If you recognize the image that I posted above this article, you already know some of the reason I like this TNG two-parter so much. Type in “There are four lights” in your search engine, and you’ll discover a treasure trove of memes and merchandise tie-ins related to this story.
The plot of the story is simple enough. Picard is captured while on a secret mission into Cardassian territory. It turns out he was specifically lured by the evil Cardassians, who torture him mercilessly. Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise has to adapt to a different style of leadership under Captain Jellico, who leads the negotiations to prevent a war with the Cardassians. All of these things are resolved by the conclusion of this two-part episode.
Jean-Luc Picard is a somewhat stodgy, straight-laced character throughout the series. Paternal and authoritarian, and, while not completely humorless, not the sort you’re likely to kid around with too much. Because of the image he projects, I always enjoy it when Picard is made uncomfortable, or tortured, or otherwise made to act contrary to his usual self. This happens several times in the show. When Picard becomes Locutus-of-Borg, or learns to play the flute in “Inner Light,” or becomes overcome by Sarek’s emotional turmoil after a mind meld. And, certainly, in “Chain of Command.”
There’s other good stuff in this episode, and I’ll get to them in a moment. But, the torture of Picard by Gul Madred (David Warner) is central to making this story great. I’ve read that Warner took the role of Madred with only three days’ notice and had to read all of his lines from cue cards. You can’t tell from the masterful performance he turned in. Before the end of the story, I was nearly ready to tell him that there were five lights as well.
If that’s all this episode were about, it would still have been a good, if not great, one. But, wait, there’s even more (as all the infomercial shills frequently tell us).
Actor Ronny Cox turns in an amazing performance as Captain Edward Jellico, the Starfleet captain who replaces Picard on the Enterprise when Picard, Worf and Dr. Beverly Crusher are drafted to go on a secret mission that they may not come back from. Why do I think his performance was amazing? Because I find myself—even now, all these years later—hating Captain Jellico, who reminds me of several pompous ass-clowns I’ve worked with in my career. And, we were supposed to hate Jellico, I think, which means that Cox did what he was supposed to do. We’ve had guest-stars as unlikeable characters in TNG before, but few who have resonated with me the way Jellico has.
Ronny Cox, like David Warner, has an extensive acting resume. He has played many strong-willed authority figures in his career. Certainly, Captain Jellico fits that bill. He’s one of those character actors you instantly recognize, even if you may not instantly recall his name.
What I like the most about the character of Jellico is the effect he has on the rest of the cast of the show. Jellico doesn’t think as highly of Commander Riker as Picard does, and this is apparent in every scene the two share. This may sound sadistic, but I like it when the rest of the main cast of the series are made uncomfortable or are in duress. This is the nature of true dramatic tension, and the crew of the Enterprise usually have things too easy under Picard. Jellico stirs the pot with his unrealistic expectations and his self-centered lack of concern for the feelings of those around him. Only Data seems to actually thrive under Jellico’s command.
So, while Picard is suffering from actual torture, his crew is being mentally and emotionally challenged at the same time. I find that this makes both story lines compelling, and makes the inevitable reuniting of Picard and crew even more satisfying. Yes, I gave away the ending, but you could hardly have called that a spoiler even before the show was in reruns.
And then there’s the bit about the lights. A powerful image and a memorable line from Picard.
“There. Are. Four. Lights!!”
This one is on the All-Time Best Trek List, of course. 4 out of 5 stars.