Jean-Luc Picard, Worf, and Beverly Crusher are assigned by Starfleet on a covert mission to seek and destroy a Cardassian biological weapons installation on their border world, Celtris III. In Picard's place, Starfleet assigns Captain Edward Jellico, who has a vastly different style of command and decorum than the Enterprise crew, particularly William Riker, are accustomed to. Under Jellico, the Enterprise patrols the border near Minos Korva, a tactically significant Federation planet, and holds negotiations as to the fate of the planet with Cardassian representatives.
After intensive training in the holodeck, Picard, Worf, and Crusher discreetly arrive on Celtris III, and infiltrate the base. However, they find no signs of biological weapons, and suspecting a trap, they attempt to flee. Worf and Crusher escape, but Picard is taken prisoner and brought to Gul Madred, who informs him Celtris III was a trap designed to capture Picard.
Madred uses a number of torture methods, including sensory deprivation, sensory bombardment, forced nakedness, stress positions, dehydration, starvation, physical pain, and cultural humiliation to try to gain knowledge of the Federation's plans for Minos Korva. Picard refuses to acknowledge Madred's demand for information. Madred attempts another tactic to break Picard's will: he shows his captive four bright lights, and demands that Picard answer that there are five, inflicting intense pain on Picard if he does not agree.
Meanwhile, the Cardassians inform the Enterprise crew that Picard has been captured. Jellico refuses to acknowledge that Picard was on a Starfleet mission, an admission necessary for Picard to receive the rights of a prisoner of war rather than being subjected to torture as a terrorist; this leads to a heated argument between Jellico and Riker upon which Jellico relieves Riker of duty. The crew observes signs of residue from a nearby nebula on the hull of a Cardassian ship, and Jellico suspects a Cardassian fleet may attempt to use the cover of the nebula to launch an attack on Minos Korva. Jellico determines their best course of action is to place mines across the nebula using a shuttlecraft. However, Riker is the most qualified pilot for the mission. Riker candidly criticizes Jellico's command style, and only accepts the assignment once Jellico personally asks him to pilot the shuttle instead of ordering him to do so. Riker successfully lays the minefield, and Jellico uses the threat of the minefield to force the Cardassians to disarm and retreat, also demanding Picard's return.
With word of the failure of the Cardassians to secure Minos Korva, Madred attempts one last ploy to break Picard, by falsely claiming that Cardassia has taken the planet and the Enterprise was destroyed in the battle. He offers Picard a choice: to remain in captivity for the rest of his life or live in comfort on Cardassia by admitting he sees five lights. As Picard momentarily considers the offer, a Cardassian officer interrupts the process and informs Madred that Picard must be returned now. As Picard is freed from his bonds and about to be taken away, he turns to Madred and defiantly shouts, "There are four lights!" Picard is returned to the Federation and reinstated as Captain of the Enterprise. Picard admits privately to Deanna Troi that he was saved just in the nick of time, as by that point he was broken enough to be willing to say anything to make the torture stop, and for a brief moment he actually did see five lights.
Tropes featured in "Chain of Command":
- 2 + Torture = 5: "How many lights do you see?" There are four, but the "correct" answer is "five".
- Ace Pilot: Riker is the best pilot on the Enterprise (this assessment from Geordi La Forge, who used to be the ship's helmsman),
- Aggressive Negotiations: With the help of a few magnetic mines, Jellico finally takes the dominant position in negotiations.
- Alien Lunch: Invoked by Gul Madred. He serves Picard raw Taspar eggs as an attempt at degrading him. Although clearly disgusted, Picard, starving after days of torture, eats them.
- All There in the Manual: Madred's name is never spoken onscreen. It's only shown in the credits.
- Apologetic Attacker: Madred apologizes to Picard the first time he activates the pain device, claiming that he doesn't enjoy using it. Yeah, right.
- Audience Surrogate: Worf is this on the shuttle while Picard and Crusher explain how metagenic weapons work.
- Bittersweet Ending: Picard is released from captivity and is given back command of the Enterprise. However, he privately tells Troi that had his torture not stopped at that exact moment, he would have given in and said anything to make the pain stop. Worst of all, he actually could see five lights.
- Both Sides Have a Point: Riker feels that Jellico's expectations are unreasonable and damaging to the crew's morale. Jellico believes it is more important to have the ship at peak efficiency before confronting the Cardassians, and that the crew should suck it up and do their jobs. Maybe his demands would have given them the winning edge if it came to battle, or maybe the crew would have been too burned out to fight. We'll never know.
