This season we start getting episodes focused on the other Planet Express employees and this one features the Decapodian Doctor, John Zoidberg.
Amy (Lauren Tom) and Leela (Katey Sagal) guilt the Planet Express crew members into joining a gym. While there, Dr. Zoidberg (Billy West) starts to become enraged, attacking everyone and having to be restrained. It’s determined that Dr. Zoidberg has entered the mating period of his species, so Fry (West), Leela, and Bender (John DiMaggio) take him back to his home planet of Decapod 10 so that he can participate.
When they get to the planet, Zoidberg gets to work trying to attract a mate but fails miserably. He then sees Edna (Tress MacNeille), a high school classmate of his who is, by Decapodian standards, apparently super hot. She rejects him, but Fry offers to help Zoidberg win her hearts through the human male art of lying. Zoidberg pitches woo outside of her apartment using Fry’s words and it seems to work. Later, after Leela hears some of Fry’s lines being pitched by Zoidberg, she tries to explain away how terrible they are, but it turns out that Edna’s been loving them and now she’s enamoured with Fry. She attempts to seduce him and Zoidberg catches them. Assuming the worst, Zoidberg challenges Fry to Claw-Plach, a fight to the death.
At the fight, Fry gains the upper hand but refuses to kill Zoidberg. Zoidberg responds by cutting off Fry’s arm, which Fry then uses to beat Zoidberg mercilessly until they notice that all of the Decapodians have left. Zoidberg catches sight of Edna, who is now mating with the Decapodian Emperor (David Herman). It’s then revealed that Zoidberg’s people die after mating, something that nobody had brought up until now. Zoidberg apologizes to Fry and attempts to reconnect his arm… poorly.
This episode is a send-up of the Star Trek episode “Amok Time,” in which Spock experiences the pon farr, the Vulcan mating drive. Basically, it makes him crazy aggressive until he gets his freak on. Much like Zoidberg with Edna, Spock’s intended mate has someone she prefers and she invokes ritual combat to avoid her commitment with Spock, but she famously surprises everyone by picking Captain Kirk to fight rather than her mate. Kirk agrees right before he learns the fight is to the death. The fight leads to Spock not mating. Like I said, a lot of this episode comes from that, blended with elements of Twelfth Night and Cyrano de Bergerac.
The scene of Fry coaching Zoidberg to seduce Edna below her window is a direct copy of Cyrano de Bergerac’s most famous scene. If you don’t know that play, then maybe you saw the movie Roxanne which has the same sequence, but with Steve Martin as an added bonus. The difference is that in this version, Cyrano is Fry and therefore not a master seducer but a complete and utter idiot. However, since Edna’s planet doesn’t have seduction, even Fry’s advice, which is basically “pretend you don’t want to bang her,” works perfectly. The fact that she then falls in love with him just creates a horrifying love-friendship-triangle much like the one in Twelfth Night.
The focus of the episode is Zoidberg and I think it must have worked out well for the viewership numbers, because he definitely starts to be present more in the series after this. Not that he wasn’t around before, but the amount he’s allowed to have the spotlight in scenes increases. Personally, Zoidberg is one of my favorite characters, since he’s basically a collection of comedic tropes mixed together: Wacky doctor, failed comic, super-poor person, incompetent surgeon, etc. I especially love that they consistently maintain that he IS a good doctor, maybe even one of the best, but only for non-human patients, which doesn’t help Planet Express much.
The fight between Fry and Zoidberg is hilarious. Bender taking bets against Fry, Fry using a nutcracker as a weapon, Zoidberg cutting off Fry’s arm in the middle of Fry’s speech about friendship, all of it is perfectly timed. I also love that they play the “Decapodian National Anthem,” which is the theme music from the Star Trek episode mentioned above, “Amok Time.”
The end of the episode is brilliant, since so many marine species actually DO die after mating. It also makes it clever in retrospect that the Emperor of Decapod 10 established that he has taken a vow of celibacy, since the civilization wouldn’t want such frequent changes in leadership. When first mentioned, it seems to be a throw-away line, even when we later see the Emperor choose to mate with Edna. At the time, it just appears that the Emperor is breaking his vow, but shortly after we learn that he actually dies from this, meaning he’s essentially eliminating the leadership of the planet to get laid.
