Star Trek: The Next Generation: Darmok   Rewatch 
March 22, 2021 8:29 AM - Season 5, Episode 2 - Subscribe

Picard is captured, then trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language incompatible with the universal translator. They must learn to communicate with each other before a deadly planetary beast overwhelms them.

Memory Alpha is willing to risk all of us just for the hope of communication, connection.

Story and script
  • This episode had the longest gestation period of any episode during Michael Piller's tenure, taking around two years to make it to the screen. Rick Berman hated the premise, but Piller thought it was interesting and was determined to make it work, so he finally gave it to Joe Menosky. (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 228)
  • Menosky recalled that Philip LaZebnik's story involved members of an away team who in turn each met a mysterious alien boy drawing in the dirt. The boy greeted each of the team with the single word "Darmok?" Regardless of the response, the crewmember was catapulted into orbit in a strange cocoon. At the end, Picard realized that "Darmok" meant "play", and sat down in the dirt with the child. Menosky felt this was too similar to the "Bridge of Death" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and didn't work in the context of the show. However, he did like the word "Darmok". (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 219)
  • After being assigned to rewrite the script, Menosky struggled for several days with no results. He recalled, "So when Michael reconvened the staff to talk about it, I truly thought that I might be fired. But Michael was really excited. He'd just seen Dances with Wolves and was completely blown away by the scene with Kevin Costner's character and the Native American warrior around the campfire, who don't speak a word of each other's language, but finally make themselves understood. Michael announced, 'That's it: one man, one alien, alone on a planet, around a fire. They don't know each other's languages, they struggle to overcome their differences, and finally break through to communication. And maybe there's a big monster.'" (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 219)
  • Menosky then wrote Piller a memo, outlining themes of language, communication and mythology, which greatly impressed Piller. (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 219; Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 228) A copy of this memo is available here.
  • In devising the Tamarian language, Menosky was inspired by three sources: the work of psychologist James Hillman (who had emphasized "all is metaphor"), the quote "Every word is a poem" from translator and poet John Ciardi, and the dense historical metaphors present in Chinese poetry and philosophical works such as the I Ching. (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 220)
  • The story about Gilgamesh and Enkidu is from one of the world's earliest known literary works, a Babylonian poem entitled the Epic of Gilgamesh (said to have been dated from around 2150 BC-2000 BC). The story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk is itself a metaphor for the situation of Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel: two people, initially combatants, come together to become friends and fight a common foe, a battle in which one of them is struck down and the other mourns his loss. (Mission Overview: Year Five, TNG Season 5 DVD special features) According to Menosky this similarity was a combination of "writer's luck" and inevitability. (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 220)
Cast and characters
  • Patrick Stewart deemed this episode as worthy of winning awards. He stated this was "because it was a brilliantly written episode based on the myth of Gilgamesh and with one of our most distinguished guest stars, Paul Winfield." (Mission Overview: Year Five, TNG Season 5 DVD special features) Winfield was previously seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the ill-fated Captain Terrell.
  • The call sheet dated 18 July 1991 featured an "uncast actress" in the role of Lt. Larson. In the final episode, this role became Robin Lefler, who was played by Ashley Judd.
  • This is the first episode which introduces a new captain's uniform: a gray undershirt with an open red jacket. The uniform was designed by Robert Blackman to make Captain Picard stand out from the rest of his crew, at the suggestion of actor Patrick Stewart. Although the jacket has a black yoke like the standard uniforms, the yoke is made of a material that looks like leather and has a quilted pattern. Also, the red portion of the jacket is made from a material that looks like suede. In further episodes, the yoke is replaced with the same material of the rest of the jacket.
  • This episode marks the first appearance of the Type 6 shuttlecraft.
  • This episode marks the first appearance of Ensign Robin Lefler, who later played an important part in discovering the Ktarian game conspiracy with Wesley Crusher in the episode "The Game".
  • This is also the first appearance of Data's redesigned quarters. The previous set used for Data's room was modified to serve as Kirk and Spock's quarters in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and was demolished after filming was complete. (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Special Edition) text commentary)
  • This episode is also notable as it is the only time a phaser beam is emitted from the main photon torpedo tube. It is admitted to be a post-production mistake in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 177). This was corrected for the remastered version by replacing the shot with a close-up of the phaser array from "The Best of Both Worlds". The original shot does appear on the Blu-Ray in the trailer for "Darmok".
  • Michael Piller remarked, "I just think 'Darmok' is the prototype of what Star Trek should be. It dealt with a very challenging premise and many of our best shows are scripts that have been around a long time… He created a whole language for that episode and it's just astonishing. The episode worked on every level; it had the philosophy dealing with language and what it does for us, two great acting performances, it had a monster and a space battle – it had everything." (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 228)
  • Director Winrich Kolbe commented that he had mixed feelings on the episode. "Storywise, it was a hell of a story. It was almost flawless. It tangled a very interesting subject and a very complicated subject as well, and I think it did it well." However, he felt somewhat constrained in how he could film the planet scenes with the monster. Furthermore, he noted the difficulty in directing scenes in an alien language. "Can you imagine not speaking Russian and… having to write an article in Russian? It makes it kind of difficult. Even though I had a translation of the dialogue, it wasn't quite there and for me it was like directing a Russian movie without speaking the language, but you work your way through it. So that was an additional challenge. The episode seems to have struck a chord. It's a show we can all be proud of." (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 228)
  • Despite his initial resistance to the idea, Berman later named "Darmok" as one of his all-time favorite episodes. (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages) Shortly prior to its initial airing, he commented, "It's a wonderful two person piece [....] It's going to be a terrific episode." (Star Trek: The Official Fan Club Magazine issue 82, p. 6)
  • Patrick Stewart referred to the episode during the funeral service of Gene Roddenberry, who died less than a month after the episode aired. Stewart noted that the cast had just appeared in an episode dealing with the roots of mythology and metaphor. Joe Menosky recalled, "He used it as a way to validate and praise Gene's creation. That moment might have been the proudest I've ever been about anything I've written for Star Trek." (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 219)
  • This episode has been used by linguistics teachers to aid in students' understanding of how languages work and evolve. ("Mission Overview: Year Five", TNG Season 5 DVD special feature;)
Poster's Log:

