In the second episode of the fifth season of The Next Generation, Picard is taken from the Enterprise and trapped on a planet with a strange new species that communicates in a bizarre way. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
This episode shouldn’t work at all, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so fucking good. It’s an ambitious story because it relies on a language that does not function in any way like our own. It’s not a simple matter of translating one word or phrase or concept for another. The Tamarians understand communication in an entirely different way: they speak in metaphor and imagery, and they do so by invoking their shared mythology and history. Which, I might add, Picard and the rest of the crew have no access to.
That certainly sounds frustrating, and there’s an irritation to this episode, sure. But I found this story to be more charming than anything else because it’s about shared experience. Dathon is not here to fight Picard, to challenge him to prove his worth, or to hurt him. He wants, more than anything else, to share a journey and a struggle together, one that will make them stronger friends and allies. When you think about that, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? In the Tamarian worldview, there’s nothing more honorable or joyous than the shared conquering of a foe. It’s a way for two parties to come together.
Of course, it takes a long time for anyone to get to that point, and I think that this episode is paced perfectly in order to grab the audience’s interest, then frustrate us, then provide us with relief as people begin to figure out what exactly is going on here. The escalation between the physical action on the Enterprise and down on the planet works well, too, since we see Riker and company get more and more desperate to rescue Picard, unaware of what he’s participating in. I suppose you could actually blame the first attempt to beam Picard home for contributing to Dathon’s death, since it left Dathon alone with the unnamed beast. But it’s not truly fair to place that blame because no one knew what the hell was going on!
That’s why I loved the scenes between Dathon and Picard so much. Even when they were fighting, Dathon was doing everything he could to attempt to communicate with Picard. It was a treat to see Paul Winfield use his eyes and his facial expressions to communicate when his words could not. There’s a huge physicality between him and Picard throughout this episode that shouldn’t be discounted, as it helped them communicate and it helped this story be communicated to the audience. Hell, once I understood the basic manner in which Dathon spoke, I even tried to figure out what Dathon was trying to say.
But really, that scene at night, with Dathon laying injured by the fireside, was one of the truly fantastic things The Next Generation has ever done. It’s sad to think how the cultural myth shifted from the story of Darmok and Jalad to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, especially since it reflected the tragic turn of events. But there was something pure and true to the sequence because it involved two people, each from disparate cultures, exchanging their most important stories. Did they understand everything they were saying? No, not at all. But the common ground they found was what was vital. Picard understood that the story of Darmok and Jalad was about strangers becoming friends because of what the two warriors went through. And Dathon understood, just moments before he passed, that Gilgamesh mourned his new friend, who he’d gained through combat.
It’s a powerful moment in an episode that’s deliberately challenging. Again, I don’t know how this was pulled off. It’s so ambitious and weird and difficult and confusing. I was reminded of another challenging episode of a science fiction show after I gave “Darmok” some thought. It felt like the precursor to “Midnight,” one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. Both episodes challenged things we take for granted when it comes to communication, and I think that “Darmok” is one of the most cleverly crafted episodes of this whole show. And it’s entertaining, too! It’s not just intellectually challenging; I was riveted by it.
Bravo, Next Generation. Bravo.
The video for “Darmok” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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