Wed
May 16 2012 11:00am

Five Big Issues Raised by “The Inner Light”

Five Big Issues Raised by

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!


Morgan Gendel is currently realizing a sequel to this episode “The Outer Light,” on TrekMovie and www.theouterlight.com. Check every other Monday for new installments.

31 comments
Helen G.
1. Helen G.
Morgan, just wanted to say thank you for one of the most touching and thought provoking hours of television to ever air. I was a teenager when I originally saw this episode and it has stuck with me ever since (I'm 35). It is hands down the single best episode of the entire Star Trek franchise.
Helen G.
2. Bearbutt
On point 2, different technologies could be at different stages in any given society. We still wear plants for clothing (cotton), yet have been to the moon. Who can say whether or not various aspects of other societies might be ahead of, or behind our own. There are likely to be an infinite variety of levels among advances of different technologies in different societies. It's very unlikely that they'll all be the same as ours.
Rich Bennett
3. Neuralnet
Thanks Morgan for sharing your thoughts with us. One of the best and most memorable TNG episodes in my opinion.
F Shelley
4. FSS
I thought we all had a polite agreement to never ever mention midichlorians ever again. In fact, it's best to agree that George Lucas died right after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out...
James Whitehead
5. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
This episode has to be my favourite one of the entire ST:TNG series. If it is on, I will watch it. Love the gentle quietness of it all.

I wasn't worried by the lack of tension or danger. I loved being drawn in so far that it was believable, while watching the episode, that Picard was Kamin truly & that everything before had been a fever dream.

Kato

PS - The midichlorians never bothered me. It was the romance that did. Lucas didn't listen to Kershner on how to write a romance for a scifi action adventure movie.
Helen G.
6. That Neil Guy
If I remember correctly, the episode that aired right after this one featured Picard going undercover somewhere. At one point, he had to use a fake name and I remember REALLY HOPING he would use Kamin as his undercover name, because it would be so easy for him to remember and respond to. Oh well.

Meanwhile, very nice post. Thank you for sharing additional insights about this peerless episode.
Helen G.
7. Mr. DAPs
Interesting article and thoughts. Always fun to read more about an amazing episode!
Michael Burstein
8. mabfan
"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)."

I like your new explanation. But I was never bothered by the technology dichotomy because the story was just so good. Had the episode been weaker, this would have been a nit to pick, yes. As it stands, though, the quality of the episode outweighs the objections.

-- Michael A. Burstein
Aaron Fuegi
9. aarondf
I completely agree with others. By far my favorite episode of the entire Star Trek franchise and the only one that led me to several long philosophical discussions after it aired. Our biggest question was: Is this something Picard would have wanted? My answer remains that he would have refused it if offered in advance but would fight to keep it afterwards. End justifying the means? It is an amazing experience he has but it is also pretty much a mind rape.
Helen G.
10. DC Sarah
Thanks for sharing more of your wonderful insight about this amazing episode! I look forward to your panel at Phoenix Con! See you there!

Sarah
Helen G.
11. Rayle
I wish to comment on the first point - percieving reality - and yes this will involve drugs - strong ones ;-)

I college i tried shrooms a few times and they were cute but not something you wanna be known for, or do a lot for that matter. My friends commonly joked that the best way to stop using all drugs was to do too many shrooms one time - you will have a religious experience. And over the years I have seen a lot of friends quit drugs due to religious experiences on shrooms --- but thats the kid's stuff ;-)

I had the unique experience of trying salvia divinorum A, google it. It is a plant that is legal everywhere and you probably have seen 1 or 1000 in your lives. It can grow almost anywhere in NA with a little help. And it is the strongest natural hallucinegen known to man. It's dosage is measurent in the mico millileters the same as LSD, which is unnatural. And it is normally purified to at least 100x natural potency. Even the Mayans got it to at least this level.

