TV Feature: Finding “The Inner Light” at the Star Trek Convention

Google the favorite Star Trek episodes of all time and “The Inner Light” is on just about every top 10 list.

By Glenn Rifkin

“The Inner Light” author Morgan Gendel playing his Ressikan flute at the Star Trek convention in Boston. Photo: Glenn Rifkin.

On my way to the recent Star Trek convention at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, I had to navigate through the throngs gathering for the city’s Gay Pride parade. I had a feeling, which turned out to be quite accurate, that both inside and outside I’d be meeting an endless array of strange and colorful characters decked out for their respective events that day.

Once inside the Hynes, I stopped in the men’s room and encountered a middle-aged gentleman at the mirror affixing his Vulcan ears. Two large transvestites outfitted in Star Trek gear passed me in the entrance hall. The corridors abounded with more Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, and apparently erstwhile crew members from the Starship Enterprise, festooned in their official Starfleet uniforms. I had clearly stumbled into the Final Frontier.

Nearly five decades of unbounded Star Trek devotion has spawned this still vibrant and eccentric community, but one can’t imagine the passion until one spends a day amongst the true believers. These Trekkies were drawn by the opportunity to pay serious dough to get autographs from William Shatner (Captain Kirk), George Takei (Sulu), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), and several members of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the second iteration of the series that was celebrating its 25th anniversary. But they were mostly here to mingle with their own, a community not unlike Harley owners and Red Sox fans, diehards who didn’t feel any need at all to justify their devotion.

I came to the Hynes as a skeptical neophyte. I enjoyed the original Star Trek series with the halting style of Shatner and the raised eyebrow wisdom of Leonard Nimoy. But I was by no means a Trekkie, not even close, and my visit was in fact to rendezvous with my friend and former college roommate Morgan Gendel, who had ascended to Trekkie royalty by penning “The Inner Light,” a widely celebrated and wildly popular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation back in 1992. Google the favorite Star Trek episodes of all time—and there were a total of 725 episodes from the six television series between 1966 and 2005 that comprised the Star Trek franchise—and “The Inner Light” is on just about every top 10 list.

A scene from “The Inner Light” episode.

In it, the Enterprise’s captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Sir Patrick Stewart) is rendered catatonic by a beam emitted from an unidentified probe floating in space. While he lies on the floor of the bridge, surrounded by frantic crew members, Picard is transported to an unknown but doomed planet where he apparently has a wife and a community of friends. Somehow these vivid memories have been implanted in Picard’s brain, and he lives out his life on this planet, raising children, learning to play the flute, becoming an important scientist and eventually witnessing the launch of the very probe that appeared near the Enterprise. As he ages, it is clear that this civilization cannot survive a brutal drought and at the end, the probe is launched in order to float through the universe for a thousand years searching for someone who will receive the collective memory of this civilization so that it will never be forgotten. Picard turned out to be the chosen one. When he finally revives on the Enterprise, he is deeply moved by memories of the loving relationships he had formed in this alter-life, and the episode ends with Picard, in his quarters, playing the flute recovered from the probe, that he had mastered on the planet. For a show that was billed as a science fiction action adventure, this tear-jerker of a story struck a deep chord with the show’s millions of fans.

Kevin Brettauer, a blogger for MTV, wrote “The beauty of ‘The Inner Light’ is how it deals with the fragility of life and love, and how the most unexpected experiences can leave amazingly profound experiences on us. The show’s most triumphant hour.”

Could such profundity and insight have sprung from the pen of my schmendrik friend Morgan who, as a college sophomore, had grabbed the job of handing out laundry keys to freshmen moving into our Commonwealth Avenue dorm in order to memorize the names of the cutest girls? Could that nerdy but lovable guy have morphed into the rock star at this convention where he wowed the crowd with his kick-off presentation about the genesis of “The Inner Light” and then signed autographs for a steady stream of admiring, sometimes adoring fans whose singular and oft-heard refrain was “That was my favorite episode of all time”? I had to see it to believe it.

Gendel and I met at Boston University in 1971, and we immediately became friends. Funny, intense, cynical, smart, and ambitious, Gendel knew from an early age that he wanted to become a television writer. After graduation in the mid-1970s, leaving me behind in seething envy, he packed his car, drove west to California, and commenced a circuitous career path to Hollywood. He began in a Sacramento advertising agency and eventually moved to LA where he landed a job as an entertainment reporter at the LA Times, which he parlayed into a job at NBC as director of current drama.

