Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the first western television shows I recalled watching. As a kid, I didn’t understand why people were dressed up in primary colour uniforms or what they talked about, but it all sounded very interesting and important. As my English comprehension skills improved, it grew to become one of my favourite shows and provided my first exposure to science fiction.
Many people who dismiss science fiction tend to think it begins and ends with rocketships and warp drives, along with the implication that to escape from the real world is essentially a childish impulse. But many of the best sci-fi stories are able to use the metaphors of the genre as unique vehicles to deliver insight into the human condition:
“Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them.”
-Introduction to the Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Inner Light, one of the most critically acclaimed episodes of the Trek franchise, weaves ideas of nature, culture, and self into a haunting narrative that has profound implications for both the protagonist of the story and the viewers of the show. It is a wonderful and accessible hour of television, exemplifying the type of thought-provoking story the genre is capable of conveying.
After an encounter with an alien probe, Captain Jean-Luc Picard falls unconscious and wakes up in Ressik, a village on a planet called Kataan. He discovers in this world he is named Kamin, husband to a woman named Eline. Eline informs him gently that he had just awoken from a long fever, and the memories of his life as Picard were mere delusional side effects from his illness. Back upon the Enterprise, the crew works to sever the connection between Picard and the probe, but is ultimately unsuccessful.
Years pass on Kataan. Picard begins to let go of his past life. He gradually accepts life as Kamin, friendship from Batai, a local council member, and love from Eline. He discovers that marriage and children gave him joy he never knew as a starship captain. He even discovers a passion for playing the Ressikan flute. However, he still retains his past life’s passion for exploration and science, spending his free time constructing laboratories and keeping meticulous records of the progressively severe drought that threatens his community. Kamin comes to realize that Kataan is dying, but there is nothing he can do about it. In his old age, he laments bitterly at the future that his grandchildren will never have.
Back to the Enterprise, Kataan is revealed to have been destroyed by its sun going nova over one thousand years ago. Kamin goes to the launch of the very probe that finds Picard on the Enterprise. Eline reveals that the probe was intended to be an interactive time capsule, designed to convey the history of the extinct civilization to one person through a lifetime of lived and shared experience. The people of Kataan ask Picard to tell others about the story of their world. Picard awakens to discover only twenty minutes have elapsed in real-time. A changed man, he quietly contemplates the second life he was given as the episode comes to a close.
Hope, nature, and community
The theme of nature providing hope to culture is a strong one in The Inner Light. Kamin initially meets Batai at a tree-planting ceremony in which Batai speaks to his fellow villagers:
Batai: “This sapling is planted as an affirmation of life in defiance of the drought and with expectations of long life. Whatever comes, we will keep it alive as a symbol of our survival.”
In a second scene when the drought has grown progressively worse, Batai reiterates the critical role that the tree plays in the face of adversity:
Administrator: “There you are, Batai. Perhaps you can explain to me, when crops are dying all over, how this tree is flourishing? “
Batai: “This tree is our symbol, our affirmation of life. Everyone in this town gives part of their water rations to keep it alive. We’ve learned, Administrator, that hope is a powerful weapon against anything. Even drought.”
The act of tree planting serves as a rallying call for the entire village. The tree in the middle of town becomes a symbol for resilience. In giving a portion of their water rations to the tree, villagers come together and act for the common good. The tree’s survival represents cooperation and conveys optimism to future generations. As Michael Pollan stated in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, “tree planting is always a utopian enterprise, it seems to me, a wager on a future the planter doesn’t necessarily expect to witness. A gesture for the future, a symbol of hope” (Chapter 9, Planting a Tree).
The increasingly severe environmental problems are hinted at throughout the episode; the damaging sun, the prolonged drought, and the dead soils all serve as ominous clues that Kataan was facing a looming planetary disaster. Kataan’s predicament brings me to think of the world today. Given our current level of technology and our knowledge of the solar system, we cannot escape our problems should the life support systems of the Earth be overwhelmed. Like the people of Kataan, we have nowhere else to go. But unlike Kataan, the ecological problems we face are of our own doing and are ultimately preventable.
When it is revealed that the natural support systems of Kataan are dying, it becomes clear that civilization is doomed. Kamin expresses regret at the deteriorating state of the world to his daughter Meribor:
“My grandson. It breaks my heart. He deserves a rich, full life, and he’s not going to get one.”
Patrick Stewart delivers the line powerfully; I always find myself moved by this scene upon rewatches and think to the future of our own world. Will our legacy to our children and grandchildren contain rousing tales of hope and promise, or will they be letters of apology and regret?What will the storytellers of the future speak of us?
- What legacies do we want to leave behind for future generations?