So some people I knew had some and asked if I wiashed to try it. Well I did my research and since it's been used for over 2k years and has no side effects, unlike LSD which leaves traces in spinal fluid, I said sure why not.

People laugh at my next statement.

I never knew reality was so fragile. Reality is simply what you percieve. And you will try to make sense of what you percieve and will live in whatever your senses tell you to be true. I flew, I talked to beings, I walked down halls looking for people I knew, I died, and I lived again. All in a few minutes, in a loveseat in a living room, while being watched over by friends.

Reality is fragile. Do not take it for granted. Unfortunately you will never understand that statement until you truely hallucinate. I do not recommend anyone seek it out. But I think everyone should be made to experience it. I thought empathizing with someone was close to walking in their shoes... it is not until your reality is supplemented with another one that you begin to understand that reality is in your mind. And you should do everything to protect your mind, it literally is what everyone else out there is interacting with, as we bump into other people's reality bubles and expect them to recognize ours - and we go along hoping we are all sharing the same dream.

NOTE: Do not use drugs. Even if some of them such as salvia is legal.
Alex Jarvis
12. Menalaus
Whole heartedly echo aarondf. The Inner Light has always been my absolute favorite episode in any Star Trek series. It's also the one that brought on the liveliest conversations, speculation, and personal reflection. Thank you very much for sharing it with us, it really is something special.
Helen G.
13. General Vagueness
@aarondf, I had partly forgotten, that's part of why this is one of my least favorite episodes-- it's like Frame of Mind without the happy ending (maybe that didn't have a happy ending exactly but it definitely wasn't so grim)
Also I don't really buy the technology, it seemed like the episode was making a point of showing these people were less advanced than mid-to-late-20th-century humanity, but then in a few decades they were far beyond that point, but more bothersome than that is if they were able to monitor their planet this well, create this advanced probe and launch it, and extract and implant memories, why weren't they able to go somewhere besides their planet?
Helen G.
14. Br. Gabriel
This was the best episode of ST:TNG. Just reading this article brought back all the intense and complex emotions the episode elicits. I sometime think people find me to be a little crazy when I try to explain the episode with a cracking voice and watery eyes. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.
James Goetsch
15. Jedikalos
Not only one of my very favorite Star Trek stories, but one of my favorite science fiction stories--shoot, just one of my very favorite stories. When people ask me why I love sci fi (and they really want to know), I set them down with me to watch this. Thanks for your work.
Helen G.
16. Marian
Inner Light is the most memorable episode from TNG. Despite my love of space ships, exploration etc, it's only this episode that I remember most clearly. A big factor for this is also the high quality soundtrack. Now everytime I listen to the IL soundtrack I remember the episode and what it's about and tears come to my eyes.
Helen G.
17. Larry S III
I too loved this episode & also loved seeing the flute show up again in subsequent episodes. I found it sort of sad that the person the probe contacted was Picard! If it had been some ensign, they could have shipped him off to a starbase, to be debriefed & probed for years, to get all the info on these people out of him! Instead the probe chose the Captain of the Flagship of Starfleet! (Oh, I know--TV series, etc & Picard no doubt spent months recording his thoughts and memories for researchers, but...).

Also, I presume the people around Kamin did at one time exist--but did "Kamin"? Or was he a construct for the purpose of the probe? I realize you dealt with this somewhat in answer to Question #2; Does that mean everything Picard experienced was also a "construct"? All an elaborate fiction, designed to portray the people of that world? If so, the episode id no better than us sending a soap opera into space in hopes that someone out there will remember us, after we are gone!

No, I hope that the people Picard met, as Kamin, were once real, and able to react to him as they would have in life, never knowing (secretly) that it was all a put-up job, to educate some alien in their planetary ways, and that once that alien (Picard) came to the realization of his role, THEN the programmed probe took over & let "contructs" of his friends & family, "speak" from the dead, and tell him the truth.

