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"The Inner Light" at 21
July 2, 2013 8:37 PM   Subscribe

In the article "'The Inner Light' at 21", writer Morgan Gendel reflects on what fan-favorite and Hugo award-winning Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light" means to him.

This is not the first time Gendel has mused on what is probably his best known work. In addition to the online comic-book "unoffical sequel" The Outer Light, Gendel wrote the article "Five Big Issues Raised by 'The Inner Light'" for last year's 20th anniversary. He also presented a lecture at the 2011 New York ComicCon, which was written about by Ryan Britt in the article "On Being an Outsider With the Writer of TNG’s “The Inner Light,” Morgan Gendel."

It's impossible to talk about "The Inner Light" without mentioning the haunting flute theme composed by Jay Chattaway which features so prominently in the episode, especially the ending [Spoiler]. The theme is so well-known and beloved it has even been arranged for symphony orchestra.
posted by ob1quixote (35 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
There was a really cool documentary I saw about Stark Trek that was tied into a big auction that Christie's held, where a whole slew of props and costumes and such were being put on the block. The documentary told the story of the show and its history through clips of the Christie's team unboxing this prop or that costume, then cutting to an interview with some cast or crew member and sometimes a clip of an interview with one fan or another gushing about the episode in question.

The sequence where Christie's went rummaging about in the box and pulled out "oh, hey....here's the flute from that 'Inner Light" episode" was by far the best part - they pulled out the flute, and then there was a whole sequence where they kept cutting back and forth from Patrick Stewart humming the flute theme to a whole parade of fans and auction hopefuls gushing "Omigod THE FLUTE! I have to get THE FLUTE....." and then finishing with Patrick Stewart finishing his humming; and then laughing sheepishly and saying, "...It's not a real flute, you know. It doesn't work."

According to Christie's, it still sold for $48K.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh man now I gotta re-watch this episode. Also: Evil Picard Plays His Flute.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:09 PM on July 2, 2013 [13 favorites]


I can't believe I never realized before that Gendel wrote "Starship Mine," one of my favorite contenders for Worst of All TNG Episodes, as well as "The Inner Light," a strong contender for Best.
posted by RogerB at 9:14 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always kind of like to think of DS9 s04e19 "Hard Time" - one of my favorite episodes of anything ever - as kind of like a companion piece to "The Inner Light." It uses the same conceit, but in a much darker way, and oddly it sort of gets at the same themes as "The Inner Light" using negative space instead of positive space, if that makes any sense.
posted by koeselitz at 9:31 PM on July 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


I remember the first time I saw this episode, as a kid. Not being old enough to really appreciate the more deliberate pacing of it, I recall being unenthused for the first half.

And then that ending, coming in like that. It was probably the first episode that ever made me *cry*. Even now, I can't listen to the theme without tearing up a little.
posted by qcubed at 9:39 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


It was all fun and games until the lady with the rollup piano showed up.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:39 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Learning that "The Inner Light" started out as a really shitty idea is the most inspiring thing I've read in a while.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:44 PM on July 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Rise and shine, campers!
posted by Brocktoon at 10:04 PM on July 2, 2013


There’s a scene that was filmed but cut in which Data has deciphered the inscription on the outside of the probe. It reads: Inside each of us lives an entire civilization. That in turn was inspired by a Talmudic saying to the effect that killing a single person, and therefore his or her descendants, was like murdering an entire people. The Kataan people know they are about to die and desperately want to live on – by finding someone special to walk in their shoes and tell their story.

They were right to cut it, but it's a beautiful sentiment.

On reflection, I suppose this is true for all of us.

I'm not the only person who remembers my grandfather Gillman, but it may be the case that I contain within me all that survives of his way of thought. He was an eccentric amateur Bible scholar. By fundamentalist we now mean a person trying to impose their fanatical beliefs on others, but the word has an older meaning: someone in the theological tradition of The Fundamentals. It's at the roots of what went wrong with American Christianity in the 20th century, but unlike so much of contemporary Christianity it's a document based on rigor and almost ruthless intellectual honesty. I'm not sure whether Grandpa had ever read that book, but that was the tradition in which he operated. It is a dying tradition if not dead.

