Sunday, June 25, 2006

Inner Light Sources

In this episode written by Morgan Gendel and Peter Allan Fields, from a story by Morgan Gendel, there’s no internal reference to an “the inner light.” (In the shooting script, there’s some conversation before the Enterprise encounters the probe about an Admiral who liked attending the entire 9 hour “Ring” cycle by Wagner, but it has only a tenuous thematic relevance as a long story compressed into a single experience. And it doesn’t appear in the filmed story.)

The most obvious reference is to a song titled “The Inner Light,” written by George Harrison and originally released in 1968 on a 45 rpm single as the “B” side to Paul McCartney’s “Lady Madonna.” It was pretty obscure for a Beatles song--except for a mono version on a 1978 collection of “rare” tracks, it didn’t make it onto an album until 1988, and the U.S. Beatles CD “Past Masters Vol. 2” in 1990, a couple of years before this TV episode aired.

Its sound is heavily influenced by music of India, with Indian musicians and instruments recorded in Bombay (Harrison was writing in this idiom at the time for a movie soundtrack.) According to the Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia, Harrison received a letter praising his first song influenced by Indian sitar and Eastern philosophy, “Within You, Without You” on the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album, from Juan Mascaro, a Sanskrit teacher at Cambridge University, who has translated many Eastern religious texts including the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Mascaro also sent his book, Lamps of Fire from the scriptures and wisdoms of the world, which included a translation of part of the Te Tao Ching (or Tao Te Ching) by Lao-tzu, which he apparently titled “The Inner Light.”

That particular book by Mascaro is out of print, but Verse 47 of the Tao Te Ching is the probable source for “The Inner Light” translation and Harrison’s song. Harrison uses some of the lines from this section, and adds several more verses in the same vein for his lyrics.

I always figured this song had something to do with this episode’s title, but it took a recent email from Nick Sagan to open my eyes to why. Though Nick isn’t claiming inside knowledge, he guesses this song is the source because the lyrics (“Without going out of my door/I can know all things of earth./Without looking out of my window/I could know the ways of heaven”) suggest the “ability to experience many things without actually going anywhere---and that’s what happens to Picard.”

It’s the kind of comment that has you hitting yourself in the head. Of course! While he’s lying on the floor of the Enterprise bridge, he experiences an entire lifetime on another planet.

“Arrive without traveling/See all without looking”

There’s also a melancholy comment on Picard’s life as an explorer in space:

The farther one travels/the less one knows
The less one really knows

The journey out is not complete without the journey in. But that’s just the beginning of the possible links of the title and its ultimate source (the Tao) to the content of this story. Which is not to say that the writers consciously designed this. They may or may not be surprised to learn of these connections.

For it turns out that some concept of “the inner light” recurs in many religious traditions. Quakers in particular, but other Christians as well, refer to the indwelling of the Divine as the Inner Light. When Eskimo shamans experience a feeling of oneness with the universe, it is accompanied by the flash of an “inner light.”

The Tao is considered a source for philosophies and beliefs in a number of Eastern traditions but particularly in Buddhism, and the metaphor of the inner light recurs there as well. The inner light is the experience of existence, of the is-ness of things, the Now that links the inner and the outer worlds.

I learned some of this by coincidence, for while I was preparing to write about this episode, I happened to be reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Published in 1978 (and a National Book Award winner), it is his account of a physical journey across some of the Earth’s highest and most inaccessible mountains in Nepal and Tibet, which was also a spiritual journey on the Buddhist path.

Since I’d just seen “The Inner Light” episode again, I couldn’t escape being reminded of it as I read this book, especially in a passage like this: “Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is.”

Matthiessen expresses the Buddhist sense of the Divine in the present moment in several ways, but they eventually come down to this: “All that is or was or will ever be is right here in this moment! Now!”

To really break through to experiencing the fullness of the present moment is enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. Picard does not quite reach such a sustained spiritual state, but at least on the level of feeling and consciousness he learns to value and cherishes the now above all else. (Picard does get closer to the Buddhist ideal of being in the moment, at least metaphorically, when he learns to “slow down time” in the film, Star Trek: Insurrection.) It is however closer to a spiritual transformation than an excuse on the level of transitory appetites and vain attempts to fill them, which is the negative meaning of living in the present.

For Picard, the solitary traveler through the outer darkness, the light of love and the inner light of living in the present moment is his enlightening experience. This willingness to live in the now also accounts for how Picard gives himself over to his new identity and life as Kamin.

He has learned as well that fulfillment does not require great achievements and honors, rank or medals, or being first in everything. He finds meaning and richness in a relatively simple life in a small village, without a lot of expensive or complicated things, among people of modesty and simple virtue. “Simplicity,” Matthiessen observes in The Snow Leopard, ”is the whole secret of well-being.”