I’m not going to be highbrow about this. I still chuckle whenever I hear the exchange:
Professor: We, by which I mean you, will have to rush him to his ancient homeworld, which will shortly erupt in an orgy of invertebrate sex.
Fry: Oh, baby, I’m there!
Leela: Fry, do you even understand the word invertebrate?
Fry: No, but that’s not the word I’m interested in. No need to pack pants, people! Let’s roll!
I just love the idea that Fry becomes so excited by the concept of an orgy that he doesn’t think about the fact that he knows that Zoidberg is a crab-like alien. I frequently reference this one by telling people “No need to pack pants.”
Overall, this is just a great episode that has a lot of solid jokes. Loved it then, love it now.
Sometimes my readers love to torture me. This is one of those times. Honestly, I think I have been putting off doing reader requests specifically to avoid watching this episode again. As you’ll note from my list of the 100 Greatest Episodes, plus another review since then, I think highly of the show Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes, they missed the mark, and this episode is definitely not a bullseye. This is more akin to throwing the dart, missing the board entirely, and having it ricochet into your buddy’s eye. It’s not the worst episode of TNG, but it’s solidly in my bottom five. If you want to know my least-favorite TNG… well, request it. I’m not watching that piece of shit again without reason.
Quick Recap of Star Trek: The Next Generation: Takes place about 100 years after the original Star Trek and features the crew of the next starship Enterprise. The notable crew members are Captain Picard (Patrick “I’m basically made of magic” Stewart), Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes, the episode’s director), chief engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Chief of Security Worf (Michael Dorn), Android Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Lt. Commander Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), and this episode’s focus Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). They explore the universe dealing with random problems ranging from legal issues to reality-warping aliens.
That’s enough background, on to the creepy ghost sex!
The episode begins at the funeral for Beverly Crusher’s grandmother, Felisa Howard (Ellen Albertini Dow), who was apparently a doctor on a Scotland-esque planet called Caldos IV. During the funeral, Crusher sees a weird guy (Duncan “I was Zorro in the 90s” Regehr) leaving that apparently does something to her ladybits, but from her face might just have been gas. No one else appears to have seen him.
Crusher goes back to her grandmother’s cottage (which, despite it being the future, is still a cottage), and looks through it for mementos, finding her grandmother’s diary and a candle which apparently had great spiritual value to the Howard Family (Crusher’s maiden name). As she heads upstairs, a man named Ned Quint (Shay Duffin) enters and blows out the candle, saying that it was bad luck for her grandmother. Beverly kicks him out, because that’s what you do to creepy strangers who come in and mess with your stuff.
Back on the Enterprise, the engineering team determine that there is a problem with Caldos IV’s weather system, and that an unexpected storm is brewing. Subtle. Meanwhile, Crusher has been reading her grandmother’s diary and discovered that, despite being 100 years old, her grandmother was in a casual sexual relationship with a man in his 30s named Ronin. From the diaries, it appears that Ronin started seeing Crusher’s grandmother, Felisa, shortly after the death of her own mother. Since we already had dialogue in the episode that mentioned that Crusher’s own mother died when she was young and that her grandmother raised her, this is the creepiest foreshadowing ever.
While Crusher sleeps on the ship, a ghostly presence starts to undress her then says her name, waking her up. Crusher goes to talk to Counselor Troi about it, saying it’s a dream, and the dialogue in this scene might be the worst in almost any episode of any version of Star Trek. Not just because Crusher is discussing reading a “particularly erotic chapter of [her] grandmother’s journal,” something that SHOULD NEVER BE IN A TV SHOW, but because it comes off as a weirdly clinical discussion about sexuality. I suspect this is tied in to the fact that women getting sexual gratification, even in the abstract, is essentially guaranteed to get your ratings boosted to MA, but maybe the person writing the dialogue just hadn’t ever heard anyone talk about sexual experience. The credit for the screenplay is a woman (Jeri Taylor), while the teleplay credit is a man (Brannon Braga), so I ultimately have no idea what led to the weird-ass sequence between these two characters.
