I started writing this article for Medium.com nearly a year ago but never got around to posting it. When I decided to publish it on my blog, I was going to split it into two parts, but decided to leave it as it is. It’s long, so I hope you have your cup of coffee handy, but if you’re a sci-fi nerd like me you’ll still appreciate the thoughts put forth.
When I was a pre-adolescent, I looked forward to watching brand new episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Friday nights at 10pm on our local FOX affiliate that showed it. I was of the age where my parents would let me stay up that late because it was a Friday, but young enough that staying up so late to watch the entire episode was challenging, but rewarding.
Recently after getting married, my wife and I subscribed to Netflix. Since she’s Peruvian and not necessarily a Sci-fi fan, it took some cajoling to persuade her to let me introduce her to the world of Star Trek. She saw the most recent Trek film, but she wasn’t so sure that she wanted to watch seven seasons of a twenty year old TV series. I didn’t blame her, so for that reason I searched online for lists of the most highly regarded episodes, and frequently the season five episode “The Inner Light” would show up. So we watched that one first.
The Inner Light
Captain Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) gets zapped and knocked unconscious aboard the bridge of the Enterprise while the crew try to revive him. Meanwhile, it seems Picard wakes up to find himself on the surface of a planet the Enterprise is currently orbiting around. He meets a woman telling him that his name is Kamin and that he’s an iron weaver recovering from a feverish sickness.
Picard talks of his memories on the Enterprise, but Eline and their close friend Batai try to convince Picard that his memories were only dreams, and they do their best to re-integrate him into their society. So, Picard begins living out his life as Kamin, and starts a family with Eline and learns to play the flute.
Meanwhile, on board the Enterprise the crew continues their attempts to revive him. They try to block the influence of the probe, but this only makes Picard worse, leaving them no choice but to let it continue. They trace the rocket’s trajectory to a system whose sun had gone nova 1,000 years prior, eradicating all life in the system.
Decades pass and Kamin (Picard) grows old, outliving his wife. He and his daughter study a planet-wide drought and come to realize extinction of all life on the planet is inevitable.
One day, while playing with his grandson, Kamin is summoned by his adult children to watch the launch of a rocket, which everyone seems to know about except him. As he walks outside into the glaring sunlight, Kamin sees Eline and Batai, as young as when he first met them. They explain to him that he has already seen the rocket, just before he came there while on board his ship, the Enterprise.
Knowing that the planet was doomed, the planet’s leaders placed the memories of their culture into a probe and launched it into space, in the hope that it would find someone who could tell others about their species. Picard then realizes the entire life he’s lived was part of this “learning” of their culture.
“I’m the someone… I’m the one it finds.”
When Picard wakes up on the bridge of the Enterprise he discovers that only 25 minutes have passed. The now inactive probe is brought aboard the Enterprise and the crew finds a small box within it. A somber Riker gives the box to Picard who opens it to find Kamin’s flute. Picard, now adept at the instrument, plays the melody he learned during his life as Kamin.
Life is But a Vapor
The viewer comes away from this episode reminded that life is but a vapor (James 4:14). As Picard realizes he just lived decades on the planet’s surface below, but in fact only minutes have passed, the viewer realizes that we too can wake up from a profound dream and realize “wait, this is reality?”
We all can reminisce or look back on childhood memories with fondness and nostalgia and realize that even though it feels like it was just yesterday, it was quite a long time ago. We have all asked ourselves “where has all the time gone?”.
As I enter my early thirties, I look back on the last decade wondering why some things haven’t happened yet like planned, or why did I waste time on certain goals that I later abandoned. To be able to have an experience like Patrick Stewart’s character is bound to have a big impact on one’s outlook and impact them into using the short time we have on this earth for the things that truly matter.
This life is merely a dressing room for eternity.
Another episode that I never did get to watch with my wife, but still has resonated with me all these years later was an episode from the sixth season named “Tapestry”. Very similarly themed as The Inner Light and revolving around the same character.
Only, this one doesn’t explore an imaginary life that seemed decades long but was in fact just in his mind or a dream.
This one explored decisions we make in life that alter the course the rest of our lives will take, whether for good or bad.
The episode begins with Captain Picard finding himself in the afterlife, which appears to be the domain of recurring character Q, who bluntly says, “Welcome to the afterlife, Jean-Luc. You’re dead.”
For the uninitiated, Q is like a child who has godlike powers and liked to show up from time to time to play with the characters in various incarnations of Star Trek a few times per season.
