Sunday, October 11, 2015

“A Voiceless Song”: Chain of Command, Part I

The reputation of course precedes it. Not just its own, but that of what it sets into motion. We know what's coming next. And so did everyone who saw this on initial transmission: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the show on everyone's minds that was getting all the industry buzz. The promo spots were already airing on TV, and we'd seen the new crew and the new space station. Anyone who followed science fiction would have known the new show was going to be set near Bajor and feature the Cardassians, so everyone knew what a mid-season finale involving the Cardassians over at Star Trek: The Next Generation *really* meant.

And that's an important thing to remember here: Most of the stuff fans like to praise the most about “Chain of Command”, namely the truly gruesome and unsettling torture scenes that are justifiably held up as a human rights statement, are from Part 2. Part 1 in hindsight feels much more like a setup, not just to Part 2, but to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Because that's what this episode is really about, at a metatextual level if not an explicit one. The teaser starts, and right away we get a series of bombshell revelations: Captain Picard is being reassigned, the Enterprise is getting a new captain and the Cardassians are withdrawing from Bajor. We're given practically no time to process any of this, just like the crew who are given no time to process the transfer of command from Jean-Luc Picard to Edward Jellico. And yet at the same time, we also know that none of this is going to be permanent, because we follow the entertainment rags enough to know Patrick Stewart isn't leaving the show and also because this episode is literally entitled “Chain of Command, Part I”.

That's a historical fact I feel is frequently overlooked: This is the first two-parter in the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation to actually come right out and advertise itself as a two-parter from the very beginning. “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Redemption”, “Unification” and “Time's Arrow”, the previous stories of this ilk, all hung on their cliffhanger endings: You were meant to watch them for 39 minutes assuming they were going to play out like a normal episode, and then be gobsmacked by a left-field revelation: Captain Picard got turned into a Borg. Tasha Yar is still alive, and a Romulan. Spock is back (even though we kind of knew he was coming). Data gets sucked into the past, where we know he's going to get killed. “Chain of Command”, however, makes it perfectly clear to us from the outset it's telling a story too big and too epic (and also too expensive, which was the main reason Michael Piller suggested splitting it in half) to be contained in one episode. Given the strategic December airdate, it thus also becomes Star Trek: The Next Generation's first proper mid-season finale, which seems like the only fitting way to reify Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

(DaiMon Selok was even originally going to be Quark, and that scene is still shot on Deep Space Nine's replimat set in the finished product. We've also got Alynna Nechayev, the quintessential Evil Starfleet Admiral who will come back to harass both Captain Picard and Benjamin Sisko next year, dodgy as it is that the first overtly evil admiral is Russian.)

There's certainly no way any of this is going to get addressed properly in this show. Which, while understandable, is also a bit disappointing as it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that introduced the Cardassians and has a Bajoran conn officer. That's the other thing: Ro Laren's absence in “Chain of Command” is really, strikingly noticeable and one can't help but wish they held Michelle Forbes' annual guest spot over for this story instead of shunting her into the teaser for “Rascals”. Especially considering she had already turned down the gig over at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would make sense to get her perspective on the Cardassians' withdrawal from her homeworld (which she barely knows to the point you have to question if she's even the same culturally, ethnically or genetically as someone like Kira Nerys) and possible development of a biological weapon of frightening proportions here.

Laren could have filled Worf's role in this story effortlessly, helping the black ops team with improv guerrilla tactics, pulling Beverly out of the cave in and helping her to rescue Captain Picard in Part 2. In fact, she would have been an even better choice for the mission than Worf, because she's both a combat specialist *and* someone with extensive knowledge of the Cardassians, their tactics and their history with the Bajorans. What better way to prove where her loyalties lie than helping Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher deal a blow to blatantly imperialistic machinations on the part of her former oppressors? She could even point out the hypocrisy and futility of the Federation getting involved with espionage and dirty backdoor realpoliticking, which is a glaring omission on the part of this story that I could not stop thinking about all while I rewatched it. This would also free up Worf to bark at Captain Jellico out of a sense he's unworthy to assume Captain Picard's mantle as Worf's lord.