The next day, Crusher visits her grandmother’s grave and runs into Quint (sadly, not the one from Jaws). Quint warns her that a ghost is causing the weather problems, and that if she lights the candle, the ghost will come for her. He also warns her not to go to her grandmother’s house. However, a thunderstorm comes up, which prompts the Enterprise crew to start working on fixing the weather control system. Crusher is forced to take shelter in her grandmother’s cottage, finding it full of flowers.
She hears things moving around the house and sees the reflection of Ronin (the guy from the funeral) in a mirror. Ronin talks to her as a disembodied voice, telling her that he was the visitor from the night before. She moves to call the Enterprise, but is struck with sudden disorientation and either arousal or pain (maybe both?). The voice says that it loves her, just as it loved her grandmother before her. It claims it was born in 1647 in Glasgow and lived with Crusher’s ancestor Jessel Howard, then stayed with every Howard woman after the last one died (apparently the surname was matrilineal until Beverly?). This includes moving to Caldos IV at some point.
The spirit then tries to “merge” with Crusher, which she resists… only for her to be seen back on the Enterprise acting as if nothing has happened. When Troi questions her, she says that she’s “seeing” Ronin, but only in the physical sense.
On the bridge of the Enterprise, fog is rolling in, as weather control is now malfunctioning onboard the ship. The crew catches Quint trying to alter something on a panel, saying that someone is going to kill them all. An energy discharge kills Quint before he can explain. Beverly determines that he was killed by an anomalous energy pulse, meaning it was no accident (Dun dun duuuuun).
Beverly returns to the cottage to talk with Ronin, who is now corporeal, but only for a few minutes at a time. Ronin begs her to light the candle, which is where he lives. She has to go back to the ship to get it, while Ronin travels to the ship in a beam of energy. She lights the candle in her quarters on the ship, which allows Ronin to appear and merge with her. Crusher then resigns her post with Starfleet and states her intention to become a healer on Caldos IV. Picard is unable to stop her, legally. Searching for the energy source that killed Quint, Geordi and Data find it coming from Crusher’s Grandmother’s grave. Crusher and Ronin “merge” again, this time in a manner which appears pretty much fully sexual. Picard comes to check on Crusher, finding her in a mildly compromising position.
Picard points out that something is wrong with Crusher, forcing Ronin to appear as himself. Picard questions Ronin until he disappears, resulting in Ronin shocking Picard in the same way that he killed Quint earlier. Refusing to let Picard die causes Ronin to separate from Beverly, with Ronin intent on stopping Geordi and Data from exhuming Felisa Howard’s grave. Ronin, in Felisa’s body, rises from the grave and disables the pair. When she arrives, Beverly realizes that Ronin is an Anaphasic lifeform which has to bind with a host in order to keep living, finally destroying the candle. Ronin tries to possess her again, but she kills him with a phaser, before dropping to her knees crying.
At the end of the episode, Crusher and Troi are talking about the fact that Crusher is somewhat sad that she couldn’t be with Ronin, because he made her grandmother very happy.
This was not an easy re-watch, and I was tempted to just do it from memory, but in the end I caved.
Here’s the thing about this episode: It never feels anything but creepy to me. Crusher says at the end that Ronin “seduced” her and her grandmother, but the first time we see her interacting with him, he’s undressing her while she sleeps. The next time, he keeps her from calling out to the Enterprise, makes her physically weak, then apparently “merges” with her without her consent. From then on, we’re shown that she’s now almost physically dependent on Ronin, to the point that she’s shaking like a heroin addict while waiting for him on the ship. He’s literally corrupting her mind to make her want him. Nothing about this is “seduction,” unless you have a very messed-up idea of courtship. And that could very easily have been brought up at the end. Beverly could have expressed some anger at the fact that she was basically mind-raped for the entire episode, but no, instead, she says “oh, who cares if he literally manipulated her mind to make her love him, as he had done countless times before, he made her happy.” And then she’s kind of sad that she couldn’t just stay happy with Ronin. I get that the ghost orgasms were really good, but, seriously, he was clearly altering your mind, woman!