7 comments:

Morgan Gendel said...

As the writer of "Inner Light," I enjoyed reading yor comments. The journey form pitch to script was arduous -- I brought some version of this story to the producers seven times before it was even approved as a story in development. But what each incarnaton had in common was a "mental probe" of some sort that beamed experiences directly in to the recipient's head. Originally, it was a riff on the Fuji blimp -- a 30th century adverstising tool, which Picard and crew didn't realize at first. The tale grew in richness as the "blimp" became a probe whose purpose was to pass along the memory of this dead civilization.
As a huge Beatles fan, I thought it would be fun to name this episode after an obscure B-side track -- and (I thought this was obvious) "Inner Light" (I dropped the "the" for the screen title) captured the theme of the show: that Picard experienced a lifetime of memories all in his head.
Incidentally, I later pitched a sequel to this episode that I think fans would have liked to see. Remember, all the people in his inner light experience were really actors in this "video loop" sent out by the probe. What if, I posited, the Kataan civilization actually had a Plan B - a rudimentary space vehicle that could be launched - and what if Aline (Picard's "wife"), or, more acurately, the Kataan actress who played Aline, was selected to be maong those few survivors who would be sent off before the Supernova hit? And so, my episode-to-be went, the Enterprise encounters the Kataan ship - Aline is revived from suspended animation - and brought on board. To Picard, THIS WAS HIS WIFE! All his thoughts are 100% real - hence his ability to play that alien flute at the end of "Inner Light" (quick PS - the producers made fine sport of me for suggesting this bit and all had a good laugh; but somehow they decidced to give it a go and I've heard form fans who consider it one of th emost moving episodes in the series) -- so here he is with his long-gone wife - and she doesn't know him form a hole in the wall! Interesting dynamic, isn't it?
The producers again said no.
Welcome to showbiz.

Captain Future said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and providing this background. It's an hour of TV that continues to live and connect with people, and will for a long time. That's a great thing for a writer to know.

Your comment about Picard remembering the flute tune reminds me of its power the first time I saw it. Those of us who know the story tend to forget that there is suspense about that when Picard regains consciousness on the Enterprise--how much will he remember, and was it "real" or just a dream? The flute song shows that it was a real experience, and it was as you say very moving to a lot of people.

Of course I know people--and come to think of it, I'm one--who dreampt a new piece of music and retained enough of it to play it or write it down in the morning. But in context of the episode, it works extremely well to signal the reality of Picard's experience, and make the fact that it's over and gone more poignant and haunting.

Anonymous said...

hey guys. i can say, hands down, without a doubt, that the moment when picard plays the flute at the end of that episode is *THE* most moving and amazing moment of the entire series. i remember that my sister (who thought she hated star trek) watched that episode and became hooked on star trek because of it. kudos to morgan for having the guts to push for a story that he knew had real depth when the powers that be didn't understand. also, kudos to the composer of the music for that episode and for that beautiful little tune. The cue at the end of the episode is visionary - the flute tune is heard as a source cue, then as background with reverb as the enterprise floats away . . . absolutely brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Today is August 15, 2006. I saw this episode a few years ago and it has remained with me since. It is the most intuitive, inspiring episode of the entire series. I know that I will see it again and I also know that I will be as fascinated with it then as I was when I first saw it.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the episode again, after not having seen it since I was a kid. I now consciously can appreciate more of the religious / meditative aspects to the story, but I'm sure that as a child it planted these ideas in my head and made me more receptive to them in my later life.
For me the emotional climax is still when Kamin's family and friends reappear and explain to him the meaning of it all. This is a very rare example of a "mindf*ck", or twist ending that alters the reality of the entire storyline, being put to strong emotional use, rather than just being a surprising gimmick.
Hats off to Morgan Gendel, if you happen to come back to these comments again - and to William Kowinski for his eyeopening - and mindexpanding! - ruminations on the episode.
- John Morrison

Anonymous said...

While a great episode, yet the actual author of the original story might not be Morgan Gendel. Three years before this episode aired, the popular Arizona fanzine, "Quastar 6" (October 1, 1989) published "The Archaevan Encounter" that had been previously submitted through a WGA-authorized agent and the script registered (as printed in the fanzine: WGA West Registration # 407662) and then was rejected by Star Trek The Next Generation.

In the fanzine-published story, which issue I still have, the USS Enterprise encounters a probe in deep space identified as belonging to an extremely advanced and long-extinct race. Rather than just Picard materializing suddenly on an unknown world with a relatively primitive culture, he is accompanied by Data, Worf and Dr. Crusher. As they learn, also on this planet is another culture that is extremely technologically advanced far beyond even Federation standards. As the crew learns, the technologically advanced culture had become obsessed with living most of their lives inside "holodeck"-style fantasies where they can do anything they like without consequences. Raised this way, real life was lived without ethics or compassion for the feelings and lives of others (this was long before "Grand Theft Auto" and the concerns such games have raised). For this reason, a segment of the society blamed technology for the brutality frequently experienced in that affluent and "spoiled" culture and so formed the separate primitive society encountered by Picard and company.

