There are four lights!

January 25, 2010 § 4 Comments

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a two part episode called “Chain of Command”.  My apologies if I get any of the facts mixed up, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the episodes so I’m doing this all from memory.  The story goes like this: Captain Picard, Dr. Crusher, and Lt. Worf are ordered to go on a secret mission to a planet called Celtris III, to investigate reports that the Cardassians have a lab there and are trying to develop metagenic weapons (a super powerful bio weapon that unravels the DNA strands of anything it comes in contact with).  Reports have come in that this planet is giving off theta-band carrier waves. Theta-band carrier waves are a dead giveaway for metagenics. Apparently.

Anyway, they get to the planet, and arrive at the location of where the lab should be and discover that the theta-band carrier waves are coming from one single device and that there is no weapons lab; it was a trap all along.  Dr. Crusher and Lt. Worf manage to escape but Picard is captured and taken to a torture/interrogation facility.

There’s a secondary plot involving the new Captain of the Enterprise (they had to put someone else in charge while Picard was gone since there was the distinct possibility that he wouldn’t come back and the Enterprise needs a Captain).  The new Captain, Captain Jellico, shakes things up a lot, and changes things around a bit and some other not very relevant nonsense.  Eventually the Federation sends him to meet with the Cardassian Ambassador to discuss various “we know what you’re up to” “no you don’t” “yes we do, stop it” “we’ll stop if you go away” type topics.  It’s all very tense and stand-off-ish.  For a great deal of the negotiations the Cardassians seem to have the upper hand, and at some point it looks like the talks are going to fall apart.

It is discovered that the Cardassians are planning to invade Federation space and they have captured Picard to try and get tactical information on the movement of the Enterprise.  The Cardassian fleet is discovered hiding in some nebula (I forget which one, but it doesn’t really matter), and Captain Jellico sends Commander Riker into the nebula to to place mines all over the Cardassian fleet.  Captain Jellico informs the arrogant, and now very angry, Cardassian Ambassador that he knows what they are doing and has planted mines all over his ships, and that if they don’t depart in peace (and release Picard) then he will blow them up.  The Cardassians begrudgingly leave with their tails between their legs.

Ok so back to Picard.  He is captured and taken to a torture facility.  His interrogator, Gul Madred, is a cruel and ruthless man.  He lifts Picard’s arms above his head and hangs him there all night.  Then in the morning, he comes in and lets him down, and then proceeds to tell him what it is he wants.  He says that he wants to know about the Federations tactical plans and what their flag ship (the Enterprise) is going to do.  But he knows that he has to break Picard down first.  And the way he goes about it is through psychological torture.

Gul Madred turns on a set of four lights and asks, “how many lights do you see?”

Picard responds, “there are four lights.”

Gul Madred then activates a control device which sends pain throughout Picard’s body, and says, “no, there are 5 lights.”

They go back and forth like this for quite some time.  Madred will ask various questions and they will have awkwardly pleasant conversations, and then he will ask about the lights.  Picard always says that there are only four lights, and Madred always responds by zapping him.

After they go back and forth for a while Gul Madred sighs and says something to the effect of, “it’s a shame, I was hoping to be able to get what I needed from you.  Oh well, you can go.  I suppose I’ll have to move on to the female.  I would try the Klingon, but we had to kill him.  Hopefully the female will be more cooperative.”  It’s at this point that Picard realizes he’s talking about Dr, Crusher, and since he doesn’t know that she escaped, he really begins to fear what Gul Madred might do to her, so he agrees to stay, and endure more.

At the end of the episode Madred comes in one last time to try and break Picard.  Madred knows that he is supposed to release Picard because of what Captain Jellico has just accomplished, but he is determined to break him before he releases him.  Madred asks again about the lights, Picard says there are four, he zaps him.  Then he says that all the pain can be over, that Picard can be freed from the pain and live a life of comfort and scholarly reflection.  All he has to do is admit that he can see five lights. Picard pauses and thinks really hard before responding.  Just then, two Cardassian guards come into the room and ask Gul Madred what he is doing and tell him that Picard was supposed to be cleaned up and ready to go an hour ago.  Picard realizes he is about to be set free, and starts shuffling out of the room.  Just before he gets to the door he pauses, turns, looks at Gul Madred and yells, “There… are… FOUR LIGHTS!!” (and there is an unspoken “bitch!”).  It’s a very powerful moment where you know that Madred wasn’t able to break Picard and that Picard’s horrible ordeal is over, and he ‘won’.

Some shows would just stop here, ending on a win.  But instead they have an epilogue, where Picard (now reinstated as the Captain of the Enterprise) is having a discussion with the ships’ counselor, Diana Troy.  He begins relating the experience and tells him of the ultimate choice Gul Madred gave him: End the pain by admitting he can see five lights, or continuing to insist that there are only four lights and endure endless torment.  It’s at this point that Picard admits that in that moment, he really thought that he could see five lights.

It’s just one of those really great moments, and is a powerful look into psychology and how the mind works.  And it leaves you wondering, did Picard really ‘win’?  Did Gul Madred actually break him?  If the guards hadn’t come in at that moment, would Picard have admitted that he actually saw five lights?  It gets me thinking about what my own personal breaking point might be, maybe not at the point of torture, but at what point might I admit to something I know in my heart isn’t true?  At what point would I convince myself a lie is true if it meant the end of personal pain and suffering and meant a life of comfort and ease?  I don’t know the answers to any of those, but it sure is an interesting thing to think about.

“[Insert clever sign off phrase here]”


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