Ask most people what the most significant prop is in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they’ll probably say a phaser, or a communicator badge, or maybe a Klingon bat’leth. But from those who truly hold the 1987-’94 series close to their hearts, you may hear a very different answer: Captain Picard’s Ressikan flute.
Once described by TNG art department coordinator as “one of the most prized possessions” in her archive, this item is a key element in arguably the single best episode of TNG’s entire run (certainly the best that didn’t involve Klingons, Borg or time travel): “The Inner Light”.
Aired on June 1 1992, the 25th episode of the fifth season involved Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) getting zapped into a brief coma by a mysterious probe. During the next 25 minutes, he lives 50 years in the life of a man on a distant, ancient world long-since obliterated by a it sun going nova.
After wrestling with this new reality, he settles into life in the village of Ressik: falling in love, having children and grandchildren, doing all things his Federation-devoted real-life choices denied him. Including learning how to play the pipe, an item later revealed to be contained within the probe, and which becomes one of Picard’s prized possessions. (It’s seen again in two later episodes, and it is also present in a deleted scene from final TNG movie Nemesis.)
It is a powerful episode, playing with the compelling philosophical concept of ‘the life unlived.’ It even won the series Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1993 — the first time a TV episode won in that category since Star Trek: The Original Series’ “The City on the Edge of Forever” in 1968.
It also, thinks writer Morgan Gendel, contains “one of Sir Patrick’s best performances ever, in all his screen work.” Certainly, Stewart himself has cited it as the most challenging performance of his years on the show, not least because of all the prosthetic makeup it required, with Picard aging a decade for every 10 minutes of screen time.
“I’ve always felt that the experience in ‘Inner Light’ would have been the most profound experience in Picard’s life and changed him irrevocably,” said TNG writer Ronald D. Moore. Though he also recognized that the show only really followed up on this idea once, with the Season 6 episode “Lessons”, in which Picard falls in love and plays the flute again. (The “Inner Light” theme, written by composer Jay Chattaway, and played in both episodes, is apparently one of the most requested pieces in the Paramount Pictures library.)
Interestingly, Michael Chabon — Pulitzer-winning novelist and showrunner of last year’s Star Trek: Picard has said “The Inner Light” is one his two “favourite episodes of television, period.” (The other being Deep Space 9’s “Far Beyond the Stars.”) Which means we may yet see this precious flute reappear in Star Trek’s not too distant future.
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