The Instant Memorial: Star Trek’s “The Inner Light”

One of the main aims of any war memorial is to evoke the experience of those whom it memorializes. The ways of doing that vary: in pre-1918 memorials, that meant statues depicting the heroic soldiers themselves or allegorical figures who encapsulated their experiences (usually, Victory); after World War One, more and more memorials insisted on a starker vision, where mass crushes the viewer in the same way as trench warfare crushed the soldiers; the losses of World War Two, including Hiroshima and the Holocaust, proved so indescribable that the memorials became monuments to indescribability itself—inverted fountains, sinking towers, or lists of names on the undersides of cobblestones. Since the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 the pendulum has swung towards direct depiction again, but often with some ambivalence about how well realism can capture the complexity of war.

What if there was a way to skip the whole process, and give the viewer the real experience straight away? That’s the basic idea in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode “The Inner Light.” (Here there be spoilers, so go away and watch the episode on Netflix or something. It’s really worth seeing.)

If you haven’t seen it, you can go read the summary over at Memory Alpha. In brief, the USS Enterprise discovers a deep space probe that zaps Picard into a coma. He wakes up on a strange planet (Kataan), where he’s told that he’s had an extended illness and his memories of being a starship captain are just fever dreams. Gradually accepting that this is true, Picard lives an entire lifetime on the planet, slowly discovering that the planet is doomed because its sun will soon go nova. In his old age, he sees the launching of a strange rocket. As reality blurs, Picard realizes this is the probe the Enterprise encountered. The planet’s inhabitants explain:

You saw it just before you came here. We hoped our probe would encounter someone in the future – someone who could be a teacher, someone who could tell the others about us.”

Oh… oh, it’s me… isn’t it? I’m the someone. I’m the one it finds. That’s what this launching isa probe that finds me in the future!

Awaking on the Enterprise, Picard discovers that he’s lived an entire alien lifetime in only twenty-five minutes. The probe is damaged beyond repair by the whole process: Picard is the only person who will ever experience the life of that civilization.

My summary doesn’t do justice to the episode, which is one of The Next Generation’s best and won the show its first Hugo Award.

In a way, the Kataanian probe is the ultimate memorial. It offers instant empathy, not just the recognition of another’s feelings but the experience of those feelings oneself. At the same time, though the probe is a rejection of the whole memorial concept. Captain Picard doesn’t just empathize with the Kataanians but experiences their life himself. (It’s lucky they were bipedal humanoids and not silicon-based octopeds, or Picard might have been more scarred by the experience.). In a backhanded way, the message of the probe is “forget about understanding us, unless you walk fifty years in our shoes. No mere message can compare to our lived experience.” In a world of free and easy telepathy, that’s a minor obstacle. In our reality, it’s the death of empathy.

Star Trek’s writers weren’t done with the idea of instant empathy after they wrote “The Inner Light.” They’d come back to the issue, with more traumatic consequences, in at least two episodes of Voyager: “Remember,” and “Memorial.”

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