I love Picard's sweet new jacket, but I've never really understood it from a functional perspective. The ship is climate controlled; wouldn't adding an extra layer (especially a leather- or suede-like substance) just be too warm?

Paul Winfield is delightful as Captain Dathon and does a wonderful job of throwing himself into the Tamarian style of speaking. Conversely, watching Picard struggle with finding the right 'form' for the story of Gilgamesh is almost painful.

If Data knows immediately that the Tamarians are referencing proper names and places, why don't they start their computer search restricted to such things?

Of importance to note, especially for Picard's apologies for the Gilgamesh story - it's never explicitly said that the Tamarians can't understand the Federation, only the other way around. In fact, Dathon seems to understand everything Picard says, just without a way to reply to it in a comprehensible manner.

When Dathon asks Picard to tell him a story, he says "Kira at Bashi". That's a little close to reciting a couple of character names from DS9, which won't premiere for about 18 more months.

This rewatch is the first time I noticed the little memorial action the two background Tamarians perform when Picard tells them Dathon is dead - holding their daggers in front of themselves, touching the blade then touching their forehead.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:

This episode, man. Piller's remarks ring true with me - this is Star Trek as I kind of always wanted Star Trek to be. Incomprehensible but approachable aliens finding a way, through adversity, to communicate with Our Intrepid Crew. And, that communication gap isn't bridged because our crew is the best and brightest; no, it's the INCREDIBLY patient Dathon being generous and explicit in his actions and motions, tying them to the words to get the point across until Picard finally puts the pieces together.

"Sokath, his eyes uncovered" is still part of my vocabulary.
posted by hanov3r (53 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Dathon is so great in this. Also: memes as an interstellar interspecies language.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:42 AM on March 22, 2021 [8 favorites]

A lot of this makes no sense and even the central premise is strained. It's also my favorite episode.

It's creative and a puzzle we can play along with and it has a rare alien species that it is a struggle to understand. That they are actually very close to the Federation in mindset, once communication becomes possible, is icing on the cake. This is what first contact should be! Dangerous and challenging, but an act of optimism--the hope that once you figure this out and understand the differences it is worth communicating, after all.
posted by mark k at 9:17 AM on March 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think they're overselling it a little bit by saying they "created a whole language OMG"... They made up maybe 6 or 7 sentences that are basically still in English. I mean, the Star Trek universe legitimately DID create a language with Klingon, so I don't know why they want to make that claim in this case. It's still a solid episode of course and meme culture shall be forever grateful for the contribution this episode made to its development.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:25 AM on March 22, 2021

They made up maybe 6 or 7 sentences that are basically still in English

If you include the entire Darmok/Jalad/Tanagra story as one "whole" (there's a good 4 sentences that come out of it), and do the same for the Uzani and Temba references, we see 17 different references to Tamarian mythohistory in the episode. And, that's without counting whatever other stuff was developed that never made it on-screen. No, it's not a "whole language" in the literal sense but, then again, neither was Klingon until 1984.
posted by hanov3r at 9:41 AM on March 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

A lengthy discussion from the Blue that's relevant to this episode.