This isn’t a new concept, that maybe it’s worth losing your free will to gain happiness. And if the story was about addressing that idea, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s not. That’s not even a particularly great concept to address in Star Trek, since one of the primary conceits of the series is that humanity is basically always in a state of self-actualization, which makes it basically incomparable to the search of happiness in the modern world, where humans rarely achieve that point in their lives. So, the ghost banging continues to seem more akin to sexual assault and brainwashing than seduction or pleasing. This episode kind of reminds me of why I don’t like some modern “semi-erotica” like 50 Shades of Gray, because it’s basically treating an abusive relationship as just being sexually aggressive.
Also, everyone’s behavior in this episode is a little off. First, no one seems to be super weirded out that Crusher would have sex with a guy who had just been sleeping with her grandmother. I dunno all of what happened in the next 350 years in Star Trek, but I really hope we don’t follow the timeline that assimilated “normal to be wiener cousins with your grandmother” into the culture. And, understand, this isn’t like a distant relative Beverly never met, her grandmother is the one who raised her, making her effectively her mom. Second, Crusher really doesn’t seem affected by the fact that Ronin straight up kills a guy for almost no reason. Despite the fact that she’s later extremely concerned when Picard gets mildly injured. Is it that it’s Picard who is her on-again-off-again love interest? Maybe, but it’s still weird that a guy gets killed and nobody really comments on it. Third, what the hell is wrong with Troi? Why does she never realize that Beverly, one of her closest friends, is being controlled by a strange force? Instead, she basically keeps advising her to “go with it.” She’s the worst counselor ever.
The dialogue in this episode is also notably bad, even by Star Trek standards (look, I love the shows, but the dialogue is generally either crap or gold, no in-between). On Memory Alpha, there’s even a quote by writer Rene Echevarria that he can reduce this episode’s writer to a shuddering mass by saying “I can travel on the power transfer beam,” a particularly stupid and useless line that somehow still made it into the episode.
The episode’s inspiration, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, also doesn’t really help sell any kind of love story. If you haven’t read it, go read it now, it’s not particularly long and it’s online for free . Or, if you’re gonna be lazy, let me just summarize it as “governess looks after two young children while dealing with a haunting by two former lovers.” Ultimately nothing about the story really lends itself to this idea of an “inherited ghost lover,” except for the gothic setting.
So, I don’t like this episode at all, and I regret watching it again to write this review. I had to re-watch “Darmok” just to get the taste out of my mouth. Thanks, readers, for torturing me again.
Okay, so, this is Star Trek. You already know it. I don’t know how much I have to say about it, because it’s been such a staple of American, and even just human, culture for the last few decades that I imagine almost every person alive, even if they haven’t seen the show, still knows of its existence. They probably even know some of the names of the crew of the Enterprise, like Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Vulcan Science Officer/X-O Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), and, of course, Scotty (James Doohan). Since most of the people who would read a list of best episodes are nerds, instead of a summary, I’m going to tell you what I think Star Trek is about.
Star Trek takes place after WWIII, the Post-Atomic horrors, the Eugenics Wars, and the first contact with an alien race (although exactly when, and in what order, they took place changes by series). But, after all that, humanity finally manages to get its collective sh*t (mostly) together, and stop fighting among themselves. Humanity stops being primarily concerned with beating other people, and instead reaches the point of self-actualization, where instead of having to worry about fighting for food or shelter or prestige, everyone just works towards advancement for the sake of advancement. Despite the fact that it requires three near total global tragedies to come about, this is still probably the most positive prediction for humanity. Because of this, the show had an inherently optimistic attitude behind it at any time, and the writing usually reflected that. Even when the episode contained something morally gray, there still usually was a statement at the end reflecting that it still will contribute to a better future. In the future:
This episode went the other way.
“The City on the Edge of Forever” was written by Harlan “seriously, I’m on this list several times, look me up” Ellison, and he basically crafted it as the anti-Star Trek episode, which makes it one of the most memorable. Of course, because it was Ellison, the guy who got fired from Disney after 4 hours because he couldn’t stop talking about making Disney-themed porn, most of his script had to be “adjusted” to get onto the show (i.e. had to remove everything that would have made the fan-base violently ill), but the result still contains his fingerprints.
