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TNG 6-11

TNG 6x11
"Chain of Command, Part II"

Original airdate: 12/21/1992
Rewatch date: 9/1/2012

The Enterprise, under the command of Captain Jellico, struggles to prevent war with the Cardassians while Captain Picard is tortured mercilessly for information.

Spoiler-free notes:

This episode is best understood as a meditation on will. There are three separate battles of will going on, each increasing in intensity: the pissing contest between Riker and Jellico, the tense negotiations between Jellico and Gul Lemec, and of course, the interrogation sessions between Picard and Gul Madred. Each one is a fencing contest, with each combatant scoring hits here and there but only securing victory in the final flourish.

Riker's pushed to the limits of his patience by Jellico, a captain who clearly believes his first officer should be a yes man. After trying in good faith to adjust to the new command style of his superior officer, Riker's will is broken when Jellico is apparently unwilling to do anything to save Picard. Jellico's decision is a logical one given the delicate circumstances, but Riker's reaction to it is just as understandable from the perspective of his character. This is excellent writing, but I'm not quite as happy with how the situation is resolved. Jellico only goes back to Riker because he needs the best pilot on board (and really, wouldn't Data be even more precise and have a quicker reaction time?), and though he concedes defeat in order to get what he needs, neither man actually comes to appreciate the other.

The battle between Jellico and Gul Lemec is more interesting because we, as the viewers, have no real stake in the victor. Of course we want the Federation to come out ahead, but Jellico is an unknown factor who is written to be difficult to sympathize with. We want to think he knows what he's doing, but Troi assures us that his apparent self-confidence is a ruse and Lemec spends the vast majority of this episode with the smug smile of a man with the upper hand. In the end, Jellico is able to secure victory by seeing the entire chess board clearly and making a very bold move that instantly puts Lemec into checkmate, proving in the end that his reputation against the Cardassians is deserved.

Then there's the most intense battle of wills in the episode: the one between Gul Madred and Captain Picard. The show doesn't pull any punches in showing us what it would take to break Picard's will by brute force. It's a terrifyingly honest and harrowing portrayal of torture, helped along in no small part by the amazing acting performances of Patrick Stewart and David Warner. If the entire two-part episode were devoted solely to these two men trying to break each other, it would never get boring. Gul Madred is the quintessential Cardassian, and Warner's portrayal here finally solidifies the Cardassians as a villain equal in stature to the Romulans and Klingons.

It's shocking new territory for Star Trek, because it is much grittier and darker than anything we've ever seen on any Trek show to date. It's the first episode that should have come with a parental disclaimer. Whether the producers were finally letting go of Roddenberry or were doing their best to set the stage for Deep Space Nine (I don't consider it a spoiler to say that it's no mistake this was the last TNG episode to air before DS9's debut--the ads for DS9 that played with this episode make it very clear that DS9 has a lot to do with Cardassians), they've crossed a boundary here, setting a new tone and a new potential direction for the entire franchise.

TNG 6x10
"Chain of Command, Part I"
Star Trek: The Next Generation
TNG 6x12
"Ship in a Bottle"
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