“You’ve been dreaming about that starship of yours again, haven’t you?”Eline, ‘The Inner Light’ (S5, Ep25).
It was a perfectly ordinary beginning, at least by Star Trek standards.
Enterprise encounters a mysterious probe while on its usual journey through space. Rather unexpectedly, the probe unleashes a blast of nucleonic particles which penetrate Enterprise’s defences, striking the ship’s captain, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as he stands on the bridge and rendering him unconscious. Periodically, throughout the episode, we return to the anxious crew as they attempt to revive their fallen leader, all the time uneasily aware that the probe is “doing something” to him while he lies motionless. Ultimately, after only for about 20 or 25 minutes, he recovers consciousness, seemingly unhurt and to their relief, apparently wholly unchanged.
Only we, the viewers know the truth of what Picard has been through. During a period which to the rest of Enterprise seemed to last only for a matter of minutes, Jean-Luc Picard experienced 40 whole years of a whole other life, as another man with another name on another world. This is the premise of ‘The Inner Light’, the penultimate episode of the fifth season of Star Trek – The Next Generation, first broadcast on US TV on 1st June 1992.
For over half a century now, over more than a dozen films, seven different small screen incarnations and over 750 episodes, Star Trek has presented audiences with countless alternative small screen scenarios. These, for the most part, are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
And, for many, ‘The Inner Light’ is widely considered to be one of the best Star Trek stories ever produced. What follows is an attempt to understand why.
[See also: TNG Saved my Life in High School by Joy Hargraves]
Another Girl, Another Planet
Picard wakes up. Finding himself in entirely unfamiliar surroundings, his first instinct is to assume he must be on the Holodeck of Enterprise.
“Computer, freeze program! Computer, end program!” But this is no simulation (at least not in the way Picard thinks) and nothing happens. Picard is on another world: he is in the town of Ressick on the non-Federation planet of Kataan.
Disconcertingly, although his appearance, aside from his clothes, remains unchanged, he finds he is also not known as Captain Picard of Enterprise anymore but as an iron weaver called ‘Kamin’. He is apparently married to a woman called Eline (Margot Rose) who he immediately finds waiting anxiously by his side. Eline explains that they have been married for three years. She is clearly troubled by the fact her husband no longer seems to recognize her and confused by his strange talk of starships and other 24th century technologies. She seems convinced that his memories of life on Enterprise are the result of a delusion brought on by three days of fever. Picard is, of course, equally convinced that they are entirely real.
Picard is also introduced to a flute which he is told Kamin enjoys practising on, although which he initially cannot play at all. (Incidentally, Picard is referred to as ‘Kamin’ throughout his time on Kataan. Despite this, to keep things simple, I will continue to refer to him as ‘Picard’ throughout this brief narrative).
Soon after waking, Picard explores his surroundings and discovers a pleasant, fairly unadvanced society which at first glance has something of the feel of Ancient Greece or Rome about it. He soon discovers the planet is blighted by drought and clearly has not yet entered the space age although we later learn it has advanced to the point of being able to fire basic missiles. Picard befriends an amiable local councillor, Batai (Richard Riehle) who has just planted a sapling in the town center. The progress of that sapling and the development of Picard’s flute-playing are to prove useful indicators as to the passage of time, during the episode.
Later, after a fair degree of persuasion, Picard is able to reconcile himself enough to his new situation enough to go to bed with Eline. One suspects an earlier Enterprise captain, James T. Kirk (William Shatner) might have needed a bit less encouragement.
[See also: To Boldly Woo – The Romantic Disasters of Jean-Luc Picard by Jen Williams.]
