Sunday, June 25, 2006
by William S. Kowinski
Update: The first and last sections that follow deal with the Climate Crisis and its outcome if we don't meet this challenge. For a practical and hopeful view of how things might be changed, there's a new Rolling Stone interview with Al Gore that makes the case better than anything I've seen.
As the first run of Star Trek: The Next Generation came to an end, fans voted for their favorite episodes. Only the two-parter about the Borg invasion, “The Best of Both Worlds,” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” were voted ahead of “The Inner Light.” It won a 1993 Hugo Award, the first TV episode to win one since the TOS story, “City on the Edge of Forever”. In the years since, esteem for this fifth season episode has only grown. Some now consider it is the best of the Next Generation, and even the best episode of any Star Trek series.
But I’ve been thinking about it recently not because of its excellence, though I’ve always admired it since I saw it the night it first aired. I’ve been pondering it lately, and drawn to see it again on DVD, by thoughts I’ve been having about the real and fairly immediate future of the earth.
Others may be thinking about it, too, right about now. “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary film about the Climate Crisis featuring Al Gore, is gradually opening in more and more places. In its first week it was #11 at the box office, despite being in only four theatres. The #10 film was in 1265 theatres. A couple of weeks later, it broke into the top ten, though it was still in only 77 theatres. Its per-theatre take was higher than that of the #1 movie that week---and higher than X-Men 3. The book version is high on the best seller list. (Here's the web site.)
The future it depicts, as determined by the phenomenon known as global warming, is dire. The changes are already underway, caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases. Glaciers and icepacks in the Arctic, in Greenland, in the Antarctic are melting. They are likely to cause sea levels to rise, flooding coastal cities. They may cause shifts in major ocean currents that will in turn cause radical changes in climate. On the day I write this, a new report by the National Center for Atmospheric Research confirms that “global warming accounted for around half of the extra hurricane-fueling warmth” in 2005, so Katrina and the record hurricane year were largely a product of the Climate Crisis, and not natural variations. Storms like these are likely to increase in number and ferocity, in various parts of the world.
Heating is already changing ecologies. Various studies suggest it will bring new diseases to larger areas, change rainfall patterns and create drought in some places, if it is not doing so already. Because of time lags between cause and effect, these current effects are from greenhouse gas buildups that occurred perhaps decades ago. The planet will feel the effects of current greenhouse gas emissions in decades to come. And if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curtailed dramatically soon (some say five years, some say twenty, but most say 10 years), the climate change may reach a “tipping point,” after which nothing can stop a phenomenon that feeds on itself until it plays itself out. The result could very well be an inexorable dying away of life on earth as we know it.
“The Inner Light” is not strictly speaking about a planet suffering from global warming. Its sun is going nova, causing a gradual global drought. The sun's flaring and dying eventually will extinguish all life. Even at worst, the actual effects of our global warming are likely to be different, especially in different places on earth. But the applicability of this story to fears for our future is inescapable.
With great and concentrated effort, humankind may be able to prevent the worst effects of global heating in the future, and create remedies for the major problems it will cause in the next few decades. It looks very much like a challenge that human civilization must meet in order to go forward.
But what if humanity doesn’t respond? What if all an individual or a family can do, perhaps living in a town outside the great places of power, is watch, measure the changes, and await the end?
On their way to report on a magnetic wave survey, the Enterprise encounters a probe of unfamiliar design that suddenly emits a nucleonic beam that knocks Captain Picard to the floor, apparently unconscious. He awakens in a strange room, wearing strange clothes, and being attended to by a strange woman, who tells him he is home.
Her name is Eline, and she insists he is Kamin, her husband, who has been ill with a high fever. Picard leaves the house and finds himself in a village square. He sees someone dedicating the planting of a tree as an “affirmation of life” during a long drought. This man is Batai, who claims to be his (Kamin’s) friend. He learns he is in the village of Ressik on a planet he’s never heard of, called Kataan.
He continues to reconnoiter, realizing he is not a prisoner of these people, but there is nowhere to go. At nightfall he returns, exhausted, to the only place he knows--the house where he woke up, and to Eline. She remains convinced he is Kamin. When he says with morbid humor that he supposes his hunger proves this isn’t a dream, she asks incredulously, “You think that this-- your life-- is a dream? “
She gives him soup, which he tastes gingerly. “This is delicious,” he says. Eline, a handsome woman in her thirties or forties, beams and says softly with delight, “You always say that.” In a look and a few words she had communicated fully her good heart, her love for Kamin, and the warmth of their relationship.
