Gene Roddenberry may not have intended for Patrick Stewart to run away with the show, but the he did. The five best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation are The Inner Light, Tapestry (Previously quoted here), Chain of Command (Part II),
Best of Both Worlds, and All Good Things (Parts I and II). Each episode is a deep exploration of Picard’s character. He must question who he really is and what he really knows. Three of those episodes put Picard in to another life altogether.
While many of us may wonder what it’s like to live a completely different life, Picard actually finds out. He is afforded the opportunity to jump out of normal day-to-day living and take on another life.
In Inner Light, however, the writers evoke another common fantasy theme. Not only does Picard live another life, he does it because he is special. While the circumstances are different, and Picard wasn’t exactly living under the stairs with spiders, this is the same theme that brings Harry Potter into the wizarding world, Anakin, and later, Luke Skywalker into the world of the Jedi, Buffy Summers into the world of the supernatural, Hal Jordan into the Green Lantern Corps, pulls Neo from the Matrix, and takes Frodo out of the Shire. They have all been pulled from their normal lives to fight a significant evil. They are destined to it. They have a higher purpose.
Not all heroes go through this. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and Commander Adama don’t. They make tough and heroic decisions, but they are responding to circumstance, rather than destiny. They are not chosen by some outside force to save the world.
In “Inner Light”, the Enterprise encounters a strange satellite. As the approach it, it probes the ship and crew members, and latches on to Picard. It chooses Picard for a special task. It connects to him with an energy beam.
With Picard unconscious and experiencing unheard of levels of mental activity, the crew figures out the satellite came from a start system destroyed hundreds of years ago by a sun that went super nova.
Meanwhile, Picard wakes up with someone else’s name in a house he does not recognize, with a woman claiming to be his wife. She tells him he is an iron worker who has been sick. Picard resists, but as the years go by, he begins to accept the new world as his own, and he begins to believe the Enterprise and planet hopping was all a dream.
He becomes a valued member of the community. He develops friendships, watches his wife and friends grow old and die, has a family, watches them grow, and ages him self. He raises his daughter to be a scientist. His son becomes a musician. He becomes a grand father and plays with his grand kids.
Throughout this life he explores his science hobby, and predicts the impending death of his world. He alerts officials but they inform him they already know, and there is little they can do. They have some mysterious plan to protect the culture,
And he learns to play the flute.
One day, when Picard is an old man, decades after he arrived, his family brings him out watch the launch of a satellite. He is shocked to run into people he loves from years past. His best friend. His wife. They explain everything to him.
The satellite is a library of the culture launched years ago to preserve the best of the society. When the satellite found Picard it connected to him and allowed him to live in the society for more than 35 years. He is the sole repository for the lost civilization. As long as Picard remembers, the world will live forever.
We see the contrail from the satellite launch, and Picard wakes up on the Enterprise. To the crew, he has been unconscious for about a half hour. But in that time, Picard has built decades of memories and has to slowly reacclimate himself to the modern world and ship he leads.
The crew brings the satellite aboard and analyzes it. It was a one shot deal though. It chose Picard to be the culture then died. The only thing init is an old wooden box. Riker bring the box to Picard. Thos only thing in it is the flute he learned to play in that other life. Riker leaves him alone, and Picard begins to play.
The tone and pace were perfect. The story and script were tight. They didn’t show us everything; they trusted us to fill in the gaps. It’s the best episode of the series, and it’s not even part of some larger story arc.
Beyond making Picard deal with the intense questions of “What is live?” and “What is a dream?” it exposed let him live a new life. It gave Picard the family he could never have as a Star Fleet captain. It pulled him from the intense modern life style and gave him a life in a slower time. He lived in a country at a different pace. And in doing so managed to save the memory of another people.
“Inner Light” drew on great fantasy traditions with an original concept. And it was executed flawlessly. That makes it the best episode from the entire series.