From NBC, reveling in the land of who-you-know, Gendel connected with Stephen J. Cannell whose company produced a string of hit series, and he began writing freelance scripts for shows like Wise Guy, Hunter, and 21 Jump Street. A writer/producer legend named Roy Huggins (The Fugitive, Maverick, Baretta, The Rockford Files) became a role model and Gendel took pride in his emerging versatility as a writer who could pitch ideas and produce quality scripts for a wide range of genres.

A panel discussion at the recent Star Trek Convention in Boston

My own work plus our enduring friendship took me out to LA for regular visits. We hung around long enough to share Jacuzzis with attractive, young women, roll along the Pacific Coast Highway, and get a reasonably good sense of how intensely competitive and irrational the entertainment business could be. That Gendel was successfully navigating these shark-infested waters brought me no little amount of pride coupled with a tinge of concern. This was clearly not a business for the faint of heart, and more than a few talented writers had been chewed up and spit out by Hollywood over the decades. I listened, intrigued, at the tales of the internal politics, the backstabbing, the star-making machinery and was amazed that Morgan had found a way to become a player.

As a freelancer, Gendel had to come back five times to pitch his Star Trek idea to the show’s producers. Michael Piller, the show’s executive producer, loved the concept and kept urging Gendel to make it better. Gendel shared credit for the teleplay with Peter Allan Fields but got full credit for the story, which is what Trekkies noticed. At the Hynes, Gendel told the back story of the episode to about a thousand rapt Trekkies. He had always loved science fiction and was influenced by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and the endless comic books he read as a child. He named the episode “The Inner Light” after a little-known Beatles song of the same name (the B side of “Lady Madonna” for you Beatles maniacs). He eventually wrote four episodes for two different Star Trek series and then went on to become a staff writer/producer for Law & Order. Over most of the next 20 years, he was too busy writing and producing—including a stint as executive producer and show runner for VIP, the Pamela Anderson cop show that had regrettable reviews—to pay much attention to the growing legend of “The Inner Light” episode.

Even though it won a Hugo Award in 1993 for Best Dramatic Presentation, there was scant evidence that the episode was taking on such iconic proportions. The advent of the internet allowed Trekkies to share their passions and opinions in heretofore impossible ways and the “best of” lists started emerging. Three years ago, a Phoenix-based Star Trek fan, Linda Zaruches, contacted Gendel to invite him to speak at the Phoenix Comicon, the major pop culture convention in the southwest, and when Gendel arrived, Zaruches laid out a detailed scenario as to how Gendel could parlay the adulation for his episode into cash. She urged him to attend the various conventions, set up a booth, do a talk, and sell his autograph on merchandise related to the episode.

In Boston, he set up his table amid the vendors selling every conceivable manner of Trekkie memorabilia, and his was clearly the main draw in the room. Mothers, fathers, children, even grandmothers, improbably dressed in various modes of Trek fashion, lined up to meet the guy who wrote this transcendent episode. Gendel, on Zaruches’s advice, made photocopies of his original script and signed copies for a fee. He made replicas of the Ressikan flute that Picard played and sold a boatload of those as well. He posed for photos and chatted amicably about the episode with Trekkies who seem to have an insatiable thirst for even the minutest of banal details. As I sat at his side for the afternoon, I was struck by the pure adoration on the faces of those who recounted their own personal emotional bond with the episode. Some told of using the flute music for their wedding ceremonies. One young man described how his mother watched the episode numerous times and cried at the end of every viewing, and he admitted that he teared up as well. Almost everyone thanked Gendel for writing it.

Later Gendel, who made a tidy sum for his efforts, confided in me that he had never been a Trekkie himself and when he began these convention appearances had a Galaxy Quest sense of bemusement for the phenomenon. But over time, he embraced the emotion and acknowledged its genuine potency. He realized that he had gone where few scriptwriters had gone before: authoring an immensely popular episode of a series that had fans who had morphed into a massive community. There is no Seinfeld or Sopranos convention for even the best of episodes from those series. As one Trekkie had told him, “We’re not people who fit in. Star Trek gave us a place where we could be with like-minded people and we’d fit in.”

“Everybody,” Gendel concluded, “is looking for a tribe.”

Beam me up Scotty.

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