Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Darmok”

“Darmok”
Written by Phil LaZebnik and Joe Menosky
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Season 5, Episode 2
Production episode 40275-202
Original air date: September 30, 1991
Stardate: 45047.2

Captain’s log: The Enterprise is en route to El-Adrel IV. A ship from a reclusive nation known as the Children of Tama has entered orbit of that world, and is sending a subspace signal of a simple mathematical progression—no message, but an indication that they’re there. The Federation has had sporadic contact with the Tamarians, but no formal relations were ever established—one of those contacts was by Captain Silvestri of the Shiku Maru, who described the Tamarians as “incomprehensible.”

Upon arrival at El-Adrel IV, it’s clear that Captain Silvestri was right. The universal translator is able to render Captain Dathon’s words, but not his grammar. The Tamarians keep throwing proper names and locations around while the Enterprise crew stares incomprehensibly, and when Picard tries to talk to them, the Tamarians are equally baffled.

Dathon then gets into an argument with his first officer, which ends with the captain taking the first officer’s dagger, and holding them both up at Picard, declaring: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” (a phrase that was also a major component of the argument between Dathon and his first officer).

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

And then both captains are beamed off their respective bridges down to the surface of El-Adrel IV. The Tamarians have created a particle scattering field in the ionosphere that inhibits transporting and communications—but not sensors. They can all tell what’s going on, but not talk to the captains, nor bring them back. And the Tamarians are just as helpless as the Enterprise. Worf theorizes that it’s perhaps a contest between champions.

On the surface, Picard has similar notion. Dathon holds up both daggers, and repeats, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” indicating one dagger when saying “Darmok” and the other when he says, “Jalad.” Then he tosses one dagger at Picard, who tosses it back, refusing to fight him.

Riker tries to talk to the Tamarians, but the communication gap is no narrower, so he sends Worf with a security team in a shuttle to rescue the captain. He’s hoping that the Tamarians won’t actually fire on a shuttle.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

On the surface, night has fallen. Dathon has managed to start a fire to keep warm—Picard’s attempts to do likewise fail (all the boy scouts in the audience are now laughing at him). Dathon’s fire is surrounded by rocks, and after another failed attempt to talk to Picard, he removes the medals from his uniform, seems to pray with them for a moment, then distributes the medals around the circumference of his encampment. As part of the ritual, Dathon touches the medal, then touches his forehead.

At first, he lays down to sleep, then sees that Picard is very cold, and so he lights a stick from his fire and tosses it to Picard, saying, “Temba, his arms wide.” Picard realizes that it’s an offering. He accepts the torch and thanks Dathon, who smiles, happy at the breakthrough.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

Worf and a security guard (coulda sworn Riker said to take a team, but never mind) take a shuttle toward the surface, but the Tamarians fire on them, damaging their thrusters just enough to force Riker to order Worf back, as he’d be able to land, but not take off again. Data reports that the phaser beam was specifically attenuated for so specific an attack. La Forge reports that, with a day’s work, he can punch a transporter beam through.

Meanwhile, Riker has Data and Troi study the Tamarians further. They look over the recordings of the earlier communications, in particular the oft-repeated phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” There are 47 linguistic references for “Darmok” just in this sector alone. But a search for “Tanagra” reveals a commonality—one of the entries for Darmok is a hunter on Shantil III, and Tanagra is an island continent on that same world.

The following morning, Picard wakes up to see that Dathon has abandoned his encampment. Picard enters, examining Dathon’s medals, and also finding a diary, which he assumes is a captain’s log. He’s interrupted by Dathon, who is anxiously running toward Picard, again declaring, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” He then tries once again to give Picard one of the daggers (“Temba, his arms wide!”), but Picard refuses to fight him.

