I recently watched the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (in two parts) the Chain of Command. It is one of my all time favourites. Now I’ve read up on it, I’m pleasantly surprised to see I’m in the majority on this. It is a great story, with a powerful performance by Patrick Stewart under torture, yet I mainly remember it for Captain Jellico.
Jellico is played by Ronny Cox, an actor known for being the bad guy in scifi, such as in Total Recall or in the Stargate tv show. In this, he could easily have played another bad guy, but in truth, he’s far from it.
“He was a bit of a hard-ass, but not a villain.”
That’s from Ronny Cox, so now you know where my title comes from. I utterly agree with it. Some really dislike his character, which is fair enough. He isn’t there to be liked. But what doesn’t happen is Jellico being shown up. That’s the thing I mainly remember about this episode. It stands out from most tv I have seen over my years.
You see, in most shows, anyone who argues or counters the main characters are wrong. Just wrong. No, don’t argue, don’t use logic or reason, they’re wrong. Not only that, but they will be proven to be utterly wrong in time. In fact, most likely, they will fail somehow before the episode ends, to prove just how wrong they are, or, even more condemning, it will be revealed that they are a traitor or spy or something.
You don’t argue with the characters. Too many shows are practically preaching the entire time, which means their characters have to be right and smart and right and correct and right and winners. So when a character is introduced to argue with the main characters, it is someone being sent it to fail. The arguments will only prove how great and right our heroes are.
For instance, while I loved the Stargate tv show, I remember the time Hammond was replaced for one episode. The new bloke fell apart under pressure and all was back to normal by the end. There are other instances of Stargate being better than that, sure, but that’s a good example. Many shows have such.
Star Trek was okay with showing up the main characters. A great example is in the original series, when Kirk and Spock are trapped on a planet when Klingons arrive to claim it. Kirk keeps encouraging the natives to rebel, while they keep assuring him not to worry about it. The more he acts, the harsher the Klingons get, the more the people suffer, the more he wants to help, and so on. By the end, the natives reveal themselves to have attained a higher level of living, so no one has suffered. Kirk and the Klingon commander exchange looks. They both feel a bit ridiculous.
In Chain of Command, Picard is relieved of command so he can be sent on an undercover mission. Jellico is placed in command of the Enterprise. He is strict, hands-on, demanding and authoritarian. What he wants done, he wants it done, no questions, no time wasted. This is very different to Picard. Jellico’s ways do not go well with the Enterprise crew. Again, in most shows this would mean he has to be shown up at some point. We need to know this man is just wrong. Wrong I say!
Yet he isn’t unsympathetic. Not only does he feel for others, sometimes openly, we see softer sides to him. He and Picard have some frank exchanges. He shows a badly drawn picture by his son to Troi. But when push comes to shove, he pushes hard. He understands the role of command – he calls the shots, he takes the responsibility, he gets things done.
When Troi comes to him to let him know the crew need time to get used to change taking place, he listens but in the end he pretty much says too bad. ‘This isn’t the Academy anymore’, or something like that. Essentially, he tells her they need to grow up. Honestly, I really agreed with him. It is at times like this that the Enterprise crew seem pandered to by Picard. He has listened to every whine and whinge. Surely the finest crew of the Federation, who boldy explore space, can handle some ship changes without going to pieces?
Riker bumps heads a lot with Jellico. La Forge complains a bunch too. It is almost funny when he protests against changes Jellico asks for yet Data instantly states these are definitely achievable. In fact, Data seems a perfect foil for Jellico. I would have enjoyed seeing an episode of Data being transferred or somehow working with him again.
Basically, we have someone come into the normal set up and go against the main characters. They complain. This usually leads to the one winner. Usually the show itself portrays the antagonist as the problem and the entire problem.
Star Trek gives Jellico humanity and character. We know more than the main characters too, so often we can see why he is aiming for certain things.
I’ll be honest though, Riker and La Forge don’t really rank as some of my favourite characters. Riker especially. I don’t hate them, far from it. But they aren’t ones I’d side with on instinct. So when they complain, they do really come across as whiney and unprofessional. Riker especially. Jellico is in charge and Riker acts like he is Captain Bligh or something. He pushes the crew but they are on the edge of what was only recently enemy territory. It makes sense that he wants everything he can get out of them.
