Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Inner Light   Rewatch 
June 10, 2021 4:14 AM - Season 5, Episode 25 - Subscribe

After contact with an ancient space probe, Picard becomes one of the settlers of Kataan.

You've been dreaming about that Star Trek fan wiki of yours again, haven't you?:

• This episode won the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. It's the third of four Star Trek episodes to win the award and was the first television episode to win since the original Star Trek. The others are "The Menagerie, Part I" and "The Menagerie, Part II" (with both parts combined), "The City on the Edge of Forever", and "All Good Things...".

• During the fourth season, Michael Piller came up with the idea of Picard experiencing an unlived life. While the writing staff were supportive of the concept, none of them were able to make it work. Joe Menosky recalled, "Brannon Braga and I worked out at least a half dozen concepts ourselves – and they all failed."

• The themes of cultural memory and passing down traditions in the wake of societal destruction were influenced by Morgan Gendel's Jewish upbringing and the experience of Holocaust survivors.

• Gendel revealed that the episode's title is an in-joke. "'The Inner Light' was the B-side of 'Lady Madonna.' I thought it would be fun to give every Star Trek episode I wrote a title that's from a different, obscure Beatles song. I wanted to call "Starship Mine" 'Revolution,' but they had already used "Evolution". It was a little joke between me and me."

• Patrick Stewart's son, Daniel Stewart, portrayed Kamin's son, Batai, during his life on Kataan. The younger Stewart had previously auditioned for other roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

• Stewart remembered, "I'm having the earliest makeup call of any actor in the history of Star Trek. My makeup call on Monday was 1:00 am, my set call was 7:00 am. So I left home round about midnight."

• In another interview, Stewart recalled, "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. 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."

• Picard's flute appears in a deleted scene from Star Trek Nemesis, during which Picard and Data discuss the crew going their own ways.

• According to Jay Chattaway, the Ressikan flute was chosen for its photogenic ability because a typical flute is held in front of the actor's face. His composition for the Ressikan flute became one of the most requested pieces in the Paramount Pictures library.

• Ronald D. Moore commented, "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, so we contented ourselves with a single follow-up in 'Lessons'."

• Kamin pleads with Meribor to "make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again." Picard later echos those words to Commander Riker following the destruction of the USS Enterprise-D in Star Trek Generations.

• Patrick Stewart nominated this episode as the greatest acting challenge he faced in the seven years of The Next Generation. Michael Westmore noted that "'The Inner Light' was a show Patrick [Stewart] should have won an Emmy for."

• Michael Piller named this episode (along with "The Measure Of A Man" and "The Offspring") as one of his favorite TNG episodes, "because they had remarkable emotional impacts. And they genuinely explored the Human condition, which this franchise does better than any other when it does it well."

Michael Chabon describes "The Inner Light", along with DS9: "Far Beyond the Stars", as "two of my favorite episodes of television, period."

"You think that this… your life is a dream?"
"This is not my life! I know that much."
- Eline and Picard as Kamin

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

"Seize the time, Meribor – live now! Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again."
- Picard as Kamin, to his daughter Meribor

Poster's Log:
This one's made me cry once or twice on previous rewatches; pretty sure the only other TNG that ever did is the finale. It's not so much because it feels, in its treatment of the topic of aging, like an intimate meditation in a way that Trek seldom feels like (though it does)… nor because the Ressikans themselves were so likeable and well-realized (though they are, moreso than a lot of one-shot species)… nor because of the obvious pain Picard is now going to be saddled with for the rest of his life (though the thought of it is indeed haunting, even if TNG ends up largely ignoring it).

I think the thing that gets to me is, to coin a genre term, the "cosmic tragedy" that the entire plot hinges upon. George Orwell once said that the thing that haunts him the most about human history is that well over 99% of "common folk" who ever lived, and especially the slaves, are now utterly forgotten, as if they'd never existed. Now expand that to a functionally infinite number of formerly-inhabited planets.

And all that stuff I just said is 100% subtext in this episode, which is part of what makes it so successful.