(I'd also point out how bizarre it is that Starfleet Command jumps through hoops to get Captain Picard, Worf and Doctor Crusher, three *extremely high profile officers* to head up their super-secret black ops mission instead of, you know, Starfleet intelligence or Section 31 or something like that, but then again Starfleet Command *are* blisteringly incompetent, and the Enterprise wouldn't be involved in the plot otherwise, which would mean we wouldn't have drama. Speaking of...)

Then there's Captain Jellico himself. Most fans like to read him as an unsympathetic hardline asshole who comes in, throws his weight around and messes up the dynamic the crew built around Captain Picard. This is firstly revealing because this, more than anything else, proves that Star Trek: The Next Generation has finally arrived for a segment of fandom: Being an unsympathetic, humourless tightass is *precisely* the criticism leveled at Captain Picard and the show itself all throughout its first three seasons, and to now hear people complaining about somebody allegedly disrupting the Enterprise's establishment and warm sense of community is quite telling, and it brings portents for the incoming Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And the fans are right: Jellico is completely insufferable: He's utterly the embodiment of that fraternal, militaristic rot at the heart of Starfleet and the Federation that the Enterprise is meant to oppose, and the only reason he hasn't gone down the path of Benjamin Maxwell is because Jellico is actually competent at his job and displays a measure of self-awareness and responsibility. But the thing about Jellico I think a lot of fans miss is that the story, and writer Ron Moore, *absolutely* intend for him to be sympathetic not just in spite of, but because of this.

Both Moore and Ronny Cox (who is brilliant in the part and a perfect fit, I have to point out) explicitly state that Jellico was intended as a showcase of another kind of Starfleet captain who was different, but just as good as, Captain Picard. Of course, the Enterprise crew and their stuck-up elitist self-assured so-called “utopia” wouldn't understand or respect this, and Captain Jellico would bring in some of that sweet, sweet conflict by waking them up with a solid dose of good old fashioned good old boy military know-how and get-it-done. Moore especially will leap to Jellico's defense at every opportunity, taking care to point out how him hanging up pictures of his children humanizes him. Which yes, it does. We don't live in the world of Alexander and Reg's holodeck programme where everyone is conveniently divided into white hats and black hats: We're all human, but that doesn't mean humans can't do terrible, evil things. Jellico loving his kids doesn't mean his actions and behaviour still don't paint him as an imperialistic, war-mongering monster.

(Spookily enough, Jellico has a whiff of performativity about him too, it's just his manifests in pretending to throw temper tantrums in front of visiting dignitaries as an excuse to sort of actually throw temper tantrums in front of visiting dignitaries.)

It's entirely fitting, by the way, that our temporary captain for this week is Edward Jellico, a character who seems to have lept right off of the page of some old militaristic pulp sci-fi rag. Because “Chain of Command, Part I” is actually really, really stock. There's Moore's typical ham-fisted realpolitiking that's only slightly more tolerable here than it was in “Redemption” and Captain Jellico yells at some people a bit, but even that is just wallpaper for a series of protracted action sequences of people running through tunnels in Planet Hell looking for blinky props and shooting things. There's some charismatic heroes and villains trying to outbluff and outmanoeuvre one another. And I mean for fuck's sake there's even an actual, legit, no -bullshit *cave-in* and Captain Picard even gets *captured*. Remember, this is all before that haunting torture stuff happens in Part 2 (which was a plot point suggested by Michael Piller anyway): We don't know any of that is coming yet, all we know is we've ended on a stultifyingly boring “Our hero is captured!” cliffhanger and Douglas MacArthur is now in command of the Enterprise.

And this brings us back to Laren, actually, because this is also the reason she doesn't have a part in this episode. It's not the material, historical reason, but it's the real one. Because I do suspect that former ROTC man Ron Moore looks at Captain Jellico as someone he probably admires to at least some degree due to his bombastic and unapologetic old-fashioned masculinity. The kind of captain he'd probably like to serve under if he was in the military. And this means Moore wants him to be the hero of this story, when the hero should plainly be Ro Laren. But I don't think that's something Moore at this point in his life and career would have even been capable of understanding or conceiving of. There's no place for Ro Laren in a story that lionizes someone like Edward Jellico. And a story that lionizes Edward Jellico cannot hear the voice of someone like Ro Laren because it cannot imagine that voice exists. And this story, and both incoming Star Treks, are the poorer for it.

