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The Trek Nation - Darmok

Darmok

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 23, 2009 - 3:26 PM GMT

See Also: 'Darmok' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise responds to a signal from a Tamarian vessel, though previous Federation encounters with the Tamarians have been problematic because the universal translator could not translate their language. Picard and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, attempt to communicate from their respective ships, but the translator can only render cryptic phrases like "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra," which is meaningless to the crew. As Picard tries to explain that Starfleet wants peaceful relations, Dathon raises his hands holding two daggers, and he and Picard are both beamed from their ships to the surface of the planet below. While Riker and the crew discover that the Tamarians have set up a field in the planet's ionosphere to prevent a beamout, Dathon offers Picard a dagger, which Picard refuses because he believes the Tamarian wants to fight him. At night, Dathon makes a fire, then tosses Picard a flaming log so that they can both sleep comfortably at a distance from one another. Dathon keeps repeating, "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell," which mean nothing to Picard. In the morning, while the Enterprise sends a shuttlecraft on a rescue mission that is foiled by the Tamarians, Picard and Dathon are pursued by a large alien. They fight it together and Picard realizes that the strange utterances by the Tamarian are names and events - examples of how they might bridge the divide between their cultures. LaForge makes an attempt to beam Picard back to the Enterprise at the worst possible moment, just as the alien on the planet has Dathon in its clutches. Back on the planet after the unsuccessful attempt, Picard realizes that Darmok and Jalad are part of Tamarian lore: two leaders who also fought a common threat. He tells the dying Dathon the human myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The Enterprise is able to retrieve Picard by disabling the Tamarian vessel, yet Picard averts an armed battle by addressing the Tamarians using metaphors about the conflict. "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel" results in the communication breakthrough that the Tamarians wanted badly enough for Dathon to sacrifice his life.


Analysis: Though it generally gets overlooked in favor of flashier episodes like "The Best of Both Worlds" and "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Darmok" may be the very best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don't have a single criticism of it that doesn't have to do with the vicissitudes of the Universal Translator, a device whose workings have never been explained in a rational manner; how come it has no problem recognizing the metaphoric nature of Klingon oaths and insults, but not the Tamarian means of communication? Anyway, it doesn't matter very much, because the Universal Translator erases what should be an enormous barrier to establishing peaceful relations with suspicious alien cultures, namely a means of communication. In a way, we see in "Darmok" how utterly dependent Starfleet officers have become upon their magical technobabble device. Picard seems at first to believe that speaking his usual message loudly and clearly will be sufficient to open a dialogue; no wonder the Tamarians then say, "the river Temarc in winter," which would seem either to refer to someone' babbling or to tell that person to freeze so someone else can speak. Troi senses no hostility from the Tamarians, yet she has no useful suggestions for dealing with their befuddlement, like providing an illustration that might suggest peaceful intent - I would think that a culture of bipeds who use knives as weapons would understand photos of people laying down arms together, or people harvesting and exchanging crops together. Picard doesn't even attempt to use sign language.

Because he lacks the crutch of the translator, Picard is unprepared to find himself abruptly beamed to the surface with the alien captain, and responds much like Kirk did when he found himself on the planet with the Gorn - he assumes Dathon wants to fight him in a one-on-one struggle for superiority, which is what Worf, too, believes must be what the Tamarians intend. Picard isn't frightened of Dathon, but he is wary, refusing to move near the other captain's fire for fear his approach may be perceived as aggression. When Dathon offers him fire, he accepts it and builds his own little camp rather than attempting to share Dathon's and tend one fire together. He seems paralyzed by the inability to use words. We've seen that Picard excels as a negotiator and speechmaker, yet here he seems like the mute Riva without interpreters, as if he can't imagine any way to bridge the cultural gap without common words. The Enterprise doesn't even seem to have a linguist on staff, considering that Troi and Data are sent to find clues in the cryptic Tamarian phrases uttered on the viewscreen. They manage to link up Darmok and Tenagra via computer records, and Troi then guesses that they're being offered a glimpse into Tamarian mythology, yet she seems mystified how they might use that information to offer a new approach to the Tamarians.

It's unclear whether the Tamarians have only a limited vocabulary of myths or whether Dathon purposefully sticks to the same few in the hope that Picard will catch on, rather than trying to overwhelm him with a variety of scenarios. Picard is obviously beginning to pick up on the meaning before the beast attacks, and his frustration at not being able to make the leap to full communication is palpable. Terrific acting on the part of both Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield make the scenes on the planet unforgettable, despite an energy monster who's not one of the effects department's best. Winfield's performance is a big reason some of the seemingly inane phrases are so compelling: while it seems at first that "Shaka, when the walls fell" might be a reference to the removal of a psychological or communications barrier like the one Dathon and Picard are trying to dismantle between their cultures, Dathon's evident unhappiness when he says the phrase suggests instead that it refers to a literal collapse, a disaster. (There's a terrific web page, Raphael Carter's Darmok Dictionary, that attempts to define and contextualize the Tamarian phrases from the show.)

In Star Trek's unfailingly optimistic view, the complexity of metaphor and dialogue is never an insurmountable barrier; this particular breakdown gets resolved in about a day in series-time. What's more remarkable, I think, is that the audience learns to understand Tamarian right along with Picard, and it's believable as a language. It could sound silly - in the hands of lesser actors, it probably would sound silly - rather than intriguing. Starfleet may not know these aliens, and may find "Mirab, his sails unfurled" to be an awkward phrase for "Prepare to depart, warp factor [whatever is standard for this Tamarian phrase]," yet "Darmok" makes clear that this is a sophisticated culture whose nuances will take many years to unravel, with much learning along the way - not just the technology that Federation planets generally share, but a wealth of history and literature. The story of Gilgamesh, which Picard tells Dathon because of its similarities to his understanding of Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra, is the oldest surviving epic poem on Earth. At the end of the episode, Picard is reading Homer, moving on in search of the next story. Will the Tamarians relate better to Juliet on her balcony, or to Hamlet, his mind o'erthrown? Will different human genres appeal more to Tamarians of different ages, genders, religious beliefs, social positions? Wouldn't it be thrilling to be one of the linguists or historians put to work on opening full relations with them and finding out?

If there's an unsung hero to this episode, it's Riker, who has every reason to believe the Tamarians have hostile intents - they abduct Picard, then block every means by which the Enterprise might retrieve him - yet who continues to strive for a peaceful solution until he's been cornered, and attacks only when he has evidence that Picard will be killed by the alien if he doesn't. He feels as badly as Picard that he's at such a loss diplomatically, that he just can't make sense of the words. It's interesting that the episode ends not with a speech but a gesture - Picard facing out the viewport in his ready room, echoing the ritual salute he saw Dathon perform, as the stars spin past. Temba, his arms wide. Neither the Federation nor the Tamarians will soon stop telling the story of Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.