Thursday, July 31, 2014

'Star Trek: The Next Generation - Chain of Command' [Blu-Ray] (1992)

Starring Patrick Stewart, David Warner and Ronny Cox
Written by Ronald D. Moore, story by Frank Abatemarco
Directed by Robert Scheerer (Part I) and Les Landau (Part II)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is stunned when Admiral Necheyev (Natalia Nogulich) relieves him of his command of the starship Enterprise. But he quickly learns that she needs him to participate in a top-secret mission: Picard must infiltrate Cardassian space and destroy a dangerous new kind of biological weapon Necheyev believes is being developed there.

Picard is replaced aboard the Enterprise by Captain Edward Jellicho (Ronny Cox) who quickly finds himself at odds with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes). While the crew struggles to adjust to Jellicho's command style and demands, Picard readies his team. He'll be going behind the lines with Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn).

But once their mission is underway, they learn the unfortunate truth: the whole thing is a ruse. Now, Cardassian forces are massing near the border in response to what could be an act of war on the part of the Federation. At the same time, Picard finds himself at the mercy of Gul Madred (David Warner), who is tasked with obtaining vital information about Starfleet tactical plans from Picard at any cost.
"Chain of Command" is probably one of the few times in "Star Trek" history where the second part of a two-part episode so totally outshines the first part. In fact, watching them together, Part I really doesn't hold up very well at all compared to the second half in a number of ways.

Firstly, the crews struggles with Jellicho as captain don't work particularly well in the first half. In particular, the conflict between Riker and Jellicho feels forced, with Riker coming off as the one who can't seem to adjust to his new circumstances. But at the same time, Jellicho's demands do feel overwrought. The man seems to be making changes for the sake of doing so, which feels like writer Ron Moore trying to drum up conflict between these two and not quite landing it.

On the other side of things, the plot involving Picard, Worf and Crusher sneaking into Cardassian territory is just odd. The problem is that it never really feels believable that these three characters would be tasked with carrying out this mission. But they're our main characters, so they're going to be the focus, but this feels wrong. And once they're actually on the mission, things get worse - Crusher has no real business being there, and asking her to do all these black ops physical challenges never works on screen. Worse is that Worf, the show's Klingon warrior, is just about as ineffectual (a long-running problem on the show in general).

Secondly, as I mentioned in my review of the Season Six blu-ray, the visual quality of Part I is sadly lacking compared to Part II. Nearly every scene is overlit and flat. Worse, the colors seem washed out as well. This has the effect of making the show look cheap, far cheaper than the second half looks.

Things improve all around in Part II, which is sort of odd on this special blu-ray release because the two episodes are edited together into one 90-minute movie. This means that at around the 45-minute mark, both the image quality and the writing take a major leap forward. Suddenly the colors are bold, the lighting has contrast and details like costumes and makeup pop right off the screen.

The second half also features all the incredible scenes between Picard and Madred, including Madred's famous question to Picard about the number of lights behind him. These scenes are absolutely the highlights of these two episodes. It's remarkable that two characters alone in a room sitting at a desk isn't a recipe for disaster, but it's David Warner and Patrick Stewart and you won't be able to take your eyes off them.

This is one of those episodes of "Star Trek" that tackles a bigger issue, the treatment of prisoners and use of torture to extract information from them, but it thankfully does so in a manner that is compelling and well-made. With a lesser script and lesser actors, this might have fallen completely apart.

A tale of two superpowers on the verge of renewing a violent conflict, told in the surprisingly intimate settings of conference rooms and offices. "Chain of Command" feels much larger than it actually is - those small conversations have larger consequences - but is also problematic. The first half doesn't hold up to scrutiny very well, either in its script or technical production, but the back half pulls it off and makes the whole exercise worthwhile.