Why ‘The Inner Light’ Is The Magnum Opus of ‘Star Trek’ (Commentary)

“Star Trek” has spent 50 years indulging in the wonders of space, but the Hugo Award-winning episode “The Inner Light” explores the wonders of everyday life

A great deal of science fiction — at least that which leaves a big mark on pop culture — gets potential readers and viewers in the door with a promise of escapism. Sometimes these tales feature a protagonist like Luke Skywalker who leaves his normal life behind and gets a chance to exchange the dreary and dull for danger and destiny, and we as the audience are invited for a short time to imagine ourselves getting whisked away in the same way.

But ironically, many of these same stories end up putting a high value on the very things we take for granted in the everyday lives that escapism offers release from. In “X-Men,” Professor X creates the Xavier Institute in part to give young mutants the chance to make friends, go to school, and enjoy the same normal childhood as the kids reading those Marvel comics. In a recent episode of “Steven Universe,” a show with magical pink lions and immortal gem warriors, a 6,000 year-old gem with the ability to fly praises humans for having superpowers of their own: “You’re allowed and expected to invent who you are,” she says. “What an incredible power…the ability to ‘grow up.’”

That’s why it’s fitting that the greatest episode of “Star Trek,” a franchise that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, is an episode that replaces the adventure of the starship Enterprise with the simple joys of a having a loving spouse and children. This tale is “The Inner Light,” an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that originally aired in 1992 and is one of only four “Trek” episodes to win a Hugo Award.

In this episode, the Enterprise stumbles upon a mysterious probe that hits Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) with an energy beam. When he wakes up, he finds himself on a planet called Kataan with a woman named Eline. Eline tells Picard that she is his wife and that he is Kamin, an iron weaver from the village of Ressik. At first, Picard is alarmed by this news and tries to think of some way to contact his crew. Eventually, though, he accepts that there is no way off the planet and begins to live out his life as Kamin. What he doesn’t know is that he is actually still unconscious on the bridge of the Enterprise, and that the probe is feeding this vision of another world and another life into his head. By the end of the episode, Picard has lived nearly 40 years of Kamin’s life while being unconscious for less than half an hour.

To understand the power of this episode, we need to understand who Picard is. He is a man defined by his duty and his commitment to Starfleet. He is completely dedicated to seeking out new life and new civilizations, and when he’s not on duty as a captain, he’s diving into intellectual pursuits. What he’s never considered is the prospect of having a family, and he’ll fully admit that he’s not good around children.

But in “The Inner Light,” Picard finds happiness in a life that is completely removed from his own. Instead of an explorer, he’s a small-town metal worker. Instead of a captain, he’s a regular citizen whose suggestions for addressing the town’s drought are shot down. But in spite of this, Picard finds peace in the family he never even would have considered having in his normal life. “I’d always thought I didn’t need children to make my life complete,” he muses. “Now, I can’t imagine life without them.”

But even as memories of life aboard the Enterprise wane in his mind as the simulation progresses, he doesn’t completely lose himself to Kamin. Who he is as Picard has an impact on the life he lives as a villager. His intellectual curiosity and desire to explore manifests itself in his frequent hikes around Ressik and his attempts to investigate the unending drought that’s plaguing the planet.Eventually, his firstborn daughter joins him on these hikes, and they inspire her to become a scientist. Rather than transforming into a completely different person, we see what kind of a husband and father Picard could be if he ever actually stepped away from a life in the stars, and it turns out he’s quite good at being a family man.

And that makes it all the more heartbreaking when, in the episode’s second half, we see Picard watch Eline die and realize that Kataan’s drought will never end and bring about the end of the planet’s civilization. The episode ends with Picard seeing a probe launch from his village. He realizes that this probe is the same one he encounters on the Enterprise, and that he now carries the legacy of an entire civilization in his mind. Like waking up from a dream, he returns to his life on the Enterprise and discovers that the probe contained a flute that he frequently played during his life as Kamin. He solemnly plays a tune on the flute alone, lamenting a lost civilization and a life that he never realized he wanted. A life of family and friends found and lost that has now come to an end.

“The Inner Light” is an episode that is not only a high point for “Star Trek,” but sci-fi as a whole. We dream of what it would be like to journey on spaceships that can warp through the universe, but for a man who actually fulfills that dream, this probe makes him realize the wonders that come with a life that billions of people enjoy every day. There’s a lot of amazing things you can do in Starfleet, but the most amazing journey of all — having a family — only comes when the starship docks for good.

“Star Trek” will return with “Star Trek: Discovery,” premiering on CBS All Access this January. Check out our list of the greatest “Trek” episodes below and check out our picks for the greatest “Trek” characters ever here.