You Talking Trek to Me? – “Darmok”

“Darmok”
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 5, Episode 2

I’ve been doing this column/feature for a couple years now, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like it. Each one is a fair amount of work that literally no one is asking me to do. Which begs the question – why do I bother? Why do I put in the effort to compose verbose, overly-ponderous write-ups about Star Trek every other week?

It’s because I love Trek more than any other pop culture property. I could list out the reasons in painstakingly detail (as if I haven’t enough already), or I could just point to “Darmok” and say “Yup, this episode right here. This is why Star Trek is the fucking best.” And indeed, “Darmok” is not only the best episode of The Next Generation, but perhaps all of Star Trek. It perfectly encapsulates everything I love about the franchise, combining an intriguing and high-minded sci-fi concept with a gripping and emotional story that is very human.

The “human” part is so important to the episode, because humanism has always been one of Star Trek’s core attributes. Its stories are built around the importance of humanity and all the complexities and challenges it involves. Morality, reason, empathy, intelligence, heroism, growth – these are the values of Star Trek, presented with its trademark indefatigable optimism. “Darmok” is an amazing episode because it loops in all of these qualities in an incredibly strong, standalone story. Every good TV series has that one episode that manages to distill its entire premise and the full extent of its appeal in a single entry, and hot damn is that what this is.

“Tamarian? Y’all speak Tamarian, friend-o?”

If it has a flaw (and I don’t think it does, personally), then it would be the logic of its premise as pointed out by many before me. Obviously, the Tamarians’ language doesn’t really make sense as a realistic, functional way of communicating. At least not a detailed one – expressing simplistic ideas is possible, but the kinds of complex statements we make as a matter of common conversation are beyond what is presented here. But on the other hand, what the writers were about to cook up is exceptionally innovative and impressive – an entirely novel approach to the idea of language itself that fulfills the needs of the plot and at least passes a cursory amount of logical muster. That’s no small feat! Sure, it’s easy to pick apart why this wouldn’t really work in “real life,” but the Tamarian language works for what the episode needs and allows this wonderful story to take place, so it’s not a detail that gets in the way of my enjoyment at all.

The Tamarians’ language is unique enough to completely elude the advanced translation technology our heroes always rely on and is the main premise of the story. Star Trek has alien languages galore but they’re almost never central to the plot the way it is here. Language is the unique words and grammar of a people, but in a higher sense it represents how we understand the world and how we convey it to each other. Language can be a barrier to understanding, but also a gateway once it has been overcome.

“I want to bridge the linguistic gap between our two peoples… THIS MUCH.”

That language barrier is what has kept the “Children of Tama” and the Federation separated. As we learn, the Tamarians have attempted contact with humanity seven times(!), but in each meeting the two peoples were unable to scale this obstacle and no progress was made. Once again, these aliens have initiated contact – a vessel has sent a signal to Starfleet and waits by planet El-Adrel IV. The Enterprise opens communications, and both sides don’t have any luck in even understanding one another. As Troi later points out, there’s an absurdity to the fact that despite the advanced technology they possess, simply talking to the Tamaraians seems totally beyond their ability. The Tamarians use words that are understandable, but the ideas they’re expressing are unintelligible.

It’s actually a clever detail – the universal translator is turning their words into Federation English, but that’s not enough to actually understand their language. Their entire philosophical approach to communication is so fundamentally alien that the super advanced tech that normally handles it perfectly can only get them part of the way there. It’s a great sci-fi concept, and I love when Star Trek presents aliens that actually seem… alien – beings that are so different that they defy comprehension.

The Tamarian captain Dathon (the late Paul Winfield) is insistent on establishing communication but seems to run afoul of his subordinate and the two argue. Picard and the bridge crew can only watch in silent befuddlement as they go back and forth. That is, until both Dathon and Picard get beamed to El-Adrel’s surface and the Tamarian ship employs a scattering field to prevent any further transport. Picard finds himself in the wilderness alone with Dathon, who holds up two daggers. A duel to the death, perhaps?

Another clever detail is the initial misdirection the story creates based upon previous Trek adventures. In the classic Original Series episode “Arena,” Captain Kirk is trapped alone on Cestus III with a humongous Gorn who he must battle to survive. It’s a story type we’ve seen again and again, including the messy and mostly silly “The Savage Curtain.” Picard, the Enterprise crew, and we the audience take it as a given that this alien wants to battle. Why else would he have marooned the two of them and brought weapons along? Worf certainly assumes that it’s a fight to the death (because Worf), but Troi isn’t so sure.

