November 12, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Inner Light"

It is 1 June 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise discovers a mysterious alien probe in deep space. It spontaneously scans the ship, latching an energy beam onto Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and forcing him into a coma. When he wakes he discovers he is living the life of a married metalsmith named Kamin, on a planet named Kataan.

It's kind of nice that, season finale and premiere aside, Star Trek: The Next Generation's fifth season is book-ended with two of the best episodes the series ever produced. At one end, "Darmok": a clever conceptual story and first contact and communication. At the other, "The Inner Light": a deeply emotional and heartfelt story about life, loss, and - in its odd way - more first contact. Many fans cite "The Inner Light" as their all-time favourite episode. While I wouldn't go that far - I think "Darmok" just pips it to the post - there is no denying that this is a sensational episode, not just for Star Trek: The Next Generation but for American television drama in general.

To get the obvious praise out of the way: this is yet another episode that focuses almost exclusively on Picard, and affords Patrick Stewart to deliver a stunning performance. He is required to age by decades over the course of the hour, and while some excellent prosthetic make-up helps out in creating the illusion of age it really is Stewart who does most of the heavy lifting. The episode's guest cast is remarkably strong as well, particularly Robert Reihle as Kamin's best friend Batai and Margot Rose as his wife Eline. It is also cute seeing Kamin's son played by Patrick Stewart's own son Daniel. The regular cast honestly don't get much screen time at all, which suits the story being told - although it is nice to see Worf make a suggestion on the bridge (blocking the probe's signal) and actually have it followed through. Of course the result is that they almost kill the captain by mistake, so perhaps it's for the best that Worf's plans are regularly shot down.

A more interesting element to praise in this episode is the science fiction idea at its core. A civilization was destroyed by a supernova. They lacked the technological skill to send members of the race to another star system, but they did have the technology to send a probe. Rather than simply be a depository of information for other species to find, it acts as a sort of 'living experience'. Picard does not simply learn about life on Kataan he lives that life. It is clearly a transformational experience for him. While it does get referenced once or twice in the remainder of the series, it's a shame that it was not explored in more depth. For Picard there is, in effect, a 30 year gap between the first five years of his time on the Enterprise-D and the remaining two. A sequel episode, "The Outer Light", was developed a little but ultimately abandoned.

You can pick holes in it, of course. The probe seems vastly in excess of the technology seen on Kataan, for example, but with this sort of high concept story I'm personally willing to hand-wave most of it away.

The cuts back and forth between Picard's experience on Kataan and the bridge crew's attempts to wake him initially feel like a bad idea. Had the Enterprise scenes been excluded, the possibility could have been raised that Picard had somehow been transported to another world for real. It seems like a deliberate sabotage of dramatic tension. Then, as the episode continues, the method being this apparent madness becomes clear. For one thing, as viewers we instinctively know that Picard's experience is not part of a physical reality the moment his story takes a five year jump forward. We know Picard needs to be back on the Enterprise bridge in the next episode, so there wasn't going to be any sufficient dramatic tension from that point anyway. Secondly, the dual storyline means that we discover that the probe comes from a planet that's been dead for 1,000 years before Picard does. There's a melancholic tone to the rest of the episode, because as we watch Picard's family grow and have children of their own we know that all of them were long-dead before the episode even started.

This is one of those rare episodes where everything comes together. The cast are strong, the premise is smart, and the script is well written. The design is solid, and the cinematography and music are excellent. This is the sort of television drama that gets treasured.

This is the 16th good episode out of 25, giving Season 5 a rolling quality ratio of 64 per cent with one episode to go.

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