I love Picard. He is one of my favourite captains from Star Trek. But he was always the liberal, touchy-feely, think first and act later captain. That’s a big part of what I loved about him, yet I also loved Kirk’s man of action, ‘I’m the captain’ Schtick. There were times he would really boss his crew. Picard came across as everyone’s favourite teacher sometimes. Mind you, Kirk and Picard were captains from different eras.
Jellico was a captain who knew the Cardassians – the enemy for this episode. He had negotiated with them, understood them more than any on Enterprise, and knew you had to be tough with them. In essence, Jellico was a war-time captain, and Picard was the peace-time adventurer. I loved Picard, but in truth, if war broke out, Jellico is the one I’d want to follow. You can even see it in some of the crew. Data and Worf go with his demands. Crusher, who I liked a lot, does raise valid concerns about his actions, yet also comes across as petulant. I loved Jellico’s way of handling her. When he tells her he wants sickbay ready, and she adds ‘yeah, for the wounded you’re about to give me’ he just nods and confirms. He isn’t a glory hunter. He isn’t seeking conflict. He has to do this. It needs doing. The others can like it or not, just be ready to ‘Get it done’.
So when this two parter concludes, after we have watched Picard suffer so much and the crew clash with their new captain, we could easily have something where Jellico loses out. He makes a bold call. He plays his hunch. If Picard had, the crew would back him without question. When the new bloke does it, they question and doubt. He goes through any way. This could easily have been a set up just to have him fail.
We do get a scene with him and Riker where they are frank and, while they never make up (which I really liked) they do act together to make this work. In a way, it is odd that Riker agrees. If he had been needed to pilot a rescue mission for Picard, sure, but this is just playing out Jellico’s hunch about a Cardassian ambush. Still, maybe it shows Riker isn’t as smarmy and full of himself as he sometimes comes across. His ‘You’re welcome’ doesn’t help though.
But this whole thing concludes with Jellico not just stopping the Cardassians and saving thousands of lives, but getting Picard back. Okay, I’m sure if Riker had been in charge they would have whizzed off and rescued him somehow, but that’s not how the show played it. They had the ‘hard-ass’ who pisses a lot of people off play out a plan that wins everything. Like him or not, the characters can like him or not, Jellico is someone who gets things done. Do as he asks, complain but don’t challenge him, and you’ll get along fine. You can’t argue with the result. Hell, I kind of suspect that if Picard had been in charge, things would have gone badly.
So kudos to Star Trek. They introduced an individual who rubbed many characters up the wrong way, and many fans too, but they never used this as a means to glorify how great and right the main characters are or to show up the new guy. Jellico is abrasive yet interesting. He is blunt but smart, experienced and rational. He cares about people and does what is best for most, while feeling bad for the one that might have to be sacrificed. When Picard is telling him of the mission, he sighs at how bad the intel is and offers every help he and the Enterprise can be. This is early on. Even then, we see signs that he isn’t just some one-off shithead come to mess up the status quo. They keep him that way.
By the end, he is the hero. The show doesn’t give him a huge fanfare – it ends on Picard telling Troi he believed he could see five lights (which is a powerful way to end) – but that felt fitting to Jellico. He seems the type to say no to any fuss. He was just doing his job.
I do love his little comment about maybe the Enterprise is a little better now.
What is really weird is I had it in my memory banks that Jellico and Riker have a conversation at the end where Jellico spells it out that, yeah, he isn’t Picard, but he is still a good captain. At this point, Riker realises maybe he was being the problem, rather than everything being Jellico’s fault. No such exchange takes place. Perhaps I got this from something else. It felt a lot like the end of that South Park episode where the Mormon kid tells Stan, sure I believe in some weird things, but they make me happy and I don’t hurt anybody, unlike you, so suck my balls.
But even if that bit never happened, I still feel the show’s voice was never on one side only. Riker had concerns, Jellico was certainly brusque in his manner, yet I felt the show was also showing Riker up a little. Others too. Jellico wasn’t bad, he was just different. Perhaps if he had had the time he would have eased changes in, but he knew he was being sent into a dangerous situation with a hell of a lot at stake. He kicked some arse because he had to. In order to save lives. Like a hero.
Anyway, to cap this love fest off, here is a link to an interview with Ronny Cox where he talks about playing Jellico, and some other features of his long and worthy career: