Star Trek: The Next Generation had several things going for it over the original Star Trek. Advances in special effects, an audience who was more open to science fiction, an established semi-continuity to rely on, etc., but one of the biggest advantages they had was Patrick Stewart, a man who constantly combines classical Shakespearean level drama with his own natural humor. I love Shatner as Kirk, but my captain will always be Stewart’s Picard (apologies to the others I neglected to mention… oh, hell, Janeway, Sisko, Lorca, and Archer. I’m not doing the others, but yes, I know them. Happy?).
“The Inner Light” starts with the Enterprise encountering a probe, which sends out a beam of light that knocks Picard unconscious. Picard awakens on an alien planet far outside of the Federation’s territory, finding a woman tending to him who identifies herself as Eline (Margot Rose). She tells him that he is Kamin, an iron weaver, who has been sick recently with a fever and hallucinating that he was the captain of a starship. For a long time, Picard refuses to believe this, but eventually, he seems to accept the possibility that his former life was entirely in his head. He becomes Kamin, and starts a family with his wife. He also tries to learn the flute.
Throughout the episode, hints are dropped that the planet is in trouble. There is a drought that doesn’t seem to be ending, although the government keeps saying that everything is fine. Finally, as Kamin, Picard and his daughter deliver a report that the drought is coming from the increased solar radiation of their sun. In fact, the sun is going to go nova eventually. The government reveals that they know about it already, but it’s a moot point. The civilization simply lacks the technology to travel outside of the solar system before its destruction. They wouldn’t be able to keep even a small number of people alive. Their legacy is doomed to destruction.
Years pass, and a now old Picard plays with his grandchildren. He has outlived his wife and his friends, although he can finally play the flute, and he is brought by his now grown children to see a rocket launch. As he watches it go up, he finds that all of his loved ones, even the deceased, are surrounding him. Picard realizes that, as a last act, the civilization sent out a probe, the very one that Picard found in the beginning. That probe would act as a messenger to preserve the planet’s memory, by making someone a part of their civilization to recount their saga to the future generations.
Then Picard wakes up, as himself, to discover he’s been out for about 25 minutes. He then has the probe opened, finding that its contents are the flute that he had learned to play in his other life. Picard sadly remembers all the people he loved in his mind, and plays a tune on the flute.
Besides the fact that it focuses almost entirely on the superior acting of Stewart, this episode works because it presents a stark contrast to the mission of the Enterprise. The Enterprise goes out into space to discover new existences and civilizations with an attempted clinical distance, while the probe was sent out to preserve an existence through intense emotional connections. When a species saw its end coming, they realized that the key was to make someone love them enough to never forget them. And Picard never would.
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