Dathon attempts to give Picard one of his daggers, but assuming the alien wants a fight, he refuses. They still don’t have any luck in communicating. Night eventually falls, and Picard unsuccessfully tries to make a fire as Dathon rests by his. Further attempts at communication don’t get anywhere, and Picard watches as Dathon performs a complex ritual with his medallions. The scene suggests some interesting details about the Tamarians – they seem to be a spiritual/ritualistic people that are more connected to nature than humanity is. It’s nice because it gives them a little more color than a typical generic alien race. Rolling over to go to sleep, he seems perturbed and tosses a flaming (olive?) branch to Picard, proclaiming “Timba, his arms open.” Picard realizes the phrase denotes giving, and the two share a brief moment of understanding.

“Each of these medallions represents some nerd I gave an epic wedgie to. And every night I pray they continue to get the swirlies they deserve.”
“Yes, yes, but where is the #6 screw supposed to go? These things are never clear.”

Meanwhile, Worf attempts to rescue Picard by taking a shuttle down to the planet surface, but the Tamarian ship fires on it – not to destroy it, but just enough to turn it back. A frustrated Riker instructs Troi and Data to analyze the Tamarian language to try and crack it. Reviewing the communication log and cross referencing with the ship’s database, they figure out that the Tamarians are referencing mythic and historical figures from other alien cultures. These cultural references are the basis for their language, but despite this revelation it doesn’t bring them that much closer to understanding. Like with the universal translator, it still leaves critical details out. Without knowing anything about these references and the stories behind them, the phrases are still meaningless.

It’s another great and clever detail. For as much as Star Trek emphasizes knowledge, facts, and data, it also takes care to include personal experience as something just as important. Reading about something can teach one a great deal, but having firsthand experience can be a critical piece of the puzzle. As Data noted in “The Measure of a Man,” reading about poker and playing it were two entirely different things. And indeed, Data and Troi piecing together the grammar of the Tamarian language still doesn’t allow them to understand it. It’s only the personal experience of Picard on the planet with Dathon that accomplishes that.

“The Tamarian meme structure is quite complex. For example, we know that the historical figure Taylor was screaming at a feline. But beyond that, we have no further information.”

Speaking of them two, Picard awakes the next day to find Dathon gone. He snoops a little in his personal belongings and finds a written journal. Dathon suddenly returns in an agitated state and Picard initially takes it as anger over him invading his privacy (more assumptions and misunderstandings). Dathon tries to give Picard the knife again, and he angrily refuses. But things become a little more clear when they hear a distant roaring and rocks tumbling from a cliff. Oh boy, a monster!

Picard finally understands that the knife isn’t to fight Dathon, and he accepts it. Of course it isn’t a regular animal but some kind of spectral energy creature that can disappear and reappear around them. Never bring a knife to a Predator fight, as they say. The Enterprise crew detects what’s going on and gets ready to try and beam through the scattering field to get Picard out of there.

As the creature menacingly appears around them Dathon continues to talk to Picard, who finally realizes that he is citing example as a means of expressing himself. Winfield is great throughout, and successfully emotes a range of reactions from impatience and frustration to joy as Picard finally gets it. Now teamed up, they form a defense against the creature as it attacks. The SFX of the alien is simple, but effective – it looks like a glowing, ghostly, bipedal triceratops (but is more threatening and less goofy than that sounds).

“MAGIC WAND, MAKE MY MONSTER… GLOW!!!”

Just as Picard is about to attack, the Enterprise chooses the absolute worst moment and tries to beam him up. Frozen in place, he watches helplessly as the creature pummels Dathon. The Enterprise is unable to penetrate the scattering field and Picard rematerializes just as the creature runs off. Dathon is alive, but critically injured.

Riker has had enough of the Tamarians’ bullshit and decides to attack their vessel to damage it just enough to disable their scattering field. Thematically, it’s a good counterpoint to Picard’s adventure on the surface. As has been emphasized on Trek numerous times before, first contact with a new people is a delicate and potentially dangerous prospect. The split experience of Riker vs. Picard in this episode shows how that can play out depending on the players involved. Riker is certainly not a bloodthirsty asshole looking for a fight, but he is more aggressive and impatient than Picard and that informs how he handles the situation with the Tamarians. And to be fair, he is primarily concerned with protecting Picard. However, if their positions were reversed I could see Picard doing everything he could to save Riker, but at the same time potentially letting him die if it meant preventing war with another alien species. We have the luxury of knowing that Dathon’s intentions aren’t threatening, but Riker doesn’t, so his frustration and actions are understandable. He exhausts all diplomatic and intellectual options before choosing war, which is decent.

