Monday, December 26, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: The Inner Light

The Next Generation, Season 5
Airdate: June 1, 1992
124 of 176 produced
124 of 176 aired


The Enterprise encounters a mysterious probe. It begins to transmit a beam, and Captain Picard falls unconscious. He awakens on another world, apparently named Kamin, with a life he knows nothing about. His wife insists he has been feverish and his life aboard the Enterprise a dream. Where is Captain Picard? Who is he really?

Santa Barbara? The Riviera? Pier One Imports?


Kevin: Well...where to start? This episode really has it all. It's got a nifty science fiction idea and emotional resonance to spare. Let's start with the science fiction elements. We've done the "last remnant of ancient civilization" before, but never this successfully, I think. Instead of lone messages or haunting ghost towns, we get a glimpse into a vibrant and living culture. The society we see is thoroughly and thoughtfully developed, and it really kept my interest the entire episode. Instead of having a society build around a single human personality trait, we see a varied and realistic people. We also get subtle notes of a society's technological development and pending environmental crisis. Stripped of the preachiness of season 1 episodes on this topic, we instead get to focus on Kamin's regret for his children and the sense of pending doom which is far more interesting. The question of what a society would choose to put in a final time capsule is interesting, too. What would you put in it? How would you show someone your society?

Matthew: This is definitely good science fiction. Superman actually has similar elements, with a dying world, controversy over whether it is dying among the scientific community, and a last-ditch attempt via rocketry to save a small piece of the civilization. Are there unanswered questions? Sure, and plenty of them. The nature of the computer program aboard the probe is one of them. Is it adaptive? What if it had happened across a ship of women, would the roles in the "story" on board have been switched. Isn't finding just one person to communicate the message to just a tad limited in terms of mission scope? What if that guy or gal were killed by the probe? What if it were a Klingon who didn't care to transmit the details? The fact that it turns off right away seems odd. Also, lasting 1,000 years is a pretty impressive feat for a system devised by a society who is just starting solid rocketry experiments. Our Voyager probes, for instance, will peter out some time in the next 25 years. What sort of power source did it use? The Kataaians seem extraordinarily advanced in terms of psychic communications technology, stable operating systems, and long-term use power sources. The flute is another odd touch - the cost to launch it into interstellar orbit is massive in terms of fuel expenditure. Its box is huge. And what if the person contacted hates music, or is incapable of it? Picard seems to warm to it only over time, and plays French music on it.  Anyway, most of these questions are peripheral ones that do not diminish the story. Psychic memory messages is an interesting story what the Trek franchise revisited several times after this episode, but never to better effect than here, as will be discussed below.

Kevin: We also get the psychologically fascinating idea of living another life. We've spent several episodes exploring how Picard has chosen career over family, and here we get to see the opposite. Absolutely everything about this aspect of the episode sings. The slow embrace of his new life is pitched perfectly, and as evidenced by his building the telescope and trying to combat the drought, he retained the vital elements of Picard's own personality. The payoff of the episode is probably one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the franchise. Listening to Picard play the melody alone in his quarters still almost makes me cry.

Matthew: Indeed, the scenes were written very well, but in my opinion lacked one crucial element - Counselor Troi. The final scene, in which Riker presents the flute to Picard, would have been about a dozen times more effective if Counselor Troi had visited him, counseled him about the real emotional impact of his experience, and then overcome Picard's stoical resistance to this by presenting him with the flute. But as it was, the emotional journey was wonderful. The story allows Picard to have a wife and children, which is a great payoff for his character after so many wistful reminisces in episodes like "We'll Always Have Paris" and "Family." This level of internal character continuity does not derail the episode for fresh viewers in the slightest. But it rewards regular viewers immensely.

Kevin: Given that the show reveals Picard is still in fact on the Enterprise, and the other life must somehow be a hallucination, it's surprising and impressive how invested in the story I remain. I think that's a credit to the quiet way the episode was developed. Things like the sweet domestic scenes with Eline and Batai, the hints of Kataan's culture in the naming ceremony, and watching Kamin spending years debating the climate changes all combine to make Kataan such a real place that even having it revealed in the first ten minutes to be artificial doesn't really matter.

Matthew: What you say is why the episode here works better than future shows with similar premises. When B'Elanna was reliving the holocaust-style memory of another race, it was less interesting. Partly this was due to the different immersion style (she was dreaming, Picard was thrust whole hog into this life and had to decide whether or not to take it for reality), and partly this was due to writing touches like you mention. Kataan really worked, and the tragic elements of their cosmic doom added to viewer interest.

Kevin: I think why this episode is so strong and why it holds such a place of regard for both fans and critics is how seamlessly it synthesizes science fiction and emotional elements. Watching Picard embrace his new life and the people in it are what give live and import to the idea of the loss of Kataan and their probe. The last time we saw a science fiction hook and strong emotional core so flawlessly and powerfully put together may have been "The City on the Edge of Forever," and like that episode it stands as one of its series' finest hours.

Matthew: This is definitely a great synthesis of elements. The pacing is really snappy, too, for such a "touchy feely" and "talky" episode. Yet again (cough... JJ! cough...), TNG has proven that shouting, explosions, and running around like idiots are not necessary to the creation of gripping drama and tension. The interstices between portions of Kamin's life were handled really well, making the viewer work (but not in an onerous way) to fill in the gaps.

Kevin: The only real "flaws" in the episode for me are questions that could not be answered in the time allotted. How would Picard handle this event? Couldn't someone be driven insane by the existential questions about his "real" life? Was this the intended effect of the probe, or could it have malfunctioned? I always figured the viewer was supposed to be aware of the fiction, as otherwise, it seems a slightly crazy plan.

Matthew: You would think that reverse engineering this technology would open up new and troubling vistas for entertainment technology in the Federation. Christopher Nolan's "Inception" will play with some of these ideas down the road. They are not mentioned here.


Kevin: We gripe with an understandable frequency about the lack of acting or writing hardware for Star Trek, but really, doesn't this entire episode make you want to beat the Emmy nomination people to death with your bare hands? Every scene of Kamin interacting with his friends and family was gold. It was real and understated, and it made me care as much about the fictional characters I met in this episode as I do about the fictional characters I've known for years. This may be Patrick Stewart's single best performance, and it's to his credit he never has to raise his voice or deliver a moving speech about something. The sum of his masterfully restrained performance is stunning.

Matthew: Yeah, Stewart brought his A-game here. This definitely stands along with "Family" as a series highlight so far. Highlights include his curmudgeonly intro scene with Eline, Eline's death, the reunion at the end of the story,  his discussion with Meribor about seizing the moment, and finally, Picard silently clutching the flute to his breast. Truly great stuff, and as you say, very restrained compared to many episodes of this show.

Kevin: Richard Riehl and Margot Rose were awesome as well. They matched Stewart's tone and empathy note for note, and it cemented the Kataan elements of the episode. By the end of the episode I felt their loss as keenly as Picard. Patrick Stewart's son in real life played his son here, and they played off each other very well. Like every acting team who is related in real life, you have to wonder how much of their scenes were the scenes or drawn from their own relationship as father and son. Jennifer Nash was also lovely as Meribor. Her handling of some mild science jargon flowed seamlessly in with the genuine relationship dialogue with Kamin.

Matthew: Yeah, of the guest cast, who were all very good, I think it is Riehl's Batai that really seals the deal insofar as making Kataan seem like a real place that we care about. His warmth as Kamin's friend, combined with the way he plays someone whose approach to problems differs from Kamin's, really added verisimilitude to the story. Also, how perfect was Scott Jaeck as the douchey administrator? He would later play douchey Commander Cavit on Voyager's premiere. I'm telling you, this guy nailed douchey. I kind of wish one of his characters had been picked up as a regular in the franchise.

Kevin: The rest of the main cast could teach a class at Juliard on ensemble acting. Each has a defined and credible reaction to Picard's predicament. Crusher is primarily concerned with Picard's well-being. Riker is a little uneasy without Picard, but still is clearly in control of the situation. LaForge hits the right notes of focus on the job at hand with some subtle notes of interest in the origins of the probe. At the risk of furthering this blog's transformation into the Gates McFadden Mutual Admiration Society, I have to say she was really, really great this time around. After Picard's little seizure, she leaned back and rested her head and hands on her knee, and it's just such an awesome use of the little space she has on the floor of the bridge. It telegraphed concern, relief, fatigue all in a single arched pose that somehow also reminded me of her dancer background in the way she held herself. And who doesn't love that Nurse Ogawa was on the bridge with her? The continuity gods are pleased, indeed.