I accept, maybe with just a bit of reservation, the whole notion of how Tamarians communicate. Replace their historical references with dialogue from The Simpsons and you've basically got my household. Consider similarly how some Reddit or even MetaFilter threads can be utterly unparsible to the lay reader, and how AI (some futuristic version of which must power the Universal Translator) obviously still struggles with the metaphorical foundations of present-day human language, to the point (it seems) that all AI language roads lead to becoming a Nazi.

But the popular focus on the episode's linguistic oddities obscures what fundamentally is its solid Roddenberrian premise, as hanov3r described—seemingly-incompatible species overcoming cultural and technological barriers, assuming good faith, and learning to work together. I find the episode downright heartwarming, right to the poignant closing shot. I also always enjoy a good Troi-Data research scene. And let's not forget some typically reliable acting from two of the franchise's best: Stewart and Winfield. We won't get a Heat-esque pairing like this again until probably Stewart and David Warner in "Chain of Command Part II." (Pacino and De Niro, in the diner.)

All that praise aside, the repeated phrases in this one get annoying enough quickly enough that I'll probably skip it on my next rewatch.

As for why the Tamarians wouldn't understand why other species can't understand them, the only thing I can think of is that maybe they attained technological maturity a long-ass time ago, yet didn't meet any other sapients for a long-ass time, and gradually forgot that their language is based on references. (Maybe, too, Tamarians have some amount of telepathy, maybe limited to cultural memories?)

Toooootally forgot Ashley Judd showed up first in this one.


"Aztar, halting his step, palm on his skull-crest"
Entering a room and forgetting what you went in there for

"Balvar and Hogonak, blocking one another's sentences"
The awkward phenomenon of attempting to negotiate who talks first when your subspace audiovisual connection is experiencing lag

"Dreknid, laughing brightly and touching Jovok's limb"
Early-stage flirtation that's socially acceptable in mixed company

"Gisollom, mouth half-open, posture shrinking slowly"
The frustration of still having something to contribute to a conversation topic after someone else has steered everyone to a different topic

"Kamzhok, in the sonic shower, eyes unfocused"
When your conscious thinking fades away while you're engaged in a repetitive physical activity

"Prenza, tripping in the dark in his own home"
Having to get up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself

"Riker, taking a seat"
Ostentatious and unnecessary extension of one's limbs to impress onlookers
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 9:56 AM on March 22, 2021 [18 favorites]

the repeated phrases in this one get annoying enough quickly enough that I'll probably skip it on my next rewatch.

My mother hates this one for just that reason because the phrases get stuck in her head for days, so of course I bring it up whenever I can.
posted by Servo5678 at 10:38 AM on March 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

I love Picard's sweet new jacket, but I've never really understood it from a functional perspective. The ship is climate controlled; wouldn't adding an extra layer (especially a leather- or suede-like substance) just be too warm?

As someone who runs cold in many climate controlled spaces where other people seem perfectly comfortable, I've always understood this perfectly well from a functional perspective.
posted by Pryde at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

It is still a great episode, even with people pointing out the obvious: that that can't literally be the only way that the Tamarians have to communicate; if nothing else, they must have some sort of technical language that they use in the construction and operation of their technologically-superior vessels. (The MA article "Tamarian Language" goes into more detail about this in its Apocrypha section.) To me, the interpretation that makes the most sense is that the Tamarians deliberately chose the densest, most impenetrable version of their language to introduce themselves with--that it was important for them that the people/government with whom they chose to interact be willing to make a real effort to understand the contexts in which their civilization existed, up front, and not merely let the universal translator do most of the heavy lifting, with charming (for various values of charm) cultural quirks to be teased out later. That other races have their standards and ways of getting to know others is about as Old As Trek, with the First Federation of TOS' "The Corbomite Maneuver" adopting an initially aggressive posture (although, arguably, the Enterprise was the initial aggressor for destroying the buoy) just to see how the Enterprise reacts, and other species sometimes insisting on incredibly abstruse rituals and gestures (see, for example, VOY's Tak Tak). The Children of Tama may take it to a bit more of an extreme than most, although thinking about their ordeal/first contact reminds me of my speculation that the Yautja (the aliens from the Predator franchise) may conduct their hunts as a sort of First Contact of their own; I'm thinking particularly of the ending of Predator 2. Even though it was Dathon who died, Picard was also at risk, and since he proved himself, maybe the Federation can get by with Low Tamarian (if that exists).

Paul Winfield was fantastic; like Lou Gossett, Jr. in Enemy Mine, an actor not known for performing in full-face prosthetics gets it in one. And Patrick Stewart, whose talents are maybe too easy to take for granted, also gets it so well, especially when he tells the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as Dathon is dying, and later when he gives the salute.

