Wednesday, February 14, 2007

There Are Four Lights!

Over the years, Star Trek has portrayed torture from time to time. In the original series, it was sci-fi torture, very stylized, and always done by villains. Often it was an abuse of a "scientific" process, like mind-control. In the Berman-Braga era, it became more graphic at times, and less integral to a science fiction plot. By the end, there were instances in Enterprise where it seemed really gratuitious and excessive. I wrote at the time that perhaps Manny Coto was auditioning for the job he got on the writing staff of "24."

But the instance of torture that Star Trek fans are likely to remember best was early in the Berman era, in a classic Next Generation two-parter in season 6, "Chain of Command." The second episode (written by Frank Abatemarco, who also gets story credit for the first part) centered on Captain Picard's torture at the hands of a Cardassian officer (played by David Warner.) This was perhaps the best and most honest drama ABOUT torture in any TV series. It was in the finest Star Trek tradition.

It is a very sophisticated story. The writer did a great deal of research, some of it with Amnesty International. Warner is a villain, but through the conversations he has with Picard, we learn more about him and his own sufferings--he is "humanized" in that sense. We see the dangerous games that the Federation and the Cardassians are playing, reminicent of the Cold War or the Middle East. Jellico is the officer who replaces Picard as commander of the Enterprise, and he is hard and mercurial--maybe a Jack Bauer type--and a curious analogue to Warner's Cardassian.

This is very skillful drama, with suspense, twists and turns, and a lot of human drama of emotions: Riker is subordinate over Jellico's apparent dismissal of Picard's safety. Picard sacrifices himself when he is led to believe that Doctor Crusher would be tortured in his place. And so on.

But the episode is remembered for being bracingly forthcoming about torture. It's said that Patrick Stewart wanted the torture to appear real, and he insisted on being naked for several key scenes. But the motivations and effects, and not just the torture itself, were explored. At first the intent seems to be to get information from Picard, but that was quickly accomplished with drugs--Picard did not have the information sought. Then his captor caused him terrible pain and privation in the effort to get him to say there were five lights above him, and not the four he saw.

Picard comes out and says that everyone knows that torture has proven ineffective in obtaining information, or in exerting longterm control. So the only reason for it is to give the torturer pleasure.

This is partly Picard's psychological ploy to shock the Cardassian, but there's truth in it. This is the dark secret of torture porn. It can give pleasure to torturer and witnesses, but more to the point, it gives comfort--even the comfort of indiscriminate, unconscious revenge in the guise of specific justice, which becomes possible with power.

In Iraq and at Guantanamo it is clearly an instrument of revenge, of dominance, which give comfort and pleasure of a kind. It temporarily assuages fear by giving the torturer control. And viewers of TV torture are also given the illusion of control, and the comfort of feeling safer. Apart from mindless self-deception, the cost is self-degradation, brutalization and betrayal of human values, as well as silent support of the kind of injustice that routinely and notoriously occurs at Guantanamo.

For many fans, Picard is the hero because he never gives in--his final cry, "There are four lights!" is chilling and thrilling at the same time. But there is a coda, in his conversation with Counsellor Troi back on the Enterprise, when he admits that he was very close to giving the answer his torturer demanded. It is a sobering moment. Picard's return to the Enterprise restores the human balance, but we have learned how fragile this can be, in a much more meaningful way than by some simplistic appeal to primal fear. It is an argument for civilization, as TNG often is, and not an argument for winning at any cost.

At one point in "Chain of Command" the Cardassian tells his young daughter that human parents don't care about their children as Cardassian parents do. This is the us vs. them, we are good and they are evil assumption, as well as the sci-fi model that the everyone unlike us is a monster, which Star Trek opposed with stories that revealed complexities, balances and other possibilities. That Star Trek is criticized for being unrealistic because it has some balance and complexity, is what's terrifying to me.

This is the science fiction of consciousness that I mourn because it is so clearly missing (except perhaps for Dr. Who.) Sure, we need cautionary tales, as long as we truly learn something from them. But we need visions and models of a better future, too. And it is my chief worry about Star Trek's rebirth at this time, when it seems nobody can creatively think past the latest fad in Bush-Cheney's model of a terrorized terrified world of Good vs. Evildoers, mixed in with war movie versions of World War II, dressed up with a few sci-fi superficialities. It's not real, it's just easier.

The last thing I want to see is a Star Trek movie that embraces this reflex manipulation in the guise of drama, and these phony cliches about torture, or that being "gritty and dark" is actually more real, rather than just an easier way to excite an audience. And those who propose this act like it's some big insight, instead of something that people like Gene Roddenberry knew was the easier way, and rejected. Because it's less interesting, less real, and less human. And it's as sure a dead end for the future as can be imagined.

I hope the Star Trek movie can transcend this. I hope that the fact that "Lost" and "Alias" are on the list of TV shows that feature torture isn't predicting the Star Trek future.


Swinebread said...

Tell it Bro!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Hey is this the Jasen Tucker guy from the first Star Teak New Voyages. Looks like hes in the SS in this film, heres a link on your tube.

dorkie dork from dorktown said...

Great post!

There's a comment that Piccard makes about once you make it ok to "...devalue someone you make it ok to devalue whole races of people". do you remember that quote? We need more reminders of that today.