Sep 4 2012 10:00am

Five Big Issues Raised by “The Inner Light”

Morgan Gendel points out five big issues raised by his Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light

Since “The Inner Light” is the next episode coming on the Star Trek: The Next Generation rewatch, we thought we’d rerun this piece by the episode’s writer, Morgan Gendel. Enjoy!

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 www.theouterlight.com.

James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
Thank you sir, for one of my very favorite pieces of science fiction. This is one of my very favorite works of--not just Star Trek--but of science fiction in general. It is nice now to be able to thank you for writing it and getting it done. Wonderful work.
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
I'm remember that episod.
Now that I'm a mother, I think it moves me even more.

Thank you.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
I enjoy this episode, but I have a few nits about it that I am sure I will go into in more detail on krad's review ;)

One of them being something you mentioned - how do we know that the memories/images are really the 'REAL' thing, and not just some idealized version of how they view themselves? Also, are Kamin, Elene, etc actually real people? Or are they just constructs meant to symbolize the culture?

Obviously I can't disagree with you about point 5 being the point since you wrote it, but I don't find that as meaningful, because (to me) part of the powerful part of the episode is that it IS possible to find meaning in an 'ordinary' life, and that there is nothing insignificant about family, community, etc. So knowing that is really not the case actually takes my enjoyment of the episode down a notch.
Rich Bennett
4. Neuralnet
Thanks for this episode. It was spectacular... one of my Top5 favorites
Dede Bonelli
5. Dede Bonelli
Great article Morgan! I especially appreciate point number 3 and your take. I am glad that you didn't give up pitching this episode.
Dede Bonelli
6. starfleetmom
This episode is one of many that adds rich layers to the character Picard. He will forever be changed by this experience, and the flute will remain on his desk to remind him, and all of us, of the inner conflict he bears: he is married to his ship, a father to his crew, and explorer and adventurer. Yet, the warmth of a simpler, homebound life with a lifelong companion and generations of offspring has it's own appeal.

Picard has lived another lifetime, which, real or unreal, shapes his outlook on every future encounter he has.

In his past lies the death of his best friend, fraternal strife, the loss of his ship, and mind games a la Q. In his future lies assimilation by the Borg, torture by the Cardassians, death of his brother and nephew. Picard's is the most tortured mind of all the Captains. Is he the most resilient, or the most unbelievable character? (A Frenchman with a Scottish accent, notwithstanding)
Dede Bonelli
7. Andrew Zimmer
This has always been my favorite episode of The Next Generation, and I think the primary reason is that this episode is the byproduct of a long-forgotten system, of open submission.

Mr. Gendel came in with an idea, and through refinement and what can only be described as flashes of genius, changed the protagonist of the entire series forever. This would be unthinkable in the modern age of television, and that's a shame.

Through Sir Patrick Stewart's performance and Morgan Gendel's excellent teleplay, Picard undergoes an emotional arc of fantastic significance in a single episode, a lifetime, and the burden of being the chosen messenger of an entire civilization's memory. All in under one hour.

It is a bit of a shame that the series never took full advantage of this gift that had been given to the character of Picard, never really showed the impact that his life as Kamin would have had on his life and his worldview. Still, a fantastic episode and every iota worthy of the Hugo it earned.
Dede Bonelli
8. Trish Rugg
My favorite episode of TNG by far! It was heartening to see Picard experience life as he could not as captain of the Enterprise. The melancoly of the final scene brings tears every time. The heartbreak of a lifetime lived within an hour show... what more can I say?
Morgan they should have used this (and your ideas) much more. Thank you!
Dede Bonelli
9. Jilly
I think of "IL" often and wonder what kind of life I'd want to live for 50 years in just 20 minutes. I use the episode to teach existentialism to high school students in AZ. It works. Here's to Kamin and the Kanaanese!
Dede Bonelli
10. Alyce
Inner Light is definitely my favorite Star Trek episode of all time. It's one of those rare stories which doesn't wear with repeating. Of course it doesn't hurt that I'm a flute player, so the musical aspect of the story appealed to me - and what a lovely melody line was used!

Anyway, I just wanted to say how much the episode means to me, and I don't think I'm doing a good job of it. Suffice it to say that I watch the episode often. :)
I hate sarcastic over-analysis. People who specialize at such generally can't enjoy anything without taking the joy out of everything.

There's a name for people like that. I don't recall who coined it, but I rounded it down to either the Italians or the Jews. Either way, they got it right, as the mere sound of the word just explodes in your mind with all the right correlations.

The word is schmuck. And it fits to a tree!

Uhh that's supposed to be... "tee" . Is there a way to fire the auto correction programming guy?


Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment