“The Inner Light”
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 5, Episode 25
The “It Was All a Dream” story type is one of the longest-running in modern pop culture – The Wizard of Oz film popularized it over 80 years ago, and countless properties have utilized it since in cinema and television. It’s often regarded with a certain derision, because it can indeed be a hokey trope used for cheap, meaningless thrills. But this overlooks the intense power of dreams and what they can mean to us. That dreams can seem absolutely real when we’re having them gives them their potent efficacy – if something is happening in our mind, for all intents and purposes, it’s real. Whether that happening is spurned by so-called reality or by the nebulous subconscious forces within our head makes little difference. In both cases we’re still the protagonist of our own experience – navigating, reacting to, and feeling our way through life.
Our brains are powerful and supremely weird things. For as much as sleep is thought of as a resting or shutting down period, our brains never stop working. And they even seem to kick into overdrive during these unconscious periods, spinning detailed fantasies and scenarios full of complex feelings and sensations. Even while we’re sleeping we’re having experiences, and they can matter as much as the ones we have when we’re awake.
My own dreams are typically pretty mundane affairs, but I have had many that were steeped in complex narratives and storylines. In which people – both real and imagined – played important parts and whom I sometimes had nuanced and powerful relations to. I don’t have children, but I have dreamed of having them. And in those dreams I loved them dearly as if they were really my progeny. I cared for them, worried about them, was even angry or annoyed with them. And sometimes when I awoke, I felt a peculiar but acute pang of sadness that they were gone. They existed, meant the world to me, and then disappeared, never to be seen again. Dreams are strange and wonderful and sad like that.
This idea is what centers “The Inner Light,” one of The Next Generation’s most celebrated and haunting episodes. What Picard experiences is ultimately a dream given to him by a long-dead alien civilization. But it’s a detailed and fully articulated experience that unfolds in real time (to him) over the course of decades. It’s no less real than anything else that happens on the show, and it emotionally affects him as such.
Encountering the intriguingly-shaped probe in space, a brief flash of light renders Picard unconscious and he awakes to the face of his smiling wife on an alien world. The story unfolds as a character study of Jean-Luc as he grapples with this bizarre situation. He’s always been characterized as an extremely driven, controlled, and straight-laced man – at times humorously so. Picard is the ultimate Starfleet officer, embodying the ideals of that utopian organization – intelligence, grace, empathy, bravery, morality, professionalism. The man was born to captain a starship in the Federation, so what happens when you remove him from that? How does someone cope when they are displaced from the life mold that fits them perfectly?
As once said by Riker, one of Picard’s greatest strengths is his ability to size up a situation and analyze it logically. Which he does here, upon awakening as “Kamin,” a simple metal smith in the rural community of Ressik. He barks at a nonexistent computer to end the program, reaches for his communicator to contact the Enterprise, suspiciously questions this strange woman. He leaves his home and encounters a friendly man who is apparently his friend, Batai. He gathers more information from him and then leaves the village to roam the countryside in an attempt to figure out where he is. But there aren’t any stunning revelations to be had, no curtain to draw back. Just genuinely friendly faces, a close-knit community, and a modest life he has no use for. Or so he thinks.
The episode is straightforward about what is happening to Picard, and as this all unfolds we see him lying unconscious on the Enterprise bridge with a concerned Riker and Crusher trying to figure out what’s going on. I admire that the episode doesn’t try to pull any tricks in this regard – what Picard is experiencing is clearly a fantasy, although the question of why it’s happening does remain uncertain until the end.
Picard’s existence as Kamin passes at an accelerated rate compared to the real world on the Enterprise. I also appreciate the story’s economy and efficiency as it moves Kamin’s life along with each snapshot we get. It’s done impressively well and it never feels rushed or info-dumpy. Things proceed briskly from a plot standpoint, but at the same time what’s happening in the dream feels leisurely and lived-in. The casting plays a huge part of that, and the actors who play Kamin’s wife Eline and his best friend Batai (and eventually his adult daughter Meribor) are achingly warm and likable people. Picard’s (and us the audience’s) attachment to this dream world works because the players in it are likable and loving.
A few years have already passed, and Picard/Kamin has reluctantly settled into his existence as a husband and member of the community. Eline is remarkably patient but persistent in when she will truly get her husband back. Kamin still can’t shake his former life in the future but is sympathetic for what she is enduring.