Matthew: Yeah, a Picard-heavy script like this runs the risk of leaving others nothing to do. The actors take their snippets and make them work. Dorn was good yet again as the shoot first/ask questions later character. It still really bothers me that Troi was left out of this episode. I want to hear someone say she was on vacation or something.

Production Values

Kevin: I liked the design of the probe. The surface had the texture that suggested its ceramic nature. It wasn't a throwaway design and it showed. The village in Kataan was beautifully done and it really contributed to the overall success of the episode. The buildings and terraces felt like they were in a desert, mountainous area. The level and shadows of the terrace outside Kamin's home was great to look at. The little pieces of decor looked great.

Matthew: Agreed on the probe design, but why the heck was Eline wearing it as a necklace? It's an anachronistic detail that seems designed to pull Picard out of the fantasy. The lighting design on Kataan worked wonders in showing the progression of their solar predicament. The final harsh lighting at the end was very disconcerting.  The clothing, although not attractive per se, was a really nice element, too. It had a very Arizona feel to it, making perfect sense as desert climate wear.

Kevin: The flute is a modified penny whistle and it looked great. The modifications rendered it unplayable, so whatever instrument they used to make the song was lovely, and I am thrilled beyond reason that they bring it back in two subsequent episodes.

Matthew: The music in this episode was superb, especially the final flute solo. It will be reprised to astonishingly moving effect in "Lessons."


Kevin: 5. Yeah....5. Nothing else really to say. The episode while not winning an Emmy, did win a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, as did "The City on the Edge of Forever," incidentally. So, yeah. That's a 10 from me, in case my love for the episode was not clear from the review.

Matthew: Indeed, this is an easy call as a 5, for a total of 10. The nitpicks you and I have do not diminish the emotional impact or the sci-fi cred that this show displays with ease and facility. The acting, especially from Stewart, is superb. The production elements work perfectly to seal the deal, making the episode a cohesive whole without significant flaw. But con-sarn it, where is Counselor Troi?


  1. Well I was enjoying the podcast until the uncalled for attack on Star Wars. But in all seriousness this is just a great episode. I think an interesting question that it brings up as well is what does one do when you know your world is doomed. Do you as the government hide it and perhaps prevent chaos, do you as the individual try and solve the problem and then quietly accept it when there is no hope.

  2. This is easily one of the best episodes they ever made. I get all teary every time. (Perils of being a girl.) Patrick Stewart just blows me away with his abilities to make this whole thing real.

    I've only ever had one thing that nagged at me. This planet has been dead since the fourteenth century, without ever having made contact with the outside universe. How the heck does Geordi manage to pull up--on a star chart of an uncharted sector--the name that the locals gave to the planet back when there was a planet to name?

    Even so, I'm awfully glad that it's not Silaria III or some name like they usually saddle planets with, with the implication that the natives came up with this naming scheme all independently. The Silarian sector is a system with a name, and the planet also has a name that the locals might actually give it. I like that.

  3. That kind of thing (the existing records issue) always nagged me on episodes like "The Last Outpost." If the Tkon empire has been dead for 100,000 years, and no one has ever heard of it, why does the computer have a record, with a text translation no less?

  4. I think that sometimes the Universal Translator forgets that it doesn't have TARDIS translation circuits. (And sometimes it forgets that it has translation circuits at all, e.g., its inexplicable inability to translate Klingon.)

  5. Well i guess I am in the minority here when I say that I do not particularly like this episode. I dont understand why it is so popular with so many people and how it could possibly deserve a 10. I have always found it to be a very sentimental, sappy and generally tedious episode. I didnt find the Tatooine type of village life very interesting or enticing. In fact, this looked like most "alien" villages we have seen in various Trek episodes, nor did I find these desert dwellers and their lives very interesting or enticing.

    Picard as a husband and dad, holding a baby and caring for toddlers just seemed incredibly out of place and awkward, bordering at ridiculous. His Geppetto outfit and the flute and the sentimentality of it all really bothered me. I realized I like Picard as we get to see him most of the time: composed, aloof, with a professional demeanor. I didnt like this sappy, emotional grandpa type he played. It is just not the kind of life I could see organically developing for someone like Picard. The entire episode is just off for me and I dont get why he had to live an entire tedious life with these people in order for them to be remembered. All in all, this is one episode I generally skip on re-watch and when i do watch it I try to figure out what exactly it is that people find so earthshakingly amazing.

  6. Woman: "the happiest day of my life was the day when we got married." OMFG. Can we pile on the clichees some more? lol.