Nestled within J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek movie is a standard Hollywood torture scene. Nero, the Romulan antagonist, straps Capt. Pike of the Enterprise to a futuristic hospital gurney and demands secret defense codes. Naturally, Pike refuses. So—in a nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—Nero forces a mind-control insect down the captain’s throat as he stoically recites his name, rank, and serial number. Torture, here, is routine—not an ethical atrocity but an item on the blockbuster checklist—and predictable: The captain has the information his interrogator needs, but, as long as he’s in his right mind, he’s able to resist divulging it.
It’s too bad Abrams didn’t look deeper into the Star Trek canon for inspiration. There is a remarkable depiction of torture in Star Trek: The Next Generation, one that is both more sophisticated than the Capt. Pike scenario and more pertinent to current affairs than the ticking-time-bomb set pieces of 24. In an episode from the series’ sixth season, Capt. Picard embarks on a mission to destroy a biological weapon and is taken prisoner by the Cardassians. Believing that Picard is privy to strategic military secrets, the Cardassians inject him with a truth serum. When this technique fails to produce information, they string up their captive in a stress position, strip him naked, and subject him to extreme physical torment—zapping him with a pain-administering device. For good measure, the lead interrogator also devises a test meant to inflict mental anguish: He points four bright lights at Picard and asks him, repeatedly, to say that there are five. (A clear homage to the four-vs.-five-fingers sequence in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
Powerful when it aired in 1992, the episode is even more resonant in 2009. When Picard’s comrades on the Enterprise learn of Picard’s capture, they insist that the Cardassians abide by the terms of a Geneva-like “Solanis Convention.” The Cardassians rebuff the request: “The Solanis Convention applies to prisoners of war … [Picard] will be treated as a terrorist.”
Torture scenes are typically an opportunity to demonstrate a protagonist’s fortitude or an antagonist’s ruthlessness. In this episode, however, torture is an exercise in futility. Picard doesn’t have the information the Cardassians are after. They can zap him all they want, but they’ll never learn the Federation’s secrets. Picard states, truthfully, that he knows nothing of value, but the interrogator refuses to believe him and to let him go. Torture is thus portrayed not as a reasonable if barbaric strategy but as a waste of time. That is, not really a strategy at all.
The extended torture sessions take a toll not just on Picard but on his interrogator as well. The more time the Cardassian spends with Picard, the more he becomes fixated on breaking his prisoner. And so the supposed goal of torture—information—is sidelined, while the means by which the goal will theoretically be achieved—mental submission—becomes an end in itself. As Picard puts it, “Torture has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. One wonders it is still practiced.”
The episode acknowledges, however, that even the most determined prisoner is no match for acute suffering. In a last-ditch attempt to break Picard, the Cardassian interrogator offers him a choice: Either state that there are five lights and enjoy a life of comfort, or insist that there are four and prepare for more torture. Before Picard can answer, two Cardassian guards enter and reveal that the Enterprise has brokered the captain’s release. “There are four lights!” Picard shouts, in what seems like triumph. Later, though, he admits to a fellow officer that he was on the brink of succumbing: “I would have told him anything. Anything at all. But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights.” The interrogator has, in fact, won the battle of wills, though he’ll never have the satisfaction of knowing it. But what, exactly, has he won? In the end, Picard was willing to tell his captor anything at all and was so distraught that he was willing to believe a transparent falsehood. It follows that any further information would have been hopelessly compromised.
The torture scene in the new Star Trek does not glorify the practice, but it doesn’t question it, either. From the interrogator’s perspective, it’s an effective way of extracting vital information. For Capt. Pike, it’s a winnable test. The Next Generation take is darker and more politically progressive: Torture is counterproductive for the interrogator and devastating—both physically and emotionally—for the subject. It makes one wonder it is still practiced.