To Be Continued


  1. In fact, Part I is so stock that I kind of don't have much to add other than to heap a little more praise on Ronny Cox. He's a guy I always enjoy seeing turn up in whatever genre drama I'm watching, kind of like William Morgan Sheppard. I think the last thing I saw him in was Leverage, The D.B. Cooper Job. Whereupon of course it all goes back to Star Trek and you're like "HEY IT'S JELLICO!"

    I don't want to at least not mention that it was at least wise of them (of course it's the obvious angle and the most built-in, since he's replacing the Captain) to have his style clash more with Riker than anybody else. Beyond any of the military blah-blah-blah of the First Officer's role, it's just a good move because Riker is all of our and everyone else's best friend and most loyal dude, and as we've seen before, it makes him into one of the ur-sympathetic characters here.

    I suppose the lack of Bajorans is pretty noticeable here, though I don't think it's a deal-breaker. But it did strike me as incredibly odd to have a flagship captain, medical/life sciences doctor in a prestige job, and a ship-to-ship tac officer/security guy do a commando mission. Not that I need my Star Trek to be remotely "military" in structure, but when does a ship command team ever do a commando run? That's what onboard marines or SEAL teams or whatever would be doing. And frankly based on who's got what experience and what rank on the USS Enterprise, you'd think it'd be Chief O'Brien's mission. (Accepting the fact that even though we haven't gotten the send-off, he's already gone.)

    But you can actually replace Patrick Stewart with Colm Meaney in part II of this and not have a too terribly different, equally "legendary status" type episode out of it. I mean essentially once a season in DS9 they're going to be giving O'Brien that kind of horrible torturous existence anyway. And just as Ro is conspicuously absent, it also would've been a nice touch to see O'Brien play off of Jellico, even in a minor bit, just to draw that line back to Maxwell.

    But I digress with the could-have-beens. Sometimes a Part I is all about the set-up of a superior Part II. It might not have intended to be, but it is. But there's certainly something big set in motion already.

    1. One positive for me is, and I can't remember if it's this or next episode, but I think it's this one, is that they finally and I think wisely use Jellico as an excuse to put Deanna in a Starfleet Uniform. And I believe this is the first time ever.

      We get pretty deep into the uphill battle Sirtis has to get her character taken seriously, and it's already Season 6. But the uniform and tying her hair back for me is kind of a big deal. Like, "oh hey, this woman is a competent officer, too, not just an emotional guidance counselor, as you can tell by the uniform she shares with her professional peers, not her purple onesie." Plus the ship was always skewed way red and yellow, and was always lacking for more blueshirt science division types.

      I think Deanna 2.0 is kind of important going into the final seasons.

    2. One of my dim recollections from my convention-going days is that Marina Sirtis really did not like the purple onesie.

    3. The uniform. Yeah, it's this one.

      I have complicated feelings about this. Yes, it's a big deal for me. Yes, I infinitely prefer Deanna in the sciences division uniform. Of course I hate the space pyjamas. I mentioned that when I talked about the Playmates version of the bridge crew. And yes, it was something Marina Sirtis had been clamoring for since the first season.

      (Although to be fair, Deanna *did* wear a regulation uniform in "Encounter at Farpoint", it was just the skant variant uniform.)

      *However*, the fan narrative version of this story is appalling. Every account of it takes the agency for the wardrobe shift away from Sirtis and gives it to, of all people, *Jellico*. To quote Star Trek: The Next Generation 365:

      "'And he [Jellico] put Troi in a uniform,' Moore notes with a chuckle, 'which I thought was all for the good.' In fact, Moore had been pushing for that change for years-and following this episode, Troi would continue to wear that uniform while on duty for most of the rest of TNG's run.

      It made perfect sense to Cox that his character would insist on a change in the counselor's wardrobe. 'Having Troi put on a damn uniform?' he says, sounding remarkably like Jellico. 'Give me a break. This is an officer on a ship and she's running around with her boobs hanging out?""

      So according to Star Trek's historians and creative figures, the problem with Deanna's space pyjamas look wasn't that it was ridiculous and made the actress embarrassed and uncomfortable, but because it allowed that damn loose floozy woman to strut around distracting the men.

    4. Then there's something Marina Sirtis herself points out:

      "There are certain rules in Hollywood. One of the rules is not written anywhere, but you just know: if you’re doing an action-adventure show, you gotta have chicks on the show for the boys to look at when they’re not blowing up other spaceships. Second rule: if the chick has a cleavage, she cannot have a brain.