She pointedly questions her husband about why he clings so stubbornly to his former life. In all his stories he’s never mentioned a loving wife or open community like he has here. It really seems to cut to the core of Picard – which life is really better? The modern conveniences of the far future and the thrilling exploration of space are certainly huge draws, but what of love and friendship? Captain Picard of the Enterprise hasn’t had those in any meaningful quantities. Relationships and emotional bonds are what make life living, and if you have everything but those, can you call it a fulfilling life? As a Starfleet officer and scientist, Picard has always valued truth. But the quest for truth here comes at odds with the emotional needs we all have. Even if this simpler life isn’t the truth, does it matter anymore? Isn’t it more important to be happy with the life you have now?
He and Batai meet with a local politician and Kamin tries to impress upon him some technologies to combat the persistent drought they’ve been in. It seems to fall on deaf ears, but Batai is glad to see Kamin finally being an active participant in the community again. Picard seems to have warmed considerably to the man and they share a genuine bond. He also shares a genuine bond with his flute, and Kamin ruminates how much he enjoys playing music. Picard always had an interest in music, but it was one of those frivolous hobbies he never found the time for in his regimented and important Starfleet life. But without the hustle and bustle of future living, it’s a leisurely activity he’s found joy in.
Perhaps because Eline’s earlier question struck a chord, Kamin finally decides to accept his existence on Kataan and formally proposes having children with Eline in that amusingly stiff Picard way of his. She’s overjoyed, and the next thing we see is the naming ceremony of their second child (their first one is already an active young girl), named after Kamin’s late friend Batai (awwww….). Again, the snapshots are timed well and give a comprehensive portrait of Kamin’s life without feeling rushed.
It’s at this point that an impatient Riker foolishly tries to terminate the probe’s connection to Picard, who almost dies in the process (as Kamin collapses in his dream). Fortunately, the connection gets restored and things continue to proceed.
Although Kamin has devoted himself to the simple family life he’s still Picard, and has been studiously documenting and researching Kataan’s steadily worsening drought for years. His daughter Meribor, now a young adult, has taken after his scientific mindset and is worried over the planet’s fate. Now in advanced years, Kamin is a loving curmudgeon who pressures his daughter into getting married instead of worrying about things she can’t change. The interplay between the two seems lived-in and real, and they share a genuine bond of love but also scientific concern for the worsening environment (that they’re surrounded by dead vines is a nice set detail). He urges her to enjoy the time she has, to live in the present since it will never come again (a sentiment later repeated almost verbatim in Star Trek: Generations).
The Enterprise tracks the probe’s origin to a star system whose sun went nova one thousand years ago, and the picture starts to get a little more clear…
Kamin and Eline are now elderly and he frets over his adult son (played by Patrick Stewart’s real life son, appropriately enough) and his fleeting, constantly shifting career interests. The unique and differing relationships to each of his children is a realistic detail, and Batai Jr. professes his love for music and playing the flute as Kamin does. Kamin reluctantly accepts this, but he is darkened with the knowledge that Kataan’s plight has been gradually worsening with no end in sight. He pleads to the aged politician from earlier that the public needs to be told what’s going on, but he reveals their own scientists have already figured it out. The planet is essentially doomed, and Kamin desperately suggests that something of their civilization must be saved. To which the guys says, yeah we’re working on it…
The slow death of the planet is intertwined with another, more potent death – Eline. Kamin visits her on her death bed and weeps as she passes away peacefully. She reminds him to put his shoes away one last time. OOF.
Years later still, a super old and grizzled Kamin roughhouses with his grandson, while privately lamenting to Meribor that he won’t get to live a full life. As the headlines and studies over our planet’s own worsening environment have grown louder and more numerous in recent years, it’s a plot development that hits uncomfortably close to home. The sun’s deteriorating condition now bathes their village in a hot white light, and people must dress and apply sunscreen appropriately. But there’s some sort of space launch they’re all going to see that Kamin is cantankerously unaware of.
As Kamin sits off to the side watching, his old friend Batai – alive and young – appears beside him and finally reveals the truth. They’re launching the probe that eventually finds its way to the Enterprise, which contains a mental simulation of their long-dead existence. A young Eline also appears and confirms that as long someone remembers what they were, they’ll always be alive. An emotional Kamin sees the probe launch into the sky…
…and Picard wakes aboard the Enterprise. Stewart is great throughout of course, but he really conveys the palpable sense of someone waking up from a decades long dream and another life (the look he gives Riker, who he hasn’t seen in like 50 years, is great). Only about 20 minutes or so have passed, and a groggy Picard is helped to his feet (and to sickbay for examination).
