All our technology and experience, our universal translator, our years in space, contact with more alien cultures than I can even remember – and we still can’t even say hello to these people!In the history of Star Trek in its many forms, there are several hands full of absolute classics. The fact there are so many tells you something about the power of this particular science fiction franchise to teach important lessons about our world and experience. But one of the most powerful episodes across all the versions of Trek is the seemingly simple hour of Television known as Darmok.
It’s powerful because of the mission at the core of its action – the making of new friends and the quest for understanding, even when all previous experience seems to say that such an endeavour is hopeless. And it’s also powerful because in the days of the Next Generation, when the general direction of the franchise was towards the ever-increasing technological and philosophical perfection of humanity, two years before Trek would dare get grubby with Deep Space Nine, it was humbling, not to say impressively imaginative, to give the Enterprise crew a mission they found genuinely challenging.
The premise of Darmok is almost absurdly simple – a race of powerful aliens have sent a simple signal towards Federation space, a ‘we’re here if you want to come chat,’ a friend request if you will. The only problem with which is that they speak what to the crew of the Enterprise sounds like gibberish, meaning the whole ‘chatting’ thing is going to be more like hard labour. What’s more, there’s every danger that unless some sort of communication can be achieved between the two species, the baser instincts to destroy what simply sits there spouting gibberish will overpower both crews, and plunge the Federation into a war with the ‘Children of Tamar.’
‘One word could lead to tragedy. One word, misspoken or misunderstood.’Clearly, drastic measures are called for. The Tamarians beam their captain, and Enterprise captain Jean-Luc Picard, down to the surface of a planet called El-Adrel, then promptly put the planet under a kind of quarantine. This, as far as we and the Enterprise crew understand it, is a manoeuvre known as ‘Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.’
Well, quite – what the hell does that mean? While the two captains face the problems of El-Adrel, including a creepy semi-invisible energy beast which is pretty freaking nippy, the likelihood that they’ll freeze to death and of course the vexed question of understanding what the hell each other is saying, the Enterprise crew are constantly working to broaden their options without, if possible, pressing the buttons that lead to conflict. In one of his stronger performances, Jonathan Frakes gives Will Riker – a character generally so freakishly perfect and handsome it’s hard not to want to smash him in the face – some proper gravitas and command when free of the powerhouse performance of Patrick Stewart in the captain’s seat. In a sense, the drama on board the Enterprise is a long night of the soul for Riker, the other senior officers acting as the angels and demons on his shoulders – Worf, obeying both his warlike instinct and a prudent concern for his ship and his captain, advocates firing on the ship, but Counsellor Troi appeals to his First Contact instincts, the sense of pride he takes in expanding the Federation’s range of friends, restraining the aggressive instinct to take back what is his own – his captain – from a Tamarian ship that is deliberately keeping him down on the planet.
It’s telling, both of Riker and perhaps of a particular kind of Federation officer stretching back at least as far as James T Kirk, that he covers all the bases, waving a flag of peace while nevertheless having phasers ready to fire. He works tirelessly to find ways of denying the Tamarians the right to imprison Picard on the planet, without actively engaging them in a pitched battle.
Meanwhile on the planet, Picard and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, begin to make progress towards some primitive understanding of each other, particularly as Picard cottons on to the idea that ‘Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra’ is a metaphor for their current situation, two strangers coming together to face dangers, and perhaps leaving as friends.
Riker’s well-intentioned attempt to rescue his captain arguably costs the life of Captain Dathon, as Picard is pulled out of a battle with ‘the beast at Tanagra’ at a crucial moment, but he learns enough from the fatally-wounded Dathon about how the Tamarians think and communicate that, when Riker’s itchy feet can’t wait any longer and he fires on the Tamarians to free his captain, precipitating what looks like the imminent destruction of the Enterprise, Picard can run to the bridge and speak enough Tamarian to make the aliens halt their attack, and, if not exactly embrace the Enterprise crew like brothers, at least entertain enough of an entente to open a door between the two powers, and to hopefully further communication in the future.
The engaging thing about the Darmok script by Joe Menosky is that the Tamarian language isn’t perhaps as hard to decipher as the Enterprise crew make it feel – ‘Shaka, when the walls fell,’ the phrase that equates to failure in the Tamarian language of metaphor, is accompanied, each time we hear it, with body language of failure and frustration. ‘Sukath, his eyes uncovered!’ when we finally get to hear it, has a joy and a logic to it that would seem to make its meaning plain. All that’s really required is a mindset unbound by the idea that our way of doing things is the only way of doing things, and some effort, along with the Rosetta stone of understanding a stranger’s culture and history, the things that have formed their viewpoints.
In a world where rigidity of viewpoint is increasingly a dominant force in our politics and public discourse, where things are only allowed to be either one way or another, and where personal or cultural differences are too easily used as excuses and catalysts for personal or cultural hatreds, we could do worse than letting Trek show the way to a more enlightened future – after all, in this episode, Picard’s fondest hope is that ‘we have the qualities of patience, of imagination and of understanding’ required to make a communication breakthrough with this most enigmatically different of species. It’s surely not too great a stretch for us to echo that sentiment, and apply it in our own lives.
Darmok is great science fiction, and great Star Trek, because it frames a problem inherent in the world of the audience within a science fiction setting and shows both how terrifying the consequences of failure to communicate can be, how hard the effort is to make, especially when there seem to be no points of similarity between the speakers, and it also gives the lie to that notion, by finding those points of reference that make us all the same, rather than forcing to the forefront the things that divide us or make us different in our understanding of the world. Darmok, to this day, is a story of the difficulty and importance of working out how to communicate with people, and about finding those keys to commonality in our lives that allow us to keep talking, rather than to start throwing stones, or indeed missiles, at one another.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk