What I Learned By Watching My Father Watch ‘Star Trek’

On the staying power of Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Inner Light"

Whether led by James T. or Jean-Luc, the Starship Enterprise caught many men in its tractor beam. Gene Roddenberry’s swashbuckling Sci-fi stories are escapism at their finest, starring men who boldly went where no other men had before. Plopped on their couch, who didn’t envision themselves at the helm of that great, front-heavy ship as it hurtled around the universe at warp speed to answer distress signals, or let loose the photon torpedoes on an enemy vessel and its roofing-shingle-skinned captain?

My father certainly did. He didn’t say it outright, but space, the final frontier, in all its expansiveness, spoke to him. Growing up, my Saturday night was set to the opening strains of the Patrick Stewart-led Star Trek: The Next Generation. My father on the couch, me belly down on the carpet, we’d stare at the TV, engulfed in the adventures of the crew. One episode particular resonated with him more than most: season five’s “The Inner Light.” My father is quiet, but I could tell the story meant something deep to him every time it appeared in syndication. He wasn’t alone: In discussions over the years, many of my friends and coworkers all mentioned that “The Inner Light” is the Star Trek episode their dads hold above all others.

Many people love “The Inner Light”, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. The episode, widely regarded as one of the finest of the entire Star Trek canon, earned writer Morgan Gendel a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Writing and still receives a yearly heaping of think pieces. Why? The show is a beautifully structured, elegiac piece of work that is less of a Star Trek episode and more of meditation on life and how one leads it.

“The Inner Light” starts out like any other. The crew, on a scouting mission, encounters a stray probe. The curly-cue shaped device scans the ship and sends an energy beam that knocks Picard unconscious. As the crew tends to him, Picard wakes up on the planet of Kataan. There, it’s explained to him that he’s not the Enterprise captain, but an iron weaver named Kamin. What’s more, Kamin has a wife and friends in the small community. While he remembers his previous life, Picard is told his time as a Starfleet captain is nothing more than the result of a terrible fever.

Kataan is an agrarian society dealing with a lingering drought. They don’t have a telecommunication system, let alone spaceships. It’s a far different pace than that to which Picard is accustomed. He’s a captain, after all, someone married to his occupation, and he has duties. “This is not my life!” he yells early into his stay, still disoriented from his new surroundings, new name, new wife.

Five years then pass and Picard is still distant, obsessed with his past. His wife, concerned, sits him down. “Was your life there so much better than this? So much more gratifying? So much more fulfilling that you cling to it with so much stubbornness?” she asks. “It must’ve been extraordinary, but never in all the stories you’ve told me, never did you mention anyone who loved you as I do.” She is kind, understanding of how attached he is. But she begs him to let it go and focus on their life so they can start a family. But he cannot.

Eventually, Picard, now Kamin, realizes the error of his ways and settles into his new life on the planet. Years pass quickly. He and he and his wife live out their years in bucolic simplicity. He learns to play the flute, raises a family, has grandchildren. It’s a beautiful, ordinary existence. During his time, Kamin discovers that Kataan is doomed and the boldest and brightest don’t have the means to evacuate their people. Eventually, as an old man, Kamin is beckoned to watch a rocket lift off. The craft, he is told, contains the story of their civilization to share with someone worthy. Kamin then realizes that he is that worthy person and immediately wakes up, as Picard, on the bridge of the Enterprise to find that, while he lived 50 years on Kataan, only 20 minutes have passed in his “real” life. He does, however, retain his memories of Kataan— which died 1,000 years ago — and the life he led. This includes the ability to play the flute, which he plays as the episode somberly ends.

It’s easy to understand why Kamin’s wife’s simple plea, so eloquently delivered, drives a stake through a Trekkie of a certain age’s heart. What man couldn’t relate to this? How many men, so distracted by thoughts of other places, other worlds, neglect those who care dearly for them? The story holds a mirror to Picard’s choices; but it does so to the viewers, too. And it’s particularly resonant to fathers and husbands – stubborn men so busy with careers and expectations that they often can’t embrace the present.

And the show twists the knife: Eventually, Picard realizes that, while not the life he planned for himself or the one he thinks he deserves, he must accept his current situation or live out the rest of his days pining for a life he may not find. After he apologizes, his wife tells that he’s a good man and wonderful husband. “Not such a wonderful husband,” he says. “I spend my spare time charting the stars, disappear for days at a time exploring the countryside…”

Is this what my dad sees in “The Inner Light”? Perhaps. He’s a wonderful father — kind, generous, steadfast, hardworking. He, however, is prone to bouts of wistfulness and often spends his time in quiet rumination, with his head in the stars. And he certainly does yearn for adventure: a dean of students before he retired, one of his many tasks was planning a year-end trip for his eighth-grade class. For years the trip involved a week on a wooden schooner tooling the Atlantic off Maryland, with the students acting as the crew. He always speaks fondly of that ship and what it was like to be on the open water. He’s lived a good life — traveled, raised a family, made friends, filled students with knowledge — and was always present. But I wonder if he ponders what other lives he could’ve led, what schooners or starships he might have sailed. What father is not guilty of this?

“The Inner Light” is about acceptance and grace and loss and being present. Once Picard lets go of Borgs and phaser beam arrays, he experiences the joys of children and grandchildren and community. And only by banishing the thoughts of the life he once had can he experience the life he has; only by experiencing the life he has now can he return to the life he once had.

Within the episode, Picard is the vessel through which this 1,000-year-gone community’s existence is preserved. But he’s also the vessel through which men could see themselves. And “The Inner Light” asked men to examine their lives, for just a moment, as the world moved at warp speed around them.