Sunday, June 25, 2006

Inside the Magic

H.G. Wells explained how his science fiction stories worked: a plausible or at least fascinating “magic trick,” in a self-consistent world with recognizable characters. The science fiction in “The Inner Light” is a beam that causes a man to experience himself as someone else, and live more than thirty years of a life in less than a half hour in real time. This remarkable idea is both somewhat plausible (our science says that damage to the brain or electrical stimulation can alter a person’s perceptions and memories; chemicals can cause hallucinations) and intriguing, because we are all fascinated with dreams that seem to be real. We’re also especially fascinated with how we experience the passage of time, in dreams or in various circumstances in our waking life.

The “magic trick” works, Wells says, only if you don’t look too hard at it. In this case, we aren’t supposed to speculate on how a society that isn’t capable of interplanetary travel can create a device capable of projecting into an unknown being such a completely felt and experienced hallucination. Besides, in the context of a television series, we often accept any excuse to see a well-known character in an entirely different situation or life, caused by anything from fever-dreams to mirror universes.

A more serious problem would be if we didn’t believe that Picard could forget who he was, and become someone else so completely. But the careful writing and wonderful acting makes this magic trick successful---we believe it entirely. Not only was this one of Patrick Stewart’s best performances, but Margot Rose was perfect as Elise. She seldom gets the credit she deserves for the success of this episode.

In some ways, the episode harks back to the original series in its bounded simplicity. Though it is beautifully lit and photographed, and filled with scenic detail, the world we see could be physically contained on a theatre stage. There are a few rooms in a modest house, a backyard, and a town square a few yards or feet away. Except for one matte painting, that’s all we see of Ressik. So like many TOS episodes, this is more like a stage play than the usual outer space, hardware-driven science fiction.

In fact I remember being a bit bothered by this constrictedness, this seeming artificiality when it first aired. But its emotional power was always there, and the subtlety of its structure became more apparent on subsequent viewings. Like certain fables or myths, it is deft and economical in its storytelling.

As a story about Picard, it is fascinating to those who know about his past in the series, and now, to those who can see how this experience changed him, as seen in later episodes and films. The life Picard leads as Kamin is almost the opposite of his life as Picard. Instead of an explorer through space, he stays in one place, and his explorations are in time. Instead of a commander of many, with high technology at his command, he is a relatively powerless man living a modest life with very little technology. But the most important difference, of course, is that as he himself observes: Picard he had no wife or children, and felt his life could be complete without them. But as Kamin, he cannot imagine his life without his family, and the love of a partner.

That Picard experienced being a father and then a grandfather, stayed with him even after he returned to his real life. We see his longings for family recur in the feature film, “Star Trek:Generations.” There are specific echoes of Kamin’s observations in what Picard says in that film as well. When Picard learns of the death of his nephew, he mourns the loss of all the experiences the boy would have had in the same terms as Kamin mourns the lost future of his children and grandchild. And Kamin’s words to Meribor to “live now…Make now the most precious time. Now will never come again” are virtually repeated by Picard to Riker at the end of Generations.

There are echoes and references even before that, notably in the sixth season episode, “Lessons,” when Picard plays the Ressikan flute with a woman he allows himself to falls in love with, (creating a duet with her around the melody of Frere Jacques), perhaps looking for a relationship like the one he had experienced as Kamin. The realities of Starfleet and serving as officers together on a starship, however, proved too difficult to sustain that dream.

But in our time especially, more than a decade after this episode first aired, what seems most relevant about it is the situation of the planet Kataan, and Kamin/Picard’s response to it, which also involve the episode’s mysterious title: “The Inner Light.” What could it mean, and what could it mean for us now?

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