Grandpa never taught me anything I would call doctrine. What he taught was a methodology of rigorous textual analysis. Begin with the assumptions that (1) the entire Bible, word by word, is inspired by God and that (2) because God is truth He would never contradict himself, therefore any snippet of the Bible can and should be compared against any other. In time I came to believe that both premises are kinda crazy, but if you accept them they lead you into a peculiar intellectual game. If all of the contradictions in the Bible are really only apparent contradictions, then there must be some sort of intellectual backflips you could turn to make it cohere. The trick is that you can't cheat. You have to base your arguments on a careful close reading of Bible verses and your arguments must be logical. Awkward verses cannot be avoided; you must account for apparent counterexamples.

I recall one afternoon he challenged me to tell him what it means to be "in Christ." My ten year old self thought thought about it for a while and I gave my precocious best answer. "Very good!" he'd tell me with genuine enthusiasm "but have you considered (flip flip) Ephesians 1:4." So I'd read it, parse the sentence, compare it to its surrounding context and revise my interpretation. (I'd been well trained at this point) "Very good!" he'd tell me "but wrong. Look at ~~~~~. That conflicts with what you've said. Try again." Mischievous smile. At this point I'd be tearing my hair out wondering what I'd done to deserve this and what I could do to get out of it...except that on another level he'd got me. I had to know. This is the nature of salvation we're talking about, I can't just give up and walk away. So I'd play. Eventually I started to play on my own. This is what I learned from Gillman: everyone as an individual should decide for themselves what to believe on the basis of rational argument. That was the fundamentalism of The Fundamentals. If that doesn't sound like fundamentalism to you it's because that tradition is nearly forgotten.

I'm speaking for the memory of that dead or dying tradition. The spirit of the mad logicians of amateur Bible scholarship does not fit in well with 21st century evangelicalism. Evangelicals hold that as long as you assent to a few key beliefs you're in the club (also, you must hate gays, abortion and Democrats). It's mushy. That's certainly not the worst thing wrong with it, but its mushy and I don't like it. By what argument should I be reaching those conclusions? How are these terms being defined and why should I accept those definitions? Should I just blindly follow what other people say about God? How can that be good enough for anyone? Don't you want to know?

The habits of mind I learned from Grandpa (logic, close reading, following where the evidence leads) have served me well, and they were the foundation of what's ended up becoming a career in academia, but I'm a long way from where I was as a boy. I now know full well that the Bible is a historical artifact written by many authors, often in tension with itself and frequently in contradiction with itself. That means I can't play the game anymore, not his game. However, there don't seem to be many people left who remember the rules or why the game seemed so important. I think I was Grandpa's only student; his children had little patience for his prickly Socratic style. The few people I know who operate in anything like my Grandpa's tradition are now quite old. In twenty years they will all be gone. It is a terrible thing to think that I might be one of the last witnesses to a tradition on which thousands of lifetimes of effort were once spent, and that when I die even the memory of that tradition may be lost.

What does your flute sound like?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:29 PM on July 2, 2013 [23 favorites]


That fucking flute...
posted by Artw at 10:34 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just learned that Picard's friend Batai - actor Richard Reihle - would later play the "Jump to Conclusions" guy from Office Space.

Indeed - inside each of us, there are entire civilizations.
posted by borborygmi at 10:47 PM on July 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


koeselitz: "I always kind of like to think of DS9 s04e19 "Hard Time" - one of my favorite episodes of anything ever - as kind of like a companion piece to "The Inner Light." It uses the same conceit, but in a much darker way, and oddly it sort of gets at the same themes as "The Inner Light" using negative space instead of positive space, if that makes any sense"

How bizarre. I'm currently netflixing DS9, and currently (as in while I type this), up to s04e18. I was worried that I would have to stay up an extra hour to watch e19 for exciting Inner Light dichotomy, but it quickly became clear this is the one you're talking about. Now I'm super excited, and can go to bed when it's over. Winning!
posted by team lowkey at 1:14 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ouch. Not winning. Damn, you were right about negative versus positive space. It really pinpoints how our behaviors are reactions to our experiences. If you're given a lifetime of memories of feeling loved and special, you end up with a very different outcome than if you're trapped and worthless and disposable. It illustrates a very direct result of imprisonment and ghettos and oppression. Wow. Good Star Treks.
posted by team lowkey at 2:17 AM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Civilized philosophical discussions like this, make Star Trek Into Darkness just that much more bitter a pill to swallow this summer.
posted by fairmettle at 2:46 AM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Mentioning "Hard Time"--one of the many "annual O'Brien torture episodes" of DS9 in which the chief gets put in bizarre and/or traumatic situations in which he often only has himself to rely upon--reminds me of my favorite TNG episode, "The Wounded", which is not only the episode where O'Brien really comes into his own as a character (he'd actually appeared in the pilot, but wasn't named at first, and the show wasn't even sure if he was an officer or a non-com for a while), but also introduced the Cardassians, so it's kind of a precursor to DS9.

