The 25 Years Since ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ Episode ‘The Inner Light’ Have Seen Many Imitators

  • Science Fiction
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'Star Trek: The Next Generation' episode "The Inner Light" first aired June 1, 1992. CBS Television Studios

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” aired 25 years ago Thursday, on June 1, 1992. It went on to win the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, the first Star Trek episode to do so since The Original Series’ similarly haunting and heartbreaking episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In celebration of its anniversary, screenwriter Morgan Grendel described the episode’s origin story to Nerdist.

The years since have seen “The Inner Light” duplicated again and again. Picard’s time on Kataan has become one of the most consequential science fiction stories of the past century — a lodestar to subsequent generations of storytellers, who tell and retell “The Inner Light” with some of our most beloved science fiction and fantasy characters.

“The Inner Light” opens on the Enterprise encountering an alien probe that blasts Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) with a beam of energy that knocks him unconscious. He’s awakened on the planet Kataan by a woman, Eline, who claims to be his wife. Eline has never heard of the Federation or the Enterprise. She knows only that the man before her is her husband, the iron weaver Kamin.

At first it looks like another mystery to be solved. Picard certainly treats it that way. But Eline and his friend Batai aren’t motivated by trickery. They genuinely believe Picard has concocted false memories in the fevered dreams from which Eline awakened him. Time passes and Picard begins to live life as Kamin. His memories aboard the Enterprise remain an enduring mystery in Kamin’s life, but as the years pass he settles into the love of his family and community on Kataan. He even learns to play the flute.

Decades pass. Kamin has children and watches them grow to have children of their own. But Kataan is dying and all of his efforts can’t stop the planet-wide droughts. And then one day Kamin’s grandchildren bring him to a rocket launch, where he is met by Batai and his wife Eline, both as young as when Picard first met them. They finally reveal the truth to him: aboard the rocket is the probe Picard encountered aboard the Enterprise. It is a time capsule of Kataan, launched into space and tasked with finding someone to serve as steward to their cultural memory.

Picard reawakens on the Enterprise. Though he has experienced a world and its people, spent a lifetime living and loving among them, only minutes had passed. Aboard the probe, now dead, its mission complete, is Kamin’s flute.

As science fiction, “The Inner Light” probes the meaning of reality — though a virtual reality illusion of sorts, Kamin’s family will never be fake to Picard. He loved and was loved. It asks us to imagine what we would preserve for others. How could we show our best selves to another species? How do we become those best selves?

“The Inner Light” also offers some delightful wish fulfillment. Picard gets a gift none of us ever will: the opportunity to live in someone else’s shoes and gain understanding beyond the narrow channel of our own experience.

As a character device, “The Inner Light” uncovers dimensions to Captain Picard we hadn’t seen before. So perhaps it’s no surprise that other science fiction and fantasy writers would want to put their own characters through similarly revealing experiences. Here are our few of our favorites.

Adventure Time “Puhoy”

If it wasn’t obvious what Adventure Time was getting up to, it should be by the time Finn ages into Adult Finn, voiced by Jonathan Frakes, who plays Picard’s first officer, William T. Riker, on The Next Generation. In “Puhoy,” Jake experiences a full life in a pillow realm, finding an understanding of adult love and maturity he needed most in the midst of his adolescent confusion.

Since “Puhoy” is fantasy, rather than sci-fi — Finn is transported to his new life through a pillow fort — Adventure Time leans into some of the weirder corners of the story’s possibilities. Finn’s death, his soul plummeting through kaleidoscopic mandalas and past astral plane beings, takes the story where “The Inner Light” can’t, employing some of the strengths only available to animation.

“Puhoy” also represents the first point on a clear trendline, condensing Picard’s life-long journey from 44 minutes to a kid-friendly 11.

Rick and Morty “Mortynight Run”

If “Puhoy” found a way to turn the stately pace of “The Inner Light” into a sprint, then Rick and Morty Season 2 episode “Mortynight Run” is the narrative equivalent of warp speed. After a successful arms deal with assassin Krombopulous Michael, Rick and Morty visit the Blips and Chitz intergalactic arcade, where Rick straps his grandson into a game called Roy: A Life Well Lived.

Though Rick and Morty condenses “The Inner Light” into a 90-second joke, it’s astonishing how much of the emotional weight of the original clings to it, like sci-fi residue. Roy finds gives up his dreams, settles for less, survives cancer, finds satisfaction and dies in a carpet store accident laden with gallows humor. If you’re inclined to self-doubt and recrimination, watching Morty play Roy cautiously can be sobering. Am I, right now, playing life like Morty plays Roy? Are you?

Roy: A Life Well Lived works so well because it adapts “The Inner Light” to Rick and Morty, revealing as much about them as the original reveals about Picard. Where Morty is cautious, Rick is wild. His Roy doesn’t settle for family — he burns his social security card and gets off the grid.

Field Notes From Dimension X by Carson Mell

While the other stories seemingly inspired by “The Inner Light” appear in episodes of popular shows, we have to turn to self-published science fiction for the weirdest and most out-there expansion on the concept.

Carson Mell, a writer for Eastbound & Down and Silicon Valley (also check out his movie Another Evil and his webseries Tarantula!), has so far published three entries in his four-part Field Notes From Dimension X series. Each novella tracks the ongoing adventures of Captain Fred T. Rogard, a NASA astronaut who gets abducted by a mushroom-like monster from Dimension X. Rather than a single life, the alien pushes Rogard through hundreds. He lives again and again, never sure when he’ll lose himself in a new body, never quite ready to be ripped out and sent somewhere, anywhere in time and space.

Rather than a straight retelling of “The Inner Light,” Field Notes From Dimension X shatters its narrative and turns it inside out. While sometimes Rogard learns human truths and has enlightening experiences, most of the time he’s frightened and confused, losing himself in an endless barrage of change and mystery that breaks down his entire conception of self.

Field Notes From Dimension X is weird, fun, thought-provoking and a quick read. Buy it here.

While “The Inner Light” has taken on new and aberrant forms in the 25 years since it first aired, the original Star Trek: The Next Generation episode remains as powerful as ever. It accomplishes what so few stories manage, providing not just a powerful story, but inspiring whole new narratives, branching off in crazy new directions, expanding the realm of narrative possibility.

Let’s cross our fingers that Star Trek: Discovery eventually produces an episode as good.

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