In Defense of Darmok

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Approximately a decade ago, in a blog post I can no longer find, a dear friend and professor once commented that “Darmok”’s premise is ridiculous, and he wasn’t wrong. Starfleet sends the Enterprise to El-Adrel IV, a planet very close to space held by a species known as the Children of Tama. Federation ships have encountered the Tamarians before, but their language defied translation by the Universal Translator. Starfleet believes the transmission of basic mathematical formulae to be an attempt at contact, and despite earlier failures, Picard has hope that he and his crew will be able to initiate contact. Once they arrive, they meet a Tamarian ship and discover that the Tamarians speak in gibberish. The UT can translate the words themselves, but the words have no meaning. The frustrated Tamarian captain beams both himself and Picard to the planet’s surface, leaving Riker and crew perplexed and fearful for Picard’s safety.

While on the planet, the Tamarian captain throws Picard a knife, and Picard, convinced that this is all part of some challenge ritual refuses the blade. Later, when Picard shivers from the night cold, the Tamarian throws him a burning stick from his own fire, explaining “Temba, his arms wide.” The next day, a budget Predator beast attacks both the Tamarian and Picard, wounding the Tamarian badly while the Enterprise crew attempts to beam Picard out through the Tamarian dampening field at the absolute worst possible moment. The transport fails, leaving Picard to rush to the Tamarian’s side where he discovers that the Tamarian language is made up of metaphors. Data and Troi draw similar conclusions, but unlike Picard, they make no further inroads toward learning the mythohistorical lexicon from which the Tamarians draw their imagery. After the Tamarian captain dies, Riker beams Picard back aboard the Enterprise in the nick of time to avoid a misunderstanding that would have led to war.

As my mentor pointed out so long ago, the language concept presented in “Darmok” is frankly quite silly. Speaking exclusively in metaphors, how would they have developed the complex mathematics required for space travel? However, “Darmok” constitutes Star Trek at its Trekiest. Airing as this episode did so long before Enterprise, the crew of the 1701-D have access to the Universal Translator, which operates less as science fiction and more as magic. In fact, I’d argue that Star Trek does not fall into the category of hard science fiction generally, but I reserve that discussion for another blog post. The show, by necessity, pays little attention to the difficulties inherent in translating a language that would be entirely alien; perhaps there are sounds human vocal cords cannot replicate. There could be phonemes that fall outside the range of our ability to hear, and most fundamentally, there may be concepts so far outside our own experience as to be unintelligible.

The Tamarians’ metaphors serve as a shorthand for all of those difficulties, but most importantly, the episode presents communication not only as a worthy end in itself but also as something that is achievable. We never see the Tamarians again, nor does the episode answer the question of why this particular captain placed so much emphasis on opening the door to exchange with the Federation that he was willing to sacrifice himself to a very literal “Beast of Tanagra” just for the chance that he could teach Picard enough to achieve mutual understanding. At the episode’s conclusion, we learn that the Tamarian’s name was Dathon, and his crew honors his sacrifice by introducing a new metaphor into their language: “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”

Dathon’s desire to reach out to the Federation shapes the entirety of the episode. Certainly, the script plays with how easily a misunderstanding could result in violence, one of TNG’s more ham-fisted lessons, but getting beyond that violence and reaching out to another culture constitute the very essence of Star Trek. Ultimately, “Darmok” is about the desire to forge a connection so that we do not remain “Darmok on the ocean” but can instead become “Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.” In those terms, “Darmok” remains a powerful reminder not only that communication with those whose culture and lived experience are so different from our own is often difficult but that achieving that understanding is important. In addition, the effort must flow in both directions. The episode’s coda significantly does not refer to Dathon or Picard alone. Both Tamarian and human struggled to understand each other, and the scene in which Picard tells Dathon the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is one of the best in the series. Without Dathon’s patience and Picard’s willingness to do the work required to learn the lessons the Tamarian tried to teach, Dathon’s sacrifice would have been in vain.

“Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” thus serves as a reminder that not only must we strive to understand each other but that doing so is the best way to avoid conflict. It’s a good lesson and one we should perhaps revisit more often.

Rating: Four cups of Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. Does anyone else wonder why there is no linguist in a crew and passenger load of 1,014? Why are Data and Troi the only personnel assigned to the language problem?
  2. This episode marks Ashley Judd’s first appearance as Robin Lefler.
  3. I also want to give a shout out to Paul Winfield. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to portray Dathon’s character with such sensitivity while spouting off random phrases. A poor performance by Winfield would have doomed the episode, but instead, Dathon’s determination, humor, and eagerness come through clearly.
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