In Carmen Maria Machado’s new experimental memoir, In the Dream House, she depicts a relationship with an abusive ex-girlfriend and explores why it’s so difficult to recognize domestic abuse in same-sex couples, especially when the perpetrator is a woman. But among the book’s personal anecdotes, cultural commentary, and fairy-tale language, one chapter stands out: a straightforward summary of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The chapter, “Dream House as Five Lights,” recaps the plot of “Chain of Command, Pt. II” with almost no explicit commentary, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about what resonance this might hold for Machado in the context of her relationship and the memoir as a whole.
Though not a diehard Trekkie, Machado did grow up on Star Trek, with a soft spot for the ‘90s iteration The Next Generation. The crew of the starship Enterprise, led by Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, felt like family to her. “When I was a kid, I remember watching TNG with my parents and really loving it,” she told Studio 360. “I used to imagine that I was Picard’s daughter running around the ship. That was like a fantasy I had.” So when Machado started working on In the Dream House and wanted some comfortable, familiar white noise in the background, The Next Generation was the natural choice. But as she reread old journal entries and outlined the timeline of her memoir, an episode came on that suddenly grabbed her attention. “I stopped what I was doing, and I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t do anything else.”
In “Chain of Command, Pt. II,” Picard is taken prisoner by an enemy alien race, the Cardassians, and interrogated for secret military plans by Gul Madred (David Warner). Even when it becomes clear that Picard does not have any valuable information to offer, Madred only intensifies the violence of his interrogation techniques, switching on four overhead lights and asking Picard, “How many lights do you see?” When Picard answers honestly that he sees four lights, he is subjected to excruciating pain through a torture device implanted in his chest. In an homage to George Orwell’s 1984, Madred insists that there are actually five lights and pressures Picard to repeat this lie or to face more torture.
The episode is widely regarded as one of the series’ best, in large part thanks to Stewart’s performance. But “Chain of Command, Pt. II” struck a chord with Machado for another reason: She saw parallels between the torture of Picard and her own experiences with domestic abuse.
“It feels like a weird comparison to make because it’s literally an episode about physical torture. I was not physically tortured,” she said. “But on the other hand, it’s this sense that there’s something else happening underneath […] I kept thinking, this feels so on the nose. Like, as I’m working on this memoir, this episode just happens to be in the queue.”
Madred’s gaslighting technique reminded Machado of elements from her own relationship. “My ex-girlfriend would play these bizarre, possessive games. If I talked about anyone or looked anyone in any way, she would accuse me of wanting to sleep with them. She would call me and leave me voicemails if I didn’t pick up right away and be like, ‘Who are you sleeping with? What are you doing? Where’ve you been? Why haven’t you picked the phone up?’ And I came to believe that I was really a problem,” Machado said. “I think it took me a long time to figure out that it actually wasn’t about any of those things. It was about this need to exert control.”
In the episode’s climax, Madred offers Picard a choice: either to remain in misery forever or to live in comfort for the rest of his life—if he will only say that he sees five lights. “Stewart is a wonderful actor,” Machado recalled, “so his face just sort of contorts, and you can see this negotiation happening behind his eyes, where he’s trying to figure out what to say or what to do.” What Picard doesn’t realize is that he’s about to be freed, and Madred’s promises are just one last desperate effort to break him in these final moments together, even though there’s nothing else to be gained. As other Cardassian guards enter the room and order that Picard be released, Picard realizes Madred’s deception and screams: “THERE. ARE. FOUR. LIGHTS!”
“I remember when I rewatched the episode, this was the scene that really broke me,” Machado shares. “It’s awful to watch. And it’s not triumphant. It’s just sad and heartbreaking and horrible.”
Picard is freed and returns to his crew aboard the USS Enterprise, but this happy ending is undercut by a coda scene in which he confesses to the ship’s counselor that the torture was ultimately successful: He had come to believe that there were in fact five lights. Though he survived, the trauma of the encounter lingered, a sentiment that Machado could relate to. “One of the hardest things about writing this book was realizing—not how little healing I had done, because I healed a lot—but realizing that there are these traces left and acknowledging that the damage was done. And so maybe that’s what it is about the ending. He’s acknowledging that the damage was done. I saw myself in the sense that it reminds me of feeling as if she had won. It feels like there was a battle of wills, and even though I’m now safe and happy and living my life, there is this tremendous loss.”
Though the episode clearly resonates with Machado, her writing doesn’t spell out any of those connections between the subject matter and her personal experiences, instead leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. Whereas many of the memoir’s other chapters offer incisive cultural criticism and analysis, “Dream House as Five Lights” is particularly opaque. “This chapter, I just really liked the idea of letting it stand on its own and letting it ring its own little bell.”
In the latest episode of Studio 360 (which along with being a public radio show is a Slate podcast), Machado talks more about In the Dream House and unpacks how a revelation about Madred changes how we, and Picard, view his character.
This segment was produced by Zoë Saunders. To hear the full audio version, listen to the full episode of Studio 360. The story begins at 27:50 in the player below, or at 24:50 if you’re a Slate Plus member listening ad-free. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts.