Friday, May 08, 2015

TNG Flashback, Chain of Command, Part I

"The Best of Both Worlds" may be remembered as the defining two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Certainly, it's the best season-ending cliffhanger in all of Star Trek. But the best two-part episode, strongest in both its first and second parts? That honor goes to "Chain of Command."

Picard is abruptly relieved of command and reassigned, along with Dr. Crusher and Worf, to a top secret mission. The three of them are sneaking into Cardassian space to investigate rumors of a dangerous new weapon the Cardassians are developing. Meanwhile, the rest of the Enterprise crew must adjust to their by-the-book captain, the abrasive Edward Jellico.

Though you'd never know it from the tense pacing of the episode, the "Chain of Command" story wasn't originally intended to be a two-parter. Michael Piller suggested to showrunner Jeri Taylor that there was enough material here for two episodes, and a big opportunity to save on the series' budget by getting two for the price of one (particularly since much of the second episode could take place in a single room, with just two characters talking).

Where this first half benefits most from the extra time is in its portrayal of Jellico, the replacement captain, and in the ways that our regular characters are forced to react to him. Jellico blows in like a hurricane, changing the duty schedule before he even reaches the turbolift, and telling Picard to his face that the Enterprise is his now (because Picard is unlikely to survive his covert mission).

It's an absolutely perfect bit of casting to get Ronny Cox to play Jellico. Amongst science fiction fans, he was most recognizable as the despicable villains of Robocop and Total Recall, and he immediately brought that association with him. The audience was primed to hate him, even before he started rearranging the furniture. Cox loved the role, joking, "I've done a lot of things in my career, and I've got people in my family who think that's the only thing of any worth I have ever done." He also appreciated Jellico's place in Star Trek. He was aware of the fact that "Gene Roddenberry didn't like conflict between the characters," and knew that he was the first human character to really come in and "ruffle everybody's feathers" like this. Cox also quipped that this appearance made him a "trivia answer" -- as one of the few non-main cast members to ever record a log entry.

But in truth, Jellico isn't entirely a villain, as script writer Ronald Moore does a very good job of walking a line where, objectively, he isn't really such a bad guy. He's just a guy with a more military bearing. It's easy to forget that Starfleet really is a military organization. Certainly, most Star Trek viewers aren't going to be in the military themselves. But is it so awful for Jellico to want to choose the number of shift rotations on his own ship? To want Troi -- like all other crewmembers -- to wear a uniform while on duty? To want Data to pipe him onto the bridge with the respect he's earned from a long career? Plus, we see that Jellico is a family man (another key difference from Picard), with a son sending him drawings from back home. And we get to see that he's actually quite good at his job; he knows exactly how to deal with the Cardassians, making them think they're working to squeeze out a concession he would have freely given.

No, Jellico is not a bad guy at his core. But certainly the way he goes about doing things rubs everyone, characters and audience, the wrong way. Here, seven years before the movie Office Space would immortalize the Lumbergh style of management, Jellico is "by the way"ing half his orders, tacking them on at the end of unrelated conversations. And the other half of his orders, he's barking out with a coarse "get it done" that perfectly contrasts with Picard's "make it so." We bristle on behalf of Riker, Troi, and LaForge.

Meanwhile, there are several great moments for the team of Picard, Crusher, and Worf. First, it's great even having Crusher in the mix here; the "metagenic weapon" Macguffin is a great story justification to use her, and it's great to see that character used in an action-oriented role. The three make a great team as they work the Ferengi Solok for transportation -- Picard is the diplomat, Worf the muscle, and Crusher the flirt. Worf and Crusher also have fun ribbing each other about their respective phobias. (Bats and heights, respectively.)

The episode also lays some track for Deep Space Nine. Originally, the Ferengi character of Solok was meant to be Quark. When it was realized this episode would air one month before the new series began (and that thus, no one in the audience would know who Quark was), the character name was changed in an otherwise identical scene. Instead, references are made to a treaty in which Cardassians give up control of a number of planets -- one of them being Bajor, just as the spin-off series would soon show. The episode also introduces Admiral Nechayev, who would recur on both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. (And her bristly, acidic demeanor paves the way for us to hate the change of Enterprise command even more.)

There's plenty more to say, but most of it more relevant to part two. So I'll quickly wrap up with...

Other observations:
  • Troi actually does look much better in the uniform. Putting her in it was Ronald Moore's idea, and Marina Sirtis was reportedly happy about the change. Seeing her in uniform really makes you realize that her not wearing one was subtly demeaning to the professionalism of the character.
  • As for the change to remove Livingston the fish from the captain's ready room, Ronny Cox claims this was actually Patrick Stewart's doing. Stewart had been lobbying the producers to get rid of the fish; he thought it reflected poorly on Star Trek's values to have a captive animal on display in such small confines. (In fact, I remember seeing him speak at a Star Trek convention myself, and explaining this view to a questioning fan.) Unfortunately, the fish returned along with Picard.
  • With this episode begins the rather shockingly forward practice of having women rub on Ferengi ears when they want something. Oh, not the fact that their ears are an erogenous zone -- Lwaxana Troi discovered that a few seasons back. But she found that out by accident, and in a situation that was sexually charged to begin with. I mean, when you really think about it, if the scene in this episode were involving a human, what Crusher does is just start massaging his crotch. And we'd see this kind of thing again and again, more times than I could count, on Deep Space Nine. I'm not entirely sure what I'm saying here. After all, Ferengi are generally sexist characters that are always getting the tables turned on them in these situations. Maybe I'm just saying I find it a little odd that this is always played for laughs. Or that you could get it on television in the early 1990s.
  • If there's one great missed opportunity in this episode, it's that Whoopi Goldberg wasn't available to appear in it. It would have been quite interesting to see how Guinan handled Picard's reassignment, and the new Captain Jellico.
With so many great character moments in the episode, and clever manipulation of the audience to make us feel what they feel, "Chain of Command, Part I" is the best sixth season episode yet. I give it an A-. Of course, even better was immediately around the corner...

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