      So, [after wearing a uniform in the first episode] I got a cleavage, and all my gray matter departed. Which was sad, because originally (I know this is gonna shock you), Troi was supposed to be the brains of the Enterprise. So when the cleavage came, all that left, and I became decorative, like a potted palm on the bridge.

      Then of course came the second season, and I was the only young one left. We had me and we had Diana, and so I had to become all things to all men. And so I got the red outfit, and and then we got the lilac outfit and then we got the green dress. Under the green dress I got to wear a corset, a satin corset, with bones in, like Scarlet O'Hara.

      Now, as you know, with a corset everything gets pushed up or down. What was pushed down was kind of enclosed in the skirt and what was pushed up was enclosed in what I named 'the Industrial Strength Starfleet Brassiere', which was a wonder of modern engineering. I mean, I used to take it off at night and go 'oh blimey, where did they go?'. In fact, we had guest stars - and I’m no Twiggy - who would come and see me in the morning as Marina and then they would see me two hours later as Troi, and they’d go to costume and go 'I want that bra!'

      So then we got to season six, and there was the episode 'Chain of Command' where we were trying out the new captain, Captain Jellico (just in case Patrick wanted too much money for next season, we were auditioning other captains), and he said to Troi 'Go put on a uniform'. And lo and behold, there was one in her closet. So I put it on, and by then I was skinny, and the director and all the producers were like 'she looks good in that, why hasn’t she been wearing that for the last six years?'

      So I started to wear my spacesuit. I was thrilled to finally be in a spacesuit. First of all, my pips - cause I had a rank, you know. And then, it was very flattering actually, it looked really good.

      Suddenly, I was smart again. My cleavage had gone. My gray matter came flooding back. I was on away teams! I was the leader of one away team! I had a medical tricorder! And unlike Beverly, I seemed to know what was wrong with people.

      And, in this one particular episode, where we were on the Romulan ship - because suddenly I am the expert in Romulan technology - I had this line: 'That’s impossible. The Romulans use an artificial quantum singularity as their power source'. Who did I say it to? Geordi and Data! They didn’t know this. To be honest, when we were shooting the scene and I was saying the line, I was sneaking looks to my right and left to make sure they hadn’t developed a cleavage while I wasn’t looking."

      Something to think about.

    5. It sounds right on the money to me.

      An actual uniform in my mind allows Sirtis to give us something of a fusion between maybe Sirtis-Troi and the would-have-been Sirtis-Yar. (I'd forgotten the scant.) It also finally puts her on the same level as Beverly, or Kate, in a completely professional sense. And certainly there could've have been much delusion in the way of viewers watching thinking, "well it's about time somebody told her blah blah blah" when clearly the reason the actress wore the costume she wore for six seasons because nobody in the creative process thought the better of it.

      But it's a fairly positive latter half turnaround in my eyes, because having the uniform allows Sirtis to at least "end the Troi run" the way she should've been able to begin it. And all just with a damned professional set of clothes.

      Come to think of it, the slightly-more-tolerable Wesley episodes all feature Starfleet uniforms instead of pale grey onesies, too.

      No damned wonder Q insists on wearing a uniform.

  2. Err... unless the titles were different between initial broadcast and Netflix, "Redemption, Part 1" and "Unification I" both indicated that they were part ones in their titles.

    Other than that, yeah, Jellico is crap and this episode screams for Ro. But Part 2 is some of the best Star Trek ever, so... it sort of balances out, ish?

    1. They are different between initial broadcast and Netflix.

      The original titles were, respectively "Redemption" and "Redemption II" and "Unification" and "Unification II". The titles of my essays on those episodes reflect this.

  3. "We know what's coming next. And so did everyone who saw this on initial transmission: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the show on everyone's minds that was getting all the industry buzz."

    At the time when I was doing my first watch as a teen I was blissfully unaware of publicity and stuff, so the arrival of DS9 was a big and lovely surprise for me!

    There was quite a few elements of this that were rote as you say, but I really enjoyed the actor playing Jellico and yes a *huge* miss on not having Laren as a key element to the story.

    1. Actually I have imagined my timeline wrongly, but I guess that's what we can all do. I was actually in my early twenties and basically very out of touch with anything much going on in science fiction then.