Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sir Patrick

I've never been a traditional Trekkie - though in another lifetime I suppose I easily could have been. Even when I was much younger I never went to a convention, I never read more than one or two Star Trek novels and it never occurred to me to seek out others who shared this weird passion of mine. Star Trek was never a cliched version of science fiction, with more concern for adolescent violence and gizmos with no concern for physics. Because for all the techno babble, it was always ideas which lay at the heart of the Trek series. And that is why, for all its moments of pseudoscience and extraordinarily awful acting, it will never grow old for me and I'm sure for so many others as well.

In any event, Captain Picard is going to be knighted on New Year's Day. Apparently this is a big deal. Being knighted is a great honor of you're into that sort of thing. So here's some of what I think his personal finest episode in which he was kidnapped and tortured by the Cardassians after being ordered to abandon his command of the Enterprise so that he could help destroy a Cardassian metagenic weapon that turned out to be a decoy because the Cardassians wanted to extract information from Picard about Starfleet's battle plans for the defense of Minos Korva which is a territory which the Cardassians have always viewed as their own territory....y'know it's probably just easier to watch it.

I remember having watching this episode on the edge of my seat when I was twelve, and I remember rarely having been so thrilled and disturbed by anything I'd ever seen in television, movies, books or even music. Serendipitously catching this on SyFy at 2:30 in the morning, I find that the thrill of watching is no less intense after fifteen years, but issues at stake deepen and broaden: The viability of torture, the ability to maintain one's mind against coercion, and the ability for decency to prevail against authoritarianism. Echoes of the arguments carried by Picard against his interlocutor can be found all through history. But what's truly amazing is the central argument: the interrogator shines bright lights in Picard's face and asks him how many he sees. Picard replies factually that there are four, but his tormenter replies that there are five. This cannot be anything but a direct reference to 1984, when Winston Smith is coerced through electroshock torture to admit that he sees five fingers when he only sees four.

But the best part comes right at the end. Picard, needless to say for the TV hero to out-tough all TV heroes, never cracks. But Jean-Luc Picard is not the rest of us, and he's meant to be quite as larger-than-life as he seems. But his most crucial admission comes to us at the last line of the episode when he confides to Counselor Troi not only that he was ready to tell his torturer 'anything at all', but also that he could see five lights.

Anyway, I'd also be remiss if I didn't at least mention his other great television role (no, not on American Dad). Back in the mid-70's when the BBC did a TV version of Robert Graves's I, Claudius in which he played Aelius Sejanus, Captain of the Praetorian Guard and the Roman Empire's answer to Heydrich, the slimiest of all Roman bureaucrats and brought within a hairsbreath of the crown. Everybody should see I, Claudius when they can. No doubt it will be the subject of an entry at some point here as well.

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