Settlers of Kataan
“Seize the time, Meribor – live now! Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”Captain Jean-Luc Picard, as Kamin
One of the joys of ‘The Inner Light’ is how easily it conveys the passage of time during Picard’s long excursion on Kataan. In some ways, our own perception of time is being distorted just as the main character’s is. For Picard, the whole episode seems to last for decades. For the crew of Enterprise, most of the events occur over the course of a few minutes. For the viewer, the whole thing lasts 45 minutes, the same as always. In Britain, the episode was broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesday, June 7th, 1995. It was followed by a short 15-minute show featuring highlights from the long-running panel show, Call My Bluff.
When we next see Picard, it soon becomes clear five years have passed. What hair he has, has grown longer around his ears, his flute-playing has developed and the sapling which we saw Batai planting before has grown considerably. This makes sense despite the drought as we learn the townspeople have been deliberately favoring it because of its symbolic value to the town. Although he still clings to the possibility that a ship might appear to rescue him at any time leading him to watch the skies apparently rather eccentrically through a small Dobsonian telescope of 20th-century design, we soon learn the onetime captain of Enterprise is at a turning point.
Troubled by the continuing drought, he intervenes in a discussion between Batai and a visiting commissioner (Scott Jaeck). Although savvy enough to recognize the politician has essentially responded to his suggestion by fobbing him off, this action does reflect a growing acceptance by Picard that he is a local citizen not just an exiled Starfleet captain eagerly awaiting his first possible opportunity to escape before he can resume his ‘normal’ life.
Even more crucially, he tells Eline he is prepared to start a family with her. Picard’s personality never really changes during the episode and he never forgets his old life aboard Enterprise. But with the natives friendly and the likelihood of escape receding as the years roll by, he grows to accept his not unpleasant fate.
Picard: The Next Generation
“I always believed that I didn’t need children to complete my life. Now, I couldn’t imagine life without them.”Captain Jean-Luc Picard, as Kamin
The next time we see Picard, time has clearly moved on further still. Not only has Picard’s flute playing improved to the extent that he is confident enough to play in public, but he is celebrating the birth of his SECOND child: we now see he has a young daughter in addition to a new baby son. Picard and Eline name him after Batai, his good friend who we now learn has sadly died.
At this point, roughly half-way through the episode, there is a crossover as Picard briefly collapses on Kataan as his condition briefly deteriorates on Enterprise. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) also learns that the probe has come from Kataan, which spookily, was destroyed by a supernova a thousand years ago.
By the time of our penultimate visit to Kataan, it is clear lots of time has passed. Picard and Elise are genuinely elderly, and their children are now both teenagers close to adulthood, his daughter concerned about the planet’s increasingly serious bout of global warming and the son (played by Patrick Stewart’s actual son, Daniel Stewart, then in his twenties) is anxious to leave school and pursue a music career.
Patrick Stewart’s appearance does not actually lend itself easily to being aged on screen. Nearly 30 years on and 80 years old, he in fact, in some ways looks remarkably similar today to how he looked when the episode was made in 1992. Here, his skin wrinkles, his nose grows longer, and his remaining hair grows white and straggly. But it is not all down to make-up. His performance is also excellent. In a moving scene, Picard having long since learned to love a wife he never knew at the start of the episode, now mourns her demise as Eline dies of old age.
[See also: Flying a 3-Foot Enterprise to the Dog Poop Planet: The VFX of Rob Legato by Abigail Chandler]
Picard has now recognised that the planet is effectively doomed, something the Administrator, himself now ageing, privately admits. The global warming afflicting Kataan has an echo in today’s climate change concerns, already a growing issue in the early 1990s. Unlike Earth, however, Kataan’s problems are the result of its sun approaching supernova, a process the local population is completely powerless to control or do anything about.
Speaking to The Companion, writer Morgan Gendel said: “It was a nice coincidence in hindsight that the problem with Kataan was global warming. I needed to come up with something that not only would wipe them out but also gave them a lot of time to contemplate this. I did some research and having a sun that goes nova was a good idea.” He admits to some sleight of hand here, however: “In truth, that would take so many millions of years the inhabitants would probably die off aeons before it actually happened. Whereas, in ‘The Inner Light’ only a thousand years has passed between the events inside Kamin’s mind and the discovery of the probe.”
