Star Trek The Next Generation: The Inner Light

While I love the two-parter "The Best of Both Worlds" a whole heck of a lot, "The Inner Light" is my favorite episode of The Next Generation.

The story is relatively straightforward. The Enterprise encounters an alien probe that hits Captain Picard. As he lies unconscious on the bridge for twenty-five minutes and Dr. Crusher tries fruitlessly to revive him, Picard experiences over forty years in the life of a man named Kamin, who lived on the planet Kataan.

The first time I saw this episode, I found it frustrating and I kept waiting for the story, and Picard, to go back to the ship. As the decades passed on Kataan and Picard settled into his life there with his wife and children, I had absolutely no idea what was happening or why, but I couldn't help being drawn into the story. Maybe that was why I was so overwhelmed by the ending, that moment when the dead returned and the elderly Picard realized how the missile launch related to himself. "It's me! Isn't it? I'm the someone." I didn't expect it, and it blew me away. I can still remember how stunned I was, and how much I cried. I'm crying now as I write this.

As one might expect, the best thing about this episode is Patrick Stewart's touching performance, almost certainly his best in a series full of good performances. It was very like Picard to keep insisting he was a starship captain, to create a telescope and chart the stars, to do everything he could to figure out what had happened to him, and to continue to do so for years. But it was also like Picard to eventually accept that he was there for good, to make close friends, to grow to love his wife and to be a good father to his children. I've always loved the sweet way he told Eline that it was time to start the family she so desperately wanted.

As the years passed and Picard's daughter Meribor and son Batai grew up, the drought continued to worsen, and Picard realized that the planet they lived on was dying. He discovered that even though he never wanted children, he loved being a father, with an especially strong bond with Meribor, who wanted to follow in his footsteps. And he showed such sadness when he told Meribor to live for now, when he acknowledged that his grandson Kamie would probably not live to grow up. I particularly loved the symbolism of the sapling that they planted in the town square the day Picard arrived, and continued to nurture throughout his forty-plus years in the community. It was especially touching that every member of the community sacrificed a little bit of their water rations to keep that tree, the symbol of hope, alive.

For me, the emotional jolt I got from this episode wasn't so much that an entire planet had died a thousand years ago. What got to me was how the people of Kataan chose to be remembered. They didn't display their great cities or scientific accomplishments or their famous works of art. Instead, the people of Kataan chose to share their souls. They showed Picard what it was like to be one of them, an ordinary person living an ordinary life with a loving family in a small community. As the planet of Kataan was dying, its people chose to continue living just as they had in the past: with love for each other, and hope for their hopeless future. It was particularly beautiful when the dead Eline and Batai returned, looking as they originally did, to tell Picard the truth.


The action on the Enterprise bridge during the minutes that Picard was unconscious was only an auxiliary part of the story, but I always liked how Beverly simply sat on the floor next to the unconscious Picard and gave him every bit of her skill and attention. Patrick Stewart's performance when Picard awoke, realized where he was and what had happened, and went quietly back to his quarters made us see how hard it would be to plunge right back into the life of a starfleet captain after more than forty years living another life.

And the way they used the little flute as a physical object to connect Picard to the lifetime he had just experienced was pretty much perfect. Picard in his now alien quarters playing that flute showed us without words how he felt, the enormity of what he had lost.


Bits and pieces:

-- Stardate 45944.1, the Parvenium system, and Picard's mind.

-- Margot Rose also gave a beautiful performance as Picard's wife Eline, and I loved Richard Riehle's warmth as Kamin's best friend Batai. In fact, Batai is so lovely in the brief minutes he's on the screen that I always feel a frisson of grief for him when Picard and Eline name their baby son after him.

-- Patrick Stewart's real life son Daniel Stewart played his son young Batai, who decided to be a musician. His obvious resemblance to Patrick Stewart made that one work.

-- Along with everything else about this episode, I'd like to praise the set direction and the costumes. The warmth and coziness of Eline and Kamin's home and their casual, comfortable clothing mildly reminiscent of tie dye worked so well with the characters and the story they were telling.

