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Recap / Star Trek: The Next Generation S5E2 "Darmok"

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Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.

Original air date: September 30, 1991

The Enterprise arrives at the uninhabited El-Adrel system to meet with an enigmatic race of people called the Children of Tama. This is not a First Contact situation; the Tamarians have been contacted before, but the records indicate that previous diplomats found it impossible to communicate with them. The crew of the Enterprise is hoping that they can do it better. When they make contact, the problem the previous teams faced becomes crystal clear: the language of the Tamarians is bizarre gibberish that none of the crew can make any sense of. The translators are double-checked and found to be in perfect working order. The problem is that nearly everything the Tamarians say is a proper noun; the names of people and places without any context that would let the translators (or crew) guess at the meanings being alluded to. Picard makes a futile attempt to establish an alliance with them, but the conversation goes nowhere. Equally flummoxed, the Tamarians have an argument amongst themselves, evidently about the best way to proceed. Then the captain of their vessel holds up two knives, announces, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," and beams himself and Picard to the surface of a nearby planet. The Tamarians’ ship intentionally blocks the Enterprise from beaming Picard back or communicating with him.

The Tamarian captain offers one of his knives to Picard. Assuming he wants a fight, Picard refuses it. At an impasse, the two captains make camp for the night. The Tamarian shows no further signs of hostility, but Picard still can’t understand a word he’s saying so it’s impossible to tell if he can be trusted or not. When Picard fails to get a fire going, the Tamarian offers some of his, with the words, "Temba, his arms wide." Picard vaguely understands that these words carry the meaning of accepting a gift, and the Tamarian smiles, seeing that at least the beginning of a connection is forming.

Worf takes a shuttlecraft toward the planet, gambling that the Tamarians are unwilling to take any violent action to stop them. They appear to have gambled wrong, as the Tamarians fire on the shuttlecraft, but only with enough force to cause minor damage that forces them to abort the rescue attempt. Geordi comes up with a way to scatter the Tamarian interference, but says it will take an entire day to implement, and it’s not at all clear whether Picard will be safe for that long. Worf proposes attacking the Tamarian ship, but Riker rejects that, preferring to save it as a last resort. He orders Data and Troi to try to find a way to decode their language so they can somehow talk things out.

Picard wakes up the next morning to find that the Tamarian captain has wandered away. He soon comes running back, again trying to give one of his knives to Picard. Picard refuses to take it at first, but then he hears a noise that sounds like a large animal, and he realizes that the Tamarian wants help in fighting the creature. He takes the knife, and the two square off against the creature, which has formidable skill at camouflage. The Tamarian keeps trying to give Picard instructions, and Picard slowly catches on to what he’s trying to say.

Dathon: Uzani, his army with fists open.
Picard: A… strategy, with fists open? With fists open?
Dathon: His army with fists closed.
Picard: With fists closed. An army with fists open… to lure the enemy. With fists closed… to attack? That’s how you communicate, isn’t it, by citing example, by metaphor!

The ship’s sensors show that Picard is being attacked, so Riker tells Geordi to rush his field-scattering beam and get Picard out of there. He tries, but ultimately fails, and the attempt at transporting prevents Picard from protecting the Tamarian, who gets badly injured by the creature. Nevertheless, the creature runs off. They set up camp again, and Picard asks to know more about Darmok. The Tamarian tells the story: Darmok was a hunter who met another man named Jalad at the island of Tenagra. They fought the beast and left the island together. That was the idea of coming to the planet—to help them come together by facing danger together. The Tamarian asks for a tale in return, and Picard recounts a bit of The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story in much the same vein… except for the fact that in that one, one of the heroes dies.

Riker prepares to attack the Tamarian ship in an effort to take out their field generator, as Data announces that the Tamarian captain has died of his wounds and the creature is returning to Picard’s position. Riker fires, the first blast taking out the Tamarian field emitters. They beam Picard back just as the creature is about to lunge at him. Both ships engage in combat, but Picard returns to the bridge and calls off the fight. He hails the Tamarians, using what snippets of their language he’s picked up to explain what happened on the planet. The Tamarians are touched, and their response implies that they’ve added the story to their lexicon: "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel." Picard offers them their knife back, but they let him keep it as a memento. Both ships head back into space, unsure if a friendship has been established but knowing that at the very least they are not enemies.