As for nitpicks? It might've been good to see some hints of their psionic technology, which must be pretty advanced for the probe to do what it did to Picard (though off the top of my head, I'm not sure what sort of hint would have felt like it fit). More significantly, the Kataan probe intended that their race be remembered, but did they consider that the one guy it'll "abduct" is also mortal? (*GASP* unless the probe somehow knew, due to Space-Psi-Magic Foresight, that Picard would NOT BE MORTAL because of…well, spoilers.)

Some say this is the finest hour of all TNG. Maybe I agree? What I would say is, if you want a Trek episode that feels like a top-level sci-fi novel and requires no outside Trek knowledge, this is probably the best and maybe the only one, at least of the post-TOS era. Episodes like "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Visitor," and even "Far Beyond the Stars" are dependent to a greater or lesser extent on our familiarity with the characters or the in-universe history; probably not "City on the Edge of Forever," though.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
The titular Beatles song.

Bernd of Ex Astris Scientia compares "Inner Light" to other Trek episodes here.

Daniel Stewart (Li'l Batai) is a personal friend of John Hodgman, which is how Hodgman was able to get Patrick Stewart to sit down for an interview for Hodgman's I, Claudius podcast "I, Podius" (a betoupeed Patrick Stewart played the dastardly Sejanus in four episodes of I, Claudius). The interview, in the sixth episode of "I, Podius," is excellent.

Prolific "that guy" actor Richard Riehle makes the first of apparently five Trek appearances here.

Speaking of Richard Riehle, the following is a transcript from the OfBrazil household couch during Batai's speech in his first scene:

BATAI: This sapling is planted as an affirmation of life in defiance of the drought and with expectations of long life. Whatever comes, we will keep it alive as a symbol of our survival.

MRS. CHEESES: That is the conclusion that I jump to.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (25 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I was considering whether I preferred this episode over "The Wounded" as my favorite TNG episode, even though when I watched the previous ep I was pretty sure that it was still my favorite. Some of that may be a reconsideration of this one both in light of the pandemic (compare to Picard having to adjust to a new life that, at least at first, seems very limited compared to the one that he's used to) and the ongoing awareness of climate change and the increasing havoc that it's going to wreak on all our lives (compare to, well, you know.) Part of it may be just me getting older and identifying more with an ep that is in large part all about that.

But maybe it's just that both of these eps transcend the usual same-competence-porn-different-Treknobabble of the more run-of-the-mill TNG eps. The concept is solid, and has reflections both in eps before this (TOS' "That Which Survives" and "Return to Tomorrow", this series' "The Survivors") and after ("The Chase", VOY's "Memorial", some of the ones that COB mentions above, as well as Bernd in the linked review), but here it's executed in a way that's simply beautiful, with a gravity and a sweetness that's all the more powerful for being somewhat bittersweet. I lost it when the probe is launched and the people, including those that had previously died, "broke character" and addressed Picard as himself.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:04 AM on June 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

'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.'

We'll revisit this image again in PIC S1E7, "Nepenthe", with Picard and Riker sitting on a bench by the lake. I wonder if that was a deliberate callback by Michael Chabon.
posted by hanov3r at 7:36 AM on June 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

I love this episode. Of course. Who wouldn't?

One thing that always sticks out to me, is the way that we're returned to the bridge and see the efforts from Riker and Crusher to help Picard. It breaks up the story of Picard/Kamin's life. It returns us, as an audience, to the certainty that he really is the captain of a starship, even while he himself becomes comfortable and accepting of his new life.

I always wonder about that. I wonder how the episode would feel, if we didn't get anything from the Enterprise, once we saw Picard/Kamin in his new home. I wonder if they would have framed this story differently, if they produced it now, when TV shows aren't constrained as much by commercial break schedules and the expectation that audiences might just tune in halfway through.

I guess I'm just really interested in the tension that this episode forces us to experience: on one hand, there's the growing attachment to Kamin's life, and, on the other hand, there's the regular reminder that it's not really happening, that throughout it all Picard is really just lying unconscious on the floor of the bridge. What role is that tension playing, in the emotional impact this episode has?
posted by meese at 8:08 AM on June 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

What role is that tension playing, in the emotional impact this episode has?

