Star Trek Writer Morgan Gendel Talks “The Inner Light” and His New Novel

Most Star Trek: The Next Generation fans are familiar with “The Inner Light.” The episode was ranked by Nerdist as the second-best episode in the series’ entire seven-season run, and was even named by Patrick Stewart as his personal favorite.  Recently added to its list of many fans is Cory Booker, U.S. Senator for New Jersey and current candidate for the Democratic Nomination for President of the United States. Recently, Nerdist sat down with writer Morgan Gendel, who won a Hugo Award for the episode—a first for Next Generation—to discuss the legacy of the story and his new science fiction novel, Planet 6. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light.Paramount Domestic Television

Nerdist: What does it feel like for this thing that you wrote decades ago to have such an impact on someone like Booker?

Morgan Gendel: I think it goes to the heart of what makes this episode popular. There are a lot of people who like it, I think it just was very cool to find out that somebody that well regarded and high up in our politics is one of those people. But it’s just proven to be very durable and emotional. I think that’s the big thing. And now when I lecture on screenwriting or give my talk about the power of story, what I note is that the things I’ve written that have been the most successful are just really, really emotional. And people just like that, and for some reason, we don’t acknowledge that enough. I think writers know you have to hit those points with emotions. But I don’t think we realize how far you can go and just being bold-facedly emotional and even reach for tear-jerker status to move people and he’s just one of many thousands of people who just saw that in this episode. Now, I have to say, I think there are a lot of places you can get that do a lot of places and literature and stuff. I’m always pleased that this happens to be one of the places people found that kind of an emotional value, but it’s certainly not the only place.

It’s a really interesting concept for an episode of TV. I call it the ‘time in a bottle’ storytelling motif where a character lives and experiences and remembers a full lifespan when only a short time has actually passed. I can think of some examples of other things that have done it since, like the Magicians, Inception, and even Star Trek revisited with a darker kind of take on it for the Deep Space Nine episode, “Hard Time.” How did it come to you as a concept?

still from the film InceptionWarner Bros.

You know, I was shocked or surprised and pleased to read in Hollywood Reporter a couple years ago, that this is now its own category of episode, they call it the “Inner Light” episode. So like different series will say “Oh, that’s our ‘Inner Light’ episode,” by which they mean what you call ‘time in a bottle.’ It was done, I’m trying to think when it was done before “The Inner Light,” I can’t think of a specific example. But now when they do it now, people just reference “The Inner Light,” which I think is totally cool. 

It came to me, really, from kind of sideways into this kind of storytelling, which is to say, I didn’t sit down and say, what’s the most emotional kind of grinder I can put Captain Picard into where he has to really examine his life and feel all these deep feelings and intense feelings? I didn’t do that I actually came in this was kind of my role as a regular freelancer for Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I would come in with a very novel tech idea that just lent itself to exploring this kind of humanity. 

And so in the case of “The Inner Light,” I had the idea of a probe that could do a kind of mind meld with you. And in this case, the probe was looking for a ‘one man good and true,’ kind of in a Green Lantern, kind of way, and I’m referring to the Green Lantern comic books, just to find somebody with good character to carry on this storytelling that that was that was my starting point, even backing up a little I’m not even sure I had that part that well developed. But it was the tech idea of implanting permanent memories that were indistinguishable from the real memories in your head. And when I was going for was the fact that this is just the wiring in your brain. We might call it poetry or soul or anything we call it but it’s really, I was taking a position that you could rewire somebody’s somebody’s brain to just have the memories of a different person.

Nowadays, we get a lot of episodes of TV shows that have like a big cast, where they actively will write like, an episode that is light on the rest of the cast. And it has to do with like filming schedules and who’s available for episodes while they’re filming other episodes. Was that part of the purpose of this, to do an episode that was Picard heavy and light on the rest of the crew? Or was it just that you had this tech idea and you ran with it?