Finally, on what turns out to be our final visit to Kataan, we next see an extremely aged Picard romping with his young grandson, rather like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone does shortly before the character’s death in the orange grove in The Godfather. Picard’s daughter, Meribor (Jennifer Nash) is now as old as her late mother was at the start while his son is now as bald as his father. Hat-wearing is now mandatory as Kaatan grows ever hotter as its star moves close to supernova. The elderly Picard joins a crowd to witness the launching of what turns out to be the very probe that zapped him at the start.
In an impressive twist, an astonished Old Man Picard is now confronted by both his long-dead wife and best friend who explain the purpose of the probe was to preserve the memory of the doomed world and its people within Picard’s own memory. The people of Kataan thus achieve a form of immortality through Picard’s memories as a memorial which endures for at least for as long as he remains alive.
Picard wakes up.
“I’ve always felt that the experience in ‘Inner Light’ would’ve been the most profound experience in Picard’s life and changed him irrevocably. However, that wasn’t our intention when we were creating the episode. We were after a good hour of TV, and the larger implications of how this would really screw somebody up didn’t hit home with us until later (that’s sometimes a danger in TV – you’re so focused on just getting the show produced every week that sometimes you suffer from the ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ syndrome). We never intended the show to completely upend his character and force a radical change in the series.”Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore in a 1997 AOL chat.
Picard has many bizarre experiences during his years on Enterprise. At different times, he is absorbed into The Borg, loses his memory and is turned into a child.
Despite this, it is difficult to imagine an experience he has which could have been more disorientating than the one he endures in ‘The Inner Light’. Picard lives 40 years – almost the span of years of his entire life up until that point again – during the course of one episode.
In the episode, he is unconscious for about 25 minutes but his experiences on Kataan genuinely seem to last for decades. It is a wonder he can even remember how to fulfil his duties on Enterprise on his return. On seeing his good friend (and possible one-time lover), Dr. Beverly Crusher again, he says her name as if he is trying to remember who she is.
Like the children who live and grow to adulthood while visiting Narnia, Picard returns to find the realities of life around him have not moved on at all. In his own mind, he has been away for 40 years. If the entire seven-season run of The Next Generation was played out to scale, he would spend only one season captaining Enterprise while the remaining six would be spent detailing his life on Kataan!
On top of this, he has to adjust to the loss of a family and way of life which he enjoyed for decades.
It is certainly not all bad news for Picard, however. For having grown used to being in his dotage at the drop of a hat, Picard suddenly finds himself in comfortable middle-age again.
Also, he can now play the flute really well. Writer Morgan Gendel recalled:
“I knew we needed some way for Picard to remember, continually, what happened to him. I wanted to distinguish between a dream state and the planting of permanent memories, which, after all, is what the Kataan scientists wanted to do. He had to have something as a constant reminder. Mainly through the process of elimination, I came up with the flute.”
The flute having been recovered from the probe; the final scene sees him playing the tune he played at his ‘son’s’ naming ceremony.
The road less travelled
At its very best, science fiction can appeal to a basic underlying almost universal fantasy that may have occasionally floated our subconscious mind.
For most of us, the sensation is fleeting. As with the experience of déjà vu, our mind is essentially playing tricks on us, often making us think we have lived through something which has lasted much longer than it actually has. Our natural tendency is to often quickly forget our own dreams, presumably an inbuilt self-defence mechanism to prevent us from confusing our nocturnal fantasies with memories of things that have actually happened. Clearly, Picard goes through something rather more profound than this in ‘The Inner Light’.
We get a sense of the road less travelled: the life Picard might have led had he not chosen to devote himself to his career. Unusually, while many people who lead boring lives have very Picard’s ‘dream life’ here is much less exciting than his actual reality. While Picard’s everyday routine regularly sees him combating various perils threatening both himself and his ship, as Kamin of Kataan, he gets to live a quieter life devoting himself to his family and his flute.
