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Star Trek TNG - Season 5 - Episode 02

Star Trek TNG - 5x02 - Darmok

Originally Aired: 1991-9-30

Synopsis:
Picard deals with an alien who speaks in metaphors. [DVD]

My Rating - 10

Fan Rating Average - 6.32

Rate episode?

Rating: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
# Votes: 101 6 3 10 12 7 19 21 26 45 158

Problems
- The Enterprise fired its phasers from the torpedo tubes...

Factoids
- This episode is a candidate for my "Best Episode of TNG Award."
- Picard (and only Picard) gets a new uniform in this episode. Curiously after he ripped it, he's not seen wearing it in the final scene. Seems he couldn't be bothered to replicate a replacement...
- Data has encountered 1754 nonhuman races in his time with starfleet.

Remarkable Scenes
- The discussion of the Tamarians in the opening scene. A species which WANTS relations with the Federation, but communications could not be established. Excellent idea!
- The Tamarians and their unique language.
- Picard's confrontation with the Tamarian captain. He throws down the dagger rather than enter (supposed) combat, while his first officer risks combat with the Tamarian ship.
- The campfire scene with the Tamarian captain and and Picard on the planet.
- Troi and Data attempting to decipher the Tamarian language.
- Picard refusing to fight the Tamarian captain, not realizing it was an alliance he sought.
- Picard cracking the Tamarian language.
- Picard screaming "No!" when the Enterprise attempts to beam him up, away from the battle.
- Data and Troi cracking the Tamarian language and explaining it to Riker.
- Picard attempting to speak to the injured Tamarian captain using his language.
- Picard discovering why the Tamarian captain brought him to the planet to fight alongside.
- Picard telling the story of Gilgamesh.
- The Tamarian captain's death.
- Picard speaking the Tamarian language with the first officer of the Tamarian ship.

My Review
The most underrated episode in Star Trek history. We have two plot threads. First, Picard refuses to fight the Tamarian captain and vigorously attempts to understand his language. Second, Riker's attempts to rescue Picard at all costs and using violence if necessary. These two different approaches taken by Picard and Riker contrast each other beautifully. And ultimately it is Picard's cracking of the Tamarian language which saves the day. Regarding that, I absolutely love the way Data sums up this language barrier. They know the grammar of the Tamarian language, but not the vocabulary. Speaking in metaphors and saying only proper nouns holds no meaning to a listener who doesn't understand the reference. But in time, as Picard demonstrated, the language could be deciphered. A properly educated linguist and historian could adequately communicate with the Tamarians. I felt thoroughly bad for the Tamarian captain in the end. What a great man, who makes a truly noble sacrifice in the hopes to establish friendship with the Federation. To sum it up, this is an extremely intelligently written episode and one of the finest examples of what Star Trek really is all about.

The following are comments submitted by my readers.

  • From Vlad on 2006-03-31 at 4:11pm:
    When I want to introduce a non-trekker to the world of Star Trek I make them watch this episode. Isn't this a marvelous compliment? To me this is Star Trek at its best. The idea that we must find unity even if we must pay the ultimate price is extraordinary and oh so resonant in this day and age.

    But the philosophy of the piece is really presented through Picard. On a personal level he makes a new friend... and loses him, but in the end comes to understand his sacrifice. As a Starfleet officer, he is given a tough assignment, but he manages to do what he does best - preserve the piece and help bring about mutual understanding. On a universally human level we are left to ponder a very difficult question: Would we do the same if we were in the place of the Tamarian captain?

    Now, if only I could find the way to communicate to my mom just how good this episode is and make her watch it with me ;)
  • From Pete Miller on 2006-04-14 at 3:24pm:
    Problem: If the language is based solely on reference to myth and history, then how does a child learn what happened in these myths? The language can only be spoken by referencing to something that both communicating parties are familiar with.

