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The Oral History of STAR TREK: TNG’s Best Episode: “The Inner Light”

The Oral History of STAR TREK: TNG’s Best Episode: “The Inner Light”

This week, one of the greatest Star Trek episodes of all time celebrates its 25th anniversary. On June 1st, 1992, a fifth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Inner Light” hit the airwaves, and instantly became one of the most beloved episodes of the series. In fact, as the years have gone on, “The Inner Light” has become hailed as one of the greatest episodes of any Star Trek series ever, not just TNG, and that’s saying a lot for an episode that features no space battles, no familiar alien bad guys, no time travel, nor any other Trekkie hallmarks.

In the episode, named after a song by the Beatles, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is struck unconscious by an energy beam from an alien probe. While only minutes pass for the Enterprise crew, the probe makes Picard experience 50 years of lifetime as Kamin, a scientist whose planet Kataan is threatened by the nova of its sun and the planet’s upcoming extinction. During this second life he marries, has children and grandchildren, and makes a whole new identity for himself.

Toward the end of Kamin’s “lifetime,” Picard — who never forgets his real life in Starfleet  — learns the purpose of the probe and the five decades of virtual life that was given to him: to keep alive the memory of Kamin’s race long after the death of their civilization. Jean-Luc becomes a living time capsule.

It’s a timeless, poignant story, and on the occasion of the show’s silver anniversary, we got a chance to chat with screenwriter Morgan Gendel, about the legacy of this classic episode, its inspirations, and how there was very nearly a sequel episode.

Check any list of best Trek episodes and “The Inner Light” is on it. But according to Gendel, the acclaim didn’t happen quickly. “It happened kind of gradually. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and it was what it is now” He said of the show’s high esteem in fan circles. “It kept crawling up the ladder over the years. It wasn’t an overnight thing.”

“…My concept was an ancient, yet futuristic, version of the Fuji Blimp, that could essentially advertise TV commercials right into your brain…”

“I’ll tell you, it took a long time to develop this episode. I was a freelancer pitching it, and I had to go back and pitch it five times, because they didn’t buy it from me right away, and it kept getting better and better each time I’d pitch it,” says Gendel. “I’d get notes from (the late TNG executive producer) Michael Piller, and he’d tell me what he wanted to see that he wasn’t seeing yet. And it really got developed during the pitching stage, which is rare. But once we finally had a first draft and it all came together, then we knew we had something special here.”

The inspiration for the episode was, believe it or not, a flying advertisement. “(TNG writer) Joe Menosky made an appointment for me to pitch, so I was getting kind of desperate that I didn’t have anything fresh or original,” Gendel told Nerdist. “But my youngest daughter was about to turn 2 years old. and I remember looking out her window and seeing the Fuji Blimp, which was a blimp that advertised film. So this thing looked very futuristic for the time, considering this is before digital even…It was very futuristic.”

“Michael Piller jumped on that idea, just giving Jean-Luc Picard the family life he had never known.”

“So my original concept was ‘what if the Enterprise comes across something very strange, like a probe, and next thing you know, Picard, Riker and Ro Laren would find themselves on another planet.  And my concept was an ancient, yet futuristic, version of the Fuji Blimp, that could essentially advertise TV commercials right into your brain that would make you feel like you’re living an experience,” says Gendel. “A lot of people thought that the impetus of this episode was Picard’s whole ‘the life not taken’ emotional journey, but in this instance, the ‘tech’ part of the story came first, before the emotional arc of Picard. Since then we’ve had a lot of theater of the mind movies, like The Matrix, but at the time there wasn’t a whole lot of that.”

In early pitches it was not just Picard who went to live a life on Kataan. Gendel said that originally “it was going to affect [Captain Picard, Commander Riker, and Ensign Ro], they were all going to be mutually in this thing, and at one point there was even a romantic triangle. But when I brought all that up, they decided to turn the whole story over to Picard.”

“And I had been nervous about saying that in the pitch meetings, but Michael Piller jumped on that idea, just giving Jean-Luc Picard the family life he had never known.”

“…the real reason [the lack of references] bothered me is that I pitched a sequel idea to this episode that was pretty smart.”

This episode is, or course, a true showcase for the acting talents of Sir Patrick Stewart, who gets to age 10 years for every ten minutes screen time. In fact, Gendel thinks it is among his finest work, period, and not just on Star Trek. “I think it’s one of Sir Patrick’s best performances ever, in all his screen work. He’s living there on this planet this whole time, and doesn’t even really know why. He just begins to accept that his life on the Enterprise was a dream, It becomes such a powerful thing to give in and accept this new life. And it’s kind of a secret fantasy for everybody I think, that you want someone to come in and say ‘no, no, no…you were really great all along, but just didn’t know it.’

“I’m blown away by his performance every time.”

This episode also gave Gendel a chance to inject a little bit of James T. Kirk into old Jean-Luc. “I was a huge original series fan, and worked with and was friends with Bill Shatner for years, working on his TekWar TV movies. And I just loved his whole acting style! When you see the two Next Gens that I wrote, the other (Starship Mine), they both focus on the solo Captain, you can see me trying to “Kirk-ize” Picard,” Gendel revealed. “In The Inner Light I made him a lover, and in Starship Mine I kind of made him a fighter, a swashbuckling guy. So I didn’t want to take away from Sir Patrick’s performance, but I always thought he was sitting on too high a throne on the show. They let me get away with it, so that was my secret little mission.”

Considering that Picard now has the memories of being someone else for some fifty years, the show only barely referenced the events of “The Inner Light” during the rest of the series run, save a single episode the following season called “Lessons{, in which Picard gets romantically involved with a crewmate. “I just thought he needed closure,” Gendel says. “In the next episode they have him running around like nothing happened, and that always bothered me…and the real reason it bothered me is that I pitched a sequel idea to this episode that was pretty smart.”

One of the greatest Trek episodes of all time almost had a follow up.”In my pitch, the Enterprise comes across a ship that’s in the same shape as the probe, so they know it’s something familiar,” Gendel told us. “And in that ship are a bunch of people in suspended animation. What had happened was the scientists from Kataan who created the probe, they kind of had to play the parts in that simulation they made. In other words, his wife Eline, who was played wonderfully by Margot Rose, she’s actually a real person.  These scientists had to keep it in a small group that their planet was dying.”

Gendel elaborated further on the sequel idea, saying “to an extent, this was like an interactive video game, but they had to be played by real people. So at the last minute they discovered that they could send a small amount of their people into space, and that’s when they send a group of scientists in suspended animation. So Picard discovers them, and to him, he sees his wife Eline among them. But to her, she’s like “who the hell are you???

Gendel eventually turned his proposed episode into a fan-fiction graphic novel.

We might have been robbed of a proper sequel, but a quarter century on, “The Inner Light” is still very powerful television, and not just for Star Trek, for any show. It is an incredible piece of storytelling that emphasizes that our greatest achievements in life are the bonds of kindness and friendship we make, above all things. And you can lie about not crying when Picard comes to and picks up a Ressikan flute, remembering a song from his inner life, but we wouldn’t believe you.

“Although”, Gendel joked, “sometimes I think he should have had a shirt for Picard that reads “Fifty years on this planet and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!'”

Images: CBS Television

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