Star Trek Discovery Just Brought Back a Beloved Piece of Next Generation Canon

As Discovery enters the “Labyrinths” of Captain Burnham’s mind, fans should be reminded of a Star Trek: The Next Generation classic.

Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation
Photo: CBS via Getty Images

This Star Trek: Discovery article contains spoilers.

With the release of this week’s “Labyrinths,” Star Trek: Discovery only has two more episodes to go before its series finale, which will have to wrap up not only its season-long Progenitor mystery but multiple character arcs at the same time. It’s a lot for one of the most action-adventure-oriented Trek series ever. Still, we didn’t mind that Discovery took a second to pause with an introspective episode before jumping back into the breakneck action of what will become the final two stories. In “Labyrinths,” Captain Burnham enters inside what she thinks is an ancient Betazoid book. Instead, she ends up in a mindscape created by her own subconscious.

This is classic Star Trek stuff, an entire sci-fi adventure that happens almost exclusively in the mind of one character but is full of emotional stakes that directly impact the physical stakes in the outside world. And, for longtime fans, the method by which Burnham ends up in this mindscape should seem very, very familiar, as it’s a callback to one of the most beloved Next Generation episodes of all time.

While onboard the Eternal Gallery and Archive, Book and Burnham finally locate the manuscript called Labyrinths of the Mind, written by Marina Derex, a Betazoid scientist who lived 800 years in the past, way back in the 24th century. Book and Burnham are told that nobody else before has requested this book, and we quickly find out why. When Burnham opens it and presses a specific panel, she’s zapped unconscious. Dr. Culber explains she’s been hit by a “nucleonic emitter,” which should ring some bells in the minds of people who love The Next Generation.

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Just before the end of The Next Generation’s fifth season, on June 1, 1992, the series dropped what is almost certainly its best standalone episode, “The Inner Light.” This story, from writer Morgan Gendel, begins with a different kind of archive in space: a probe sent by an ancient civilization from the planet Kataan. As in the new Discovery episode, Picard is zapped by a nucleonic beam, and ends up on the planet Kataan, which from the point-of-view of the 24th-century timeline, life has been extinct since the 14th century.

Discovery isn’t 10 centuries in the future from The Next Generation, but it is eight centuries ahead. This is one of those strange quirks of Discovery’s time-jump from the end of season 2. By leap-frogging beyond the The Original Series timeframe where the show began, the series is also now 800 years beyond The Next Generation. For people like Burnham, Culber, and Kovich, the fact that Jean-Luc Picard was one of the first humans to discover the Progenitor tech (in “The Chase”) means very little, he’s just some guy lost to history. And yet, it’s interesting that the timespan between Picard and the death of the planet Kataan is now comparable to the timespan between Discovery’s future and the now-classic era of The Next Generation.

But, one has to wonder, did the Betazoid Dr. Derex adapt technology from the Kataan probe to use in this manuscript? We know that the various scientists hid the clues to the Progenitor tech that were created in the 24th century during the Dominion War, which would be after the events of TNG’s “The Inner Light.” So, it’s totally conceivable that the technology of the nucleonic beam was adapted by Federation scientists, and used in this book, specifically.

Burnham’s journey differs from Picard’s in “The Inner Light,” of course. She’s totally aware of what is happening, and the projections from her mind, including a representation of Book, make her aware she’s in a mindscape puzzle, and that her goal is to get out. In “The Inner Light,” the world of Picard’s other life, living as Kamin, wasn’t a puzzle for him to solve, or really a quest of any kind. Instead, Picard was encouraged just to live out his days in that world. However, there was a ticking clock on the other end, and Crusher was concerned he might die if the nucleonic beam isn’t severed. This is paralleled in “ “Labyrinths” when Dr. Culber resists beaming Burnham out until the program has run its course.

What’s really fascinating about all of this is the idea that Burnham has to deal with herself before moving onward into the rest of the mission. It’s a ruminative episode, jammed in the middle of some action episodes, which also repeats Star Trek history. In 1992, “The Inner Light” was the penultimate episode of The Next Generation season 5. The episode that followed “The Inner Light,” was the time travel cliffhanger “Time’s Arrow Part 1,” which brought together the entire TNG crew on an epic quest. 

Discovery seems to be doing something similar; right toward the end of its own season 5, the captain of the ship goes on an inward journey, right before the next two episodes kick things into maximum warp. Captain Burnham is nothing like Captain Picard, but as Discovery proves, sometimes, the farther one travels, the less one knows. And when that happens, it’s time to chill out and get nucleonic.

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Star Trek: Discovery is streaming now on Paramount+.