Oct 19 2011 12:15pm

On Being an Outsider With the Writer of TNG’s “The Inner Light,” Morgan Gendel

On Friday at New York Comic Con in a little lecture hall underneath an escalator (and next door to a standing-room only DC animation presentation) was a hidden science fiction gem. Here, writer Morgan Gendel was hanging out and talking candidly about what is possibly the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light.” Being someone who is pretty familiar with Star Trek, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this lecture. Would I learn anything new? Would it be dull and ruin my positive feelings about an episode that had a big impact on me?

What I got was an insightful hour-long anecdote about how, sometimes, the most resonate and beloved stories within a shared universe come from an outsider. With “The Inner Light,” that outsider was Morgan Gendel.

In his presentation about “The Inner Light” Gendel emphasized that he was very much not part of the Star Trek: The Next Generation writing circle, noting that he had pitched episode ideas to the show numerous times before “The Inner Light” was picked up. One of his earlier concepts involved the Enterprise crew encountering a planet populated by a race who had to tell the truth all the time. Gendel thought this idea was stellar, but later discovered the writer’s room was “sick” of hearing people pitch this exact same premise over and over again.

Either way, Gendel eventually did get the TNG people onboard with “The Inner Light.” Part of his original impetus to write the story came from a desire to “fuck with the nature of the show." He found himself wondering why Star Trek didn’t have its characters dealing with average every day problems. “The Inner Light” was his attempt to do just that. Further, Gendel felt that in contrast to the original series, TNG was a little too “buttoned down” and he liked the idea of giving Picard a romance, which made him a little bit more like Kirk. (Gendel’s other TNG episode was “Starship Mine,” which really, really puts Picard in an action role and makes him more like Kirk.)

Early versions of Gendel’s script were vastly different from what he ended up writing. Initially, the idea was to have Picard, Riker and Troi in a bizarre non-Enterprise scenario and then only at the end of the story would it have been revealed that it was essentially “all a dream.” This concept kept getting revised, and eventually would focus only on Picard.

Gendel relayed that at its heart “The Inner Light” is ultimately about two things. The first being that because the episode takes place inside of Star Trek it becomes an exercise in how to tell a story within another story. “The Inner Light” takes this notion one step further by having the story of Star Trek itself become a sort of “imagined” story or “dream” to Picard’s alter-ego, Kamin. In this way, the episode is a meditation on the importance of storytelling as a cultural tool because the aliens who sent the probe to Picard are sharing their civilization by telling a story and by recruiting a storyteller and a teacher.

The second major theme of “The Inner Light” seemed to be a bit more personal for Gendel, as he talked about being an outsider to Star Trek and how that resonated in the story itself. Picard is an outsider to the planet Kataan initially. Similarly, the personae he inhabits, Kamin, is an outsider insofar as he is one of the few citizens of the town/planet who is concerned about the drought and the ecological future of the planet in general. Gendel asserted that stories about outsiders who challenge the status quo are important in stirring up emotions and that the reason why this episode resonates so much with people nearly 20 years after it aired is because of the moment when Picard realizes everything in his 50-year life on Katann has been leading to a moment that will connect with his “forgotten” life as Jean-Luc Picard.

The famous flute played by Kamin/Picard in this episode wasn’t initially loved by the powers-that-be at Star Trek. Gendel eventually realized that if he pitched it as a penny whistle then the nautical connection to Star Trek could be preserved. However, there was a period where Morgan Gendel says he was seriously worried they would “lock him out of the building if I ever mentioned ‘Picard’ and ‘flute’ in the same sentence again.”

A story with no traditional conflict, and no discernable villain was a very outsider move for Gendel to pull, and yet, this episode of TNG won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. The impact of this episode on pop culture is also fairly obvious. Gendel even joked about the story’s similarities to Inception saying, “Come on, everyone has to assume Christopher Nolan has seen ‘The Inner Light.’”

On a personal note, I was able to ask Gendel if the title of episode was taken from the George Harrison-penned Beatles song of the same name. I’m happy to report that he answered in the affirmative, going so far as to say he wanted to try and name his other TNG episode “Revolution” instead of “Starship Mine.”

The content of the song “The Inner Light” was inspired by the 47th Chapter of the Tao Te Ching. Meaning, George Harrison told a story about the Toa Te Ching through a song, which Morgan Gendel, then turned into an episode of Star Trek!

In talking about the Fab Four, Gendel mentioned to me on the sly that he’s actually “more of a Beatles fan, than a Trek fan.” Don’t worry Morgan, I understand. But, for me, because of episodes like “The Inner Light,” it’s a tie.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for He knows a lot about the Beatles. Maybe a little bit more about Star Trek, but not much.

Philip Thomann
1. normalphil
I was an indifferent viewer, I don't recall hardly a single episode title (this one included) and I still knew exactly what episode was being referred to once I read "possibly the best".
James Whitehead
2. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I never knew the title of the episode; I am with normalphil in that I remember very few episode titles from any of the Star Trek series.

That said, however, this epsidoe has always been one of my favourite of the ST:NG show. I will watch it if I can whenever it runs on syndication.

I always enjoyed the gentleness and quietness of the episode. I am pleased that Gendel was able to get this episode made as he envisioned it, more or less. Episodes like this one helped keep the series from being too formulaic or predictable.

I wasn't able to make the NYC Con this year and after reading about this pannel, I am even sadder about that fact. :(

Thanks for sharing.

Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
@2 You know Kato, it wasn't like everyone knew about this talk! It was the kind of thing you had to look for. :-)
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
I think saying this influenced Inception is a bit of a jump though. I don't really see any parallel between them, even with the connection pointed out. The Inner Light doesn't play with the nature of dreams in any way shape of form, and although one could say that forgetting which life is truth and which is fiction is an overlapping concept, I somehow doubt this was the first time that concept was introduced to fiction. As much as I love this episode, I'd prefer to keep the hypebole out of the praise for it. Make everyone involved seem pretentious.
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
When people ask me why I like science fiction (and they really want an answer), I show them this episode. To me it is a fine example of science fiction, and not just of Trek.
Rich Bennett
6. Neuralnet
Loved this episode. The idea of using a probe/dream sequence to tell a planet's history/culture is a great one and really worked here. I still remember watching this episode for the first time and being on the edge of my seat wondering how it was going to end.... what would happen to Picard etc.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@4 ZetaStriker I actually sort of think that the idea of planting something in someone's mind is similar enough to make the joke valid. Gendel was kidding around mostly, and I laughed when he said that, so I wanted to include it. Sorry if it came across pretentious. It was supposed to just be a be a friendly jab.
8. lorq
I've wondered whether a possible inspiration for this episode was John Crowley's wonderful novel "Engine Summer," which plays with the same idea -- one person mentally inhabiting another person's past experiences -- and has the same gentleness of tone.
Marcus W
9. toryx
"The Inner Light" is my favorite episode of any Star Trek series. It appeals to me on a very deep level for two reasons.

The first is that this particular episode left a lasting change on Picard. In a very real way, it left him changed forever even more than his experience of being assimulated by the Borg. I love that the Producers and studio actually allowed that to happen and I've ever been impressed by Sir Patrick Stewart actually pulling that off. Character development is my favorite thing about television and at the time of TNG it was extremely rare.

The second thing about this episode that I find so satisfying is that in essence, Picard was given an entire second life. It may have only taken a few seconds but 50 years of a life, dreamt or no...that's just incredible to me. I can't think of a more wonderful gift and as much as Star Trek contains a lot of things I long for, that's probably the one thing that appeals to me the most.
Benji Cat
10. benjicat
I've always been mystified by the praise this episode receives. No offense intended to anyone but, for me, this was just a ho-hum, well-acted, but somewhat boring episode of TNG. I understand at least some of the comments when people explain why they like it but it just doesn't do much for me and wouldn't be in my top 10 list or anything. I guess I'm the only one though because it seems to receive almost universal praise whenever it gets mentioned.
Alan Stallings
11. astacvi
Haven't been to the site in a while, so I'm ridiculously late to this thread. Nonetheless, this episode is one of my TNG favorites. It dawned on me that two others of my very favorites have nearly identical themes: The Nth Degree and Darmok. Each features an encounter with aliens whose motives are unclear, and therefore seemingly sinister, until the final reveal shows their true motives - simply to make contact, to say hello.

I had never seen the connection among them before.
12. laurence
Even for a dedicated TOS fan, "The Inner Light" is far and away my favorite show of any and all the Star Treks, episodes or movies. As a lifetime SF fan, "The Inner Light" is my favorite in all of SF, in any format.

This work of art is amazingly subtle. When Eline says, "Well, finally!!" as she greets Kamin/Picard, we eventually realize that this comment relates both to the character of Eline, who has waited days for Kamin to get better, and also to the AI running inside the probe which is generating the characters, a program that has waited in space for a thousand years before the Enterprise happened by. Eline wears the mission badge on her necklace, and Eline calls the shots.

The interaction between the AI level and the character level, which in turn interacts with Kamin/Picard, is wondrously subtle. For example, when Kamin finally agrees to build a nursery, and they embrace, there is a dark shadow over the face of Eline, and a tragic, rather than happy, quality to her smile. As in the final scene, where Meribor seems oddly downcast at the picture of her son and Kamin playing together, the tragedy of the original lives that were the models for the AI program seems to leak into the character representations that are presented to Kamin. Thus in the final group shot, while Eline is deeply forceful and animated, the other major figures are downcast and silent, as though Eline has stopped animating them: they are gone already.

This writer truly understands the power of 1, 2, 3: it is time for Picard to get back to Kansas: first, Meribor tells him the truth, and breaks the dramatic spell; then Batai explains further, not least by returning from the dead; finally, Eline spells it all out, with a courage and a greatness of spirit I have only see once before: in the final scene of On the Beach, in which Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck endure the end of the world, and their final separation.

Indeed, On the Beach is a spiritual fellow-traveller of "The Inner Light".

The grace of all the Muses enshrines "The Inner Light" as a great work of art. They get so many of the details right. For example, it was critical that the probe "self-terminated": otherwise, Picard could hardly have resumed an independent existence. The hauntingly beautiful flute theme and the transmission of the physical flute itself across the valley of the shadow of death were strokes of genius, such as rarely come together in such a powerful way.

If only those running TNG could have realized what they had, and realized the profound necessity for Picard to travel back that short distance and stand once again on Kataan, which could have been far enough away from the sun in that planetary system to preserve stone structures, such as Kamin and Eline's home. What a scene it would have been, to have Picard play the flute while sitting on those still recognizable stone stairs, with everyone gone and destruction all around him.

I understand that the limits of the episodic format made it difficult to follow through on this huge win, although an attempt was made in Season Six in "Lessons" to connect back to "The Inner Light." The fact is, though, that Eline's final request, "tell them of us, my darling" lands with unbearable force on the audience, and it is painful indeed to feel that Picard failed to follow this command. Even in "Lessons," he is oddly circumspect in his references to Kataan: referring to the flute music as "a folk melody", and not giving Eline a touch of re-animation by mentioning her name.

Do something fun: watch this episode again, and consider the relationships between the AI level, the characters the AI generates, and the character of Kamin/Picard. I've rarely ever seen such subtlety achieved so well with such economy and such emotional impact.

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