What is the exact civilisation development level presented in "The Inner Light" episode?

I'm confused, because:

  • rocketry is there at the very beginning level, but building devices that extracts water from air is considered too cost to much time and resources (and that idea is eventually dropped),

  • they have artificial (electric?) light and their doors opens automatically, by pressing a button, and yet, a telescope build by Picard looks like a random pieces of cardboard glued together with some randomly chosen glass pieces.

It certainly looks too huge and isn't very comfortable to be used. I'm getting the feeling, that we had much, much better telescopes (smudge shape, metallic) years before we invented electric light and automated doors systems.

After many years since I watched this entire episode, I have recently watched, by an accident, just these last parts, where very old Picard is carefully examining sky above him (to find out, that their star is going supernova). And I assumed, that this civilisation development level is around XVII century (when first telescopes were designed on Earth). But, right after that my wife reminded me, that they also had electric light and doors,which doesn't actually fit before twentieth century. And -- of course -- beginning of rocket era.

So, do we have anything, on which we can base assumption, what is the civilisation development level presented in that episode?

  • 13
    Why are you assuming that an alien civilisation would develop precisely the same technologies as Earth, in the same order?
    – Valorum
    Jan 4, 2015 at 10:49
  • 5
    I don't see rocketry as being dependent on optics. It's certainly helpful to know where you're going but if the plan is to simply miss the sun, point & shoot works just fine.
    – Valorum
    Jan 4, 2015 at 10:57
  • 6
    An alien's technology tree might be dramatically different from our own, based on (for example) the availability of certain elements, weather, atmosphere, gravity, etc.
    – Valorum
    Jan 4, 2015 at 11:11
  • 2
    This is pure speculation, but I imagined that the probe in the episode was designed showed a pastiche designed to represent the totality of their civilization, not necessarily a single point in actual history.
    – user30472
    Jan 7, 2015 at 0:37
  • 2
    @eliyahu-g - I must admit I also had this feeling after watching the episode a couple times. It was a work of fiction designed to represent their civilization in a positive light. Jan 7, 2015 at 10:14

4 Answers 4


In addition to the rocketry/water extraction technological mismatch, I would also urge you to consider the technological understanding required to beam thoughts into someone's head (presumably someone with an alien brain anatomy different from your own). The people on this planet had considerable technology.

I have always thought the technological backwardness of the village represents an economic collapse, not a technological one. While they have a lot of technology and knowledge, what they are lacking are resources. They can barely provide the necessities of life (food and water) to their people, as can be seen when the townsfolk are asked why they're wasting water on the tree in the middle of the town.

This is similar to many post-apocalyptic stories you might see set on Earth. Consider "The Hunger Games" as one of many examples. Some people are living in abject poverty while others live in luxury. Hovercrafts vs. starving people shooting rabbits with bows and arrows. Perhaps a more apt example is "Ender's Game" where the entire planet is united in a massive international project (fighting a war) but much of the population is having a hard time economically (there is more about this in the book "Ender's Shadow").

In fact, I don't think their rocketry technology is at the very "beginning" level at all. I think they probably had a reasonably advanced space program at some point, but like everything else on their planet, the resources to maintain such a program simply don't exist anymore. I also think all available resources are being funneled into this one last space mission to send this probe.

As for your comment about electricity, lights, and automatically opening doors, I'm pretty sure the one thing they likely have in abundance is solar power.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by civilization level, but I would place their technology as being significantly more advanced than our own, but their economy, measured in GDP, as being worse than our own.


To touch on the quality of Picard's telescope, home built telescopes are a thing, and they usually look like crap. These devices are made at home, usually with whatever correctly ground glass can be scrounged together.

To further expand on this by comparing to modern (2015) United States/western culture...

  • How many people currently actually own a telescope
  • How many people engage in science as a hobby
  • How many astronomical research bodies have absolutely no government involvement?
  • How many media outlets currently have science stories running?

It is not hard in a non-socially repressed world to think of logical means for the government to control such information. Look how easy it was to dismiss Picard in the episode; his concerns were dismissed as alarmist. The government did not have to silence him, just dismiss his ideas as paranoia, and even his own village declined to take action on his warnings.

I find no logical holes in the false memory that Picard played out.

  • 3
    That telescope isn't ugly; it's awesome! Jan 7, 2015 at 15:15
  • @ThePopMachine Which one? I linked 4
    – Tritium21
    Jan 7, 2015 at 15:40
  • Oh, I didn't notice it's four links. I was looking at the first one. I guess the third one is sort of ugly, but it may be the guy in the picture. Jan 7, 2015 at 15:44

Keep in mind that the probe was beaming fictional memories into Picard's brain to recreate an impression of the Kataan civilization. We have no idea if these memories are an accurate representation of Kataan - there may have not been enough "bandwidth" to get everything right aside from the village and personalities encountered by Picard.

  • 3
    That was my thought. They're showing him an idealised view of Kataan, not a faithful rendering. They may have chosen "the simple life" as best representing their culture, in much the same way that we might choose the life of a polynesian fisherman or idahoan farmer to represent what's best about life on Earth.
    – Valorum
    Jan 7, 2015 at 16:46
  • @Richard While I agree with RobertF, I think, you have went far away, Richard. The fact, that "we have no idea if these memories are an accurate representation of Kataan" doesn't directly lead to a conclusion, that there is an idealized world presented. I wouldn't call ideal image with such "hard" goverment control etc. And I'm not that sure, that polynesian fisherman or idahoan farmer's lives are so idealistic.
    – trejder
    Jan 7, 2015 at 19:05
  • 1
    @trejder - I think it quite likely that they're showing him a version of their society that people will find appealing.
    – Valorum
    Jan 7, 2015 at 19:19

It was always my impression from the story that the Powers That Be had been deliberately suppressing curiosity about and study of the heavens by amateurs. It's made pretty explicit that the Powers That Be knew about the impending disaster for quite some time before Kamen/Picard figured it out on his own, and were determined to avoid an apocalyptic panic. As such, study of the heavens may well have been strongly discouraged, and the tools to make it easy may have been made unavailable.

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