232. The Inner Light
FORMULA: The Paradise Syndrome + The Nth Degree
WHY WE LIKE IT: The acting. A beautiful concept.
WHY WE DON'T: The make-up gets in the way.
REVIEW: The notion behind The Inner Light is a beautiful one. A dying planet has sent out a life experience into space to preserve its culture and way of life. Instead of deciphering writings and artifacts, a would-be archaeologist experiences 40+ years in the life of a man. (Let us hope the program is adaptable to your decisions and that it can be "turned on" and directed at will, or else Picard is the last ever repository of K'taan culture.)
It's a beautiful idea, but it matters to us because it's changing Picard's life. Sure, we know from the beginning that it's all in his head - no final twist or reset button to cheapen this one - but it gives him the chance to have what he never has, what he never allowed himself to have, i.e. a family. Picard thus lives a full, rich, but simple life, and the bonds he forges there are as real to him as any on the Enterprise. As we'll see, this has subtly transformed the character forever, leading us to Generations and perhaps even Insurrection and beyond. The end of the episode has Picard return to the ship, now a hazy memory (did he have to retrain or did it all come back to him?), and we hear the haunting Ressikan flute melody one more time, leading us to the credits instead of the usual horns. Very beautiful and a sign that this will stay with the captain.
The success of The Inner Light relies a lot on the acting, but it's Patrick Stewart, so you're in good hands. He has to give us a Picard that's in a totally other environment now, and a few years from now, and 10 years from now, 20, 40. He has to play age, and the depth and variety of emotion: resigned to his new life, he asks Eline if he can build a nursery; interacting with his children; the sudden death of his wife; his heart breaking at the idea that his grandson won't have a rich, full life. It's beautifully done, and in large part because Margot Rose is so effective as Eline as well.
The episode has long been considered one of the best TNG had to offer, usually placing 1st or 2nd overall, but I do think it hasn't aged as well as it should have, and that's because of the ageing make-up. The performances are very strong, but the last two acts have to be played under tons of latex. At the time remarkable, I'm sure, but they seem very stiff now. A small nitpick, but it did bother me.
LESSON: Time flies when you're under the influence of an alien probe.
REWATCHABILITY - High: Still one of the best by virtue of its acting and original concept. The DVD offers a small treat, using the Ressikan melody on the episode's menu screen, and I can't wait to hear it again in Lessons.