Then they hear the growling, and occasional glimpses of a creature (one that always makes me think of the Shrike from Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos stories). Picard finally agrees to take the dagger. The shrike (that’s what I’m calling it, so there) keeps appearing and disappearing. On the Enterprise, Worf detects the shrike, and sees that it’s moving in on Picard and Dathon. La Forge is still several hours away from modifying the transporter fully; if he tries it now, it might not work. Riker and Worf are concerned that this will tip their hand to the Tamarians, but Picard’s life is in danger, and they have to give it a shot.

The shrike grows closer. Dathon declares, “Uzani, his army with fists open,” then adds, “Uzani, his army with fists closed.” Picard realizes that this is a battle strategy—that they must separate and close in on the shrike. More importantly, Picard realizes that the Tamarians communicate through example and metaphor.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

When the shrike attacks, O’Brien tries to transport Picard up. It fails, but Picard’s stuck in the beam long enough for the shrike to pound the crap out of Dathon.

Riker is forced to order La Forge and Worf to adjust the phasers in such a way that they can take out the Tamarians’ scattering field with one shot, which will take a couple of hours. A diplomatic solution appears to be off the table, as Troi and Data have figured out how the Tamarians communicate—via references to stories from their myths and history—but without actual knowledge of those stories, they have no frame of reference by which to speak to them.

On the surface, Picard sits with a dying Dathon next to a fire. (Apparently, Picard’s fire-building skills have improved in the past day.) Picard gets Dathon to work through the story: “Darmok on the ocean; Tanagra on the ocean; Darmok at Tanagra. Jalad on the ocean; Jalad at Tanagra. The beast at Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.”

Picard figures it out: Darmok and Jalad came separately to Tanagra, they fought the beast, and left together. Dathon knew that there was a dangerous creature on the planet and thought that a shared danger might bring the Children and Tama and the Federation together as Darmok and Jalad were.

Dathon then tries to get Picard to tell a story of his own, and he tells the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and how they started as enemies, became friends, and fought together—and how saddened Gilgamesh was when Enkidu was struck down by the gods. Dathon dies shortly thereafter.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

The shrike returns in the morning, and Picard is worried that Dathon’s sacrifice will be in vain if it kills Picard. On the Enterprise, Worf fires the modified phasers, which takes out the scattering field, enabling O’Brien to beam Picard up—but which also starts a firefight between the two ships. However, Picard arrives on the bridge and is able to communicate with the Tamarians, thus revealing that Dathon’s mission was successful—but Picard is also able to communicate that Dathon was killed. The crew take out their daggers, touch them, then touch their foreheads.

Picard returns Dathon’s diary, which is beamed over, but when Picard offers to return the dagger, the first officer allows him to keep it. And now the Tamarians have a new phrase: “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”

Later, when Riker brings Picard the full damage report, the first officer finds his captain reading the Homeric hymns in Greek, feeling that familiarity with humanity’s myths will help understand the Tamarians better. After Riker leaves, Picard takes the dagger, touches it, then touches his own forehead.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity?: The Tamarian scattering field prevents communication or transport. La Forge tries to punch a transporter beam through, but fails, though he might’ve been able to do it with more time. Somehow, La Forge and Worf are able to modify the phasers so that they can take out the scattering field generator—it’s unclear how this works, exactly, except maybe to make them aim better, but if that’s the case, why aren’t they like that all the time? (The VFX people screwed up in post-production, and had the Enterprise phasers firing out of the photon torpedo launcher, so maybe that was the big-ass modification that La Forge and Worf needed two hours to implement?)

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

Thank you, Counselor Obvious: Troi and Data are tasked with learning more about the Tamarian language—because apparently on a ship with a thousand people on board, whose primary mission is seeking out new life and new civilizations, it never occurred to anyone to assign a linguist to the crew.

There is no honor in being pummeled: Worf takes a shuttle down and engages in evasive maneuvers when the Tamarian ship powers up—these evasive maneuvers are so effective that the Tamarians get a perfect shot on the shuttle.

Worf also suggests firing on the Tamarians from jump, but Riker declares it to be a last resort, which Worf reluctantly agrees with. Of course, it gets to that point in the end—the tactic works, enabling Picard to be rescued, vindicating Worf, but the Enterprise also gets its ass kicked by the Tamarians, vindicating Riker’s decision to go for that option only when all others were exhausted.