If this week's two-fer has a theme, it's probably Getting to Know You, with the next ep being about the introduction of a race that fans of another Trek series will get to know very well (speaking of DS9 references) and someone who, possibly like some of us (ahem), has a bit of a reputation for being difficult.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:08 AM on March 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

I've had this one on my mind a fair bit lately. We have a hyperlexic kid, and because his literacy is so far ahead of his verbal and social skills, he will just drop sentences he's read wholesale into conversation with zero context. He'll often just come out with a non-sequitur and we have to try to guess what text it's originally from. So it's kind of Darmok around the clock at our household. Pooh, his head thumping down the stairs. Calculus, misplacing his earhorn. Oh shit, he's reading Tintin already? Primrose, lost with night coming on. Dog Man, rolling on the sofa of the Chief.
posted by phooky at 11:57 AM on March 22, 2021 [9 favorites]

Now I want to Tamarianize “Woman laughing with salad”, “Two Spider-Men pointing at each other”, “Drunk woman yelling at cat”, and “Boyfriend looking at other woman while girlfriend notices jealously.”
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:20 PM on March 22, 2021 [11 favorites]

“Boyfriend looking at other woman while girlfriend notices jealously.”

"Stock photo model, her eyes uncovered."
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:24 PM on March 22, 2021 [13 favorites]

Spider, doubled, arms outstretched. Kermit, refreshing himself. Astley, refusing to surrender. Goat, see the ring upon his finger.
posted by phooky at 12:27 PM on March 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:

An absolutely essential episode, El-Adrel Creature is an okay dilemma that represents the situation Picard found himself in a nice simulationist fashion, but the standout is Shaka, When the Walls Fell, the archetypical 'dilemma that you need a certain number of crew to continue the mission at all'. It provided an effective block against sending personnel one by one to get smoked by dilemmas. In the early days, it wouldn't be unusual to stock 6 of these so you can cover all your opponent's missions. later on, 1 per deck was reasonable.

The power of Shaka was somewhat mitigated by Dathon in the next set, who is a bit like half a Picard that anyone can use. Not bad at all. At this point, his ship Tama was the only ship originally that could use the Particle Scattering Field., The tournament sealed deck gave you a generic version that could do the same.

We've often talked about ships and their matching commanders, we finally come to one of the key reasons why that matters: Captain's Log, which gives the ship a nice buff for having their proper captain on board.

Second Edition featured the episode in its first few sets as well. Dathon, Speaker of Tama being decent for Fed, Klingon, and Bajoran decks, with Togaran being an ok skill filler. A Tamarian Vessel of the generic variety was followed by the Tama with a built-in 'particle scattering' effect.TNG players could follow their 'mutual gain' theme with Temba, His Arms Wide - just make sure you get the good end of the deal. Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered! is basically the 2E Shaka.

Playmates first Jean-Luc Picard figure was a nicely done Action Jacket Picard.
posted by StarkRoads at 12:42 PM on March 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, I missed the Robin Lefler card. Horrible VHS screencap image from this episode, special skill from "The Game".
posted by StarkRoads at 12:46 PM on March 22, 2021

I guess this is time to reiterate my headcanon that I think the Tamarians and the Pakleds share similar languages but have chosen different ways of interacting with other species. Pakleds use their technical/trade language with other species, but because of its simplicity they come off as unintelligent. Tamarians refuse to use their private technical language with outsiders, instead insisting on their formal meme language, which makes them come off as inintelligible. Pakleds and Tamarians can understand each other just fine.

This also explains why Data was able to find information about Tamarian mythology in the Enterprise databanks: They got it from the Pakleds.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:47 PM on March 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Somewhere back a while ago, someone mentioned dreading when Darmok came up because they didn't want to see it picked apart or spit on; I wish I could recall who said it, because I hope they see that people love this episode. I sure do. I don't have any huge nits to pick with it about logic or language or whatever, I just appreciate great acting and a storyline that propels me forward, and I get that in spades here with Winfield and Stewart (and Sirtis and Spiner, too, because I love it when they're trying to figure out what's going on) and this great concept.