Tropes featured in "Darmok" include:

  • Alien Blood: Tamarians have white blood
  • Anthropic Principle: The writers have admitted that the Tamarian language would not be practical for such an advanced society (science, medicine, and a whole lot of other disciplines would be nearly impossible to discuss), but without it, this episode could not have been written, and the consensus is that it's one of the better episodes of the franchise.
  • Arc Number: The library computer has 47 entries related to the name Darmok.
  • Attack Pattern Alpha: Evasive Maneuver Sequence Delta, which means turn slowly so the Tamarians can take out your starboard nacelle.
  • Big "NO!": Picard screams this when he starts to be beamed away just as the beast mauls Dathon.
  • Big "YES!": Once it finally dawns on Picard just what Dathon is up to, the Tamarian captain doesn't even try to contain his joy.
    Dathon: Sokath, his eyes uncovered!
  • Bittersweet Ending: Picard becomes friends with Dathon, picks up the basics of his language, and establishes the foundation of a trusting relationship with the Tamarians, but Dathon succumbs to his wounds from the battle with the predator on El-Adrel. In the end, the Enterprise and Tamarian part ways, not necessarily as allies, but nonetheless on friendly terms.
  • Call-Back: Data describes their trouble speaking to the Tamarians as "analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of the vocabulary.", which was similar to how Spock detailed the trouble speaking to the probe threatening Earth in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:
    Kirk: Spock, could the humpback's answer to this call be simulated?
    Spock: The sounds, but not the language. We would be responding in gibberish.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: One officer assisting Geordi in Engineering is Ensign Robin Lefler, who'll play a bigger role later this season in "The Game".
  • Clothing Damage: Picard gets a slash across his chest from the monster, through apparently not close enough to draw blood.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Worf assumes the alien captain intends a Combat by Champion. Picard assumes the same when Dathon tosses one of his knives to him.
  • Due to the Dead: Picard lays Dathon's body to rest while commending him for his efforts. Dathon's crew then mourn their captain's death, and Picard copies the touching-forehead gesture he sees them making later at the end of the episode in the privacy of his cabin.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Lefler only has about 10 seconds of screen-time and doesn't even get a first name yet. She gets a more formal introduction with a much more substantive role a few episodes later in "The Game".
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: This is the debut episode of Picard's jacket and the only episode in which it has leather shoulders.
  • Enemy Mine: An unusually apt example, since the premise here is very similar to the movie Enemy Mine. Here, it's also invoked, as the meaning of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" is a combination of this and Fire-Forged Friends, and Dathon successfully uses both tropes.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Picard finally figures out that the Tamarians communicate purely through metaphor. The Tamarians use the expression "Sokath, his eyes uncovered!" to refer to realization or understanding.
  • Famed in Story: Picard and Dathon become part of the next Tamarian legend.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: This is the Tamarians' diplomatic strategy when casual conversation fails: force the two captains together in a life-or-death struggle as a way of building trust and understanding, inspired by the eponymous Darmok and Jalad of Tamarian lore. Picard shares a similar tale from Earth mythology—Gilgamesh and Enkidu—except in that story, one of the heroes was slain.
  • Hard-to-Light Fire: Picard gets a fire going by the rubbing sticks method, only for it to go out again. Dathon, watching nearby from his successfully lit fire, finds it amusing, but on seeing Picard shivering in the cold, tosses him a burning stick from his fire. The gesture starts the ball rolling, teaching Picard his term for either "giving" or "generosity".
  • Higher-Tech Species: The Tamarian ship rather casually defeats the Enterprise when the two ships finally come to blows. It can also beam through shields and prevent the Enterprise from using the transporter at all.
  • Idiot Ball: At one point, Riker hails the Tamarians and demands them to lower the field, even though he knows that they can't understand their language.
  • Invisible Monster: The creature on the planet has this ability. Picard and Dathon can only see it by the occasional Invisibility Flicker.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang!: Invoked; Dathon wanders off during the night, presumably to draw the creature close. He then gets Picard to stand apart from him to lure the creature into attacking, so they can strike at it from opposite directions.
