can’t blame them too much. Jelico begrudgingly asks him to pilot the mission and Riker accepts. Without saying anything, he turns heel and dashes out, but not before Riker gets in a sarcastic “You’re welcome!” Honestly, neither of them look great here, but it’s realistic as far as basic personality conflicts go. They’re both alpha males in their own way and unwilling to back down. Even well-meaning people can not get along no matter how hard they try (and end up not being their best selves), and it’s just one of those things.

Later, Picard sleeps on the floor as he dreamily sings to himself. The framing here is haunting and effective, as only Madred’s lower body is seen when he shakes Picard awake with his foot. He asks him what he was dreaming of, and Picard weakly answers it was the dinners he used to have with his family and how they would sing. Madred seems charmed by the image of the Picard family, and Warner’s performance tows an unsettling line between gleeful sadism and genuine curiosity. He suddenly says Picard is free to go, and as the confused prisoner walks out, says he’ll get what he needs from Dr. Crusher (oh, and they killed Worf already). Picard chooses to stay instead to protect her, and as Madred smiles it seems to be a victory in bending the human to his will.

The climax of their scenes comes when Madred finally brings some food and drink to Picard. Stewart is fantastic in the episode, and his gradually deteriorating performance is a vivid one that exudes the toll of exhaustion and starvation on Picard. We’ve never seen the gallant and dignified Picard beaten down so low and it’s disturbing to see. Presented with a still living gross egg, starvation compels Picard to gobble it whole and Madred smiles approvingly. As Picard wolfs down the rest of the food, Madred can’t help but launch into an anecdote from his starved, impoverished childhood where he found a nest of those very same eggs. He ate one instantly just as Picard did and planned to save the others, but an older boy saw them and broke Madred’s arm to get them.

It’s a marvelous monologue and really paints a picture of how horrifying a childhood this guy had, and how bad things were for the Cardassians prior to the military taking over. Warner is so great, and the way he gets lost while talking is fantastic, trailing off as he relives the painful memory. The disappointment over losing that treasure so many decades ago is still there in his eyes, as well as a glimmer of pride for not having given it up without a fight. It’s so fucked up, and although it doesn’t absolve anything he’s done here, it gives his character some compelling pathos.

“It must be rewarding to you to repay others for all those years of misery,” Picard gasps, immediately seizing upon Madred’s confession. Warner’s face reveals confusion and embarrassment, and he quickly realizes the serious tactical error he’s made. He tries to regain control, but Picard goes on to point out the folly of torture – it’s never been a useful means of extracting information, and ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. And indeed, Madred’s attempts to dominate and control Picard have immensely backfired on him. As we saw in the very first scene, Picard does not posses the strategic info Madred initially seems to be after. Why he has chosen to imprison and torture him has a much deeper and sicker motive – sadism and revenge.

One of the most fascinating and uneasy aspects of the torturer-victim relationship is how much the human need for connection still shines through the horror and abuse. The victims still feel an instinctive connection to the ones mistreating them, and vice versa. We crave relationships with our fellow people so much that they still happen even under abusive circumstances simply by virtue of proximity. Madred essentially brings his torture victim into his home, introduces his family to him, and in a moment of vulnerability reveals a painful and personal anecdote from his awful childhood. As in control as he thinks he is of the situation, Madred still yearns for a connection with Picard, a man he seems to otherwise respect as an intellectual peer. He can’t help but unknowingly connect with his victim in absentmindedly sharing the egg anecdote as if they were friends. As much as he has his tendrils into his prisoner, the prisoner reveals that he is just as embedded into him, and uses that to strike a powerful blow in a moment of weakness. To torture someone represents a hideous investment of emotional energy and creates a weird, violent intimacy. Nobody escapes clean or intact.

Without skipping a beat, Picard continues – “When I look at you I won’t see a powerful Cardassian warrior, I will see a small child powerless to protect himself. Despite all you’ve done to me, I find you to be a pitiable man.” At first blush, it seems like Picard is attacking Madred, striking back for all he’s done to him. But as he says, Picard has realized how wounded and hurt his tormentor is and the true depths of his torment. It is pitiable, and Picard’s humanity still shines through here in realizing how much of a victim this awful man is. He never attacks or insults Madred, and in doing so he preserves his own humanity and shows impressive grace and strength of character.

Madred rages against this. Even after days of starvation, Picard has still gotten the best of him and it infuriates Madred, so much so that he breaks his own policy by referring to Picard by name. “You called me Picard!” Jean-Luc yells out triumphantly (it’s almost funny), and Madred tries to regain control by activating the pain device. Picard trembles violently as the pain assaults his body, and Stewart emotes every inch of that agony as he tries to resist, even resorting to singing as he did with his family. It’s awful to watch and the scene mercifully cuts away.

Meanwhile, Riker and La Forge are successful in placing the mines and Jelico sets his plan into motion, contacting Gul Lemek and setting off one of the bombs. In exchange for giving him everything he wants, he lets the Cardassian ships escape the nebula without harm (and without their weapons). Oh, and give us that Picard guy back. Mission accomplished! It’s satisfying to see his dicknishness aimed at the actual enemy and be a useful asset in victory. Despite his incredibly different personality and command style, he wins nonetheless. There’s more than one way to #getitdone, as they say.

