It was 26 years ago today that Chain of Command Part II aired for the first time, featuring a performance by Patrick Stewart few have forgotten.
“THERE… ARE… FOUR LIGHTS!”
It is a line that has joined “Beam me up.” and “Engage” as a permanent part of the Star Trek lexicon. Say those four words to any Trek fan and they will know immediately what episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation you are talking about.
“Chain of Command” was a two-part episode from the sixth season of the show, which at that point was firing on all cylinders. The prior season had seen an appearance by none other than Leonard Nimoy himself as Spock in “Unification” and earlier in the year fans had enjoyed the return of James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott.
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In addition, the writing was as good as it had ever been. The mistakes and issues with the earlier seasons were a thing of the past. The viewers, actors and producers all knew who these characters were and it showed in some of the greatest science-fiction ever seen on television.
The high point of Season 6 though had to be “Chain of Command” which featured possibly Sir Patrick Stewart‘s greatest performance in his seven years playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
“Chain of Command” saw Picard agree to give up command of the Enterprise in order to take on a top secret mission within the Cardassian Union. The mission fails and Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured while the new captain of the Enterprise, Edward Jellico, tries to stop all out war from breaking out. It featured guest stars Ronny Cox as Jellico and David Warner as Gul Madred.
The episode is also notable because it features the first time since “Encounter at Farpoint” we see Counselor Deanna Troi in a Starfleet uniform. It was also the third time Warner had appeared in a Star Trek project, the others being the films The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered Country.
However, it is the second part pf “Chain of Command” that most fans agree is one of the best hours of The Next Generation ever made.
Frank Abatemarco, who wrote “Chain of Command” with an uncredited assist from Jeri Taylor, did extensive research on torture methods, even going so far as the talk with Amnesty International. Stewart also talked with the human rights organization and wanted to make sure that the final script didn’t shy away from the strong subject matter.
I think it’s safe to say that they succeeded beyond even what they thought might be possible.
Watching “Chain of Command, Part II” can be an uncomfortable experience for many people. Experiencing Picard being humiliated, tortured and almost broken can be a tough thing for almost anyone to watch.
But the real kicker was the final scene. The classic “There are four lights!” line only came once Picard realized he was going to be set free. It wasn’t until later, while talking with Troi that Picard, the pillar of strength, admitted that to stop the torture he would have been willing to say anything. Even that there were five lights.
Powerful stuff. And the type of character development you don’t normally see today in many science-fiction franchises.
“Chain of Command” is consistently named as one of the 10 best episodes of Star Trek across all the various series and it is easy to see why. It is a great example of just what is possible with the right actor, the right script and a desire to not play it safe.