I've wondered that too. Perhaps it's preventing the impact of the Kataan stuff from being blunted by our own distraction about "but wait, this isn't real, right?" Leave the Riker/Crusher scenes out and we might spend the whole running time wondering about that, and maybe expecting some big villainous curtain-pull reveal. Keep the Riker/Crusher scenes in, and we know that this is "real" w/r/t Picard's perceptions (aided by the damn smart choice to skip ahead in Kamin's life pretty early in the running time). This helps what we are wondering about to be more focused on the aliens' ultimate intentions (which we soon understand cannot possibly be sinister), and additionally helps in that the show becomes more personal.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 8:42 AM on June 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I agree that this is one of the best. I am reminded of similar Adventure Time episode “Puhoy”, and Rick & Morty episode “Mortynight Run” condenses the idea down even more by making a video game where you live out an entire lifetime of a sad sack. For TNG episode “Cause and Effect” we got to see the Dinosaur Comix name some older precedents for the time loop story—it makes me curious about what are the precedents for this story where you live out an entire alternate lifetime within a short dream.

About cutting back to see what’s happening on the bridge, I think the show usually has a hard time trusting in the power of “show don’t tell.” I’m not sure if I would have preferred delaying the revelation or not. I think it still leaves us in suspense about why this thing is happening to Picard. I think I continued to wonder whether it was something villainous.

Anyway, since my job is to poop on the logic in Star Trek…

The Kataanian technology seems pretty far behind 24th-century Federation tech, and they protest about not being able to make it into space in a useful way, but then they make this totally robotic space ship that can match its navigation to the Enterprise and send a mind ray right through all of its defenses? Like Cheeses was saying, I also wondered about this “Total Recall” memory-implanting tech they have…what else are they doing with it? Maybe they could have used it to boost their collective intelligence and thought of a way out of their extinction crisis.

As for the ability to manipulate someone’s mind so purposefully and precisely, it seems like the Federation must have similar tech as well. Nobody thinks it’s that remarkable that Data has uploaded the experiences of the Omicron Theta settlers into his own mind, or that Dr Ira Graves can upload his entire mind and will into Data. To my thinking, this kind of technology has to turn the world upside down in countless ways, but I suppose the Federation is mostly just using it wisely to cure mental illness or something.

Back to Kataan—what a gamble they made here that their space robot was going to find somebody worthwhile to share their culture with. (We might compare it to the gold records on Voyager, but it seems to me that was many magnitudes easier to make that what the Kataanians have done here. Also, Voyager was made to explore the planets and the golden record was just a little flourish to go along for the ride). The Greatest Generation speculated that had the probe encountered the Borg, that would have been the jackpot, because then their memory would truly live on forever. I see that as a real stumper, because Picard is going to hold these memories precious while he plays his flute, whereas the Borg are just going remember Kataan as “irrelevant”. Luckily, the probe didn’t hit a Romulan ship. The Romulan captain would have been really pissed off to have received all these memories of an inferior culture, and with his new skills on the flute his crew would lose all respect for him. What if it had found some Pakleds?

Finally, a toast to Kataan for responding to the end of history with such a poetic gesture. Did they even consider what Earth people would have surely done--scapegoating some weaker group and genociding them with zeal? However, we might have a reliable narrator problem. Is this what really happened on Kataan, or what just what they want us to think happened?
posted by polecat at 9:20 AM on June 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Compare how quickly Picard recovers from this injection of an entire lifetime's worth of memories to poor O'Brien's reaction to twenty years of pretend prison.
posted by hanov3r at 9:42 AM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Several years ago there was a really fun documentary on The History Channel (yes), which used this massive 2006 Christie's auction of Star Trek memorabilia as its jumping-off point - the first half or so showed the Christie's team unpacking boxes and holding up various iconic props, and then they would cut to an interview with someone affiliated with the show - actor, propmaster, producer, whatever - discussing that prop or that episode. Sometimes they would cut in clips of interviews with various auction participants about how they really wanted, like, the Gorn Head because of Whatever Reason.

Towards the latter half of the documentary they started to mix in scenes from the actual auction; that's where they finally featured Picard's Ressikan Flute prop, and how they had initially listed it for one grand but the advance interest was so hot that they started the bidding at $13K. It sold for $40K.

And Patrick Stewart's comment at the end of that video is delightful.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

And Patrick Stewart's comment at the end of that video is delightful.

I often wonder, if that had been known ahead of the auction, would the flute have sold for so much? Probably.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2021

"It doesn't play . . . it's not a real flute."

That's great. I just imagine it sitting in a gallery like Fajo had in The Most Toys.
posted by skewed at 11:43 AM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

This episode makes me think of Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken".

Picard didn't take the road of marrying, having a kid, and living a quiet domestic life. He doesn't seem to have regretted this choice (I mean, he picked the path of spaceships and aliens. Who can blame him?). But in this episode he goes down the other road and... it was pretty good. At the end of the episode he's not just mourning the long lost life of Kamin, he's thinking about the life he never had and wondering about what might have been.

Heavy stuff. I feel sorry for the guy.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:06 PM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

To this day, I do not think I have ever been as moved by a single moment of television as when Picard is reunited with the flute and the shuddering gasp that went through him.
posted by briank at 12:48 PM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Enterprise encounters an ancient space artifact" is an incredibly common way to open Star Trek episodes. They did the same thing in The Neutral Zone when the Enterprise encountered a cryonic space capsule from Earth, and it was just as improbable a meeting as this one.

Maybe a rewritten version of this could have had Picard doing his archaeology thing and he's excited about some new artifacts they're transporting to a research facility. He picks one of them up and keels over, because he's the first person with the right kind of brain to ever touch it. Throw in references to this culture having the ability to store and replay memories and it all makes sense, he just found an ancient memory device. Maybe it was intentionally left as a cenotaph, maybe it was just one guy's memories from a long-dead civilization. The point is Picard is forced to experience a very different life than the one he chose, and he comes to appreciate it and wonder if maybe his choice was right after all.

Unlike the episode as written this would make the memories not an overt "gift" given to Picard, but I think the heart of the story is how the memories affect Picard, not how the memories got to Picard.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:52 PM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rick & Morty episode “Mortynight Run” condenses the idea down even more by making a video game where you live out an entire lifetime of a sad sack.

Roy: A Life Well Lived. "You beat cancer and then you went back to the carpet store?" This is what some wily entrepreneur would have made if he'd gotten hold of the Kataan tech and ported it to the Ktarian rig from "The Game."

The Kataanian technology seems pretty far behind 24th-century Federation tech, and they protest about not being able to make it into space in a useful way, but then they make this totally robotic space ship that can match its navigation to the Enterprise and send a mind ray right through all of its defenses?

Civilizations often have very different degrees of development of various technologies; nothing seems more common when comparing different civilizations than to point out what gets emphasized in one culture vs. another. The Federation seems to have encouraged the development of holosuites and holodecks over having direct cyberpunk-type jacks directly into brains, for example, and probably were even less crazy about that idea after the first Borg incursion. Or our civilization, which went to the moon several times about half a century ago, but hasn't done anything nearly (or at least obviously) impressive in space since.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:08 PM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Maybe a rewritten version of this could have had Picard doing his archaeology thing...

Wow. That would solve a lot of the plausibility problems.
posted by polecat at 3:54 PM on June 10, 2021

The Kataan mission failed. Their race remains just a few notes in the Captain's Log. Had the mission been successful, Picard would've resigned immediately and devoted his life to writing the Books of Kataan, transcribing every little detail, before he forgot, to inform and educate the Federation about their oh-so-wonderful and now lost culture. But no, next week, a new episode, all things Kataan are forgotten! Except that paradoxical flute.
posted by Rash at 5:00 PM on June 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

But no, next week, a new episode, all things Kataan are forgotten!

Picard remembers.

And if you think he wouldn't ever tell anyone about what he experienced over the course of the rest of his life, you're sadly mistaken, I would say. The show just focused on the stuff he did when he was at work, and not on what he did in his off hours.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:18 PM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Picard records The Song of Kamin on the holodeck in his spare time, just to make sure that he doesn't forget any of what he experienced. He puts it away a little while, then sends it to Wesley Crusher at the Academy as a follow-up to something that he offhandedly mentioned to Wesley in an email. Two weeks later, Wesley messages Picard back, saying that some friends of his had also seen it and that they all thought that it was incredible, could they share it with others? It ends up being the most popular holonovel in the Federation until the release of Photons Be Free several years later.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:49 PM on June 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Still hits. Think I got something in my eye in the final Ressikan scene, though.
posted by rodlymight at 7:52 PM on June 10, 2021

I actually stopped to watch this episode tonight after having read this post.
posted by pykrete jungle at 9:40 PM on June 10, 2021

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:
Investigate Alien Probe is an excellent mission for... er, Klingons. Not everything could be for the Federation! At least they often have Anthropology to go with their various spiritual activities. The Second Edition version extends that usefulness to other affiliations with such skills and integrity, such as the Feds and Bajorans. You'd see this a lot.