Sadly, when I think of Earth doing something like this, I realize its impossibility--what kind of life would we want an alien to experience, in order to understand us? The life of a Pygmy bushman? A Korean farmer? A Silicon Valley programmer? How about our world's history? Should it be an 18th century French aristocrat? Or a Moro tribesmand from the turn of the 20th Century? Or a Chinese boat-builder from 200 BC? A man? A woman? Straight? Gay? Bi? And how would we ever reach a consensus on that?! Good thing Picard is a TV character!
Helen G.
18. Jack 2211
Not trying to be a dick. But I always found the episode a little 0ver-sentimental. I did like the ending where you're not sure what effect this had on Picard, and I like that he didn't save the day and just gave into being Kamin.

There always was that question, whether intentional or not, of what the reality was like for the civilization (either whether there was a lot we weren't seeing, or whether Picard's vision was engineered to convey a cleaned-up, idealized or even past version) -- they can launch a space probe and have this level of mind-melding technology, yet there's no evidence of it at all in Kamin's life (which is entirely possible -- you probably wouldn't see evidence of the Hadron collider in a picturesque little mountain village). I remember thinking, back when I watched this in high school and had too much time on my hands, that it would be neat if they'd really destroyed themselves, or something (neat story-wise), but wanted to leave an idealized verison of themselves (or just one scientist did)...

For some reason I wasn't satisfied with a tale of a really nice place that just wanted people to know they'd existed... which says more about me (I'm a cynical jerk) than the episode.

If it wasn't all true, was Picard's unreal reality any less real? If they're capable of conveying a meaningful, loving, simple life -- then they can't be all bad?
Helen G.
19. BlaineTB
I just finished watching an airing of IL, one of many times I've seen the episode. It is one of my all-time favorite episodes, and has been since the first time I saw it 20 years ago (I'm 36 now). Although it's not heavy on the sci-fi or the TNG cast, I don't think this takes away from the episode at all. And it's so rewarding to the fans to see Picard have the life he wanted but sacrificed for Starfleet. Thank you for this terrific episode!
Helen G.
21. Jim de Graff
The best science fiction consists of stories about people and ideas. I think Inner Light ranks among the best that the genre has to offer. It gives me great pleasure to be able to thank you for such a touching story.
Helen G.
22. Charity Bradford
I just wanted to chime in with this is still my all time favorite episode, followed by The Offspring. Both had that emotional connection that makes good story telling rewarding.
Helen G.
23. DWhite
As regards to #2 - the technology dichotomy isn't an issue. If you spent your life in a rural Greek village you wouldn't see much of the technology that planet Earth has accumulated.
Helen G.
24. deanm
One of my faves as well, along with Who Watches the Watchers.
Helen G.
25. Etherbeard
I'd just like to say that while I love the episode and appreciate this article, that comment under section 2 about the "Leave It to Beaver" era is so ethno- and gender-centric that it's offensive. I certainly hope that if we ever send a snapshot of ourselves out in a probe, we'll have enough sense to choose an era of maximum equality among races and genders.
Helen G.
26. Lunettarose
Good post :)

Though it doesn't involve a lot of the common elements associated with Star Trek, it's one of my very favourite TNG episodes.
(although thinking about it, the complexities of reality versus non-reality is a theme ST has touched on many times, so I guess in that sense it is a typical Star Trek episode!)

But anyway, the emotional journey Picard goes on is very profound, and the ending never fails to bring a tear to my eye. It's nice to see others appreciating this episode.

Thanks!
Helen G.
27. Aaron Em
The Ressikans knew they were dying, far enough in advance to have the privilege of writing their own epitaph. Having done so, they tucked it safely into a bottle, sealed the cork with wax, and cast it into a sea of stars, in the hope it would someday wash up, long after they were gone, at the feet of someone who could appreciate all they had been and done.