    A fine episode, but it just seems like speaking only in metaphor is an extremely improbable form of communication.
  • From Bob Bracegirdle on 2006-08-04 at 6:10am:
    I could never see why Picard deciphered the language but for years previously the Federation had tried without success. Apparently they never even got the idea of metaphor. Were they stupid? I jumped to that conclusion within seconds of hearing it at the beginning of the episode - clearly a greek myth allusion.
  • From benq on 2006-12-05 at 2:53pm:
    Darmok is another one of those episodes that reminds us that other races don't value life and freedom the same way we do. The language barrier is a poor excuse for the inciting incident of stranding Picard and the Tamarian captain on the planet with a disappearing beast, and even the explanation of the language barrier is dubious, given the historical overtones of every language. It has its place in the season 5 arch, but Darmok is probably one of the worst executed TNG stories that nevertheless touch us.
  • From DSOmo on 2007-09-04 at 5:07am:
    Data and Troi deduce that the Tamarians speak in metaphor when they cross-reference the proper names "Darmok" and "Tenagra" to a mythological account from one of the planets nearby. After they give this information to Riker, Troi claims that communication is hopeless, since all they know is that Darmok was a hunter and Tenagra an island. If they know that Darmok is a mythological hunter, doesn't it seem likely that they would have access to some of the stories about him? Out of those stories, they might find something they could use.
  • From KStrock on 2009-01-27 at 9:55am:
    How could they have cultural stories on file about a race with whom they have no prior relationship?
  • From Wes on 2010-05-07 at 3:07pm:
    You make a great point about Starfleet uniform code with Ro's earring and Worf's sash. Another interesting thing is that Mr. Mott said that he cut Commander Riker's hair a few days earlier. Look at Riker's hair. Sure doesn't look like he recently got a haircut. In fact, looks to me like he is due for one.
  • From Vinny on 2010-07-29 at 4:41pm:
    Call it absurd fanboyism, but the one thing I remember clearly from seeing this episode the first time is totally falling in love with Robin Lefler, the first on-screen performace Ashley Judd ever made. Ah, the agony... I would have SO traded places with Wil Wheaton in the episode "The Game".
  • From tigertooth on 2010-10-20 at 5:53pm:
    To me it seemed as if the Tamarians lacked verbs. They used nouns, prepositions, and adjectives, but I don't recall any verbs. That was kind of interesting.

    But as a previous commenter said, the idea that they could speak only in references seems far-fetched.
  • From Quando on 2011-08-12 at 6:20pm:
    My question is this. How did a species with a language like this ever manage to develop the technology of space travel? I mean, how do you explain the technical specifications for building a warp core (or even a Model T) using only analogy to mythical figures? How would you even ask someone to hand you a tool? "Kinta, his 3/8" wrench open, his eyes red"! How do you talk about things like return on investment, varying interest rates, detailed medical procedures, etc. The whole language only seems suited to conveying basic ideas and emotions. It seems to me that a species with a language like this would never advance beyond the basic tribal hunter-gatherer stage.
  • From Will on 2011-10-28 at 9:55pm:
    The fact that you can rate this episode a 10 after all of the times you downrate episodes for bad science astounds me. As Quando and Pete have pointed out, the main premise of this story is scientifically implausible. I, for one, believe that the implausible is at the core of what science fiction should be, but based on your attitude toward episodes with such absurd science as this thus far, it seems unfair to be giving this episode a 10.
  • From Kethinov on 2011-10-29 at 9:22pm:
    Will,

    There's nothing fundamentally unsound about a language arising in this way. The fact that it's extremely improbable is an asset to the story in that the universal translator can translate the literal meaning of the words spoken but not the true meaning of their metaphorical basis.

    While I realize that it is hard to imagine a society being capable of functioning this way or developing advanced technology, I don't necessarily think it's beyond the bounds of realism, especially if you assume that the Tamarians have brains which more intuitively grasp metaphor or that there is a crucially emotive characteristic to the language.

    For instance, how a metaphor is stated and what body language is used may be just as important as what metaphor was used. The episode itself concludes by acknowledging that further study of the language would have to be done to fully grasp all its nuances. Just because the episode doesn't give us all the answers doesn't mean that no answer is workable.

    Since, in my judgement, the technical issues presented by the language aren't unworkable, the omissions of detail are not sufficiently distracting to the story, and the story itself is an outstanding piece of drama and science fiction, I stand by my classification of the episode's perfect score.
  • From packman_jon on 2012-05-13 at 6:33pm:
    Very good episode. Tough to really get into, but this episode really rewards the viewer.
  • From RM on 2012-08-03 at 3:33pm:
    This is one of the episodes that I like to watch even though they don't make terribly much sense. It is sufficiently suspenseful and has its good moments, definitely resulting in an entertaining episode that does more than show mindless battles.