Picard gently probes for answers. He learns that Kataan is not a spacefaring planet, that Kamin is an ironweaver but prefers playing the flute. Eline shows it to him. “When did I learn to play it?” Picard asks, meaning Kamin. “I’m afraid you never did, dear,” Eline says. “You do keep trying.”
On the Enterprise, Data says that a narrow beam is now focused on the supine Captain. Picard’s vital signs are strong, and Doctor Crusher advises that the beam not be disrupted until she can figure out what it’s doing. Riker wants to identify the source of the probe.
But when we return to Kataan, five years have passed. Eline is losing patience with Kamin/Picard and his recollections of another life on a starship. “It was real,” he insists. “As real as this is. You can’t expect me to forget the lifetime I spent there.” “Yes, I can,” she says.
As real as this is—so Picard has accepted the reality of his life on Kataan, and has responded to Eline’s love. He is clearly torn by her need to have him be fully in this life, and for them to begin a family.
He also has become part of the community, and befitting his Picard personality, he has studied this planet’s drought problem and will now push for a solution. He goes with Batai to the town square to meet the regional Administrator, who is curious about the tree flourishing in the midst of drought. Batai explains that everyone contributes part of their water rations to keep it alive, as a symbol of hope. Kamin tells the administrator that their crops will die without more water, and asks for an atmospheric condenser to be built. The Administrator says it is a large undertaking, but he will take the idea to the central government. Picard/Kamin knows nothing will come of it, and tells Batai they should plan to build their own.
Later that day, hy proposes to Eline that he build a nursery. So he commits to starting a family. He has left Picard behind (even though the melody he has just been playing on his flute is Frere Jacques, which Picard sang with a group of stranded children in an earlier fifth season episode, “Disaster.”) He is Kamin now.
On the planet, seven more years have passed. With his daughter playing nearby, Kamin is presiding over the naming ceremony of his infant son by playing his flute. The melody he plays becomes the theme for the episode, and probably the best known and most fondly remembered piece of music (apart from the opening theme) in any Next Generation episode.
Kamin seems completely in this life, but as he gazes at his son (named Batai, after his friend who has died) he says words that could have come from Picard: “I’d always thought I didn’t need children to complete my life. Now I can’t imagine life without them.”
But suddenly Kamin crumples to the floor, as Picard’s life begins to ebb on the Enteprise when the beam is disrupted. Data restores it, Picard returns to normal, and Kamin’s life resumes.
On the planet, Kamin’s now-sixteen year old daughter Meribor is discussing the results of her soil samples with a now visibly older Kamin. She has concluded what he already knows: There is no bacterial life in the soil. Their planet is dying. “It saddens me to see you bear the burden of knowing things…things you can’t change,” he says. She decides that she should marry the boy who has been pursuing her “sooner rather than later.” Kamin responds with passion: “Seize the time, Meribor. Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
The Enterprise has traced the probe to its origin, to a planetary system where all life was destroyed a thousand years before, when its sun went nova.
More years pass on the planet. Kamin’s son Batai becomes a young man and wants to pursue music. Kamin blusters a bit because Batai keeps changing his mind about what he wants, but can’t deny him whatever joy he can find. “Who knows how much time he’ll have to follow any dream?”
Kamin makes one last attempt to get the now aged Administrator to listen to his findings but their scientists already know the planet is doomed, and there’s nothing they can do. Their technology is too limited for space travel. Kamin suggests sending genetic samples into space to at least preserve something of Kataan. The Administrator admits there is a plan in the works. But their conversation is interrupted by young Batai---Elise is dying. She and Kamin have a brief conversation, full of the love and domestic details of a long partnership. As a single tear escapes from the corner of her eye, she dies, and Kamin’s head bows in grief.
More years have passed. Kamin is playing with his grandson, Meribor’s child. As Meribor and Bataii try to coax Kamin into coming with them to the town square to watch the launching of a missile, Kamin confesses that seeing his grandson breaks his heart. “He deserves a rich, full life, and he’s not going to get one.”
But Kamin goes with them, and in his obstreperous old man way, demands to know what they are launching. “You know about it, father,” Meribor says, “you’ve already seen it.” It’s a probe sent out to find someone in the future who will learn about the lives on Kataan and preserve those memories.
Now in the terminally hot sun and the haze of advanced age Kamin suddenly realizes what his long-ago starship dreams were all about. “It’s me, isn’t it? I’m the someone. I’m the one it finds…That’s what this launching is—a probe that finds me, in the future.”
