It’s no surprise that TNG Ep. 5.25 “Inner Light” won the 1993 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.
The episode is in good company. The same award was won by “The Menagerie, Parts I & II,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and, later, by the TNG finale “All Good Things . . .”
It’s that good.
To me, “Inner Light” represents what the best of all Trek has to offer. It’s something beyond spectacle and bombast, it’s an emotional center that supersedes special effects. Sure, there are special effects in this episode. Space probes and matte paintings, old-age makeup that, for a change, doesn’t look too horrible. But, none of that is the reason this episode became one of those I often thought about in the years after I first watched it. In that, it shares much in common with other TNG episodes such as “Darmok” and “Measure of a Man.” It’s the way they make you feel after you watch them, about the characters and about yourself.
In this episode, the Enterprise encounters a space probe that zaps Captain Jean-Luc Picard and transports him into someone else’s life. In real life, Picard is unconscious for about 25 minutes. In his mind, he lives for decades as a man named Kamin, in a community named Ressik on the planet Kataan. He has a wife, Eline, and a councilman best friend, Batai. He discovers that “Kamin” is an ironweaver who enjoys playing the flute, although he’s never mastered it yet.
Naturally, at first the story is about Picard not accepting that his memories as a starship captain are the result of a prolonged illness and high fever. But, over time, he accepts his role as Kamin, becoming a respected member of the community and having two children with Eline. Over the years, he also becomes quite good with the flute.
An interesting aside: Kamin’s adult son, Batai (named after his deceased best friend), is portrayed by Daniel Stewart, who is Patrick Stewart’s real-life son. He seems to have inherited his dad’s hairline.
Kamin and his adult daughter Meribor both come to the conclusion that the sun’s radiation is making the soil incapable of supporting life, and that the planet Kataan is ultimately doomed. Being who I am, I couldn’t help but to think that Kamin was this planet’s Jor-El. That turns out to not be the correct analogy, however. Later, as a councilman himself, Kamin thinks he’s trying to convince a government administrator about his findings, but the truth is that those in power already knew the truth. Kataan is doomed. There is a secret effort underway to save some piece of the civilization. In his advanced old age, Kamin later discovers that this project is the probe that tethered itself to Jean-Luc Picard.
The space probe from Kataan—which perished a thousand years before the Enterprise discovered the probe itself—is like a message in a bottle. The “message” was an entire lifetime that Picard gets to live as someone else. One in which he has a wife, children, even a grandson before it’s over. One in which he grieves over a departed best friend and, eventually, for his wife, Eline. At the conclusion of the experience, when Picard-as-Kamin is watching the missile leaving the atmosphere of Kataan with the probe, images of the long-dead Kataanites tell him that by remembering what they were and how they lived allows them to find life again.
After Picard returns to the present, the probe deactivates itself. After the ship crew opens up the probe, they find a box containing a flute inside. It turns out that Picard remembers how to play the flute.
This added layers of characterization to Picard. I remember thinking about this episode in later episodes as well, perhaps even when the writers weren’t. Picard’s experiences as both Locutus and Kamin would have to have long-reaching effects on him and his decisions going forward in the series. Whenever it’s mentioned that Picard has no children, I always think about Meribor and Kamin. He had children, he had a normal married life. Picard missed out on nothing.
If there is an underlying theme to this episode, it is found in Kamin’s words to his daughter: “Seize the time, Meribor. Live now! Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
I realize this is not an original thought, and may even be considered cliché. That doesn’t make it any less true. It’s advice I wish I could always remember to follow myself.
This one definitely makes my All-Time Best Trek List. Here, at the end of five seasons, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that it will even be in the ultimate Top-10.
This episode gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me.