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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Free Comic Book Day 2017

Free Comic Book Day 2017 was Saturday May 6th, 2017. I went with a friend of mine and we arrived probably around 11:00 am. So there was a long line that wrapped around the corner. However, it was still an excellent event. There were cosplayers, and Vault of Midnight, my local comics shop, had their side walk activity area with vendors, artists, and kids activities. This year there was even a food truck! Once inside the store was less packed solid than last year – making it even easier to get to the free comics on the back wall as well as to look around the store for other items to purchase. This year we were allowed to choose four free promo books. I also picked-up my weekly pull list comics and inquired about a Doctor Who graphic novel that was missing from my collection. It is to the credit of the excellent staff at Vault of Midnight that even as busy as they were, they were still willing to check on a special order for me.

On to the comics, this year I picked-up four free comics, all tie-ins by chance. I picked up: Titan’s Four Doctors FCBD event issue; IDW’s Star Trek the Next Generation Mirror Broken; Archie Comics Betty and Veronica (a tie-in to Riverdale, somewhat), and DC’s Wonder Woman.

I’m going to start by discussing Wonder Woman. I picked this free promo comic up thinking it would be a tie-in to this Summer’s Wonder Woman movie. However, I was a bit disappointed because it’s actually a re-print of Wonder Woman Rebirth #1, which I have already read. In fact, Wonder Woman has been on my pull list since Rebirth started. Also, with two volumes of Wonder Woman Rebirth available in graphic novel format – it’s probably something that a lot of people have read since it’s included in the first Wonder Woman Rebirth Graphic Novel. That’s the negative. The positive is – I re-read the comic anyway and I really enjoyed it. As much as I enjoy Rebirth, and I do, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow have been the hardest lines for me to “get in to” so to speak. I finally dropped Green Arrow (I applaud the extremely brave social commentary of Green Arrow – but I found I couldn’t connect to Oliver and it always ended-up at the bottom of the stack when I was reading my books.) Wonder Woman is also teetering on the edge of being dropped from my pull – though I’d probably get the graphic novels instead. With two completely different storylines, Wonder Woman is really hard to follow month to month, especially if one isn’t that familiar with her storyline and background in the comics. But having said all that, I re-read this, the first issue of Wonder Woman Rebirth, and I found I really enjoyed it. Having read the bi-weekly book for about a year, I had a slightly better idea what was going on. If you haven’t read the new Wonder Woman, I do recommend it, I just feel the graphic novels are an easier format for enjoying the stories.

Betty and Veronica I picked up as a tie-in to Riverdale, the new series on the CW that’s based on Archie Comics. This story was fun, and full of surprises. It’s narrated by J. Farnsworth Wigglebottom III (a.k.a Hot Dog) Jughead’s dog. The dog speaks directly to the audience and is amusing and fun as he both narrates and comments on the action. Wigglebottom even “eats” two pages of the comic and then has Betty and Veronica giving exposition instead – in swimsuits. There’s a fair amount of humor in the book too. The story involves a national coffee chain buying out and closing down Pop’s the diner where the kids hang out. Betty is angered by this and rallies everyone to save Pop’s. When she discovers that Veronica’s father owns the coffee company, and the bank that holds Pop’s mortgage, Betty explodes at Veronica – and the issue ends there. The back of the book includes informative advertisements for Archie Comics, including the “new Archie”, and a Riverdale tie-in. There are also character portraits from Riverdale. Overall, I enjoyed this. The story is somewhat basic, one of the characters even comments that threats of Pop’s closing seem to happen a lot. But the breaking of the fourth wall, and the humor, make this an enjoyable read. Betty and Veronica and the other newer Archie comic books make for an excellent comic for teens and children, filled with Americana and a slightly old-fashioned bent.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Mirror Broken is a return trip to the Next Gen Mirror Universe. This story follows Lt. Barclay’s Mirror Universe double. I have always like Lt. Barclay and his Mirror Universe counterpart is tough, capable, and definitely shaped by the circumstances of his universe. In the Mirror universe, the Empire is breaking down, having suffered catastrophic wars with the Klingons and the Cardassians – Spock’s era of reform is over, resulting in an even more ruthless attitude within the Terran Empire – or what’s left of it. Assassination is still the only means of advancement, something we forget as we see Barclay contemplating getting out of engineering and into a “better” life. I liked the focus on a single character with basically a concluded story in this promo book. It’s also a good intro to the ST:TNG Mirror Universe comic, and the write-up for that series promises to be very character-focused, introducing a character per issue before any major plot. That’s the type of writing I like in comics – focus on character, and character interaction as well as world-building. The plots should always add to this. But when mere “action” takes over, without character being explored – the stories can fall flat. This issue of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Mirror Universe comic emphasizes character, and a relatively minor one at that (Barclay) and I enjoyed it. The last pages of the book explain three other available series from IDW, with three sample pages of each one. They are Star Trek – Boldly Go, which follows on from the reboot Star Trek films, taking place just after Star Trek Beyond. The second is Star Trek / Green Lantern. And the third is, Star Trek – Waypoint. Star Trek – Waypoint is an anthology series featuring all the various versions of Trek, though the sample issue seems to be set in a future version of Trek (Data has been uploaded to the Enterprise and is now the ship’s computer, though he projects holograms of himself to various duty stations.) all three of these series looked pretty good, and I actually plan on looking for a graphic novel version of the ST/GL crossover series. The art in this book (and the sample pages) is also very good, with a lovely painted look that’s has a dark undertone that’s appropriate for the Mirror universe. The color palettes for the sample pages fit the various versions of Trek they represent. If you are a Star Trek fan, check out IDW’s comic series – you won’t be disappointed, I think.

Doctor Who – The Promise (Four Doctors, FCBD 2017) begins, appropriately enough with teh Twelfth Doctor and Bill running on an alien planet. They find an ancient temple and enter, using YMCA as the visual key lock. The Doctor locates a fob watch, but it’s broken. He and Bill tell the local aliens a story and prevent a civil war. In the TARDIS, Bill asks the Doctor to tell her the real story and he tells her about his friend, Plex. The story flashes back to when the Ninth Doctor has to break the bad news to the hermit, Plex, that his entire planet has been destroyed. Plex then reveals to the Doctor he’s producing clones from his own stem cells and siphoned Time Lord Arton energy. The Tenth Doctor visits Plex when he dies, where he sees a hologram from his friend, who sends him to the planet of the clones. The Tenth Doctor has t “fixing” the overly deferential nature of the race of alien clones. The Eleventh Doctor awakens Plex, who becomes the leader of his re-united planet. Though as the Twelfth Doctor tells Bill, he’s afraid the society will break down again. This is a pretty good story, though it’s a bit hard to follow at times, since the different Doctors visit Plex at different times in his life – and nothing occurs in linear order. The back of the promo book includes a very handy catalog of Titan’s various Doctor Who graphic novels and specials. The art is excellent, and colorful in this book.