Riker later visits Picard in his quarters, who is visibly still adjusting to being back in his “real” life again. The probe is no longer functional, and Riker hands Picard a case that was found in it. It’s a remarkably staged scene that delivers the crushing, emotional climax of the episode. Picard silently peers into the case, and without a word Riker leaves him to its contents – the flute he spent a lifetime learning to play. Picard gently removes it and clutches it to his chest tenderly (I could write about ten 100,000 word essays on what a great actor Stewart is and they still wouldn’t be enough). His face is stony, but that tender grasp just communicates the indescribable weight of a lifetime of emotions and experiences that the object contains for him. It’s so fucking rough and beautiful. Stepping into the low light of the window, he plays his wistful song as the camera slowly twirls around him and away.
Waking up from a pleasant dream is an odd experience. Our weird brains have an amazing ability to adjust to whatever reality we find ourselves in, and that dream that seemed so real fades as we regain consciousness. There’s a lingering sadness and longing from that life we briefly experienced. Through an ingenious plot device, “The Inner Light” is able to tell a rich and deeply emotional story. It’s peak science fiction, utilizing the fantastical possibilities of the genre to tell a beautiful and sad tale that taps into a real-life human experience. Through his life on Kataan, Picard learns that the truth of existence is not so simple a thing. We live entirely different lives in our dreams, and though they’re not real in the conventional sense, we still live them. And they continue living in us long after we wake.
- So as beautiful and precious an episode as this is, I’d be remiss in my duties as a joyless nerd if I didn’t point out its LOGICAL FALLACIES. I think like the also tremendously great episode “Darmok,” you do have to just ignore/accept a large amount of the plot mechanics to enjoy it, as nonsensical as they may be.
For starters, the fact that an apparently agrarian society could construct an interstellar probe capable of delivering a fully-lived, interactive telepathic experience of an entire lifetime is… fantastical, to put it lightly. Not only that, but the probe’s special beam is able to scan, adapt to, and penetrate the shields of the Federation’s most advanced ship 1,000 years later? So much so that they have difficulties blocking it? And the probe keeps up with the Enterprise as it maneuvers away with its ancient chemical propellant? SNORT, UNLIKELY!
- Also, as heart-warming and endearing as the probe’s intention is, the fact that IT WILL KILL YOU IF YOU TRY TO BLOCK IT is kind of… uh, antithetical to its mission? Like, “oh here’s a beautiful tranquil simulation that shows you how beautiful and tranquil our charming li’l civilization was AND I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU TRY TO TURN IT OFF BEFORE IT’S DONE YOU WILL DIE.” Your precious civilization won’t be remembered at all if you kill the audience, you know. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, though? On Kataan walking out of a movie before it’s over is a capital offense!
- I’d love to see a version of this episode where the probe encounters a Klingon ship instead. I wonder how the simulation would play out if Captain Gorgh of the warship K’Lar just killed everyone in it?
- In all seriousness, I don’t want to nitpick the plot mechanics too much (I should really just relax), but the dream is quite a piece of work. It’s not just a storyline that Picard is plugged into, but a fully interactive real life video game – his personality shapes it and he has an impact on what happens. Both of his children take after him in different respects. He also learns a skill through years of experience in a matter of minutes. Surely this technology could be repurposed for more mundane training means, a la The Matrix? “I know kung flute!”
- Another tally mark in the “Worf bad suggestion” column. Never go full Worf, Riker. It’s been 15 minutes, can you two knuckleheads just chill for a bit? Jeez.
- I failed to mention any of this in my Generations write-up, but Picard’s Nexus vision should totally have been of his family here instead of those Charles Dickens cosplayers. What are we to believe, that Jean-Luc Picard has – guffaw – TWO imaginary families? I sure hope someone mentally spent a lifetime on a primitive planet with a warm and caring family for that blunder!
- The same overall concept of implanted memories would be repeated in the most fucked-up way possible to O’Brien in Deep Space Nine’s “Hard Time.”
- There’s something intensely tragic and anxiety-inducing about Kataan’s fate. In the case of Earth, humans are fucking it up entirely due to our negligence and mismanagement (and we could theoretically turn it around if so motivated). But Kataan never had a chance, and their civilization was born too late to escape its sun going nova. Unless maybe they had dinosaurs that arose first and built spaceships to escape. Imagine that!
- TNG wasn’t a very serialized show and so much of these episodes of the week (and their consequences) were never spoken of or referenced again. However, the events of this one are actually referenced again in “Lessons.” There’s something a little limp and weightless about how it’s described there, so maybe it’s for the best the characters don’t try to recap their crazy adventures.
- Picard’s tune has a nice, interestingly Scottish sound to it and apparently was referenced in the Picard theme.