“I need to know more. Give me more about Salt Bae. What was he sprinkling?”

Night has fallen, and Picard and Dathon sit by the fire. What follows is my absolute favorite scene in all of Star Trek; it’s a remarkably staged and acted scene that distills all the themes and appeal of the property as a whole into an enthralling few minutes. It has an intimate and quietly theatrical tone that’s emphasized by its minimalism and the surrounding darkness, powered by two great actors and filled with big ideas.

Finally understanding how the Tamarians’ language works (as Data and Troi did), Picard dives in with Dathon to try and make sense of its idiosyncratic stories. Focusing on the Darmok and Jalad reference, he muddles his way with Dathon in figuring out what happened with them. As it turns out, Darmok found himself on the island Tanagra where he also met Jalad. The implication is that perhaps they were both stranded/shipwrecked there separately? At any rate, they encountered a beast on the island, worked together to defeat it, and were able to leave the island as friends. Winfield is great here, and he gives the sense of a parent slowly explaining something to a child. It’s so well written and captivating to watch as its concepts gradually unfold. The clumsiness with which the conversation proceeds is satisfying to watch, since we’re figuring it out along with Picard.

“Could you speak into this ear? My other one’s filled up with all my guts. Not your fault at all. Ahem.”

Picard understands both the story and the reason why Dathon has stranded the two of them on El-Adrel, and Stewart really sells how pleased he is in forming a rudimentary bridge of understanding with this alien. Having deduced the meaning of some other Tamarian phrases he’s able to clumsily converse with Dathon, who then asks for a tale from Picard’s people. Picard dismisses it in that self-effacing way he has, saying he’s not a good storyteller. Plus Dathon couldn’t understand, anyway. But after a pause he decides to give it a go and launches into the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest recorded works of fiction in Earth’s history.

I love, love, love the juxtaposition of super old mythology and futuristic sci-fi here, and with Stewart’s acting acumen, it makes for a quietly epic and captivating scene, stretching across all of time and space (the score heightens it beautifully, as well). Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, tormented his people who called out for a companion to quell their ruler. Enter Enkidu, a “wild man” who engages Gilgamesh in battle. “Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk,” Dathon repeats, and I love that he’s reframing the story in the way that his people would understand. He listens intently as Picard speaks and there seems to be a glimmer of understanding as he continues the tale.

Now friends (and perhaps more, as some have surmised), Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on an adventure and encounter a bull of heaven on a rampage. As Darmok and Jalad did, they’re able to slay the beast, but Enkidu is mortally wounded. It’s so on brand for Star Trek that these two people from different planets would have stories (and in a broader sense, thoughts and feelings) that are largely the same. But as Picard solemnly tells of Gilgamesh’s friend dying, Dathon succumbs to his own injuries and passes away. It’s sad, because for as much understanding as they reached, there’s still so much left they will never get to. Dathon remains an enigmatic character we don’t totally comprehend, and it leaves a tragically lasting impression as a result.

On the Enterprise, the crew has made their preparations and they attack the Tamarian ship. Picard is left to face the beast at El-Adrel alone, with the sad understanding that if he doesn’t survive then Dathon’s sacrifice will have been in vain (and their two peoples could be facing war). Fortunately, the Enterprise is able to beam him out in the nick of time and they brace for the Tamarian’s counterattack. They prove to be much more than a match for the Enterprise, which teeters on the edge of destruction as Picard enters the bridge.

Hailing the Tamarians, Picard speaks with their enraged first officer in their native tongue, telling them to stop their attack. The first officer is in disbelief at first, then overjoyed as he realizes that his captain was successful. But Picard delivers the news that the beast has killed Dathon, and the Tamarians are visibly mournful. Picard offers Dathon’s written journal, which the first officer beams aboard and proclaims “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.” It’s the first time we actually hear Dathon’s name, and how apparently this incident will now enter the Tamarian lexicon for all time. Cool! Picard offers Dathon’s dagger back, but the Tamarian lets him keep it and orders their ship to get underway. Crisis averted!