    On the downside, the presented concept of the language never seemed convincing to me. I don't refute the idea that a civilization might base many of its expressions on metaphors (you could say that so do we in some respects; think of expressions like "a Valentine to all fans"). When talking about complex topics without requiring infinite time, many of the metaphor references might have to be "compressed", but possibly what we saw in the episode was sufficient for efficient communication. Likewise, the problem of how to describe the meaning of a metaphor in the first place does indeed exist, but this might indeed be achieved with a limited vocabulary.

    My two major gripes, however, were on the one hand how the language can possibly include references to off-world myths even for basic concepts. Does that mean the language only evolved after the Tamarians got in touch with cultures from other planets? Highly doubtful. On the other hand, I always wondered why the federation would be able to correctly translate prepositions and a few nouns when the meaning of the statements was unknown in the first place. How could a translator trying to figure out an unknown language (no matter whether it's a computer program like the universal translator or a living being doing that work) possibly know that in a sentence like "Shaka, when the walls fell." (note that what we see as English is actually incomprehensible Tamarian here) there's a proper name "Shaka" and four single words that mean "when the walls fell"? Wouldn't that translator recognize the same indicators used when deciphering other alien language that the topic is "failure" and then consider "Shakawhenthewallsfell" as one word, meaning "failure"?

    As much as forgotten Earth colonies are a trope that should be avoided, I'm convinced that the language trouble would have been a great deal more plausible if the Tamarians had originally been from Earth. That way, they could have used English words while the meaning of the sentences still wouldn't have been clear.
  • From TheAnt on 2013-11-02 at 3:33pm:
    Cpt Picard on Forbidden planet.

    This is indeed one excellent episode.
    And even though Picard suspected that there would be a duel, I did assume that the alien indeed were proposing that they were going for a hunt as a means of building bridges between the two peoples.
    I've never lost a limb on a mountainside and as certain as the bear crap in the woods there had to be a monster challenge - one that had me think of the invisible beast from Forbidden planet.

    I found the comment by Pete Miller amusing since his name suggest he is from a culture that have a language that indeed use a lot of metaphors in daily use.
    Even so both the British and Americans are able to learn their language - also myself. So I do not see any problem in that respect.

    There's several examples on Earth of languages such as synesthetic ones, where the universal translator would be a lead balloon.
    So why not for one completely different species that have grown up on one isolated planet.

    And no actor but Patrick Stewart could have done the summary of the Gilgamesh epic as well as here. A solid 10 as certain as the pope wear a funny hat. :)
  • From Axel on 2015-02-21 at 6:16pm:
    This has to be one of the most innovative episodes in sci-fi TV history. I agree with above comments about this being ST at its best. However, I think a lot of the concerns about the Tamarian language can be explained.

    In RM's case: consider that the Tamarian captain is best able to understand Picard when Picard is telling the tale of the Gilgamesh epic. It seems the Tamarian brain can process the language of other cultures through this narrative format, even if they don't yet know all the details of the story. This may be why Darmok, a mytho-historical hunter from Shantil 3, is part of the Tamarian linguistic database. Perhaps that legend became incorporated into Tamarian culture and language over time.

    There are other concerns too. For instance, how do the Tamarians handle certain basic day-to-day tasks, like "Hey, can you see if the engine coolant levels are good to go?" One explanation is that just as humans rely on metaphor in rare situations, perhaps Tamarians use literal language only when absolutely necessary, such as explaining a technical concept. Another explanation is that Tamarians may have invented their own stories that correspond to mathematical and scientific principles, in the form of music, history, and mythology.

    But this is all part of the fun. Star Trek presents us with an alien race that communicates through mythological and historical reference, and lets us fill in the blanks through our own imagination. Isn't that the whole point of sci-fi? A beautifully created episode, and a wonderful contribution to TV.
  • From K on 2017-01-30 at 10:33am:
    Regarding the phasers from the torpedo tube. I always thought they had purposely done that, as the modifications to do the needed damage required them to construct some sort of custom array that they mounted in the torpedo tube.

    Alas I noticed on the re-mastered HD version that that scene has changed to have the phasers firing from the dorsal array.

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