Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise is a man who projects an aura of serene confidence and wisdom. Speaks like an Oxford don even when he’s about to fire a photon torpedo or two. Keeps his emotions veiled behind an invisible burqa.
Then there’s the other Picard, the McLovin’ of Ressik, playing music, making babies, scarfing down his wife’s homemade stew out of a weird pot with an antler for a handle and bromancing the stone-faced noodge better known as his best friend Batai. And oh yes, being very loudly protective of his tight-knit little village, which is about to turn into a charcoal briquette.
That Picard was better known as Kamin during his sojourn on the doomed planet Kataan in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Inner Light.” He didn’t live that life but he has all the memories of someone who did.
That latter Picard has continued to intrigue fans and even a lot of non-fans precisely because of that dichotomy. Seeing the stoic starship captain treading “the road not taken” is the reason people I meet typically give when I ask them why this episode affected them so much.
But now that I’ve begun speaking regularly about “The Inner Light,” questions about the episode that lay dormant for two decades like a Romulan Warbird waiting to de-cloak have suddenly shimmered into view.
Fan questions and my responses have yielded up, in addition to the “Road Not Taken,” Five Big Themes addressed in “The Inner Light.” They are:
1.) The Theater of the Mind as Reality Show
Can we tell the difference between what we observe of the external world through our senses and what is planted directly in our brains? For Picard the answer is “no,” and from Total Recall to The Matrix to Inception that’s proved a very durable concept.
My take: Thinking we can hitch a Royal Caribbean Cruise out of our quotidian lives with just a zap from a probe is a very romantic notion, even if it left Picard eternally bummed.
2.) The Healing Brush Tool
Let’s review: The Kataanees walk around in burlap unitards and specialize in iron-weaving yet they can beam whole experiences inside a person’s cranium. I used to skim-board right past this dichotomy with a mini-lecture about the perils of explaining too much of what’s already been accepted (one word: midichlorians). But then a very astute audience member at one of my talks pointed out that the Kataan scientists didn’t necessarily create their nucleonic mind-dream based on the exact time it was conceived. It’s like, if we were to send an informational video out into space (“Send more Chuck Berry!”) might we not show ourselves as we existed in the “Leave it to Beaver” era? Pre-Sputnik but cuddly as Tribbles?
My take: That’s exactly what the Kataanees did. Metaphorically speaking, they photoshopped themselves to make sure they looked really svelte, with lustrous hair. Whether “IL” fans are consciously aware of this element or not, the ability to burnish our self-image with the swipe of a healing tool has strong allure.
3.) Being a Redshirt Has Benefits
As I tell in my “Inner Light” talk, Picard’s travels/travails in the episode followed a progression weirdly in synch with my own path as a freelance writer – a Redshirt if you will, on the bridge that was the TNG writers room. Picard had to hound the Ressikan administrator to take the planet’s warming seriously; I had to pitch “IL” five times. Picard had a setback midway through the story (his heart attack) and so did I (when I suggested he play a flute; laughter ensued). The Kataan legacy lives on through Picard, as does mine through “The Inner Light.” It’s not a coincidence. Consciously or not, I wrote Kamin as the prototypical outsider, bucking the status quo.
My take: I think this has special resonance for many “Inner Light” fans, many of whom tell me they felt like outsiders in school or at work until they found others who spoke Klingon and flashed the LLAP sign.
4.) Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light
There’s a scene that was filmed but cut in which Data has deciphered the inscription on the outside of the probe. It reads: Inside each of us lives an entire civilization. That in turn was inspired by a Talmudic saying to the effect that killing a single person, and therefore his or her descendants, was like murdering an entire people. The Kataan people know they are about to die and desperately want to live on – by finding someone special to walk in their shoes and tell their story.
My take: Some fans have pointed out there was no real jeopardy in “IL,” yet the high stakes that enveloped Picard – the loss of an entire planet – carry a lot of weight.
5.) Finding the Meaning in Life
Like many fans, when I watch “IL” I choke up a bit at the end as Picard sits in his personal quarters, playing the flute and devastatingly alone. But when I tell the “IL” plotline the tear forms earlier: when Kamin realizes that “Oh, it’s me. I’m the one the probe found!” Up ’til then he’s like, “Fifty years in this stinkin’ village and all I got was this really cool flute!” Now, suddenly, his whole life has meaning.
My take: Each of us longs to achieve that moment when we find there is, after all, a point to our own insignificant life.
What more is there to say? Getting to play a regular guy who’s married with children brought out some of Sir Patrick Stewart’s finest work. He alluded to that in a letter to me shortly after the episode aired, although he made it clear that working with son Daniel (who played his son) was a big part of “IL’s” appeal for him.
In lesser hands – be they attached to the star, his fellow actors or the writing staff and production team – this particular road might have been left in the dust. Thanks, TNG!