  • Lost in Translation: Invoked in the episode: the Tamarians speak entirely in allegories referencing their people's mythology. The universal translator can translate the words of their speech, but without the context behind their phrases, actual communication proves difficult.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Both Dathon and Picard do this, plus Translation by Volume. Justified given the difficulty and frustration they have with trying to get their message across to the other, leading to a tendency for both parties to ham it up.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The first attempt to beam Picard out only makes the situation worse, with the creature mauling Dathon while Picard, trapped in the transport beam, is unable to come to his aid.
  • Non-Uniform Uniform: This episode introduces Picard's "captain's alternate" uniform, comprised of a jacket in command colors that he'd wear over a gray shirt. In this episode, the jacket has padded leather shoulders, whereas later episodes gave the jacket suede shoulders. It was made both to help Picard stand out from the rest of the crew and also addressing complaints Patrick Stewart had about how uncomfortable the standard uniforms were.
  • One-Word Title
  • Our Monsters Are Weird: A... glowing styracosaurus-man?
  • Parody: Spoofed in this strip by xkcd.
  • Planet of Hats: The Tamarians are a Planet of TVTropers.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: Picard has to deal with aliens who communicate by exchanging (their) pop-culture references—none of which Picard has heard of.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: The first officer invokes it when angry: "Zinda, his face black, his eyes red!"
  • Rewatch Bonus: The episode is a very different watch after you mostly know what the Tamarians are saying. For example, Dathon's argument with his first officer. You can clearly hear the latter say, "Mirab, with sails unfurled," in frustration at one point, which would likely translate to, "This is a waste of time, let's get out of here," while Dathon replies "The river Temarc, in winter" which more or less means "We can't" or "Stop". Watch here for a full translation of their dialogue.
  • Simple Solution Won't Work: After the Enterprise crew figures out the general idea of how the Tamarians speak, Riker asks "If we know how they think, shouldn't we be able to get something across to them?". Data says that they can't because "The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of the vocabulary.", and without the proper context of expressions like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra", they'd simply mutter gibberish back to them.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: "Darmok" is (sort of) "comrade" spelled backwards.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu from The Epic of Gilgamesh.
    • In the end, Picard reads the Homeric Hymns.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Brought up when the bridge crew is discussing how the Tamarian language works, and Counselor Troi suggests "Juliet on her balcony" as an analogous example; humans would generally know the underlying story of who Juliet was and what she was doing on the balcony, and thus realise that this reference was intended to suggest a romantic encounter, but it wouldn't make sense to an outsider who lacked that context.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: The Tamarians are an entire civilization of these. Forget subject-verb-object in any order, the language consists almost exclusively of "proper noun, prepositional phrase."
  • Teleport Interdiction: The Tamarians scatter any attempt to use the transporter to rescue Picard.
  • Translation by Volume: Used by both Picard and Dathon during their initial attempts at communication. Riker keeps calling the Tamarian ship and trying this throughout the episode, yet it's ambiguous if he's grasped (or cares) that his opposite number doesn't understand him.
  • Translation: "Yes": Some of the Tamarian phrases, though not to a parodic degree. "Shaka, when the walls fell" has the general meaning of "failure," for example. It goes the other way too; for instance, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" packs a hell of a lot of meaning into five words.
  • Translator Microbes: A standard Star Trek trope, which this episode deconstructs by introducing a language composed entirely of cultural metaphors. The crew's translators are working fine, but they still can't understand the Tamarians because half their words are proper nouns that mean nothing to them.
  • Unwanted Rescue: The Enterprise manages to lock on to Picard while he and Dathon are fighting the beast, and without Picard's help, Dathon gets mortally injured.
  • Whole-Plot Reference:
    • This is pretty much a Star Trek version of Enemy Mine.
    • Another instance occurs as an Invoked Trope. This is Dathon's plan, recreating the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. It also seems to be a massive advantage of the Tamarian language; he gets across the entire multi-day plan to his crew just by saying the title.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Riker bets the Tamarians won't go as far as shooting down a shuttle, so sends Worf down with an away team. They take out a nacelle with a precision shot, forcing the shuttle to return to Enterprise.