Ressikan Flute can provide a lot of bonus points, up to the number of Music personnel you have in play. Complete 2 40-point missions, (like IAP, above), play 4 Musicians, and win. Among the Bridge Crew, Picard, Riker, and Data are typical sources of Music for Federation, you hardly need an excuse to play them...The 2E version of the Flute is about returning your events from the past, so to speak. Never really saw it used.

Draught Tree is a lesser source of bonus points, being both vulnerable and taking a valuable card play to use.

The Inner Light in 2E provided a way to add your AU icon cards, like Spock, Man of Integrity outside their usual affiliation and at a reduced cost. This provides a ton of strategic flexibility, as there were 64 such personnel in 2E. One of my favorite cards.

Also got to give a shout to the virtual card Investigate Probe Origin from the Star Trek 50 set, such a lovely melancholy gesture.
posted by StarkRoads at 9:50 PM on June 10, 2021

Investigate Alien Probe is an excellent mission for... er, Klingons.

I could see that. If a Klingon captain had been Kataan-probed here instead of Picard, then stodgy-government-dude probably would've left Ressika on a slab with a bat'leth in the back, foreshadowing a violent revolution, overthrow of the unresponsive Kataan government, and a new Klingon dictator who uses forced labor to develop a planetary radiation shield. Then, whether it works or not, the captain wakes up and isn't really melancholy about anything from the experience, except maybe the fact that his chair on the bridge isn't made from the skulls of his enemies.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:58 AM on June 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't think it matters whether Picard recorded any of his experiences. It didn't even matter whether the probe actually worked in the first place. What mattered to the Ressikans was the process of building and launching it, and of hoping they would not have been completely swallowed up by the cosmos. It's their tree.
posted by phooky at 4:24 AM on June 11, 2021 [11 favorites]

This is one of the greats, but I haven't seen it for a while. Do we know that Picard's experience was supposed to be a one-off? Maybe the probe was supposed to give that experience to multiple people. It would be interesting to see what would've happened with a Klingon or somebody else from a super-aggro, warlike culture. Would they go on to lead a worthwhile life, like Picard did, or would they just spend decades grousing and trying to start fights?

I think Picard is supposed to be 100 or something by the time of ST:P, but if we factor in this episode then he's experienced, what, 160 years of living? I wish they'd dropped in a line on that show about how he'd written a bestselling history of this civilization or something... But that's the least of my problems with ST:P.

There was a thread about this episode on the main site a while ago. In writing my comment I learned that there's reason to think that Gendel's script may have been substantially reworked by longtime Trek writer Peter Allan Fields... and that Gendel had written a not-great sequel comic!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:32 PM on June 13, 2021

This one's made me cry once or twice on previous rewatches

Same, every time. The look on Picard's face and the crack in his voice when he realizes what is happening is just heartbreaking, he has obviously missed his wife who passed away for a long, long time - and all that after his grieving for the life he left on the starship, and the coming to terms with that - it's just too much.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:25 AM on June 14, 2021

I love this episode, but it always leaves me feeling so bad for Picard. His tour on the Enterprise was really damaging psychologically—first with the Borg, now this, and then with Tapestry, Chain of Command, and finally All Good Things, they really put him through the wringer. And I think this one might be the toughest of them all, it’s a class AAA mind-fuck—it took him five years on Ressika to come to terms with his new life, it should take a few years to deal with the loss of his daughter, son, grandchild, community, and adopted culture, and then to readjust to being Picard.

Patrick Stewart’s arms look great for anyone, especially someone his age. That ressican loungewear is very flattering.
posted by skewed at 3:17 PM on June 14, 2021

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