Who, doing likewise, would choose to share anything less than the best of themselves? Have we not, in the golden records aboard the Voyager spacecraft, done likewise? "Hello from the children of planet Earth" -- "Hail and well met" -- "To the makers of music, all worlds, all times" -- Ad astra per aspera!

There may come a time when our little spark of light and order and curiosity on this planet has been extinguished, or guttered out of its own accord, and when those records are our only records, our last enduring message to whoever, among those who might share our galaxy, happens upon them and is inclined to listen.

Would you give our unknown fellows a history of our miseries, our discords, the times when we've fallen upon one another with murderous intent? Would you have that be their sole basis on which to know us, to cherish our memory?

Or would you give them our hopes, our dreams, those zeniths which perhaps we never attained, but toward which even the last of us never ceased to strive? "We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; But, that which we were, WE WERE!"

Well. I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but I know how I'd want to be remembered. Perhaps that desire is in some way influenced by the fact that, of the entire TNG run which I first saw in its original airing as a very young child, The Inner Light was the only episode which managed, even then, to bring me to tears. For that, Mr. Gendel, I thank you most kindly.

And, for the record (so to speak), I think whoever next flings a bottle into an endless sea of stars would do well to include among its contents a recording of the Symphonie 'Ode an die Freude', preferably as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herr von Karajan's inimitable baton. From all that human artifice has so far managed to produce, I can imagine no better fashion in which to introduce ourselves "to the makers of music" -- nor, should it become one in the Ressikan fashion, any greater valediction from our species to those who might stumble upon it, uncounted millennia after we've gone to discover what lies beyond.
Helen G.
28. framework4
It is a delightful tale. I read your sequel. Nice. I like much better a unfinished poorly formed Fanfic tale. In it the Time travel guys from the DS9 episode came to see Picard. Turns out the probe's beam was a cauality paradox. A cache of material found on an other planet of their system shows the people of Kataan got the idea of the link and the probe from Kamin. His tale of being Picard make it way up channels, as well as the changes in him and his aproach to life. So the probe was sent just to find and link with Picard. In another words the life he lived as Kamin was real, his children were real. As I said it was not very well done and it didn't go anywhere and was never finished. But I loved the idea of the events being real.
Helen G.
29. Challenger3967
For myself, the Inner Light is about the love of life and the desire to continue. It is also about, as indicated in the article, life's purpose and meaning. A dying civilization casts a bottle in the cosmic ocean before its members are washed from the shore. Despite the frustration of knowing their unfortunate fate, they are far from powerless. Perhaps it speaks to a desire that our lives be rediscovered long after they have been fully lived much in the way that history speaks to the present. Thank you for writing the best Star Trek episode, period.
Helen G.
30. Rob E
Doubtless, this is the best Star Trek (of whatever denomination) ever! Absolutely mesmerizing soundtrack as a synchronistic/ stylistic bonus. Ultimately, for most people, the great value in life is centered around relationships - something this episode explores directly... and indirectly. I remember watching this episode with rapt attention when it debuted, with my father in law - and being angry at its conclusion! Thinking of the senseless demise of an entire civilization of (apparently) very just, kind people was surpisingly upsetting. Now, with a more mature perspective 20+ years later, my appreciation for the ingrained wisdom, balance and sense of "The Inner Light" only continues to grow - more so in consideration of the nature of the human race, trapped in its current form on this world. It seems the times and faces change, but human nature does not. The Inner Light captures eloquently what is really important in an epically poignant manner - Thank You Mr. Gendel, for capturing the meaning of life in a bottle as it were, in a science fiction setting. Simply brilliant - and hauntingly beautiful.
Helen G.
31. Shmoo Snook
It was a pleasure to revisit this wonderful episode through your article. Thanks so much.
Helen G.
34. Xander
Memorable and great story, still overwhelming after 20 years..
I usually applied suspension of disbelief on the healing brush issue, this explanation is alright.
Always thought this episode to be the screenplay of the Currents of Space.
Thanks.

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