“According to the captain’s thing here, your people are capable of great beauty, but also great horrors. Or something, I dunno. We gotta wrap this thing up here, so you all get… a B-. We’ll Darmok you if we’re in the area again. Late.”

Later in his ready room, Picard reads a tome of Homer’s poetry as Riker brings him the damage report. I love this detail and what it says about Picard. The imminent crisis with the Tamarians is over, but Jean-Luc can’t help but immerse himself in the topic of root metaphors and mythic heroes in the hopes that it might prove useful someday. Star Trek has always been very pro-knowledge, pro-nerdery – exemplified in its utopian setting where people expand their horizons because they have the freedom and lack of economic scarcity to do so. Picard is such a smart and learned guy – he has many interests and devotes a lot of time and energy to them, and they’ve helped to make him a well-rounded and deep individual. And a more effective officer and captain. Learning things and having experiences is how we all grow as individuals, to become smarter and more compassionate people.

“Ah, ancient vampire romances. One of the root cringe metaphors of our own culture. I really think she should’ve ended up with Jacob, but they’re fairly engrossing nonetheless, Number One.”

Picard remarks to Riker about the deep sacrifice Dathon made – he put his life on the line (and lost it) just to establish communication between their two peoples. Picard is clearly moved by the act as his voice trails off. Picking up the dagger, he peers out the window and repeats the ritual he saw Dathon doing on El-Adrel, touching the blade and then his forehead. Like much of the Tamarian words and customs, its meaning is barely comprehensible, but certainly has some deep significance. Perhaps it’s a salute to Dathon’s bravery and sacrifice. Or a prayer for the dead. Like the tale of Darmok and Jalad, the specifics are fuzzy, but the intention is clear.

“Darmok” is an incredible hour of Star Trek, and a wonderfully imaginative yet grounded sci-fi story. One of Trek’s essential themes is the value of understanding between peoples, and the potential pitfalls that misunderstanding can create. “Darmok” elucidates the great difficulty that is sometimes involved in coming to that understanding. For a property so often steeped in parables and metaphor, there’s something clever and thematically poignant to a story in which two people find common ground in each other’s cultural stories. Stories are entertainment, but they’re also illustrations of our values and what we hold important. As different as they can be on the surface, when stripped to their core they hold the same truths for us all, regardless of where we come from or what language we speak.


Stray Observations:

  • As I stated above, I’m not too interested in dissecting why the Tamarians’ language couldn’t possibly work, since the episode is so good and it almost seems like an unfair criticism. For one thing, it lacks the precision that an advanced language would require. I mean, imagine giving detailed technical instructions in Tamarian? This could also be a function of the universal translator’s unfamiliarity the the language.

    However, an interesting phenomenon in our own culture actually provides greater additional context and support. This is of course – memes! As it’s been pointed out, the Tamarian language is basically memespeak, and we’ve quickly grown accustomed to making (and understanding) references that carry any number of varied and idiosyncratic meanings. So it doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as when the episode originally aired.
  • This seems like a situation where a telepath would be helpful. Or someone who could somehow… meld their… mind with another being? Imagine that!
  • I guess I will deduct one point for Data and Troi not being able to deduce the meaning of the titular reference. The Starfleet database has info on the mythical figure Darmok, can’t they just read the Wikipedia entry on him and make some educated guesses? Crusher makes the (valid) point that if you don’t know the story of Romeo & Juliet, a reference to Juliet isn’t going to mean anything. But… for all we know they do have the Epic Adventures of Darmok in the 5th Dimension (or whatever) in the Federation cultural database (and perhaps even the underrated and superior Darmok and Jalad’s Bogus Journey). Do your research, people! Don’t just read the headlines!
  • This episode marked the debut of Picard’s special smoking jacket. Love it! Although the version here has a snazzy leather shoulder that was replaced with a regular velvet one in future appearances. I liked this one better. It says “Yeah, I read books and drink a lot of tea but I can still double-punch the shit outta you.”
  • In the much less cool and goofier episode “Masks,” Picard’s general knowledge of myths and cultures comes in handy once again when he defeats Masaka. If nothing else about that episode, I appreciate it for that bit of consistency (and Spiner’s ball of nutty performances).
  • The rapidity with which the Tamarians pulverize the Enterprise (Stafleet’s biggest and best ship) is kind of frightening. The big E is very rarely outclassed in such a clear cut way.
  • Ashley Judd!