Darmok (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season 5, Episode 2) Picard of the Federation, His Metaphors Timely

Rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation

After an awkward encounter with aliens whose language is incomprehensible, Picard finds himself on a strange planet. The alien captain, holding two daggers, offers one to Picard, saying “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

When I first saw this episode, as a young grad student in a crowded room full of my regular Trek-watching friends, of course I thought of the classic Star Trek episode Arena, where Kirk is forced to face off against a slow-moving reptilian Gorn.

Clearly the episode was designed so that we would expect a similar setup. On my current rewatch, it’s pretty clear that Dathon, the alien captain, is not being aggressive. He never points the knife at Picard, he performs various calm little rituals, and even helps Picard start a campfire.

The scenes on the ship, in which Riker and Worf try to recover the captain, and Worf’s shuttle gets fired on, and the hostile attitude of Dathon’s first officer do give ample in-world reasons to interpret the Tamarian actions as aggressive.

Presumably such an advance race has encountered other alien civilizations, which should theoretically help them figure out a more efficient plan for communicating with outsiders. But the point of the episode is that the Tamarian’s *can’t* communicate the way we do, and that Captain Dathon felt that this ritual abduction and encounter with Picard was worth the chance of it escalating into violence. 

The episode first aired in 1991, at a time when the World Wide Web was still being catalogued by hand — there were no search engines as we understand them, and many libraries still used card catalogs. As a grad student, I spent time “researching” by walking to a bookcase where monographs or journals were filed by subject, taking items off the shelf one by one and scanning the table of contents, looking up three or four items in the index, and deciding whether to put the books back on the shelf or put it in a stack that I would take to a nearby table and skim through, looking for references to Eugene O’Neill or Sophie Treadwell or the Federal Theatre Project.

Given the context, we can perhaps excuse the fact that Data and Troi don’t seem to know how to do a boolean search for “Darmok and Tanagara,” and that it doesn’t seem to occur to them to search for “Darmok and Jalard” (which would have given away too much).  This scene is meant to dramatize that what Picard and Dathon are trying to do down on the planet surface — figure out how to communicate with each other — is hard.

Picard starts to figure it out in the middle of an action sequence that’s so well paced that I remember shouting out loud along with my friends when the transporter beam grabs Picard at *exactly* the wrong time.

The script calls for campfire scenes on two consecutive nights, so that Picard and Dathon can have two different storytelling scenes. I love the scenes on the planet, but it seems to take the Enterprise crew all night to launch a shuttlecraft and do some database searches.

When the plot requires it, the Enterprise can beam people directly to the bridge; however, in this episode Picard seems to take his time making his way from the transporter room, so that the pew-pew can escalate and Picard can burst onto the bridge to save the day with the metaphorical language phrases we’ve already seen him work out.

I rewatched this episode in 2015 when I prepared a talk for the Computers and Writing Conference (“Computer… (chug chug chug) ***WORKING*** Futures of Text as predicted by Star Trek, Rossum’s Robots & Gadget Salesmen”), so it was fresher in my mind than most of the TNG episodes I’ve been rewatching. I invited the whole family to watch this episode. Peter had caught the conclusion while channel-surfing at his grandmother’s house years ago, but it was new to Carolyn.