- Break the Badass: Madred recognized Picard as a competent officer and wanted to break his will. In reality, Madred couldn't care less what Picard knew or didn't knew, for him it was all about proving that he could break the strong-willed human mentally.
- Captain's Log: Recorded by Jellico instead of Picard because he is the new captain.
- Catch-Phrase: Jellico says "Get it done." after giving orders; in deliberate contrast to Picard's usual "Make it so."
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Electric shocks, mind games, starvation etc.
- Custom Uniform of Sexy: Defied. Jellico asks Troi to wear a standard uniform, which she does for the first time since "Encounter at Farpoint".
- Dark and Troubled Past: Gul Madred grew up on the streets, once badly beaten up when he found some aforementioned Taspar eggs. Picard, however, calls him out on it because of how he became a torture technician.
- Defiant to the End: Deconstructed with Picard's famous "There are four lights!" rebuttal to Gul Madred. After being tortured for days on end Picard is at his wit's end, mentally and physically drained of all his power to resist, let alone move, and Madred tries one last time to get him to yield by giving him an ultimatum: Relent and you will be given all the comforts Cardassia can give you, or continue resisting and your unbearable torture will continue. Just as Picard is about to give his answer, Cardassian guards come in to retrieve Picard telling Madred that their superiors made a deal with the Federation for his release, but just before leaving Picard defiantly says that he sees four lights to rub it in Madred's face that he was not broken by the torture. The deconstruction comes when in private Picard discusses the torture with Troi and tells her that not only he would have said there were five lights if the guards had not arrived then, he would have said and done anything to make the pain stop, and worse yet; he was so much at his wit's end he actually for a moment saw five lights instead of four. The moral of this is to show that torture is so dehumanizing and brutal that it can break any man's will if inflicted long enough, even seemingly super human examples of moral virtue like Picard.
- Double Speak: Admiral Nechayev, the Obstructive Bureaucrat, when she's briefing Data, Riker and Troi.Riker: Are the Cardassians ready for a war?Nechayev: I didn't say war, Commander, I said incursion.
- En Route Sum-Up: Picard explains the mission to Worf and Crusher after they've left the Enterprise. It's Justified as a security precaution.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones:
- "Evil" may be pushing it, but Jellico has a young son. His decoration of the ready room includes drawings made by him.
- Gul Madred is briefly visited by his young daughter as he's interrogating Picard. Madred's prisoner asks him what she must think of her father's work, to which Madred retorts that she's told her daddy is doing it for her sake and all of Cardassia.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Lemec expected Gul Madred to have Picard clean and ready to return to the Federation when they came to retrieve him, but find him making one last effort to break Picard's will. Lemec isn't pleased with this.
- Faux Affably Evil: Madred tries to present himself to Picard as a noble man forced to perform an ugly duty, but Picard realizes too well that Madred enjoys making others suffer in his position.
- Gaslighting: "There are five lights! How many do you see now?" Then there's his lie that Crusher was also a prisoner when she escaped.
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: A diplomatic variant — while negotiating with Lemec, Riker and Troi are the good cops while Jellico is the bad cop.
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: Jellico and Lemec compete to see who's the bigger "Ass" in Ambassador.
- Insane Admiral: This is the first appearance of Admiral Nechayev, a character with multiple appearances in TNG and DS9. Each appearance results in increasing strained relations between the Federation and Cardassians. Already she decides to remove Picard and set him into a secret mission based on two year-old intelligence data, resulting in a enemy planned trap, while claiming that Riker was not qualified for negotiations due to his lack of experience in combat and Cardassians. This is despite, (1) Riker offered command three times, (2) episodes in which Riker dealt with the Cardassians, and (3) that minor incident in which Riker saved the Federation from a Borg invasion. (ironically enough, after having been formally promoted to Captain of the Enterprise by Admiral Hanson following Picard's capture by the Borg).
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jellico is kind of a dick and unwilling to take criticism but he's still trying to protect the Federation and saves Picard as soon as he capable of it. He also shows off his son's artwork in his ready room.
- Karma Houdini: Gul Madred is left completely unpunished for his actions, but it's ultimately subverted due to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even if Gul Madred and his daughter survived the Dominion War and the razings and massacres on Cardassia Prime that capped it off, the easy life he was gloating to Picard about is over. One of the novels also features Picard getting some payback on him after being inspired by none other than James T. Kirk.
