Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Star Trek The Next Generation's Perfect - And Best - Episode Ever: "The Inner Light"

The Good: Acting, Character, Plot, Everything
The Bad: Nothing, save a single bad bluescreen shot
The Basics: Star Trek The Next Generation creates an hour of television worthy of any audience and attention when Picard awakens as another man on a distant planet.

Every now and then, there comes an hour of television that is perfect and wonderful and ought to be viewed by everyone. While the best I have ever encountered is Star Trek Deep Space Nine's episode "Duet," "The Inner Light" from the fifth season of Star Trek The Next Generation gives it a run for its money. It's a perfect hour of television and while there are several hours of television that achieve perfection, "The Inner Light" has a way of garnering universal praise and rightly so.

"The Inner Light" opens with the Starship Enterprise encountering a probe of alien origin and design. The device scans Captain Picard and he is struck down by an energy beam. Picard wakes up on a distant planet, where he is called Kamen and he has a wife and he is an iron weaver. Instantly suspicious, Picard rejects the idea and strikes out for a way back to the Enterprise. As the years go by, Kamen becomes convinced the dream was just that and he settles down to enjoying his family, his music and studying the soil samples of the dying planet. He lives an entire life on Katan and it's a decent life, far away from the delusions of someone called Picard.

This is a brilliantly written and executed episode. The idea of Kamen is an intriguing one and it works especially well with the character of Picard. Here, Picard is seriously challenged and the time frame involved in the episode makes it completely sensible. That is, in some prior episodes, the idea that Picard does or does not do something related to how much he trusts members of his crew seems incongruent with how long he spent with his previous crew as captain of the Stargazer. That is, out of all the characters, Picard has had the most time and experience to forge lifelong bonds with other officers in StarFleet and how much he trusts Riker, for example, after only one or two years seems odd. In "The Inner Light," Kamen's suspicion does not dissipate right away. Instead, the idea that he was once Picard lingers for almost a decade. And that seems very realistic. We all know how certain dreams may linger.

The Picard character here has an extraordinary chance to grow and the writers take full advantage of that. Instead of simply turning a steadfast principle of the character on end, they explore the full ramifications of Picard's life being a dream. As a result, Kamen develops into an individual who is a scientist, not a leader (not even a politician), he's musically extroverted by learning the Ressikan flute and he is a man deeply, publicly in love with his family. So "The Inner Light" never feels like an episode where the writers just said, "Hey, why don't we do something where Picard has a family?" Instead, it feels like a compelling journey that is so well developed that the viewer comes to believe in Kamen, despite the interludes aboard the Enterprise where the crew attempts to revive Captain Picard.

More than a great character episode, this is an acting triumph for Patrick Stewart and the entire support cast. Stewart completely redefines his character, inventing Kamen with convincing ability to make someone who is distinctly different from Captain Picard. Indeed, Stewart endures a change in posture and prosthetics to create Kamen as he ages and he is not buried in the make-up. Instead, the acting shines through in a way that the special effects serve only to enhance the performance, not smother or define it.

The support cast is in "The Inner Light" is a great collection of talented individuals who illustrate their abilities quite well here. Richard Riele gives a nice, subtle performance as Batai, a contrast to his later roles on Grounded For Life and Star Trek Voyager. Jennifer Nash gives a decent performance as Meribor, Kamen's daughter. Like Stewart, Nash is responsible for acting through several phases of life and dealing with extensive make-up and she bears is as well as Stewart did. Daniel Stewart, Patrick's son, makes an auspicious outing as Kamen's son.

Margot Rose, however, is the scene stealer of "The Inner Light." Playing Kamen's wife, Eileen, Rose has the daunting task of pairing up with Patrick Stewart and creating a character that is plausible as the wife of Kamen. Rose is up to the task and she matches Stewart line for line, movement by movement for the attention of the viewer. She does a magnificent job aging and becoming an empathetic character we believe in and want to see more of.

This episode of Star Trek The Next Generation won a Hugo Award in 1993 and it deserved it. It's a shame that it did not garner more praise in the entertainment industry, but science fiction shows so seldom do. This is an amazing hour of television for anyone and everyone who loves great drama. There is nothing you need to know coming into it. Everything is explained and the depth of the story is powerful.

This is television doing what the medium may do best; using great actors to create amazing, empathetic characters while telling a compelling story.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fifth season by clicking here!


Check out how this episode stacks up against others by visiting my Star Trek review index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. A perfect review for a perfect episode.

  2. Thank you VERY much. It's gratifying to know someone appreciates the reviews!