The topic today is Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically the season five episode “The Inner Light,” which is among the best short-form science fiction that I have ever seen. I prefer not to get into the larger framework of “what science fiction can tell us about ourselves,” or more bleakly, “what [insert genre fiction] does,” please consult your local potbellied stoner / your preferred search engine for more on those concepts (I recall the A/V Club getting into this idea a lot in its recaps of The X-Files, so maybe that’s a good place to start).
Also, this presumes a working understanding of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At minimum, understand that Star Trek: The Next Generation is a show about space explorers who use the Socratic method to solve their problems, lead by your mother’s favorite uncircumcised actor.
So here’s the deal with “The Inner Light.” The space explorers are out tooling around in the void and they come across a satellite they don’t understand. This thing sends a space beam straight into the Captain’s head, knocking him out cold. He wakes up in someone’s house and is told he is a valued member of a desert community on a planet that sure keeps getting hotter and dryer but really it’s probably just fine. The first 10 minutes of the show are very “Once in a Lifetime,” as the captain keeps insisting he is not a member of this community with a wife and friends but is, in fact, a star ship captain. Over and over he tries to contact his friends, eventually failing enough times that he resigns himself to settling into this life he has inherited. He drinks with his buddies, he speaks out at the local government meetings, he falls in love with his wife, he has a family. All the while, the planet his is living on keeps deteriorating. Time passes. Global collapse is a guarantee. The government says it has a solution, but the captain’s kids keep getting older and so does he. His daughter gets married, his son becomes a musician, his wife dies. His life on the planet marches on, his life in space is forgotten. Right as he reaches peak old age and all the plant life and water on the planet are dead, the government reveals it’s grand plan to save civilization: A space probe that will, someday, zap a space captain has he passes it, telling him the tale of its people, it’s culture, and how they came to die. Then the captain wakes up in his own body, having been asleep for a couple of hours.
The beauty of the episode is the ambiguity of it. It ends where it has to, with the captain conflicted about what has happened to him. He feels, as he gazes out into space, both the sense of something gained and something tremendous lost. He gave up one life to live another fulfilling one, then traded that one back in for his first life. He essentially gets two wacks at existence, but is unsure if he wants another pass through. You are left, as the viewer, to decide for yourself if this was heaven or hell.
I’ve seen this episode of television maybe a dozen times. I do not get sick of it, nor do I get any closer to the answer of how to feel about the idea the show presents, to the answer of how someone is supposed to feel in that situation, to how someone should respond to a second chance. It’s an impossible dream that I keep remembering. Good show.