The Great Star Trek TNG Rewatch: Darmok

Darmok and Jalad

When the Enterprise encounters a Tamarian ship, they find the enigmatic aliens just as difficult to communicate with as all other Federation ships have before. But the Tamarian captain has a bold idea to establish a connection with the Federation – by isolating himself and Picard on the surface of a dangerous planet so that their shared experience forces them to understand each other.

Darmok is one of those TNG episodes that everyone remembers, partly because of its unique concept, but also because it just makes for good viewing. The twist here is that the Tamarians communicate entirely through metaphor and reference – a bit like the in-jokes and shared memories you no doubt share with your best friends, but taken to a racial level. We’ll be thinking about this a bit more in the next section, but if you accept it at face value, then it’s agood chance for Picard to get off the ship and use both brains and brawn to make contact with a new civilisation.

Sokath, his eyes uncovered!

The Tamarians communicate entirely through metaphor, but how plausible is this? Like Crusher and Troi using “Juliet on the balcony” as an example, you and I could probably manage through reference to famous world events and well-known literature, but we absorbed the meaning of these original events through reading normal prose or speech. A lot of background concepts about objects and concepts goes into understanding a simple metaphor. How do Tamarian children go from babbling “dada” and “mama” to have a concrete enough understanding of the universe to communicate entirely in metaphor?

Well, the world of Star Trek is an amazing place, so perhaps we shouldn’t always treat alien societies as essentially human. Here are some possibilities:

  • Tamarians are born with some kind of ‘genetic memory’ of folklore that precludes having to learn.
  • Tamarians learn basic concepts through visual means, and then attach metaphors to those for spoken communications. Maybe there are no words for basic concepts like “book”, “knife” and “fire”, but there are pictograms or signs.
  • Tamarian children have to learn to speak in metaphor, but for societal reasons adults never speak to other adults in this manner. To do so would be like human adults talking to each other in baby talk.
  • The Tamarians clearly understood at least some ‘normal speech’, but maybe they just are so culturally conditioned that they could never reply in such a way.

Other points

  • This episode marks the first appearance of the captain’s jacket. I loved that jacket as a teen, and even had a similarly patterned fleece jacket (not in Starfleet colours) that I considered to be my own “captain’s jacket”. So I was disappointed to see that DVD quality reveals just how weird the leather shoulders are – I’d always assumed they were fabric.
  • If the story of Darmok at Tanagra is part of Tamarian mythology, why is it in the Enterprise computer banks. If instead the Tamarians appropriated it from another alien mythology, it suggests a level of communication with outsiders that doesn’t fit with the statement that they’ve always been impossible to talk to.
  • When Picard gets back to the bridge and talks to the Tamarians, he seems to have knowledge of metaphors beyond the ones he learnt on the planet.
  • My viewing companion posits that, as the Tamarian metaphors are better understood, won’t the universal translator just render them into normal speech?

Summary – Darmok: There should be a whole season of them trying to establish a dialogue with the Tamarians.”

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