To prove to Picard that he in fact is dead, he introduces him to people that Picard knows have died, including his father and the voices of people for whose deaths Picard is responsible. When Picard accuses Q of causing his death, Q reveals that Picard’s artificial heart caused his demise: a natural heart would have endured the energy blast he suffered in the introduction of this episode while on an away mission.
It’s further revealed that Picard’s original heart was damaged by a quick-tempered alien race, one of whom stabbed him through it during a bar brawl. Picard realizes he merely has reaped what he had sown in his wild youth. His current disciplined personality and seriousness is rooted in regret over his earlier rebellious lifestyle.
Q offers to let Picard go back to this time to prevent himself from being stabbed. Q convinces him that any changes he makes will not affect anyone other than himself. He is sent back to two days before the injury, meeting with friends and roommates. His “newly changed” personality comes as somewhat of an unpleasant surprise, and he alienates these friends almost immediately. The person they’ve come to know as fun-loving and quick to anger is now boring, slow to anger, and often unintentionally insulting.
Events proceed as they did with Picard’s roommate becoming enraged with a group of aliens who cheat them at game that looks like a complicated version of pool or snooker. Picard ruins his friend’s plan to cheat them back by rigging the table this game is played on, thus angering his best friend.
The next day the aliens are back and taunt Picard and his friends. Instead of taking them on, Picard throws Zweller out of the way of the fight. The Nausicaans call them cowards, and leave—as does Picard’s friend and his other roommate. He has effectively destroyed his friendships with them by refusing to stand up for them.
Q tells Picard that he saved his heart, and returns him to the present.
At this point, Picard finds himself on the Enterprise as a Lieutenant junior grade in the astrophysics department wearing a blue colored uniform instead of the red one he’s worn as captain. Q tells him that as a consequence of the changes to his past, he has led a rather unremarkable career doing routine work, never taking any risks, and certainly not having even gone far up the chain of command in his career.
Picard consults with Riker and Counselor Troi on the possibility of him moving on to higher positions; while they consider Picard a competent and hardworking officer, he fails to show initiative and does not take the necessary risks to have a successful command career in Starfleet.
The viewer finds this ironic, if not humorous because of their familiarity with the ‘real’ Jean-Luc Picard.
Picard confronts Q, who tells him that although the bout with the Nausicaan nearly cost him his life, it also gave him a sense of his mortality. It taught him that life was too precious to squander by playing it safe. Picard realizes that his attempt to change the past and to suppress the consequences of his indiscretions have resulted in him losing a part of himself.
Picard then declares that he would rather die as captain of the Enterprise than live as a nobody who takes the way of least resistance in life and has turned out to be an underachiever. Q sends him back to the bar fight and events unfold as they did originally, with Picard being stabbed through the heart and laughing as he collapses to the floor.
In the present, Captain Picard awakens, having been revived by Dr. Crusher.
As Picard recovers from his injuries, he wonders whether he really journeyed into the past or whether it was merely a hallucination or one of Q’s tricks. Regardless of which it was, the lesson was learned, and the viewer is left pondering the decisions they take in life.
At least I was, and by the time the episode is over, I’m praying to God that I don’t wind up like some underachiever who barely did anything of worth in life.
What About You?
Obviously Star Trek is pure science fiction, and it’s not everybody’s calling in life to be the captain of a space ship. Likewise the show is not everybody’s cup of tea. But each of us has been called to do something. And each of our experiences in life whether good or bad are things that have formed us and help prepare us for who and what we’ll become.
One day we’re all going to stand before God (not Q), the creator of the universe that sci-fi writers craft stories about exploring. We’ll give an account of how we’ve spent the short time we were given on this earth. There’s one of two places spend eternity. I think most already know that. But to the Christian, let me ask you: have you done everything you were supposed to do with the time you were given at your brief window in human history to invite as many people as possible to the wedding supper of the Lamb?
I’ve heard hellfire and brimstone preaching about making sure to be ready for the day of judgment so that we’re not unable to show God what we did with the talents he’s given us and not get cast out of his presence.
I don’t think it will be quite like that.
I think when we stand before Him, the weeping will come from a sense of dismay at fully realizing how much more we could have done and that whatever it is we did with our lives burned away as dross when put through the purifying fire.
I don’t want that to be said of me!
Are you taking the way of least resistance in life and merely existing? Are you avoiding taking any risks or initiative that would help form you for your true calling?
Don’t miss out on what you were destined to do for the short years you were placed on this earth.
Sept 9th, 2016 Edit:
Check out this recent message I preached in Canada over the Christmas holidays dealing with the exact same themes in this post.