A scene from a random episode I’d seen as a kid lingered with me for over 20 years. I was surprised to see that references to that scene are still in circulation today, and I finally went to the trouble to watch the episode in its entirety.
I didn’t really watch Star Trek as a kid, but every once in a while I would see an episode, or a part of an episode (back when viewers were at the mercy of programming as depicted in a TV Guide (for us it was “TV Times”)). One day I caught the last 5 minutes of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Episode 11 of Season 6, “Chain of Command: Part 2”, which originally aired in 1992) — it left a considerable impression on me. So much, that I’ve found myself thinking back on that clip regularly over the ensuing 20+ years.
Captain Picard was prisoner to Gul Madred, a Cardassian trying to compel Picard to say that there were 5 lights, when there were only 4. It was apparent that Picard had been tortured, and that Madred had been pressing him to report this falsehood throughout the episode. Finally, Gul offers Picard an end to his torture and a life of comfort if he will simply tell him that there are 5 lights. While Picard hesitates, guards enter the room and inform him that he is free and to be taken back to the Enterprise. Before staggering away, Picard turns to Madred and shouts “There! Are! Four! Lights!”
Later, when Picard is cleaned up and back on the Enterprise, he confides in Counsellor Troi that, at the end, he really did see five lights.
That stayed with me. I remembered the tortured man being compelled to falsely describereality, and his later confession that even though he knew there were four lights, under duress, he saw five.
To remember a five-minute clip for over twenty years is something, and some part of me always wanted to see the whole episode (but not that badly, because I was never really that into Stark Trek:TNG). Over the past year or so I’ve slowly been working through the series, and finally came to this episode; having watched it, it is interesting to note what I remembered, and what the entirety of the episode contributed to that final scene.
For starters, I didn’t remember that Picard’s torturer was a weird looking alien, I didn’t remember how many lights were actually there, or how many the alien was telling him to see (although I remembered that they weren’t the same); I didn’t remember who it was the Captain confided in (I think I thought it was Riker). I didn’t remember exactly what he was offered in exchange for stating that there were five lights, and, perhaps most interesting, I didn’t remember that Picard admitted that if the guards hadn’t come in when they did, that he was going to say that there were five lights.
I recently read an interesting commentary on this episode that is worth a read that puts the episode in the context of the times that it aired and other star trek episodes that treated some of the issues in question.
At first, I felt a little disappointed in the episode. It didn’t seem like the extra 85 minutes really added anything to the 5 minutes I’d carried with me for so many years. Were those extra 85 minutes really just a waste of time? Why bother with an unnecessary buildup to a critical conclusion, when the conclusion can essentially stand on its own? I felt this especially because so many aspects of the writing and acting in the series (and this episode) were wanting. To be sure, Patrick Stewart (Picard) and David Warner (Madred) delivered great performances. And while the writing and plot often lacks subtlety, there were some gems nestled in that 85 minutes, including a very fun theoretical outline for an intergalactically illegal bio-weapon and the newly proposed delivery system, along with some interesting demonstrations of counter-intelligence and political/diplomatic sparring between the Federation and the Cardassians (in which the Federation (‘good guys’) are soundly outplayed).
So maybe that first 85 minutes weren’t a complete waste of time, after all. Besides, with only the last 5 minutes, you’d miss out on an excellent scene. After Madred relates a story from his difficult childhood:
Picard: It must be rewarding for you to repay others for all those years of misery.
Madred: What do you mean?
Picard: Torture has never been a reiliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. One wonders that it’s still practiced.
Madred: I fail to see where this analysis is leading.
Picard: Whenever I look at you now, I won’t see a powerful Cardassian Warrior. I will see a six-year-old boy who is powerless to protect himself.
Madred: Be quiet!
[turns on the lights]
Picard: In spite of all you have done to me, I find you a pitiable man.
Madred: Picard, stop it, or I will turn this on and leave you in agony all night.
Picard: Ahha! you called me Picard!
Madred: What are the Federation’s defense plans for Minos Korva?
Picard: There are four lights!
[Madred activates the torture device]
Madred: There are five lights! How many do you see now?
Picard [quivering in agony]: You are six years old, weak and helpless! You cannot hurt me!
Madred: How many?
At this point Picard haltingly begins singing Sur le Pont d’Avignon as the scene cuts back to the Enterprise.
I love that scene. It may be possible that I saw this scene as well, all these years ago — I might have been flicking back and forth to avoid commercials, and caught this part as well as the last five minutes. It’s hard to say. Maybe I even saw the whole last half hour of the episode! (But if I did, it was only this scene and the last five minutes that left any kind of impression).
So maybe it’s worth watching the whole episode – but a lot of it is painful to get through. It makes me want to make a 20 minute version of the episode (or maybe even a 10…). That would be amazing, if someone set out to cut out a lot of the weaker, unnecessary scenes from the old TNG episodes – I wonder how short each episode could be. It reminds me of that whole fiasco with Star Wars: The Phantom Cut. I never managed to see it (apparently Lucas Films scrubbed it from the internet pretty good…). This would be an incredible service to anyone endeavoring to go through the old episodes, and could collectively save thousands of life-hours to potential viewers. But then there’s the issue of losing the flavour of the original episode, and the sense of the style at the time. And then, how many people would watch the cut version and the original version, to compare? People like me would do that. So I suppose it wouldn’t really save any time at all.
But I digress: despite now being almost 30 years old, the above scene is still relevant on the topic of torture, as well as human perception and belief systems. Good job, Star Trek.