The episode begins with McCoy accidentally dosing himself with a drug that makes him paranoid and delusional, causing him to beam down to a nearby planet. The team follows, and encounters a giant stone ring that talks and has a portal in it. The rock, called the “Guardian of Forever,” explains that it can take anyone to any time and place with ease. Before they can contemplate the impact of this discovery and the possibilities of all of time and space, McCoy, still insane, runs through the Guardian. Images begin to fly at Kirk and Spock, who records them. At that time, the crew lose contact with the Enterprise, and find out that the Enterprise, and the Federation itself, no longer exist. McCoy has changed history. As the first Act ends, Kirk remarks “We’re totally alone.”
Kirk and Spock follow McCoy through time into New York in the 1930s, hoping to undo whatever broke time. During their search, they find the proprietress of the 21st Street Mission, Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Keeler is a kind woman, dedicated to preservation of human life and to peace throughout the world. Essentially, she’s part of the Federation before there was a Federation. As the episode progresses, Kirk and Keeler grow closer, until Spock, having found out that the Guardian’s images are the alternate future playing out, reveals that Keeler is supposed to die soon, but also that, in the alternate timeline, she survives. Looking into it further, Spock finally discovers that, should Keeler live, she will create a peace coalition that will delay FDR from entering into WWII, which will lead the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and winning the war. While they don’t know exactly when she’s supposed to die, scans show that McCoy will save her from a car accident. Meanwhile, Kirk has fallen in love with Keeler, even though he knows that her life will destroy the future.
Finally, after finding McCoy, Kirk witnesses Keeler step out in front of a vehicle, and has to stop both himself and McCoy from saving her. She dies, violently, and McCoy, not knowing about the alternate timeline, screams at Kirk “Do you know what you just did?” Spock replies only “He knows.” After the three return, appearing back in the future only a moment after they left, the Guardian of Forever offers them access to any part of space and time, allowing them to answer almost any of the questions that humanity could ever ask. Uhura, finally being able to contact the Enterprise again, asks if the crew is ready to beam up. Despite the fact that they’ve literally just been given access to all of time and space, Kirk instead ends the episode with the famous line: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As I said before, this is the anti-Star Trek episode. It ends not with wonder or optimism, but with a firm rejection of it due to the emotional toll laid upon Kirk through the episode. That’s part of the reason that this episode resonates so firmly, because that’s a more natural response than the typical Star Trek ending. But also, this episode stands as a reminder that sometimes we cannot move forward without a cost. In this case, the cost was a woman dedicated to a peaceful world. In the case of the future of Star Trek, it’s that humanity has to suffer so much that it decides to transcend natural instinct.
Alright, so, this was probably the easiest voter-bonus episode to write. I’ve watched this episode (both parts) a dozen times at least, because it is nothing short of a master stroke for Star Trek. It barely missed the cut-off for the actual list, and only because the episode that DID make it is amazing for exactly the same reason as this one, but to a greater extent: That Patrick Stewart is a global treasure.
I’m not going to revisit the premise of Star Trek in depth. There’s a ship. It goes into space on a journey. It’s staffed with the best and brightest that humanity and its associated planets have to offer. It’s called the Enterprise. This version, however, has the best captain (FIGHT ME), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick F*CKING Stewart).
This first episode starts off with Picard losing command to be put on a covert mission to deal with the Cardassian threat. No, not the one with the sex tapes. They’re an alien race.
No, not the one with the sex tapes.
Picard is replaced by Captain Jellico (Ronny Cox), whose command style, by comparison, is… not as good. Picard goes with a small team on a mission to destroy a cache of biological weapons. They arrive on the target planet, but, finding no signs of weaponry, they suspect a trap and try to escape. Picard is captured and brought to Gul Madred (David Warner), who informs Picard that the entire mission was a setup to capture him in order to obtain secrets on the Federation. That’s the first episode, and it’s… well, only okay. But, it sets up the amazing second episode.
Madred spends the entire episode torturing Picard. Starvation, dehydration, humiliation, beating, shocking, forced nudity, degradation. The crew borrowed a list from Amnesty International when writing it, and put basically all of the ones that would be allowed on network television into the episode.