Storytelling and Cultural Preservation
Eline: “The rest of us have been gone for a thousand years. If you remember what we were, and how we lived, then we’ll have found life again.”
In the real world, cultural extinction is a very real occurrence. Today, cultures and languages are disappearing at a rate greater than biodiversity loss; centuries of human achievements and examples of resilience are being wiped out every day. Culture is a funny powerful thing: It can unite societies, but it is immensely fragile. Thousands of years of adaptations, oral history and knowledge, entire ways of being, can be lost within a single generation through ignorance and neglect. With each loss comes the irrevocable dimming of humanity as a whole, of what the human experience was and could potentially be.
The Inner Light highlights the significance of storytelling in cultural preservation. Picard was entrusted with the history of an entire culture; their continued existence now survives solely through him. He becomes a teacher of their ways, their customs, their traditions, and their way of thinking and being. The Ressikan flute that is left to Picard represents the only other link to the world of Kataan. From the way he holds the flute, it is clear that Picard understands its full significance.
Picard and Kamin: Outsider, scientist, teacher
Morgan Gendel, the writer of the episode, discussed the significance of Picard being an outsider to Kataan. He believed that “stories about outsiders who challenge the status quo are important in stirring up emotions.” (Tor.com) They are able to see things differently and are not as attached to conventions and traditions. Picard as Kamin is one of the few citizens of the village concerned about the drought and its environmental consequences. The differences between Batai and Kamin’s approach to the administrator is plain from the beginning. Batai is very submissive in his dealings, and the administrator dismisses Batai for being “a bit of an alarmist” for even suggesting new water reclamation strategies to combat the drought. But Kamin is not afraid to talk about more radical ideas, such as the construction of atmospheric condensers to extract water from the air. Years later, when Kamin threatens the administrator with going public with his facts and observations, the administrator admitted he has known the extent of the crisis for some time.
Science plays a large role in Picard’s identity as an outsider. Like any good scientist, he is disciplined and driven in his pursuit of the truth. He uses the scientific method to tease out the underlying causes of the prolonged drought. Much to his surprise, he unwittingly becomes a teacher and a role model, passing along his passion for exploration and discovery to his daughter. The following is my favourite exchange from the episode:
Meribor: Happy day, father.
Kamin: Hey, that’s my hobby. Find your own.
Meribor: You’re the one who taught me. Don’t complain if you’ve turned me into a scientist.
Kamin: And what has the scientist been up to today?
Meribor: Analyzing soil samples. There isn’t any anaerobic bacteria. The soil is dead. This isn’t just a very long drought, is it, Father? I have entries in my log that go back ten years. You have data preceding that for fifteen years. You’ve reached the same conclusion, I know you have.
Kamin: I haven’t reached any conclusion. A good scientist doesn’t function by conjecture.
Meribor: A good scientist functions by hypothesizing and then proving or disproving that hypothesis. That’s what I did.
Kamin: Hey, why don’t you spend more time with that young fellow Dannick?
Meribor: You are changing the subject.
Kamin: No, I’m not. I’m just hypothesizing that he’s in love with you.
Meribor: You’ve taught me to pursue the truth, no matter how painful it is. It’s too late to back off now. This planet is dying.
Kamin: Perhaps I should have filled your head with trivial concerns. Games and toys and clothes.
Meribor: I don’t think you mean that.
Kamin: No, I don’t. It just saddens me to see you burdened with the knowledge things you can’t change.
Meribor: Father, I think I should marry Dannick sooner rather than later, don’t you?
Kamin: Seize the time, Meribor. Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.
Meribor: I love you, Father.
There is just so much packed into this one scene. For me, it is simultaneously revealing and intensely emotional. I get a refresher on the scientific method and what it means to be a scientist. I am captivated by the passion shared by two colleagues who understand one another. I am touched by the strong bond and love between daughter and father. Finally, I am moved by the realization of the sad and inevitable truth and the urgency of the message to live for today.
It is sometimes difficult to learn about the depressing aspects on the state of our world, and there is a tendency to fall into despair when we are unable to affect the changes we believe are sorely needed. Sometimes it seems easier to live happily in ignorance than to live with the burdens of the truth. But as Meribor says, we must strive to pursue the truth, no matter how painful it may be. We must keep hope alive and work towards a better and more sustainable future.
- Is it better to live happily in ignorance or to live with the burden of the truth? Is there a balance we should strive for?
A bonus for Trekkies: Click on the picture.
Next Up: The dark side of science-fiction.
- Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Part II
- Seeds of the Future: Zelda’s The Wind Waker
- Of Myths and Metaphors: TNG’s Darmok
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1969. Introduction published 1976.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Kindle e-book edition. New York: Grove Press, 1991.
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