Alright, so, this was probably the easiest voter-bonus episode to write. I’ve watched this episode (both parts) a dozen times at least, because it is nothing short of a master stroke for Star Trek. It barely missed the cut-off for the actual list, and only because the episode that DID make it is amazing for exactly the same reason as this one, but to a greater extent: That Patrick Stewart is a global treasure.
I’m not going to revisit the premise of Star Trek in depth. There’s a ship. It goes into space on a journey. It’s staffed with the best and brightest that humanity and its associated planets have to offer. It’s called the Enterprise. This version, however, has the best captain (FIGHT ME), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick F*CKING Stewart).
This first episode starts off with Picard losing command to be put on a covert mission to deal with the Cardassian threat. No, not the one with the sex tapes. They’re an alien race.
No, not the one with the sex tapes.
Picard is replaced by Captain Jellico (Ronny Cox), whose command style, by comparison, is… not as good. Picard goes with a small team on a mission to destroy a cache of biological weapons. They arrive on the target planet, but, finding no signs of weaponry, they suspect a trap and try to escape. Picard is captured and brought to Gul Madred (David Warner), who informs Picard that the entire mission was a setup to capture him in order to obtain secrets on the Federation. That’s the first episode, and it’s… well, only okay. But, it sets up the amazing second episode.
Madred spends the entire episode torturing Picard. Starvation, dehydration, humiliation, beating, shocking, forced nudity, degradation. The crew borrowed a list from Amnesty International when writing it, and put basically all of the ones that would be allowed on network television into the episode.
It starts by Madred telling Picard that he has no name. Picard will only be called “human.” Then, Madred starts to try to break Picard’s will, and these are some of the most powerful scenes in the entire series. The most memorable exchanges involve Madred showing Picard four spotlights behind his desk. Madred asks Picard how many lights he sees. Picard says four. Madred tells him there are five, and when Picard disagrees, Madred uses a device implanted in Picard to cause him all varieties of simulated pain.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise is told Picard is captured, but they are forced to disavow his actions, which means he’s not eligible for rights as a prisoner of war. These scenes mostly just serve to allow for time-skips on the Picard scenes.
Madred brings his daughter in to work, and he and Picard banter about the nature of raising children to believe that it is alright to value no other sentient life. Madred claims that the Cardassians used to have a rich spiritual society, and it led them to starve. Now, the Military rules, and everyone is fed. Picard responds that Madred’s children will have full bellies, but empty spirits. He then mocks Madred by denying that there are any lights.
Picard is shown to start resisting by separating his mind and body, envisioning himself at his family’s home in France. As Madred tries to break him, Picard starts to turn the tables, pointing out that Madred knows torture is ineffective at getting information or control, so Madred is clearly just using it to punish people because he feels weak. Picard calls him pitiable. Madred proves him right by just shocking him again.
Finally, the Enterprise is able to intercept a Cardassian ship and threaten to detonate a series of mines that would destroy them in order to force the Cardassians to release Picard.
Madred, having been told that Picard is going to be released, goes to confront a dehydrated, delirious Picard. Madred tells the captain that the Cardassians have conquered the planet that the Federation was defending and that the Enterprise was destroyed, and that they have no need for him anymore. Madred then offers to let Picard live a life of comfort in exchange for one thing: Telling Madred that he sees five lights. Picard, wavering, and uncertain, starts to speak, and then the guards come in and inform Picard that he’s being returned to the Enterprise.
In what is one of the most amazingly bad-ass moments in the history of television, Picard, a beaten, broken, shadow of a man, turns to his captor and tells him:
“THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!”
Couldn’t find an HD copy, but here’s the scene anyway.
It’s an amazing scene that would rouse the heart of even the most stoic or cynical of people. It is nothing short of a triumph of the human will against circumstances that should render a person into a shaking pile of incoherent wailing. Which is what makes it even more notable when, in the last scene of the episode, Picard talks to Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis), and admits to her that, during the last exchange, he did see five lights.
People who took High School English seriously probably have read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. One of the most iconic scenes in the book is when the protagonist, Winston Smith, is tortured by the Party’s propaganda agency, the Ministry of Love. The torturer, O’Brien, begins to try to force Winston to think in Newspeak, the Party’s language, by torturing him to the point that when he holds up four fingers, Winston will believe there are five.
“‘How can I help it?’ [Winston] blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’
‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’”
That is what Madred is doing here. While Madred is originally supposed to be getting specific information out of Picard, by the end, he has long forsaken that in the name of just breaking Picard’s mind. And, much like the end of the book, Madred does finally succeed, even if only for a moment. At the end of the book, Winston has learned that hope is gone, because the Party controls everything. Unlike Winston, Picard is saved by the momentary appearance of hope because he learns that the Cardassians don’t fully control him anymore. Hope is what a person can hold onto when everything else is lost, and it is anathema to being controlled.
The other central difference between Winston and Picard is that Winston never was able to challenge his torturer, because he never understood what the Party wanted to do to him or what their goals were. Picard, on the other hand, understands exactly what the Cardassians want and what Madred really is thinking at almost any given time. He is able to use that to turn the tables at certain points and regain a position of power.
Using Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comparison here is particularly apt, because the Federation is the exact opposite of the Party. The Party, and apparently the Cardassian Empire, lives to oppress and control for the sake of control and oppression under the pretense of survival. The Federation exists to put every person within it into a state of self-actualization at any given time. Every person on Earth is cared for, and given the basics to allow them to self-determine for free for the sake of advancement. Pretty much the best possible view for the future contrasted with the worst.
But, mostly, this episode just has Patrick Stewart being awesome. If it wasn’t for the fact that the first half is slow and the intercuts with the regular crew weren’t so off-putting (seriously, it was a bad idea to put Patrick Stewart and David Warner in a scene together and not consider that it made everyone else look like worse actors by comparison), this would have made the list proper.
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The good half of the episode (the scene above starts at 45:15):