- Lured into a Trap: One tailor-made for Picard because the Cassardians want information that they think he has.
- The Main Characters Do Everything: Why else would Starfleet send three senior officers on a guerilla raid instead of a team of Space Marines?
- No One Gets Left Behind: Subverted—Crusher and Worf are forced to flee after Picard is captured.
- Playing Pictionary: Troi and Jellico looking at a picture drawn by Jellico's son.Jellico: It's an elephant...[rotates it 90 degrees] I think.
Troi: Definitely an elephant.
- No Sense of Distance: Apparently, Picard, Crusher, and Worf brought enough rope to rappel half a kilometer.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "THERE! ARE!...FOUR! LIGHTS!"
- Race Name Basis: Madred says that he'll only address Picard as "Human", telling him that he has no other identity.
- Recycled In Space: The Picard torture subplot is Nineteen Eighty-Four IN SPACE!
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Riker and Jellico give one to each other, largely based around I Don't Like You and You Don't Like Me.Jellico: Let's drop the ranks for a moment. I don't like you. I think you're insubordinate, arrogant, willful, and I don't think you're a particularly good First Officer.Riker: Well, now that the ranks are dropped, Captain, I don't like you, either. You are arrogant and closed-minded. You need to control everything and everyone. You don't provide an atmosphere of trust, and you don't inspire these people to go out of their way for you. You've got everyone wound up so tight, there's no joy in anything. I don't think you're a particularly good Captain.
- Shameful Strip: Madred does this to Picard to further denigrate him.
- Shame If Something Happened: Lemec not-so-subtly letting on that he knows about the secret mission.
- Shout-Out: In 1984 a torturer asks how many fingers he's holding up, while trying to make his victim see five, when he's holding up four.
- Shown Their Work: With the exception of the pain-inducing implant, all the torture practices Madred uses on Picard, including feigning a shared interest and threatening one of his friends, are taken directly from Amnesty International archives. Patrick Stewart, who is a strong supporter of Amnesty International, was pleased by this, as he studied psychological profiles for torture victims.
- Sudden School Uniform: Jellico comes down hard on a number of the Enterprise crew, but one of the most immediately visible is his insistence that Deanna wear her duty uniform from now on, after six seasons of her alternating between different types of casual outfit.
- Survival Mantra:Picard: You are six years old! Weak and helpless! You cannot hurt me!
- Think of the Children!: Picard and Madred get into an argument over this due to Culture Clash. This starts a running theme in Deep Space Nine where "the children" is used to excuse various Cardassian atrocities.
- Torture Chamber Episode: For Picard, courtesy of the Cardassians, is placed in one involving Unwilling Suspension, lots of darkness, and little food.
- Torture Is Ineffective: Picard tells Gul Madred that torture has historically been an ineffective way of obtaining information, and in this case it also helped that he didn't know the specific information they wanted (Federation defense plans for a disputed planet). However, at the end of the episode, Picard confesses to Troi that he had indeed been broken by the end of his imprisonment: only being informed of his freedom at the last second brought him back to his senses long enough to shout defiance at his captor. Of course, there is also the fact that for Madred, the whole thing wasn't really about getting information, but actually about his own pride. Madred's real goal was to prove that he was stronger than Picard and could break his will.
- Torture Technician: Gul Madred has the knowledge and experience to break people mentally. He uses real tactics here.
- Truth Serum: Madred uses some on Picard during his first interrogation. It fails to reveal any information regarding the Federation's defense plans for Minos Korva, but is because Picard actually doesn't know anything about the subject.
- Tyrant Takes the Helm: How the main crew, particularly Riker, sees Jellico, because he is far more strict, controlling, and abrasive than Picard.
- Villain Ball: Gul Madred is too easily goaded for an experienced torturer.
- Villainous Breakdown: When Picard refuses to answer how many lights he sees, Madred physically strikes Picard and addressed him as such after previously declaring he'd only be referred to as "Human". Madred also notably completely loses his cool briefly, when him and Picard discusses his daugther, and Picard remarks that "Her belly may be full, but her spirit will be empty."
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Apparently, Worf hates bats.
- The Worf Effect: The Trope Namer gets shot (not fatally), but not before taking out at least one Cardassian.
- You Do NOT Want to Know: When Riker barely dodges a Cardassian ship in the nebula:Geordi: Do I want to know how close that was?