And it's great because it establishes one of DS9's themes: that there are problems that won't be solved in the future, and may never be; the wounds that O'Brien and his former CO bear from their time in the Cardassian War will never heal completely. And it has one of the great lines in the entire Trek franchise: "It's not you I hate, Cardassian. I hate what I became because of you."
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:58 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


I still can't hear anyone say the phrase, "It's me," without getting a little choked up.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:20 AM on July 3, 2013


It's not hard to see why The Flute generates so much fascination. Has a single, tangible object ever been weighted with so much meaning in Trek canon?

Spoilers: And can we talk about how incredible Sir Patrick Stewart's acting is in this episode, particularly in regard to his relationship with his wife Merribor (sp?). After a few scenes with her, the sense of loss he conveys when she dies is powerful. The first time I saw that scene after getting married, I bawled my eyes out. I also love how in the big reveal at the end, when all the characters including his wife re-appear to explain what happened, the only thing he cares about is that she's there in front of him again. They're telling him to keep the memory of their civilization alive, and all he can do is say his wife's name. If you've ever had someone in your life you hope to be with until one of you dies, you recognize how true it feels.

One of the best episodes of television ever.
posted by dry white toast at 5:30 AM on July 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


When I was a kid, this episode spawned so many self-righteous fanfic ideas where everything is fixed by the Enterprise sling-shotting around the Sun and traveling back in time to SAVE THESE PEOPLE, particularly Picard's grandson, whom I identified with and whose predicament I thought I might be in, what with all the adults talking about ozone holes and global warming.

This is by far the best thing Star Trek has ever done, but it's also an episode that I absolutely hate and will (probably) never willingly watch again.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:45 AM on July 3, 2013


The thing I liked the most about this episode is their reaction to impending annihilation. Not to riot, not to pull some futile gesture to save themselves. They look death in the face and send out a probe to say "We don't know you, because we're dead. But whoever you are, we love you and want you to know us."

The other thing I like is that it's a perfect demonstration of the amoral horror that the Federation is -- if it had only discovered their plight in time, the Federation would have... sat back and watched them burn in smug safety.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:06 AM on July 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Learning that "The Inner Light" started out as a really shitty idea is the most inspiring thing I've read in a while.

Hey, nothing in this world springs full-formed from the brow of Zeus. Everything starts out as a really shitty idea.

Hell, even we start out life as really useless, annoying, smelly creatures and it's only a long, slow process of painful trial and error that (hopefully) crafts us into well-rounded, worthwhile human beings.

Except for Rick Perry, of course, whose sole concession to the process of development into a worthwhile human being appears to have been learning not to shit his pants.
posted by Naberius at 6:35 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Except for Rick Perry, of course, whose sole concession to the process of development into a worthwhile human being appears to have been learning not to shit his pants.

Cite, please.
posted by murphy slaw at 6:50 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow, it's not often you come across something that you really admire while it's cutting your life almost exactly in half.

My 21st birthday was a couple of days after this aired, and to this day I remember how much I was moved by it. I was done with finals, back to the parents house, and then this emotional atom bomb dropped. Upon rewatch, it still holds up. The main concept was so groundbreaking, so real, it was so easy to imagine yourself in that situation.

It brought a tear to my eye then, and it still does now.
posted by Sphinx at 7:19 AM on July 3, 2013


Just learned that Picard's friend Batai - actor Richard Reihle - would later play the "Jump to Conclusions" guy from Office Space.