It starts by Madred telling Picard that he has no name. Picard will only be called “human.” Then, Madred starts to try to break Picard’s will, and these are some of the most powerful scenes in the entire series. The most memorable exchanges involve Madred showing Picard four spotlights behind his desk. Madred asks Picard how many lights he sees. Picard says four. Madred tells him there are five, and when Picard disagrees, Madred uses a device implanted in Picard to cause him all varieties of simulated pain.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise is told Picard is captured, but they are forced to disavow his actions, which means he’s not eligible for rights as a prisoner of war. These scenes mostly just serve to allow for time-skips on the Picard scenes.
Madred brings his daughter in to work, and he and Picard banter about the nature of raising children to believe that it is alright to value no other sentient life. Madred claims that the Cardassians used to have a rich spiritual society, and it led them to starve. Now, the Military rules, and everyone is fed (Update: Madred would have supported Thanos). Picard responds that Madred’s children will have full bellies, but empty spirits. He then mocks Madred by denying that there are any lights.
Picard is shown to start resisting by separating his mind and body, envisioning himself at his family’s home in France. As Madred tries to break him, Picard starts to turn the tables, pointing out that Madred knows torture is ineffective at getting information or control, so Madred is clearly just using it to punish people because he feels weak. Picard calls him pitiable. Madred proves him right by just shocking him again.
Finally, the Enterprise is able to intercept a Cardassian ship and threaten to detonate a series of mines that would destroy them in order to force the Cardassians to release Picard.
Madred, having been told that Picard is going to be released, goes to confront a dehydrated, delirious Picard. Madred tells the captain that the Cardassians have conquered the planet that the Federation was defending and that the Enterprise was destroyed, and that they have no need for him anymore. Madred then offers to let Picard live a life of comfort in exchange for one thing: Telling Madred that he sees five lights. Picard, wavering, and uncertain, starts to speak, and then the guards come in and inform Picard that he’s being returned to the Enterprise.
In what is one of the most amazingly bad-ass moments in the history of television, Picard, a beaten, broken, shadow of a man, turns to his captor and tells him:
“THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!”
Couldn’t find an HD copy, but here’s the scene anyway. It’s also on Netflix.
It’s an amazing scene that would rouse the heart of even the most stoic or cynical of people. It is nothing short of a triumph of the human will against circumstances that should render a person into a shaking pile of incoherent wailing. Which is what makes it even more notable when, in the last scene of the episode, Picard talks to Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis), and admits to her that, during the last exchange, he did see five lights.
People who took High School English seriously probably have read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. One of the most iconic scenes in the book is when the protagonist, Winston Smith, is tortured by the Party’s propaganda agency, the Ministry of Love. The torturer, O’Brien, begins to try to force Winston to think in Newspeak, the Party’s language, by torturing him to the point that when he holds up four fingers, Winston will believe there are five.
‘How can I help it?’ [Winston] blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’
‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’
That is what Madred is doing here. While Madred is originally supposed to be getting specific information out of Picard, by the end, he has long forsaken that in the name of just breaking Picard’s mind. And, much like the end of the book, Madred does finally succeed, even if only for a moment. At the end of the book, Winston has learned that hope is gone, because the Party controls everything. Unlike Winston, Picard is saved by the momentary appearance of hope because he learns that the Cardassians don’t fully control him anymore. Hope is what a person can hold onto when everything else is lost, and it is anathema to being controlled.
The other central difference between Winston and Picard is that Winston never was able to challenge his torturer, because he never understood what the Party wanted to do to him or what their goals were. Picard, on the other hand, understands exactly what the Cardassians want and what Madred really is thinking at almost any given time. He is able to use that to turn the tables at certain points and regain a position of power.
Using Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comparison here is particularly apt, because the Federation is the exact opposite of the Party. The Party, and apparently the Cardassian Empire, lives to oppress and control for the sake of control and oppression under the pretense of survival. The Federation exists to put every person within it into a state of self-actualization at any given time. Every person on Earth is cared for, and given the basics to allow them to self-determine for free for the sake of advancement. Pretty much the best possible view for the future contrasted with the worst.
But, mostly, this episode just has Patrick Stewart being awesome. If it wasn’t for the fact that the first half is slow and the intercuts with the regular crew weren’t so off-putting (seriously, it was a bad idea to put Patrick Stewart and David Warner in a scene together and not consider that it made everyone else look like worse actors by comparison), this would have made the list proper.
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.