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May 9th, 2009

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08:27 am - Picard and the five lights
A Slate article praises the episode from Star Trek Next Generation season 6 (1992), where Picard is tortured by the Cardassians, as a relatively more accurate depiction of torture than we get in the modern media (24 being the exemplar). It depicts torture of course as futile.

(NB that article briefly mentions a scene in the new ST film - I don't know whether it's a significant spoiler, skip if you are wary).

Matt Yglesias links to the article and one of his commentators says:

I don’t think that the Star Trek - The Next Generation episode described in the article really “gets torture right” - although it’s better than most. They chicken out at the end, using a deus ex machina to save Our Hero Picard from the humiliation of capitulation. If they really wanted to get torture right, they would have finished off the episode this way:

1. Picard crumbles and says there are five lights.

2. It turns out he does know the secrets after all. He blubbers, spills his guts, and a some secret federation outpost gets phasered by a Romulan warship.

3. Picard also spills his guts about a whole bunch of stuff he thinks is true, or imagines is true, or just thinks the Romulans want to hear.

4. So the Romulans also phaser some remote federation planets that don’t know Romulans from Adam. They also pick up and torture some federation guys Picard has fingered, but who never actually met him and don’t know what the hell the Romulans are talking about.

5. Picard sucks his torturers’s cock, eats his own shit, barks like a dog and does whatever else he is commanded to do by his torturers.

6. There are three Romulans on the torture team. One shoots himself; one goes home and beats his wife to death with a Romuball bat; one gets a promotion and goes on happily with life, with a sense of a job well done.

7. Photos of Picard’s torture get out, and within a week get 25 million hits on the Romunet.

8. Some Romulan TV producers make Romulus 24, a faced-paced drama that illustrates the tragic necessity of prying secrets from enemy federation prisoners using harsh and unsavory means.

9. Other Romulan TV producers shoot a new episode of Romutrek in which a heroic and dignified Romulan captive is tortured, but preserves his dignity, doesn’t spill the beans, and is saved from the final capitulation by a convenient plot device.

10. The somewhat unrealistic episode of Romutrek is widely praised for its unsparing and morally accurate portrayal of torture.

(7 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2009 09:41 am (UTC)
I thought the whole point of the episode was the line at the end where Picard says "I saw five lights".

It isn't so much about torture for information as about brainwashing (though it's a long time since I've seen it, so my recollection may be inaccurate)
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2009 09:53 am (UTC)
I can't remember it well enough, but according to the comments there, he says he was just about to give in, but he got resued at the last minute. I think this is a bit of a cop-out, but it does show that torture functions somewhat like brainwashing - it's making people say what you want them to say - regardless of its truth. Hence useless for information purposes.
Date:May 9th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
Elaine Scarry's brilliant but wrenching book The Body in Pain, which is about torture and its effects, is subtitled The Making and Unmaking of the World. She argues that torture destroys its victims' ability to create meaning in the world and especially concentrates on the horrendous psychological aftereffects. Tortured people will say anything because it is all meaningless beside the pain.

I think the "getting torture right" list above is horrible and brilliant. What I thought was most interesting about the Picard torture arc was the emphasis on the difficult counseling sessions that followed, that he was not just OK once he was rescued, but was actually very fragile and damaged. A lawyer friend who worked with refugees told me about taking statements about torture from asylum claimants -- not that it was just hard for her to hear but that it was devastating for the people to recount what had happened to them.
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
Yes, I have read that book, which is brilliant, and I was thinking about it reading the list. I recommended it to happytune a couple of weeks ago.
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
And I now have it on my wishlist. :-)
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC)
Cardassians! Not Romulans. Ahem.
[User Picture]
Date:May 10th, 2009 06:15 am (UTC)
So it was - shame because it's a god sustained metaphor

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