I just learned that he was the cool reverend in Fried Green Tomatoes.
posted by Melismata at 7:34 AM on July 3, 2013


I was at a party a few years ago - probably 25-30 fellow geeky people crowded into the first floor of my friends house - late night, lots of talking and boozing and other general party noise. My friend was showing me the pennywhistle that she bought in the UK on her last visit. I picked it up and played the first line of Batai's Song from The Inner Light.

Instantly the room went silent and everyone's heads whipped around. Dead silence. Even the dogs looked at me. Half of people's eyes filled with tears and the other half kind of had a "I know that song...it makes me sad, don't know why..." looks on their faces. That song, man. It sinks in. One little riff of a song featured in a single episode* of a niche show that went off the air almost two decades ago can bring a party to a screeching halt.

* I choose to ignore the roller piano woman
posted by Elly Vortex at 7:54 AM on July 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


Damn, does Patrick Stewart just crush the end of this episode -- even more so than I realized? I just watched the Youtube ending above and got tears in my eyes, not really because of the story's content but because the acting is so great, it's beautiful.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:58 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Damn, does Patrick Stewart just crush the end of this episode -- even more so than I realized?

I think Patrick Stewart is a huge part of what made, and still makes, TNG work for me, even though a lot of the episodes seem a lot sillier than they did when I was 12. Even though the effects haven't aged all that well, and the episodic nature of the series stands out even more in the golden era of serialized storytelling that we've been in for the past several years, his performance just has so much gravity and dignity to it that it brings everything else up with it.

This is one of my favorite episodes. I can definitely see its shadow more directly in Hard Time, but the DS9 episode that always seemed like its spiritual successor to me was The Visitor, in that it left me feeling that same emotional resonance after watching it.
posted by Kosh at 8:06 AM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "There’s a scene that was filmed but cut in which Data has deciphered the inscription on the outside of the probe. It reads: Inside each of us lives an entire civilization. That in turn was inspired by a Talmudic saying to the effect that killing a single person, and therefore his or her descendants, was like murdering an entire people. The Kataan people know they are about to die and desperately want to live on – by finding someone special to walk in their shoes and tell their story."


This is a theme that they keep coming back to with Picard, his lack of a familial heir. In Generations he loses his nephew (a foil to the plot of that episode) and in the finale: he is losing his memory and his sense of self a fate worse than death. Amazing stuff.
posted by stratastar at 10:34 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]




In The Captains, the HBO special where William Shatner interviews all the other Star Trek Captains, Patrick Stewart talks about how when TNG first started, the press treated him, an esteemed member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as if he was slumming by being involved in sci-fi. It really irked him because he felt it was serious TV and serious drama. But I think his presence largely made it so (sorry!).
posted by dry white toast at 8:22 PM on July 3, 2013


I think Patrick Stewart is a huge part of what made, and still makes, TNG work for me

That and the insane chemistry the whole cast had together. You can still see it whenever they do panels or other appearances together. It's like magic.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:51 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It really irked him because he felt it was serious TV and serious drama.

But, equally, as he also says in the documentary, he was probably taking the whole thing too seriously and the rest of the cast thought he should lighten up.
posted by crossoverman at 8:51 PM on July 3, 2013


That and the insane chemistry the whole cast had together. You can still see it whenever they do panels or other appearances together. It's like magic.

Yeah, totally agreed. I liked all of their performances. I think where Patrick Stewart gives the show that extra push is in the early seasons, where the cast chemistry hasn't quite set yet and the episode plotlines are pretty shaky.

And I think this has been linked before, but Gates McFadden's Tumblr is pretty funny. Basically the adventures of the Dr. Crusher action figure.
posted by Kosh at 6:12 AM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: There was a really cool documentary I saw about Stark Trek
I'm currently getting a serious geek hardon to stop fantasizing about Stark Trek.

The Orion girls would forget about Captain What's-His-Toupee when Tony warped into town...
posted by IAmBroom at 5:32 PM on July 6, 2013


crossoverman: But, equally, as he also says in the documentary, he was probably taking the whole thing too seriously and the rest of the cast thought he should lighten up.
To be fair, it was much, much easier for them to ask him to lighten up, than for them to rise to his level.

Maybe Brent Spiner had a shot, but the rest were just hoping he'd play the next game with one hand tied behind his back. It'd only be fair.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:43 PM on July 6, 2013




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