Star Trek Writer Morgan Gendel Talks The Inner Light and His New Novel_1
Paramount Domestic Television

Well, it was a little bit part of that. But I wasn’t a producer on the show. I wasn’t on staff. So it was not like we said, “Oh, how do we do one that’s, that’s another term where the word bottle comes, in a bottle show is just something that you’re saving money and all takes place in one location is light on cast. It wasn’t that except for the fact that I say this now with all the years in between, if you look at both this and “Starship Mine,” kind of my dirty little secret was I was such, such a big fan of the original series. And I’ve become a huge Patrick Stewart fan, after the fact having shared a stage with him, and the like. But I was a big fan of the original series, and that has to do more with my age than anything else.

And I’d become personal friends with William Shatner, because I worked with him on a couple of the TekWar TV movies. So I was just very friendly with him and he and I used to go have lunch and stuff. So sort of my dirty little secret at the time, was that I was trying to make Captain Picard a little more swashbuckling. I like that kind of style. And I appreciated that The Next Generation was just the natural evolution of that kind of series. To become a little intellectual. But I’m going to be honest, I felt it was a little cold.

And I, since I was a freelancer, and I didn’t have to sit in the room every day and be imbued with how they were trying to do the show. They wanted me to come in with ideas they hadn’t thought up. In my own mind, and I don’t think this really coalesced as a thought until after the fact. But I was trying to turn him into a little more of a Kirk type of captain. So to that extent, it was not unusual to look back with hindsight and say that and both my Next Generation episodes, I’ve been dealing with the card as kind of a loner and an outsider.

So let’s move on to talking about Planet 6, you spoke to me a little bit about how one of your goals was to draw a younger audience back into reading. In a world that is so full of distractions, especially screen-based ones, what are your ways of targeting that audience that is already either drifted so far away from reading or just haven’t been avid readers, to begin with?

Star Trek Writer Morgan Gendel Talks The Inner Light and His New Novel_2 Morgan Gendel

Well, first of all, I want to just clarify that it’s not a YA book. So young, young to me is 18 to 35. I mean, that’s the sweet spot in Hollywood. And it’s not that I’m going after the Hollywood audience. But that’s just kind of, that’s who I think is spending a lot of time with video games and with movies. So young, it doesn’t mean teenage, ‘cause it’s not a YA book. 

The main thing I’m doing is saying that that’s what this book is about. If you look at the book and the cover, I think there’s no mistaking it as something that’s just kind of a fun adventure. In other words, I didn’t sit down and say, “Oh, I want to this is my mission, I want to bring these readers back to reading.” Rather, I thought, I want to write a book that is just the kind of book I used to like, when I was younger. I think science fiction, in my humble opinion, has become a little over-intellectualized. I like a lot of the books. But some of them seem to be so much, they’ve gone to such an extreme about dissecting humanity, that I’m longing for a little more fun and plot and all those things I want to think, want to be made think, and I want to be inspired, and I wanted to illuminate humanity. But I think the balance is tilted too far. And we don’t have enough time to go into all the reasons for that, I think you could look at the way the world is going. And there’s a there’s a lot of reasons to look at that. 

And it’s just like I was trying to make Picard a little more swashbuckling. So too, I’m trying to bring to at least the science fiction I write just a level of just being along for a rollercoaster ride, while you’re still thinking about things. I mean, this book is about colonization, and the place of a young man in the world when he’s bold to do one thing, but his heart tells him to do another, all those things. So it’s not just complete action. It’s a lot about camaraderie, and how he can’t do things totally on his own. 

But I did want to write a book that reminded me of the books I used to like. Like even early Asimov stuff, which, which is revered, but it wasn’t… it wasn’t deep, it was not deep. And I think that’s the key. I think, I think the people, not just men, men and women who are going to Marvel movies, which I love and playing video games can be brought back to reading and I think there’s a joy in reading, and it can coexist with those other things. So it’s not so much that I set out “I’m gonna write the wrongs of the world and fix it.” No, it’s that I wrote the kind of book I like I did like and still like, I think other people will like it.

Aside from Asimov, like what science fiction novels were the ones that drew you in at the age you’re talking about, your ‘20s and your ‘30s? The stuff that brought you to writing sci-fi to begin with that led you to your Hugo Award winning episodes and similar work?

