My husband F and I have been watching our way through every episode Star Trek: The Next Generation. F had never seen it before, and I hadn’t seen it since it originally aired. Right now we’re almost done with season 5, which is some of the best Star Trek I’ve ever seen. And the other night we saw “The Inner Light”, one of my all-time favorite episodes.*
In this episode, the Enterprise encounters an ancient alien probe, which emits a strange energy beam, rendering Picard unconscious. In the space of about 25 minutes, Picard lives a full, long lifetime on a long-dead alien world. The people of Kataan knew that their world was dying; they didn’t have the technology to save themselves, but they were able to create and launch this probe, intended to share with one individual their culture from the perspective of a native.
There are a few interesting things here (at least, from a yogic point of view; there are lots of interesting and wonderful things about the episode!). The people of Kataan could have chosen to put any number of things on their probe: books, musical recordings, works of art. How about computer files containing the sum of their race’s scientific, artistic, and literary accomplishments? But they knew that this wouldn’t truly represent them; they knew that life, culture, art, and emotion have to be experienced and lived in order to be understood. No amount of book learning or data could communicate who they truly were as a people, so they found a way to give someone that experience for himself.
And that’s the other thing. The probe was only good for one go. It shared Kataan with Picard, and then its systems terminated. The people of Kataan hoped that their probe would reach someone wise, a teacher who would share their culture and way of life with others. They hoped that by giving this gift to one person, they would live on. They weren’t trying to share their entire history with another race as a whole – they shared one man’s life and memories, with one person.
And what did Picard learn from Kataan, besides how to play the flute? Several times during the episode, the importance of living in the present moment is emphasized. It’s what Picard tells each of “his” children: to seize the moment, embrace love or pursue their passions now. The experience of life on a dying world made him more aware of the present moment. And, along with the hopes, dreams, and loves of an entire lost civilization, that’s what he brought back to the Enterprise with him.
(* Tied with “Darmok”, also in season 5, which is an awesome episode for two reasons: the idea of a species that communicates entirely in metaphor, which makes my English major’s heart go pitter-pat, and the fact that Picard tells the Gilgamesh story, which I adore and have blogged about before here. And what do these two episodes have in common? Picard gets hijacked by a strange race, and Riker nearly ruins everything by being overly aggressive and trying to rescue him! Seriously if there’s anyone you could trust to handle himself well under strange circumstances, it’s Picard [with the exception being the time Picard was kidnapped by the Borg, which was one time Riker was well justified in his rescue attempts]. Riker almost screwed up two of the best episodes in Star Trek history. He could definitely use a dose of Zen.)