The arc of Patrick Stewart’s career is unique – after all, how many actors can say that they began with Shakespeare, went on to achieve great success on Star Trek, and then returned to Shakespeare, to receive the best reviews of a long career?
Sheila’s post about Stewart, which includes a link to a great New York Times article on the actor, made me think about an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I think will stand, at the end of his career, as one of his most notable accomplishments. I say that never having seen him play a Shakespearean role, but with confidence.
“The Inner Light,” from the series’ fifth season, was only the second Star Trek episode to receive the Hugo Award (for Science Fiction and Fantasy works) for Best Dramatic Presentation. The first (from the original series) was the legendary “The City on the Edge of Forever,” written by Harlan Ellison and widely considered to be the single best Star Trek episode, any series, ever produced. So the episode is in heady territory.
The story is a simple one: the Enterprise comes across a probe of unknown origin, which sends a signal into the ship which renders Captain Picard unconscious, and practically comatose. While in that state, Picard – in twenty-five minutes time – lives most of an entire life on a planet that had been destroyed by a supernova, a thousand years before. The probe was sent in the hope that it would someday come across a space traveler, who would then know the planet’s history and be able to share its culture with future generations. Picard lives the life of Kamin, who – based on Picard’s technological expertise and naturally inquisitive nature – comes to realize that the planet is doomed, but also comes to love his wife, his family, and live his life to the fullest. When at the end it becomes apparent to him what has happened, you can see in the eyes and manner of Stewart that Picard, while happy to be back on the Enterprise, is also heartbroken at the life that he has left behind. A life that, for him, is just as real as the one he is living in the 24th century. It's a great, great episode - and the last scene, where Picard, in his quarters, plays the flute that he learned to play on the planet (which was left in the probe) is probably the best single moment of that entire series.
The role is a great one for Stewart, allowing him to advance in age with each act, and to struggle with the stark differences between the world he comes to cherish and the one that he left behind. To argue so may represent the height of geekdom, but in the end it has to be considered some of his best work.