My love of sci-fi began in grade school with the Tom Swift series. I remember he had a double-decker airplane, years before 747, and had a long explanation of how a maser worked. This was the real-life pre-cursor to the laser, but it amplified microwaves instead of light.

I read Asimov’s The Stars Like Dust at age 10, then devoured the master’s entire oeuvre. His novella The Profession influences me to this day: my podcast pilot The Monitors pays homage to said novella. In The Profession, humans are educated via instant brain-link, but our hero George, thinker of deep thoughts, is told he’s too dumb for this to work and he’s sent to a Home for the Feeble-minded. Convinced he’s been incorrectly assessed, he escapes—only to learn that he passed the test and is at the very highest level of education: the determination to pursue original thought. 

Wow! There’s even a little of “The Inner Light” in that one, Asimov’s “taping” led to my “nucleonic beam.”

Moving on in my formative years, I read a lot of H.G. Wells, I LOVED The Time Machine and Jules Verne, ditto 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I also loved Edgar Rice Burroughs—not his Mars books as you might suspect, but rather his Tarzan books, great adventures with an underpinning of philosophy about what it means to be “civilized.”

Planet 6 is a story that you talked about in your preface as a concept you’ve been kicking around in your head in some form since the ‘70s. Aside from just wanting people to read, what made you decide to make the leap to writing this as a novel, as opposed to trying to write it up as a treatment for a new TV or film series?

Oh, that’s a really good question. Because you think it would almost be a natural for me to say, oh, there’s a great idea for a series. It was reading, my wife introduced me to the Master and Commander books. I don’t know how much you know about the Master and Commander books outside of the one movie they made. But the thing about these books is, they just had a worldwide following of people who normally just read literature, and just are taken with these books, because it’s about, you know, naval warfare. But you get into their heads and the friendship between the captain and his doctor friend on the ship, and the workings of the ship, it’s so into process, which is a big thing for me. I just love process. And so you just understand all the workings of the ship. And yet they’re on these adventures, and at the same time, they have problems with their home life, and they get married, and they have kids and all this stuff.

I read all those books till I had no more books to read. And this would have only been about, oh, this was maybe 15 years ago. And then so I thought, “what else am I going to read like that?” So my wife again, to the rescue, she said, well try the Horatio Hornblower books. And that was really steering me into Planet 6 than anything else. So when I say books I read as a kid. That’s sort of a general overview because I have such fond feelings of the science fiction. But really to answer your question. It’s the Horatio Hornblower books. Reading those, I thought, Oh, my God, what I loved about them is they tried making them into a series. And it didn’t really work. And that’s what I liked about the book. I lecture about screenwriting, and the three-act structure and theme and all those things. There’s such a formula for movies, and I like these books that kind of didn’t follow that formula the same way, you’re just along for the ride over I don’t know how many books like 12-15 books. 

Star Trek Writer Morgan Gendel Talks The Inner Light and His New Novel_3

Public Domain

And again, just like Master and Commander, you’re seeing the rise of this guy. From the time he’s an ensign, to when he’s an admiral, and he’s on a second marriage, and he has kids and all this stuff. You just follow his personal professional life. And I was so taken with them, because by being a non-movie-like kind of structure, you’re just along for the ride. And then you might get 50, 100 pages into the book, and suddenly, they’re in some deep trouble. And you know, the French Navy is surrounding them, they have to figure out how to get out of it. And then there’s shipwrecked, and all these things. And these things just kind of happen to them. 

But it’s not that thing that I see overdone and overheated in movies today where everything is, oh, here’s the chosen one. And the fate of the earth relies on somebody. I think there’s going to be burnout with that kind of overheated kind of storytelling. This is a crazy reference, and I’m just thinking of it just now. But I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan. But I really loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it had that same kind of feel like you’d be hard-pressed to say, here’s the really tight three-act structure. It’s kind of meandering storytelling. And I was taken with that and wanted to do that I wanted to take this idea that had been in my head for a long time, and give it that kind of treatment, where you’re just along with this young man as he has to figure out what to do in this situation. And that’s my answer.

Planet 6 is available now in paperback or eBook. 

Header Image: Paramount Domestic Television

Top Stories
Trending Topics