One thing I’ve rarely written about on this blog is Star Trek The Next Generation. In fact, as I search through my entries to see if I’ve ever mentioned my favorite television show, I find that I’ve only mentioned it twice, and the second time, here, I promised to quote Jean-Luc Picard. Better late than never.
I just rewatched one of my favorite episodes ever. It’s called “Darmok.”
For some, it’s the episode they most love to hate. Admittedly, the premise is ridiculous. An alien race called The Children of Tama that communicates only through metaphor, referencing history that of course only they could know. And yet The Children of Tama possess a complex technology at least as advanced as the Federation. We can’t understand what they’re trying to say, and vice-versa, despite the best efforts of the rather magical Universal Translator that rather amazingly makes everyone in the universe sound like Lawrence Olivier.
If you examine the science too closely (in this case, the science is linguistics, fortunately something I know little about), it falls apart. That’s true of Star Trek throughout, of course. Everything from the communicators on their chests (how is it that only the person Picard is trying to call actually hears it when he says “Picard to Dr. Crusher” for instance?) to the warp drive to the transporter beam to the frequent breeding of unrelated species is pretty awful science when you get down to it. My favorite is when they did a baryon sweep to get rid of heavy particles. Of course baryons are just protons and neutrons, so a baryon sweep would simply remove everything. But I digress.
I feel fortunate that I’m not smart enough to be bothered by the flaws in “Darmok.” Instead, for me the episode is itself a deeply moving metaphor. In many accounts, these races would be blasting away at one another, convinced the other is inferior because they speak gibberish. But ST TNG is different. It’s about understanding, “seeking out new life and new civilizations.” And this episode does it better than any I can think of.
My favorite part of the episode is the scene shown here. Picard is finally beginning to understand the metaphorical language of the Children of Tama. The alien captain (Dathon is his name, though we don’t learn that until the end of the episode) is dying, but he still wants to help Picard understand. Despite his pain, Dathon teaches Picard about Darmok and Jilad, two warriors who come together against a common foe, and thereby gain understanding about one another. Then, Dathon asks Picard for a story. This happens at about 4:20 of the clip:
Dathon: Kira at Bashi
This must be the metaphorical way of saying “tell me a story.” Then Dathon pauses for a beat, realizing that of course Picard still doesn’t understand. And Dathon switches to a metaphor that Picard does understand.
Dathon: Timba, his arms wide (said with the slightest hint of a giggle)
It was established earlier that “Timba, his arms wide” means “give as a gift” or something like that. It was the first phrase that Picard was able to understand, and it comes back here. Dathon uses his own language in an unconventional way, saying in effect “give to me the present of a story” instead of the more direct “tell me a story.” He’s creating a new usage that he has realized will help Picard understand. (Brilliant! This is, of course, what teaching is all about. No wonder I love this episode!) And Picard does understand, and shares a story that, in fact, is metaphorical of the situation Picard and Dathon face.
In the end, Dathon dies, and Picard barely escapes with his own life. Picard then averts a war with the Chidren of Tama by using enough of the language to express his limited understanding of what has occurred.
PICARD: Hail the Tamarian ship.
WORF: Aye, Captain.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Zinda! His face black, his eyes red
PICARD: Temarc! The river Temarc in winter.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Darmok?
PICARD: And Jalad. At Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Sokath, his eyes open!
PICARD: The beast at Tanagra. Uzani, his army. Shaka when the walls fell.
(Picard holds up Dathon’s journal, and the Tamarians beam it away)
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. Mirab, with sails unfurled.
PICARD: (holds out the dagger) Temba, his arms open.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Temba at rest.
PICARD: Thank you.
While I have many, many favorite episodes of ST TNG, this one comes as close as any I can remember to being a perfect representation (maybe even a perfect metaphor) of why I watched the show in the first place.
“Mirab, with sails unfurled.”