His friend Batai and his wife Elise, both restored to their youth as when he first saw them, explain to him the intentions of the probe. As Kamin sees the woman he loved, Picard hears her say that they have all been dead for a thousand years. “If you remember what we were, and how we lived…then we’ll have found life again… Now we live in you. Tell them of us, my darling…”
Kamin watches the rocket ascend, as Picard begins to stir on the bridge of the Enterprise. He learns that he has been unconscious for twenty-five minutes. He has lived more than thirty years of another life.
Later in his quarters, Riker tells him they have taken the probe into the shuttle bay, no longer functioning. But inside it they found a small box, which Riker gives to Picard, and quietly leaves. Inside is the Ressikan flute. Picard holds it to his heart as he takes it to face his windows into space, and begins to play the melody he composed for Kamin’s infant son’s naming ceremony.
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?
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.”
At this moment in much of America and Europe in the early twenty-first century, most people still live in relative comfort and safety. Not in New Orleans, where much of the massive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina last year has still not been repaired. Not in many other parts of the world, as in Africa, where warfare in places like Darfur and the Congo continue to inflict horrors and massive death. Nor in various parts of the world where old diseases are inexplicably returning, or alarming new ones threatening. Not in areas of Alaska and northern Canada, where the Inuit and others are coping with relatively sudden changes to their environment caused by the Climate Crisis.
But where I am, things are going reasonably well right now, but I have the strong sense they could go badly wrong quite suddenly. I try not to project my own situation on everything. I am relatively healthy and comfortable, though without much in the way of security, and for me personally (as Picard once said) there is less time ahead than there is behind. But that’s how I view this comfortable part of the world. Everything I know about how things are going tells me that what we call civilization has a very difficult future, and not in some distant time. In decades, at best.
I see much of this country and the western “First World” as comfortable, but teetering on the brink of disaster. We’ve had well over a century of accelerated technological progress and accelerated environmental destruction, and the chickens seem to be coming home to roost. Scientists talk of greater technological breakthroughs, especially in genetics and electronics, which could conceivably mean much longer and much healthier lives, with greater mental alertness and adroitness, and keener sensory abilities. And of course, even travel to the stars. But scientists also talk of environmental threats, particularly the Climate Crisis, that could ring down the curtain on all of it.
During this century or so of speedy technological progress and environmental destruction, our political, economic and cultural processes have made some progress, but have not kept up with the nature or reality of our challenges. And in some ways, they and we have devolved. The fate of humanity probably rests on what happens in those realms in the next ten and twenty and fifty years, but with a margin for error that is shrinking by the minute.
Scientists began to suspect the greenhouse effect was threatening the planet’s future in the late 1960s, and the resulting global warming has been persistently studied and publicly discussed for at least a quarter century. Yet more than halfway into the first decade of the 21st century, no effective action is being taken, while powerful corporations and the current American leadership are Climate Crisis deniers. This does not give me great confidence in prospects for the human future.
Yet while we grouse about high gasoline prices and joke about global warming whenever the weather is unusual, we ignore or deny the signs of what's going on, and what is to come (like the imminent decline in oil.) Like Picard/Kamin, scientists accumulate and evaluate their data, but the government denies its validity, and people don't see what can be done.
When the Climate Crisis truly takes hold, things will likely be a great deal more disordered and violent on earth than was Kataan, peacefully making do. Yet the attitude of that fictional culture, and Picard’s realizations as part of it, are a kind of model for me when I wonder how each of us, unable to effect the necessary changes in the big wide world, can deal with this feeling of a foreshortened future.
Even Star Trek, with its reputation for optimism, posits a major disruption in civilization in the mid 21st century, and it could be right on the money. Effects of the Climate Crisis could even include war, as nations bristling with weapons confront depleting resources of food and water as well as energy. But more about that aspect of the Star Trek future another time.
Picard’s emotional experience of partnership and family was sharpened by the surrounding sense of the planet’s mortality. Facing the death of a child—the end of a life before it has reached its fullness---is especially difficult. But facing death, after all, is facing death, whenever it comes. And it is the prospect of death and the reality of suffering that has prompted many religious traditions to search for meaning, most specifically Buddhism, which talks of the Four Noble Truths of suffering and its cessation.
It is in that context that Picard learned to value the present moment. “Make now the most precious time,” not just because it will never come again, but because it is all that there is. Of course, while he was able, Picard/Kamin never stopped working for a better future, because hope is an activity of the present.
The past and the future are also part of our now, but it is the experience of the present moment, on levels simple and profound, that is our life. It is said also to be the doorway to the realization of the permanent in the transitory, the universe in the grain of sand, eternity in the moment, which all add up to the divine in each of us, the inner light in the outer darkness.