By Lindsay Thomas
There Are Four Lights: Free Will in the Context of Star Trek: The Next Generation
Hidden beneath the malevolence of the Borg Collective I always felt, what I can only describe to be, a disjointed sense of innocence. There was no fundamental free will, there was no morality or ethical reasoning; The Collective was merely doing what it was programmed to do – one might even say, it was simply succumbing to its intrinsic nature in the purist sense. The Borg was terrifying in its relentless pursuit – exhibiting no sympathy, no second thoughts, no potential for reasoning or negotiating, just cold industrialized space aged metal grating upon what was once warm, pulsing flesh. Up until the sixth season of TNG I had found the Borg, in its efficient approach to assimilating life, to be the most terrifying antagonist ever to appear on the show.
However, it was in the sixth season of TNG that I began to question the fragility of our own feeble psyches. “Chain of Command” was dark – potentially the darkest episode of the whole series. It was in this episode during which I questioned the idea of free will – this time at the hands of the Cardassians and not the dreaded Borg Collective. They generated a new layer of repulsion to what depriving someone of their free will actually meant.
Captain Picard’s experience with the Cardassians was vastly different than his experience as Locutus. I found something particularly chilling about the idea that not only could your free will be taken away from you, you could willingly allow it to slip away given the proper nurturing circumstances.
The Borg, unlike the Cardassians, were not concerned with military secrets or brainwashing, it simply fed parasitically on other races, extracting their very identities. It had less to do with free will and more to do with the actual function of the species itself. You could almost exchange the words, “Resistance is futile” with, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
Picard’s Cardassian tormentor, Gul Madred, was methodical and inexorable – he had a point and purpose to every painful and torturous procedure inflicted upon the Captain. It was a perverted game of sorts that was intended to rob the victim of the desire to preserve their sense of free will. It was never a question of Captain Picard’s integrity as a Starfleet Officer, nor was it a question of whatever information he did or did not have access to, nor was it a matter of one race systematically assimilating another. The question was – would Captain Picard acquiesce in his fight to maintain free will, sincerely believing that the reality right before his eyes differed from the subjective truth that was being dictated to him?
Lit up before the Captain were four lights. He counted them, he knew the truth, 2+2=4, a graceful nod to George Orwell’s 1984. The torture began and Gul Madred insisted there were five. Through starvation and manipulation and dehydration and humiliation, Gul Madred again questioned the Captain, insisting that the truth was other than what it was– that there were five lights. Finally, he resorted to promises of relief – of warmth and peace and solitude. Surely, surely the Captain must now see five lights?
The episode hauntingly climaxed with Captain Picard, appearing to be resolute in his stance against Gul Madred and his fondness for mind control, crying out, “There are four lights!” His words evoked such a response in me that every intonation is burned into my memory. Even more memorable, and also terrifying, was the Captain’s subsequent confession to Deanna Troi, that he did indeed see five lights and not four. Upon hearing Picard’s revelation, I suddenly felt vulnerable, naked and strung up as the Cardassians had previously kept him. The darkness of the episode dawned on me as I realized what exactly his concession meant.
Having watched TNG closely for the first six seasons, I found myself – for the first time – realizing just how susceptible our human Captain was to the violent seductions of other races. It was the first time that I felt any kind of despair in relation to the show, knowing that even the strongest of us can be broken. This translated into questions in my own mind – how much do I believe simply because it is the truth that is presented to me and how much of that truth is the factual reality? It was a cautionary tale, if you will, about asking questions and taking the time to think about my beliefs instead of simply relying on blind faith, cultural conditioning or other external factors to support these beliefs; a cautionary tale that reminds us of just how fragile and precarious life can truly be.