-- The ageing make-up worked too, for the most part. I thought maybe it got a little distracting near the end, though. Maybe they should have left Picard's hair alone?

-- Just one thing. How would the crew know the name of the planet Kataan? If everything but the probe was destroyed when their star went nova, how could there possibly be a record of what the natives called their planet?

Quotes:

Picard: "I'd like to ask your permission to build something."
Eline: "Kamin, you've built your telescope, your laboratory, you don't need my permission for something new."
Picard: "In this case, I think I do."
Eline: "What is it?"
Picard: "A nursery."

Picard: "I always believed that I didn't need children to complete my life. Now I couldn't imagine life without them."

Picard: "Seize the time, Meribor. Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again."

Batai: "We hoped our probe would encounter someone in the future. Someone who could be a teacher. Someone who could tell the others about us."
Picard: "Oh... Oh, it's me... isn't it? I'm the someone. I'm the one it finds."

"The Inner Light" is a beautifully written, skillfully acted, nearly perfect piece of science fiction. As I said in the opener, it's my favorite episode of Next Gen. I also think it's the best episode in the series. Five out of four stars,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

6 comments:

Dustin said...

What at first appears to be an unassuming little episode wallops you over the head with an emotional punch that you don't expect. Like DS9's The Visitor, this episode makes me cry with every rewatch. Just lovely.

Another great things about The Inner Light is the music. Picard's flute solo just adds to the beauty and emotion of the episode. It's too bad Rick Berman rarely allowed the Trek sequels to have non-mediocre music.

It is interesting to note that most of the best episodes of Trek in any incarnation take place in some sort of alternate life/universe/time. This episode is a prime example.

televisionandotherrantings said...

Overall this is a strong outing but I'll admit to not being as enthused with it as others. Think a lot of it has to do with that the aliens doing this to Picard without his permission is kind of messed up if you think about it since he's basically worn down into believing that his life was a lie and made to be there for 40 years in his mind. Even with SFDebris' counter defence I can't quite fully get past this (though to be fair it took a few viewings before this issue really started to cloud my mind). http://sfdebris.com/videos/startrek/t225.php
This is especially disconcerting since even the creators of the episode admit it didn't occur to them just how this kind of thing would mess someone up until way later on.

Also while this is nitpicking its kind of weird that this civilization was able to create a technology that's able to transmit 40 years worth of information into a person within 25 minutes. Just to put that into context in the DS9's episode Hard Time it took another species more time to insert less data into someone's head despite the people of Kataan being around thousands of years earlier and being at a less advanced state of technology. It makes you wonder if there was some NOMAD situation where their probe combined with something else.

Still from a production standpoint I can't really fault the episode all that much. As has been stated the acting, music and make-up were top-notch. And I can certainly understand why this ends up in people's Top Tens. Though for me I much prefer The Best of Both Worlds and Tapestry.

Jeff Hamm said...

I saw a comment somewhere, that Picard's place in the Nexus should have been with this family on Kataan. Imagine the decision to leave that.

Skye maidstone said...

Lovely review of a very good episode. It's just not quite one of my favourites. I guess since I have no children or interest in having any some of the emotional impact is lost on me.

That said DS9s The Visitor has me crying everytime.

This episode wasn't quiet sci-fi enough for me either. Well the kind of sci-fi I liked anyway

Joshua Ash said...

I have to agree with you, Billie. This is far and away my favorite episode. I love Best of Both Worlds and Yesterday's Enterprise a lot, but this one is still the absolute best. And I hope this isn't impinging on the no spoiler rule, but I also think it is extremely telling that this episode, like Best of Both Worlds and very few others partially survives the reset button. As you have pointed out before, this show came out at a time when television was exactly what it claimed to be: episodic. It was very rare to see elements from the past showing up again, but this episode did get occasional references in later episodes, including one of my favorite moments in a non-favorite episode, which shall go unnamed in deference to the no spoiler rule. This episode really makes me wonder what it would have been like if the show had been serialized.

Victoria Grossack said...

Tears well up as I recall this episode. Reminds us of what is most important in the end -- to love, to share, and to be remembered.

Lovely review, Billie.