In the end, after unknowing passing a test proving that the Enterprise crew -- despite their technology -- use such responsibly and ethically, they are just as suddenly returned to the Enterprise. The probe, no longer motionless, now approaches and, amazingly, passes through the very skin of the ship and onto the Bridge itself. The probe then opens and reveals two objects: a crystalline ball (that LaForge recognizes as the fabled "Archaevan Artifact", a perpetual energy device that generates energy infinitely) and a pitted wooden ball given to Worf by a little boy who sacrificed his life that Worf might live. Surprisingly, Picard asks Worf to choose which of the objects to remove from the probe. Without hesitation and to the shock of all on the Bridge who weren't there, Worf selects the little boy's ball... and the probe together with the priceless "Archaevan Artifact"... vanishes. As LaForge expresses his frustration at Worf's choice, Worf walks to the turbolift, his thoughts only on the little boy. As he reaches the turbolift, Worf looks down and gasps. There in his hands where the ball had been moments before was the glowing crystalline sphere.

As even the book "The Nitpickers Guide to The Next Generation" points out, in the aired version, there is no explanation whatsoever how such a primitive culture could have possibly built and launched a probe so much more advanced than even the Federation's technological level. Of course, the fact that in the aired version there is no possible explanation further evidences the episode's probable true origins and ... frankly ... authorship.

I was with the author when all of us as a Star Trek club gathered to watch the first run of this episode as we did in those days every week. All of us were very familiar with his story and were very disturbed to see this episode air having already published the full story in our fanzine three years earlier. To this day, anyone can still contact the "United Federation of Phoenix" and probably still purchase "Quastar 6" and read the full narrative of the script outline he rewrote for our 1989 fanzine issue after it had been rejected by ST:TNG, only to then have it air three years later (1992) in watered-down fashion as "The Inner Light."

Laurence K said...

"Inner Light" exerts almost as powerful a hold over this viewer it did over Picard. In addition to the story itself and Stewart's fine performances, the subtle secret to the success of this episode is the sublime interpretation of the role of Aline by Margot Rose. In her final scene, Aline banishes our sorrow over what we thought was her death by an almost mischievous smile. She has succeeded in her mission -- and has put one over on us all. Then Aline shows us the most moving grace in the midst of unutterable sorrow, and finally lays upon us the great solemnity of her ultimate injunction: allow her and her people to transcend death by remembering them. Her command to remember lands on us with tremendous and almost unbearable force.

This episode has a feature in common with "The Sixth Sense," in that, once you understand what has been going on, you have to keep watching it over and over to get all the clues. We are watching the execution of a computer program created by a long-dead race. Aline is clearly the program executive, and she presents and controls all the people who "appear". Aline is the director (and her mission badge, that she wears as a necklace, is an indication of this). We realize at the end that Aline "died" earlier not because of any physical cause -- she was already dead -- but in order to complete her programmed mission, which was to leave behind the maximum possible emotional impact on her audience. Thus, Aline's designers hoped, she would compel her audience to perpetuate the memory of Kataan, and thereby grant the people of Kataan a form of transcendence over an implacable fate.

In the final family scene, the flat expressions of the other family members strikingly contrast with the vivid intensity of Aline, who clearly speaks for them all, for all time. "We've all been gone a thousand years..." Where but in the rarest science fiction do you find such mind-bending intensity? Margot Rose achieves sublimity in her realization of this scene.

This episode powerfully adds to its persuasive power by the device of the "transitional object," which is, of course, the flute. Transitional objects, like teddy bears, are crucial components of emotional life. The flute was the perfect way to connect the virtual and the physical components of the Ressikan story. The probe included a physical representation of the virtual flute that Aline would present to Picard a thousand years later.

Picard unifies the virtual and the real worlds when he plays the melody he learned in Aline's story on the physical version of the virtual flute. And the melody happens to be of ravishing beauty, as unforgettable as the story whose glory it crowns. As Picard plays the gorgeously beautiful ancient melody on a flute that symbolizes the life energy and will to survive of an entire doomed race, this great work of art achieves an almost unbearable intensity.

In this inner light, we have a perfect unity of purpose between the designers of Aline's program, and the designers of the Star Trek episode: permanent residence of its message in the mind of the audience. And what is that message? That, as Captain Kirk once said, "Beauty Survives."

The ancient Greeks believed that "the Muses are the daughters of Memory," and surely the grace of all the muses accompanies the beautiful Aline and her people to the happy Elysian fields of the virtuous and remembered dead.