Picard awakes and finds the pain giving device on Madred’s desk. He sluggishly smashes it repeatedly on the desktop as Madred enters. “That won’t help, I have many more,” he calmly tells him. “Still, it felt good,” an exhausted Picard replies. Again, I just love the weird civility between them, even after all they’ve been through. Madred lies again, telling Picard that Minos Corva has been invaded and the Enterprise destroyed. Picard doesn’t believe him, but he’s so incredibly weak and defeated here, his voice reduced to a thin rasp as he hunches over the desk. Madred informs him he will be here for the rest of his life, but offers him a chance at a normal life full of comfort. “What must I do?” Picard gasps. Nothing huge, just say how many lights there are…

Picard gazes at the lights and it almost seems like he doesn’t know. The door behind him opens and guards approach. Madred hassles him to answer before they take him away. He doesn’t, and it turns out the guards are here to take him back to the Enterprise. Gul Lemek is angry (and seems weirded out) that Picard is in this state. He barks at Madred to get him cleaned up, who replies that they had some unfinished business. It’s pathetic – at this point he knows Picard has been released but can’t help but try and finally defeat him for absolutely no reason beyond his cruel satisfaction (and pride). Instead, Picard shouts that there are four lights before stumbling away, and Madred somehow looks both defeated and impressed at the same time as he watches him leave. It seems he finally met his match.

Returning to the Enterprise, Picard regains control of the ship from Jelico, who departs without a single sliver of fanfare. Later, dick. Picard then meets with Troi and admits he’s not sure where to start. Stewart has a haunting 1,000 yard stare in his eyes and although he’s clean and rested, still looks like he’s been though some shit. He recounts the whole deal with the lights, and disturbingly reveals that he was going to say he could see five. Anything to stop the torture. But more unsettling is that he could actually see five of them.

It’s a haunting revelation that echoes Picard’s proclamation of the uselessness of torture – what use is it if your victim is just going to tell you what you want to hear? You can’t use anti-truth methods to compel the truth out of people; you’re destroying the thing you’re claiming to value. But that’s not what it’s really about; its purpose is far darker and more disturbing.

The ending is also remarkable because of the vulnerability and weakness it allows Picard, who is normally a paragon of virtue and heroism. Picard is ultimately broken by what Madred does to him, and it’s only a last second intervention that prevents him from admitting defeat and letting go of that lat bit of truth he was clinging to. But Madred was successful in warping his sense of reality enough to get him to admit something that was false was true. Nobody is invulnerable to torture, and 24/7 torment will break anyone regardless of how much strength or fortitude they possesses. It’s not really an accomplishment. Our bodies are such frail things – just a little lack of food and rest can totally fuck with our heads. Breaking someone doesn’t make you stronger, it only means you’re worse.

But the torture leaves a mark on the torturer, as well. The disturbing phenomenon of torture is often an unfortunate feature of prisons, and there’s extensive and detailed research on the subject. Not to mention too many real life examples to count. We were horrified to see the images of the Abu Ghraib prison and the evil represented in how the prisoners were treated, the shocking and casually sadistic indignity they were subjected to. War brings out the worst of people, and torture often seems to go hand in hand with it – perhaps because they both depend on a fundamental objectification of our fellow humans. Labels such as “enemy,” “terrorist,” or just “criminal” effectively dehumanize individuals and they open the door for a dark array of mistreatment. These labels are quickly bestowed but difficult to shed, and the consequences for us all can be grave.

Torture is a moral injury in addition to a physical and mental one. It wounds all who participate in the act – even an entire nation. It’s an uncomfortable fact that “Chain of Command” illustrates starkly and it’s the darkest and most disturbing story of The Next Generation, for it delves into one of the darkest and most disturbing aspects of humanity. It’s also one of the best episodes of the franchise for its dramatic fundamentals alone. Star Trek has always promoted the idea of being good and just moral beings, and treating each other with respect. Gul Madred is a chilling portrait of a man who has not learned these lessons. To the episode’s great credit it explores the painful reasons why, and in doing so shows what happens in a society where compassion is not taught and even outright rejected. When trying to strip the humanity from others, we only succeed in shedding our own.

Stray Observations:

  • The Cardassians love putting (and pulling) shit out of people’s bodies, don’t they? The pain-giving device here, Garak’s thematically opposite pleasure-giving one, the molar sample every citizen is required to give to the Obsidian Order, and whatever the hell those psycho soldiers had put in them. Not to mention all the identity-changing surgeries.
  • The story pacing of Jelico’s half is a little disjointed. The Enterprise and Cardassian ships are nose to nose as they negotiate for both episodes, but later on they’re suddenly separated – at which point Jelico does his nebula strategy?
  • In Andrew Robinson’s Garak-focused novel A Stitch in Time (highly recommended), Madred makes a reappearance as a shadow of his former self. Garak details how this incident with Picard was an embarrassing mark on his career and essentially disgraced him. It’s a great karmic comeuppance and furthers the idea of how mistreating others is ultimately injurious to the abuser, as well. The novel is pretty much canon, as far as I’m concerned.
  • This is the second time we’ve sen Data in a red command uniform, after the illusion scenario of “Future Imperfect.” He of course replaces Riker as first officer, which just happens off screen without any fanfare. It’s kind of odd, but there’s so much else going on here it barely registers.
  • Jelico mentions La Forge’s pilot experience, and it’s pretty much the only reference to the fact that Geordi was the ship’s helmsman during the first season.