Winfield's deep, hard-done-by sigh when he's trying to invite recalcitrant Picard to the fire (it's so totally keeping in line with Trek, isn't it, that JL's initially so unpleasant and convinced he's being set up to be killed) is like the ultimate in put-upon and I aspire to be able to sigh so meaningfully. I love the way the other Tamarians kind of toy with the Enterprise. When Picard finally lets go of his biases and sees what's happening, it makes me so happy, because I kind of hate seeing them be so...well. It's not a good look, really, some of that earlier stuff in the initial encounters. Maybe it's his anthropology/archeology interests finally rearing their heads that allow him get past his rather benighted POV. And it makes me kind of sniffly that the captain was willing to sacrifice himself in the effort at communication--noble sacrifice is one of my bulletproof loves, and this one is truly touching. I too noticed this time the way the background Tamarians respond when they learn of his death.

Rick Berman hated the premise Ah ha ha ha, omg, further proof that he's just the woooorst.

This is one of those episodes that transcends its fanbase and viewership. Even back before meme culture, this was the one episode I could make reference to besides The Trouble with Tribbles where people who never watched Trek would get what I was saying. Huffy Puffy: "Now I want to Tamarianize “Woman laughing with salad”, “Two Spider-Men pointing at each other”, “Drunk woman yelling at cat”, and “Boyfriend looking at other woman while girlfriend notices jealously” These are all over Tumblr! I don't know, though, how to tell you how to actually find them, because tumblr, like twitter, has this rapidly vanishing ephemeral quality, but if I can find it, maybe I'll add it here later.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:47 PM on March 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

Now I want to Tamarianize “Woman laughing with salad”, “Two Spider-Men pointing at each other”, “Drunk woman yelling at cat”, and “Boyfriend looking at other woman while girlfriend notices jealously.”

I got you.
posted by StarkRoads at 1:01 PM on March 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Now I want to Tamarianize “Woman laughing with salad”, “Two Spider-Men pointing at each other”, “Drunk woman yelling at cat”, and “Boyfriend looking at other woman while girlfriend notices jealously.”

"Giuliani, in the Four Seasons parking lot" is my current most modern reference for this approach to communication.
posted by nubs at 2:09 PM on March 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

Even back before meme culture...

Speaking of, this episode is responsible for my favorite ever developed off Star Trek.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 6:05 PM on March 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

I like this episode if only because you can use the dialog to suss-out a Trek nerd in any group. Just say “Temba, his arms wide.” and wait for someone to reply “Shaka, when the walls fell.” There’s your nerd.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:17 PM on March 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is peak Trek. I don't even care that the Tamarians would need to understand some kind of mundane language to get their meme-stories in the first place, it works and it's great. Maybe they just can't be bothered to care if what you're saying doesn't have that mythopoetic spice, Dathon seems to enjoy Picard's telling of the Gilgamesh myth, and "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel" seems have become a meaningful phrase to the Tamarians at the end, maybe they'll be saying that in the future to refer to a diplomatic breakthrough or something.

In Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun there is a similar concept with a people called the Ascians, who communicate only by citing excerpts of certain official texts.
posted by rodlymight at 6:35 PM on March 22, 2021

That episode, with the guy, when it first aired.
posted by jordemort at 6:49 PM on March 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

That episode, with the guy, when it first aired.

...come to think, this is the first episode since "The Naked Now" that I;m pretty sure I saw when it was first transmitted. There could have been others, but definitely none made such an impression.
posted by StarkRoads at 7:55 PM on March 22, 2021

My mother hates this one for just that reason because the phrases get stuck in her head for days, so of course I bring it up whenever I can.

Days? Try decades. In my circle of friends, fresh and ephemeral memes spin off this regularly. "Michelle, her car's transmission shot." "Wally when the phone bill came." "Jerry, drunk and naked on a Zoom call."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:36 PM on March 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

In Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun there is a similar concept with a people called the Ascians, who communicate only by citing excerpts of certain official texts.

Not terribly far removed from people online who can only communicate in gifs.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:38 PM on March 22, 2021

"Person who can only communicate in gifs, trying to comment on MetaFilter."
posted by Major Clanger at 10:53 PM on March 22, 2021 [8 favorites]

Forgot to mention this, though some of you probably know it already:

Skyrim has a quest-giving Nord NPC named Temba Wide-Arms.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:12 AM on March 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Minister of the Left, his poem abbreviated.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 4:13 AM on March 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

The epic saga of Darmok and Jalad, as brought to life through low-budget but well-done stop-motion animation and annoyingly catchy filking performed by a band called Tachyon Beam. You're welcome.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:12 AM on March 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

An excellent episode, but here is what has always bothered me about the workings of the Tamarian language (a variation on the concerns raised above). One or more of the following three things must be true:

1. In order to understand the meaning behind the idioms, a Tamarian would have to know the details of the story to which the idiom refers. Assuming there is no descriptive language through which one could tell the actual story, a Tamarian using the idiom would have to have observed the story personally. That obviously cuts into the universality of the language.

