ST: TNG – Darmok Episode Review

  • Series Title: Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Story Title: Darmok
  • Season: 5
  • Episode: # 2
  • Discs: 1 (Part of “Season 5” – 7 discs total)
  • Network:  First-Run Syndication (produced by Paramount)
  • Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Colm Meaney
  • Original Air Date: 09/30/1991
  • Format: Standard, Color, DVD, NTSC

The Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok” is a fascinating study of linguistics and culture and I really loved it. The idea was very cool, even if I figured out exactly what the Tamarians were doing a lot earlier than the crew of the Enterprise. The episode starts with the command crew of the Enterprise discussing that they have received a message from the Tamarians, an alien species that the Federation has encountered before, but has also utterly failed to establish any sort of relationship with. In fact, all the previous Federation captains had declared that the Tamarian language is “incomprehensible”.

The Enterprise meets the Tamarian ship and open communications – the Captain, and at times his crew, make declarative statements, of proper names and places, but of course, the crew of the Enterprise doesn’t understand. Finally, the captain and his first officer make statements to each other, the first officer backs down and Picard and the Tamarian Captain are beamed down to the surface, like in the Classic Trek episode, “Arena”, where Kirk and the Gorn are forced to fight each other by a third entity. But unlike “Arena”, the Tamarian doesn’t want to fight Picard. What Picard discovers is that the Tamarian is both trying to teach Picard his language and that by facing an adversary together, a monster on the planet, they may learn enough about each other to communicate. And of course, both communications and the transporter are cut off by the Tamarian ship. This makes Riker and Worf nervous and prone to doing dumb things – like interfering. The Tamarian’s plan works, as Picard, slowly figures out that the Tamarians communicate by example, by metaphor. Unfortunately, Riker’s attempt to beam up Picard during the battle with the monster results in the Tamarian captain’s death. Picard figures out enough to communicate with the Tamarians and then the Enterprise leaves.

OK, so far, so good – but why did this episode resonate with me so much? Because the Tamarian language reminded me not so much of “metaphor” but of the short-hand language that fans use. For example, if I said, Picard and Tamarian Captain like “Arena”. A Star Trek fan would probably know what I meant. But to someone who had never seen Star Trek or the episode “Arena” that would be incomprehensible. Besides, in this story, although Riker and Worf assume the situation is “Arena” and are therefore worried about Picard, that’s not actually what was going on. It’s actually a lot more like “Enemy Mine”. (A 90s SF movie where a human and an alien who are in a war no less crash land on the same planet and have to work together to survive.) See what I did there? Again, without the explanation of “Enemy Mine” a reader may or may not understand the reference.

In the episode, “Darmok”, Data and Counselor Troi eventually figure out that the phrases being used by the Tamarians are proper names, places, and then even locate references to those names and places in the Enterprise‘s databanks. But there is no context. And in this case, context is everything.

I watched the entire episode with the subtitles on, and that may have helped make it obvious that the format of the language was to refer to something. E.G. what the Tamarian was saying was, “this situation is like the situation of “Darmok and Jamel at Tanaka”, but of course, Picard had *no idea* what had happened at Tanaka or who Darmok and Jamel were. He figures it out. At the end of the episode, Picard’s monologue and eventual dialogue with the First Officer of the Tamaran ship is fascinating because as a viewer you only understand part of it – but the Tamaran First Officer grins – he understands, and although he’s sad at the loss of his captain, he knows there has been a connection made.

There are a few other things in the episode, Troi, out of the blue tells Riker the Tamarians have “no sense of self-identity”, which is both a pretty big assumption and probably wrong. They do have a strong sense of community and connection through shared experience and stories. Again, like fans. I remember once discussing a television show with a friend and she mentioned how the ending had ruined it for her. I’d stopped watching that particular show before the last season so I asked, “Why? what happened?” And she said, “They Blake’s 7‘d it.” I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” Now again, some out there might understand both what my friend said, and why I was sorry about it. For those of you scratching their heads, going, “huh?” and reaching for IMDB, Fandom Wiki, or Google, let me explain, Blake’s 7 was a British SF show most famous for its last episode, in which, Spoiler – they killed everyone off. This, in a show which routinely killed off regular characters. So she was basically saying “they killed off everyone” in this show she liked but using fannish shorthand to explain it. Again, this is how the Tamarians talk to each other all the time. In fact, when the Captain and his First Officer are arguing about what to do it’s clear they both are citing a story or an idea – the Captain’s idea for getting the Enterprise crew to understand is “Darmok and Jamel at Tanaka”, the First Officer’s is “[somebody] his sails unfurled”. We never really learn what that means, so who knows if it would have worked or not. But it also seems clear in that first scene that the Tamarians think the Enterprise crew is somewhat dumb to not understand them. Even the Tamarian Captain gets frustrated with Picard at times. Again, those of us with our fingers on the pulse of pop culture can relate.

I did feel that as someone with some background in linguistics, although some languages on Earth use more metaphors than others, and as my examples of fannish shorthand show, sub-cultures often can use metaphor, shared experience, and shared cultural knowledge to augment language – it’s not possible to construct an entire language that way. Imagine if instead of saying, “I’d like to a cup of coffee,” it would be, “Special Agent Dale Cooper in the Cafe”. But then that might get you pie not coffee. And another approach, which Picard actually tries on the planet, is to define basic words – like “fire” or “give”. This is part of how he and the captain do learn to communicate, but it’s Picard who learns the alien language, not the other way ’round, which again, is a major point in this episode’s favor.

So again, I really liked the episode and I hope the rest of the season is this good. I usually just review ST: TNG episodes by the season, which is what I’m planning on for Season 5. But I just had to address this particular story, because I just loved it.

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