If I only had a brain…: Data tells Troi that he has encountered 1754 non-human species during his time with Starfleet.

I believe I said that: “Shaka, when the walls fell.”

The Tamarian phrase for failure, used quite a bit throughout the episode.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

Welcome aboard: Richard Allen, having previously played Kentor in “The Ensigns of Command,” returns as the Tamarian first officer. We get half a Robert Knepper moment, via Ashley Judd’s appearance as Ensign Robin Lefler—half because she’s well remembered as Lefler, thanks to a) her being a member of the Judd family of country singers, b) her forthcoming appearance in “The Game,” c) the character’s ongoing role in the Star Trek: New Frontier novels, and d) her subsequent career as an A-list actor in films and TV series (including an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for her role in the HBO movie Norma Jean & Marilyn), but getting one anyhow because it’s very easy to forget that she was in this episode as well as “The Game.”

However, the big guest star here is the late Paul Winfield, last seen in Trek circles as the ill-fated Reliant Captain Clark Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, putting in a superb performance as Dathon.

Trivial matters: Christopher L. Bennett (a regular commenter on this here rewatch) followed up on this episode and provided some background on the Children of Tama in his short story “Friends with the Sparrows” in the TNG anthology The Sky’s the Limit.

This episode marks the debut of Picard’s alternate uniform, an open red jacket over a gray turtleneck. It will continue to be used as an occasional alternative to the regular uniform, much like Kirk’s green uniform on the original series.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

The original pitch from Phil LaZebnik came in the third season, but it didn’t come together until Michael Piller assigned it to Joe Menosky in the fifth. Rick Berman reportedly hated the concept, and resisted approving it, but afterward cited it as a particular favorite.

Russell T. Davies cited this episode—specifically its logline, which so intrigued him that he refused to actually watch the episode itself—as a major inspiration for the Doctor Who episode “Midnight.”

Make it so: “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.” This tends to be a polarizing episode, with people either adoring it or hating it. So fair warning to the haters: I fall squarely in the former camp.

The story has its flaws, certainly. It’s not clear how the language could really evolve or function practically, and the technobabble to explain how the Enterprise can so perfectly target the scattering field doesn’t make anything like sense. Plus, why isn’t there a linguist on board the ship? Okay, fine, you need your regular actors to be doing something, but why can’t they be working with a guest star who plays the linguist?

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 2

But those flaws are minor and irrelevant, because ultimately this episode is precisely what Star Trek is supposed to be about, based on what Patrick Stewart intones before the credits every week (and as William Shatner did before him): seeking out new life and new civilizations. Plus it deals with an issue that Star Trek has mostly avoided like the plague (even Enterprise, which was supposed to take place during the early days of translator technology and which actually did have a linguist on board, mostly spackled over this), to wit, the language barrier. As Troi so eloquently pointed out way back in “The Ensigns of Command,” it’s a wonder that any two species who evolve on different worlds can communicate at all, and it’s an issue that really should come up more often. What I especially like is that the universal translator works—the words are rendered into English—but it’s of little help given the Tamarians peculiar mode.

In particular, what makes the episode is the stellar turn by the always-great Paul Winfield, who magnificently conveys Dathon’s eagerness to communicate, his frustration with Picard’s inability to understand him, and his joy when he finally starts to get it—all while, in essence, spouting gibberish. Sir Patrick Stewart, of course, more than holds his own, and the scene where they exchange stories—Dathon of Darmok and Jalad, Picard of Gilgamesh and Enkidu—is one of the ten best scenes in all of Trek history.

A strong first contact story, a strong science fiction story, and first-rate performances. Just excellent stuff.

 

Warp factor rating: 9


 

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be appearing at Annie’s Book Stop in Worcester, Massachusetts this Saturday, the 9th of June, from 2-5pm, for an autographing/reading/Q&A. Please come on by!

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