2. Alternatively, for Tamarians to understand the context of the idioms without having witnessed the underlying story personally, there must be some non-idiomatic language for telling the actual story. This suggests a wider language than is represented in the episode.

3. Or, the idioms could be divorced from the context of the story itself (the way that, for example, we can call Trump a "narcissist" without knowing the details of the myth of Echo and Narcissus). But that seems to take away from the beauty of the language itself, if the Tamarians know that a particular phrase evokes bravery or danger, but not why.

Plate of beans, table 2.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:12 AM on March 23, 2021

a Tamarian would have to know the details of the story to which the idiom refers. Assuming there is no descriptive language through which one could tell the actual story, a Tamarian using the idiom would have to have observed the story personally.

Tamarian primary school is just hundreds and hundreds of hours of pantomime theater, with a narrator labeling the name of each scene so the kids can add it to their vocabulary.
posted by skewed at 9:49 AM on March 23, 2021 [9 favorites]

Like I said it doesn't really make sense. There probably are ways to headcanon it: for example, maybe there's a separate child's language? But I find that sort of thing unrewarding here (unusually for me.)

Imagine how you'd do this as short story in a generic SF universe. You'd have a team from each side trying to communicate for weeks, with the growing frustration on both sides. Especially the Federation's! They do this all the time, they have expert translators, why are they making no headway? They have some basic words but nothing makes sense. This is the backdrop where one Tamarian decides the only way these barbarians understand is if you literally recreate one of the stories--and kidnaps the captain to make his point.

It's a cool idea, but then you're trying to make this work in the context of a one hour TNG show where it's established you have a Universal Translator, the kidnap victim is a character backed up by a heavily armed battleship, and if it takes longer than a day or two they'd pass the job onto other people.

I know this isn't literally an adaptation, but it sort of has that feel--it doesn't quite work but they loved the story and tried to jam it in. And did a pretty good job.
posted by mark k at 11:14 AM on March 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I love this one and always watch it. The flaw of the concept is not the language itself. It's a Trekky concept, so I give it a pass. The flaw is the idiocy of the Federation and Starfleet. They realize the Tamarians are referring to people and places and that those people and places have meaning. Why did it take so long to start cross-referencing everything? This was referred to above. The bridge staff just exchange glances of confusion.

And even if they were not picking up on learning more about the names and places, one would assume the preeminent explorers of the Federation would be equipped to deal with the situation. Using pictures to illustrate concepts...

I salute the Tamarians for making an effort. I condemn the Federation for its inability to think outside the box.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:48 PM on March 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Now this is pod racing Star Trek.
posted by good in a vacuum at 8:51 PM on March 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think that the idea of the Tamarian language-as presented--is full of holes. However, I loved the episode because it really makes you think about the premise. As I've said before, it's frustrating (if perhaps necessary for the confines of this TV show) that so many of these aliens the Enterprise encounters are really just humans with a some weird head prosthetics and a few quirks of behavior. For the most part you can assume that they can be reasoned with, and the barriers to communication are few or non-existant. Also, their video-conferencing technology interfaces flawlessly with the Enterprise's--awesome!

So I guess the Tamarians can video conference with Picard and company OK, but for once their way of communicating is hard to fathom. I think really this should be the easiest that communicating with aliens would ever be. Surely if humanity ever does get a chance to interact with a civilization from another planet, their behavior and way of communicating will be full of differences that we can't possibly anticipate.
posted by polecat at 10:18 PM on March 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

Surely if humanity ever does get a chance to interact with a civilization from another planet, their behavior and way of communicating will be full of differences that we can't possibly anticipate.

Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", is all about this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:54 AM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I love this episode so much. No the linguistics probably don't make sense, any more than the shapes of the ships do, or how transporters work. Certainly better than Trek's grasp of molecular biology, but all that fudging serves the cause of melodrama, instead of farce (I'm looking at you, "Rascals"), so I think it's worth it. As worth it as the best wibbley-wobbly Doctor Who nonsense that serves a good story.

Which is not to denigrate all of the effort and serious thought and whimsy that people put into trying to make it make sense--you don't do that without loving the initial text in some way.

As for the Tamarianization of the epic of Gilgamesh, I love it, too. That may have something to do with the fact that this may well have been my first exposure to Gilgamesh. I distinctly remember expecting something from Greek myth, and got blindsided by an apparently foundational epic text I just hadn't known about. That was the beginning of my getting to understand just how varied and wide the ancient world was--that it wasn't a canonical Greek pantheon, later corrupted by Roman adaptation; that there were entire civilizations we'd never covered in school, swirling about, separated by centuries or millennia and still affecting one another.

