Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation in the second season premiere "The Child," and would go on to make twenty-seven more appearance in the series, plus a minor supporting role in Star Trek Generations and a cameo in Nemesis.
In her initial appearances Guinan was shrouded in mystery. Although presented as the host of the Ten Forward lounge and its bartender, clearly she was something more. She was the only being who ever managed to challenge Q. And her relationship with Picard was one of his most intimate. Yet it wasn't until Generations that we learned what her species was. In a way, it was a letdown. Gradually the mystique of the character fell. We learned her race survived, barely, their encounter with the Borg. They became a race of wanderers. Her first meeting with Picard was after all a fairly routine Next Generation adventure. And her people, the El-Aurians, seemed like just another ordinary life-form after all.
Then again maybe not.
Generations also featured as its primary villain Dr. Tolian Soran, the man obsessed with getting back into the Nexus energy ribbon that served as the gateway to a land of heart's content. It's my contention that better understanding this man will help you better understand El-Aurians in general, and Guinan specificially.
Soran describes (while he's torturing poor Geordi La Forge, incidentally!) his people as listeners. It's a strange if cryptic remark, certainly. When coupled with his actions throughout the rest of the movie, and all that experience with Guinan, perhaps it can make a little more sense. Everything we know about the El-Aurians (which, by the way, can probably be translated as The Listeners) comes from the post-Borg invasion era, when the entire population was dispersed. All El-Aurians essentially became loners.
Now, we never see what Soran's heart's content in the Nexus is. If the visions shared by Jim Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard are any indication, however, the Nexus appears best motivated to bring out strong feelings of home and family, either once experienced or strongly yearned for. I contend, therefore, that Soran's vision was one of times past.
He was described as a family man, before the Borg, a husband and father, self-professed as benevolent in this previous life, until provoked to desperation, a need to find his way back there. The Nexus was this opportunity. For anyone, this seems like a good enough quest, despite the extreme measures Soran takes to achieve it. But just perhaps, it's even more important to an El-Aurian.
Listeners. We didn't need Soran to tell us El-Aurians were good listeners. Picard had Deanna Troi as ship's counselor, sure, but just as many passengers opted to use Guinan for this emotional relief. She was at her best when she hardly said anything at all. She helped people understand what they already knew, with just a few key insights offered as she listened. More than the imp Q described, Guinan's true gift was the ability to be exactly what she needed to be.
Perhaps, just perhaps, because that's what she knew best, from her previous life. We know she was already an adventurer, traveling the stars even before her whole race became exiles. She was looking for her personal version of what all El-Aurians already knew, a deep sense of family (in Nemesis she makes a joke of how many times she's been married), an interconnectedness, where words aren't absolutely necessary to feel a sense of community. Listeners don't tend to talk. They know, on an intrinsic level. Imagine a whole culture of people like that. Imagine, then, the El-Aurians.
Guinan was never as desperate as Soran. She was able to fill the void left by leaving her people behind in a number of ways. Her curiosity was subtle, but it was there. Why else travel to Earth in the 19th century, when most other aliens wouldn't have cared less about the activities of humans? She was a connoisseur. Why else become a bartender?
Besides, she met Picard. Someone who truly understood her on a personal level. They were kindred spirits. Her appearance in Generations may be Guinan's most significant. If Picard, or Guinan, had ever considered it, theirs was the solution they ever needed to their problems. Why else would Guinan have the ability to visit someone else's vision? She already belonged in Picard's. It was unspoken. Well, perhaps perfectly El-Aurian.
The way Guinan and Picard met, it was nothing fussy. And maybe that's exactly how it should have been after all. He rescues her, but doesn't make a big deal about it. He doesn't have to. He's the best version of himself in that moment. Perhaps El-Aurians always know the best version of the people they encounter. Someone like Soran will have been past the ability to appreciate this. But someone like Guinan? The definition of her existence.
This is all there in Generations. I think I was always aware of it, but only recently came to appreciate it. For most fans, the movie is a vaguely (at best) disappointing affair, the anticlimactic meeting between Kirk and Picard, best known for the unsatisfying way Kirk dies. Of course, by his own admission (from The Final Frontier), he always knew he'd die alone, away from his own family, and that's exactly what he does here. In a way that's the most appropriate way he could have died. Everything about Generations is subtle like that. Picard, meanwhile, is suffering an emotional crisis during the whole story, having lost his beloved nephew, in whom he had placed all his dreams for the future. Picard is halfway between Kirk and Soran. His guiding light? Guinan. I always liked that character. Maybe that's why I always liked Generations. The more I think about it, the more I like it, too. It's a subtle story (when anyone else would have gone full bombast on such an occasion), a perfect Next Generation story, the only one of its movies to significantly feature Guinan. It only figures.