We have seen signs of Picard pondering an alternative way of life before. In the Season 4 episode, ‘Family’ (S4, Ep2), which occurs directly after his traumatic confrontation with The Borg, Picard seriously considers taking up a job offer on Earth with an underwater research project called Atlantis. Seeing the quiet French vineyard run by Picard’s “difficult” brother, Robert (played by the late Jeremy Kemp) during this episode, we get a strong sense of how Picard’s life might have turned out very differently.
All good things..
“Now we live in you. Tell them of us… my darling.”Eline
Only four Star Trek episodes have ever won the World Scientific Society’s highly esteemed Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The first was for the 1966 TOS two-parter, ‘The Menagerie’ (S1, Ep11-12). The second was for the highly acclaimed 1967, Harlan Ellison-scripted time travel story, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ (S1, Ep28). In 1995, The Next Generation won one for its swansong, ‘All Good Things…’ (S7, Ep25-26). In 1993, the series won for ‘The Inner Light’ also.
Morgan Gendel explained how his inspiration for the idea of the probe came from an unlikely source. “I saw this advertising blimp outside my window in L.A.,” he explains. “I thought, what if this were a futuristic thing floating around in space that beamed real memories into our brains?”
Gendel went onto produce the outline of a story with a strong anti-war message in which Riker and Picard were sent into a coma after being zapped by the probe and experience the effects of a terrible war waged on another civilization which was keen to avoid anyone else in the future ever suffering the same experience. The story was revised to combine elements of an earlier unrealized storyline Michael Piller and Brannon Braga had attempted to develop in which Picard experienced an alternative life. The anti-war element was jettisoned but the idea of a culture being annihilated but passing on its memory on to future generations through the probe survived.
The final draft was written by the late Peter Allan Fields but Gendel is still pleased by how much of his vision survived.
“Reverence for a dying civilization, friction within a family, the personal impact of playing a musical instrument, the malleability of memories in the human brain … the time disjunction between ‘dreams’ and reality, the baby naming ceremony that some viewers might recognise as a Jewish bris – those are all inclusions that came from me and which I’m proud of.”
A keen Beatles fan, Gendel took the name, ‘The Inner Light’ from a song by the group by George Harrison.
Sir Patrick Stewart has frequently cited ‘The Inner Light’ as being his favourite ever episode. This is partly because it gave him the opportunity to work with his son, Daniel. But this is not the only reason: Stewart has said this episode presented him with the greatest ever acting challenge he ever faced on Star Trek. It certainly inspired one of Stewart’s best performances.
“The most affecting sequence was the one scene where I was with the actress who was playing my wife, late one warm evening, sitting on a bench outside,” Stewart, who was in his early fifties when the episode was filmed recalled later. “I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘This is what it feels like to be elderly: sitting on a bench with someone you know so well, and this is what lies ahead.’ That was the one time I had a sense of, God willing, what was waiting for me.”
Stewart got another chance to play Picard as an old man in the Hugo-award winning series finale, ‘All Good Things…’. He again played the character as an old man himself in the recent series, Star Trek – Picard.
Ultimately, ‘The Inner Light’ not only provides us with a fascinating insight into Picard himself but shines a fascinating light on the very nature of time, memory and human existence.
It is this which, 30 years on, makes it perhaps the greatest Star Trek episode ever made.
Shoutout to Dobbin for the extra effort in supporting the release of our new podcast Gaters Gonna Rate!
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Chris Hallam is a published author and freelance writer based in Exeter. In the past, he has written for magazines such as DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He provided all the written content for the Star Wars Clone Wars and Smurfs annuals for 2014, and the Transformers annual 2015. He continues to write for Yours Retro, Best of British and The History of Comics, 1930-2030.