At that age, I didn't like the subject of history all that much, but I did enjoy stories. History seemed arbitrary and weird; an agglomeration of random facts and distinctions I couldn't see. Who were the good guys and the bad guys? But once you have the context to understand why people want to do something, not just that they did it, then it starts to hang together as a series of stories.

Lots of people (advertisers and marketers, mostly, I think) like to throw around phrases like "the power of story," without really getting much beyond "people like to fit things into a narrative arc, so do that and you'll be memorable." But there's a difference between constructing a campaign around a known arc, and finding those arcs within a set of historical facts--finding best-fit curves of narrative arcs, scaled up or down, angled differently or flipped entirely to try to articulate what happened in terms of human motivation. Each little meme, Tamarian phrase, narrative arc, translates the past event into present understanding.

..".And maybe there's a big monster."
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:13 AM on March 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Playmates also made a Dathon figure with a flaming branch, captain's log, and working holsters for his knives. The regular one is available for about MSRP today, the Pog version sells for silly prices.
posted by StarkRoads at 3:24 PM on March 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

People have established a lot of the great things about this episode. I also like that Dathon's outfit was kind of a repurposed Girl Scout sash.
posted by Emmy Rae at 3:48 PM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Playmates also made a Dathon figure with a flaming branch, captain's log, and working holsters for his knives.

Oh yeah, I forgot to say that I gave Dathon as a gift to my mother two years ago. She didn’t appreciate it 🤣
posted by Servo5678 at 4:17 PM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, I forgot to say that I gave Dathon as a gift to my mother two years ago.

Would she have preferred Threshold Tom Paris perhaps
posted by StarkRoads at 5:49 PM on March 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

People have established a lot of the great things about this episode. I also like that Dathon's outfit was kind of a repurposed Girl Scout sash.

With little holes to plug his merit badges into, so great!
posted by rodlymight at 7:04 PM on March 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's been so many years since I watched this episode that I'd forgotten Dathon died at the end.

posted by oh yeah! at 8:37 PM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's trivial to pick holes in this episode. But it works so well, despite all those shortcomings, and I think if you've seen it a few times and thought too much about it, it may be easy to forget why.

When the Enterprise first hails the Tamarians, they're talking absolute gibberish. They make no sense at all, neither to the Enterprise crew, nor an audience seeing this for the first time.

Then Picard is isolated on the planet with Dathon, and the audience gets brought along on that journey, of the two of them trying to understand each other. The audience is actually having to do quite a lot of work, trying to make sense of what's going on. But those scenes are still engaging for the audience, because of the wonderful job done by the two actors. So the audience doesn't really realise yet what's being done to them.

It's crucial, for what comes next, that the rest of the crew are excluded from those scenes.

The amazing payoff comes at the end, when Picard is back on the bridge talking to the Tamarians again. And it's exactly the same gibberish coming from both sides - with Picard now speaking it too, to the total bewilderment of the rest of the crew.

But we, the audience, are now in on it - because we've just learned a fucking alien language! A goddamn TV show has just taught us a language in twenty minutes, without us even realising it was trying to - to the point where we can now understand a conversation in that language which is still completely incomprehensible to people we last saw just twenty minutes ago.

And that language is not just unfamiliar but actually genuinely alien in its nature.

Of course it's a dumb, incomplete, implausible language. It has to be, or the episode could never have acheived this feat in that time. But it doesn't matter. You could write the same thing as a hundred hour epic if you wanted, with a richly conceived alien culture and a a complete, detailed language for the audience to learn. But it would just be a longer version of the same trick, and you would probably still never do it as well as Darmok.

The episode is exactly what it needs to be. It's perfect.
posted by automatronic at 9:05 PM on March 24, 2021 [13 favorites]

Maybe they teach the stories to their kids with movies, and there's a little window in the corner, like you might have for a sign language interpreter, only it's the Tamarian equivalent of Luis from Ant-Man, narrating along so kids can get the phrases recited to them.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 4:01 AM on March 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

To sort out their differences, two starship captains are transported down to a desert scrub planet while the crew of the Enterprise can only monitor the situation but are prevented from interfering. But, there is something already on the planet that is key to resolving the situation between the two cultures. That's right, I'm talking about TOS S1E19: Arena.

I think what they should do for one of their standalone Short Treks is the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, performed in the original Tamaran.
posted by ckape at 10:17 AM on March 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh and one other thing. Every very clever person moaning about the Tamarians needing some other language to tell their stories in the first place is completely missing that they DO have a whole other language and that it APPEARS IN THE EPISODE FOR EXACTLY THAT PURPOSE.

It's a written language. The captain writes in it when he's on the planet with Picard. There is a whole shot of Picard looking at it in the Tamarian captain's notebook.

