In which this episode defies technical analysis, and is all the greater for it.
The Enterprise is trundling along doing science when they find this weird-looking probe that doesn’t match any known configuration. There’s very little preamble before it starts scanning, and having been fooled by mysterious probes scanning them with weird energy before, they raise shields. Sadly, it doesn’t work, and Picard goes to sleep and wakes up in a strange house with a woman calling him Kamin. Apparently he’s had a fever and is finally coming out of it. It’s okay, he’s finally better now. It’s an odd direction for the series to take, though.
This society is technological, but superficially simplistic – sort of what you might expect if a historical district in New Mexico rennovated. They’re also planting a ceremonial tree in the town square in defiance of a drought that’s hit. Kamin is still under the delusion that he’s Picard, but he’s going along with what everyone says about him as a clever ruse, to get information. He is on the planet Kataan, which is not a Federation-settled planet. It is pretty, though. Eventually, he goes back home to his wife Eline.
Accepting the fact that they’re not actively trying to deceive him and this is Just One Of Those Things, Kamin tries to work up to contacting the Enterprise from his fever dream from first principles. Of course, that’s not quite so urgent to Eline as that her husband of three years get his life back together. He’s a metalworker, but he prefers failing at the flute, when he’s not caught up in delusion. To try and help him get his memory back, she insists he sleep in his normal bed, but in so doing calls his attention to her necklace.
Aww. We jump cut to the bridge of the Enterprise where Riker has only just called Crusher up to the bridge. We now have an objective answer to the question of whether he’s Picard dreaming he’s Kamin or Kamin who dreamed he was Picard. On Crusher’s advice, they don’t destroy the probe, and it seems that this was a good plan.
When next we check in on Kamin, it’s been five years and he’s barely holding on to the dream of the Enterprise, because it was ‘as real as this is.’ Eline is getting fed up with it, and understandably so. Also, the drought is still going on. The tree remains strong, though, despite all the crops dying. Kamin offers the idea of atmospheric condensers, but the regional administrator doesn’t seem to be serious about the project. Not as serious as Kamin is about learning to play the flute. Currently, playing Frere Jacques. But that evening, Kamin is ready to give up the dream of Picard and build the dream of a family.
Back on the Enterprise, Geordi has figured out how to trace the probe back to its origin, and Data has figured out a way to stop the energy beam. Another ten years of kamin’s life later, on the name day of his second child, Kamin has composed his own song when he goes into a seizure. When the Enterprise lets the beam back through the shields, the seizure ends.
After another ten years, Kamin’s daughter is analyzing soil samples, and there are none of the expected bacteria left in the soil. We can see the hints of Picard shining through in his daughter, and she can’t ignore the fact that the planet is dying. Geordi, meanwhile, has charted the probe’s path back to a star system which coincidentally is named Kataan, but whose star went nova a thousand years ago.
So at this point it’s fairly obvious, yes? The probe is sending Picard information about what the last generation of life on the planet was like. Only, if it was sufficiently interactive to be able to modify his dream so that the name of the planet matches up with the Federation database, what else is is superimposing? Were they humanoid? Were they monogamous? How much of the experiential data is being transposed to fit with Picard’s concept of self to make a convincing narrative?
More important, is any of that actually important for this story? No, of course it isn’t, except that it might indicate the futility of the whole endeavor.
As it turns out, everyone doing science already knew about the upcoming end of the world, but since they can barely launch missiles, there was never any point in telling the public. All we know is there’s some kind of plan. This is, as is appropriate, overshadowed by another critical moment in Kamin’s life.
Many years later, Kamin has a grandchild and goes to watch the launching of a missile. An important launching. One he’s already seen, though. The dream begins to fracture and they explain it. The probe was indeed sent to indoctrinate someone so they could carry on the Kataan legacy. It’s the best they could do. Don’t mock, it’s better than we could do if our star began to die.
With the sequence complete, the beam turns off,the probe shuts down, and Picard wakes up. After living 50+ years, he wakes up half an hour later. After watching his friends die, his wife die, his children grow up with the knowledge that their entire planet is doomed, he arrives back in command of the most powerful battle platform in the Federation. Where is Troi when she would be needed?
After examing the probe, though, Riker brings Picard an artifact they found inside it. A flute. A physical artifact which grounds the whole dream in solid reality. Maybe there was very little cultural translation in play after all. And Picard remembers the tune.