the story: Picard experiences the last days of a long-dead alien civilization.
similar to: "The City on the Edge of Forever" (original series), "The Visitor" (Deep Space Nine), "Twilight" (Enterprise)
my thoughts: You don't need me to tell you that "Inner Light" is a classic. It's been considered one since it first aired, akin to "City on the Edge of Forever" as one of those defining, transcendent experiences in the franchise that kind of speaks for itself.
And yet, here I go. I guess I'll choose to spotlight the cleverness of its internal logic. Picard assumes the latter half of someone's life, at first being understandably flustered by the abrupt existential transition. And this is exactly what's needed for that other person, something for him to build on, and the people around him, and even his daughter. His confusion, and subsequent drive to figure things out, neatly dovetails with Picard's eventual acceptance that there's nothing nefarious going on here, just a beautiful experience, one that leads to the very probe that later gives Picard the experience in the first place...
Later comparable franchise experiences are equally elegiac in their own ways, reflective of the series in which they happen. Deep Space Nine's "Visitor" features the intense bond between Sisko and his son, Enterprise's "Twilight" the significance of the bond between Archer and T'Pol. "Inner Light" is, like Picard, an insular, singular moment. While Picard accepts those around him, he always keeps a distance, a necessary one that drives everything around him. Nowhere is that better explored than in this episode.
I've sometimes had trouble accepting "Inner Light" for what it is, because it's such a quiet episode, and attempts by others to explain what makes it great (that moment where Picard's alternate leaves his shoes out for the last time) overlook what makes it so special. If Kirk's greatest romance is his most tragic ("City on the Edge"), then Picard's greatest experience is kind of completely in his head. Which is completely appropriate. The later "Tapestry" does its best to duplicate this experience, and while a triumph in its own right, can't really compare.
This is as good as this series gets.
criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)