And at the end of the episode, Picard transports the notebook to the Tamarian crew, who look at it and then say the name of the new story: Picard and Dathon, at El-Adrel.

It's LITERALLY RIGHT THERE how they learn the stories.
posted by automatronic at 11:53 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

How do you know the writing is a different, second language?

It doesn't really solve any of the inconsistencies or problems. I mean, if it's just a different written language how do you teach your children to speak it? If it's also spoken, why aren't they using that with the Federation or other aliens? All the handwaving stuff some people are doing here is still needed.

As I've said, I love this episode--it's my favorite--but the only way it holds up is if I think about it metaphorically, as representing all the difficulties of communicating.
posted by mark k at 3:14 PM on April 16, 2021

Why does the written language need to have a spoken equivalent at all?

From the example seen in the captain's notebook, it doesn't even seem to have a linear structure.

One interpretation could be that the Tamarians evolved to do all their complex communication in a written/drawn form, and they use verbal communication only in a shorthand way to refer to already-understood concepts.
posted by automatronic at 3:27 PM on April 16, 2021

Why does the written language need to have a spoken equivalent at all?

Among humans, written languages are notational systems for verbal languages. The spoken (or signed) is primary. "Non-linear" notation is diagramming or drawing. It'd be an interesting science fiction concept to explore what you're describing, especially combining that with the non-linear side of it and alien thought. Really interesting.

But in the context of this show, that's exactly what I meant by moving problems around. Positing a non-linear written-only language is not much different than positing a separate children's language with strong taboos against adult speech. You're inventing a whole new show basically! I certainly didn't notice any hint the writers were thinking of either thing.
posted by mark k at 4:22 PM on April 16, 2021

Well certainly the writers of this show often set up issues which might fill an interesting and brilliant 800-page novel, and then proceed to glide right over them, engaging at a pretty superficial level with some stuff, and ignoring other stuff altogether. Charitably, that's because they only had 40 minutes and needed to appeal to a broad audience. Less charitably, well, no need to expound on that.

But, I struggle to understand the tendency to nitpick the plot-contrivances of this episode, as though it is an unusually shaky concept for a Star Trek episode. I mean, even granting the very broad suspension of disbelief that is necessary just to watch the series in general (warp drive, phasers, teleporters, federation of planets with hundreds of mostly unseen member-species, almost wholly dominated by humans), TNG basically never goes an episode without some really glaring inconsistency or reliance on some incoherent and unspoken foundation. Sure, the Tamaranian language(s) couldn't possibly exist as shown on screen, without loads of extra assumptions thrown in to smooth things out, but neither could the Federation's economy, or the Klingon Empire's political structure, etc., etc., and pretty much every episode relies on one or more of those shaky foundations. This is a show for which a particularly complex planetary society might be depicted as having just two distinct cultural groups, and huge scientific discoveries are the product of a single person, and will often die with them.

That's because sci-fi is almost always just an extended metaphor for thinking about different ways people could live, or how societies could be arranged, if circumstances were different than they are now. Metaphors are by necessity incomplete comparisons, if both the elements of a metaphor are described sufficiently, they become just two distinct things. But this particular episode for some reason trips people up--maybe because it's much better than average, so it invites deeper inquiry? Or maybe the background problems that exist in every episode are just more glaring in any episode this good?
posted by skewed at 4:59 PM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I certainly didn't notice any hint the writers were thinking of either thing.

Sure, they may not have been thinking in great detail about the specifics of that written language.

But this is all on a tangent from my point, which is that in every discussion of Darmok, someone will start smugly pointing out how there's a massive plot hole, because how could the Tamarians learn those stories in the first place and the episode is stupid because the writers didn't think about that obvious problem.

When the writers very clearly did think about that, and included it in the episode.

The written language isn't commented on in the dialogue, but it's clearly intended to be an important part of the story or they wouldn't have made those props and included those shots:

1. Picard sees Dathon's writing
2. He offers the notebook back to the Tamarian second-in-command...
3. ...who reads it, and then speaks a new phrase.

Which is the big finale of the whole thing - the appearance of that new phrase, Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel, is where the rest of the crew get to see that communication has really been achieved, where something beyond their mytho-historical references is now part of the Tamarian vocabulary.

There's no end of speculation that can still be done about how the writing might interact with the spoken language and how both are learned, but I'd like to see those discussions at least acknowledge that the written language exists in the episode, and is clearly shown to be part of the process of learning new stories and phrases for Tamarians who didn't directly experience the events in question.
posted by automatronic at 5:42 PM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is one of the few episodes of Trek that will make me weep like a baby.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:58 PM on October 19, 2021

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