“Darmok” is one of the most memorable episodes, and for me a high point, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise makes contact with a people, the Tamarians, whose language has resisted all efforts at translation, to the point where not even the Universal Translator can make head nor tail of what they are saying. Their language appears to be based on random citations of stories, an extreme way of talking in metaphor and citing examples from a rich storytelling heritage to make one’s point. As someone who often thinks in terms of stories I’ve read or seen and who frequently cites them in the case of arguing various points, this hits home for me.
In the episode, Captain Picard and Captain Dathon (of the other ship) go down to a planet surface to face a ‘monster’, to suffer a shared danger, which Dathon hopes will somehow forge a connection between them. It takes Picard a while to realize that Dathon’s ‘kidnapping’ of Picard to the planet surface is intended as an act of friendship, and it takes him a bit longer to put together just what some of the Tamarian phrases mean. They do battle with the creature, and manage to fight it off…but Dathon is mortally wounded. At night, Picard and Dathon sit by a campfire. Dathon is clearly in great pain:
DATHON: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
PICARD: Our situation is similar to theirs. I understand that. But I need to know more. You must tell me more about Darmok and Jalad. Tell me. You used the words, ‘Temba, his arms wide’ when you gave me the knife and the fire. Could that mean give? Temba, his arms wide. Darmok. Give me more about Darmok.
DATHON: Darmok on the ocean.
PICARD: Darmok. (draws on the soil) The ocean. Darmok on the ocean. A metaphor? For being alone? Isolated? Darmok on the ocean.
(Dathon writhes in pain)
PICARD: Are you alright?
DATHON: Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.
PICARD: Temba, his arms open. Give me more about Darmok on the ocean.
DATHON: Tanagra on the ocean. Darmok at Tanagra.
PICARD: At Tanagra. A country? Tanagra on the ocean. An island. Temba, his arms wide.
DATHON: Jalad on the ocean. Jalad at Tanagra.
PICARD: Jalad at Tanagra. He went to the same island as Darmok. Darmok and Jalad Tanagra.
DATHON: The beast at Tanagra.
PICARD: The beast? There was a creature at Tanagra? Darmok and Jalad, the beast of Tanagra. They arrived separately. They struggled together against a common foe, the beast at Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
DATHON: Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
PICARD: They left together. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
DATHON: The ocean. (another spasm) Zinda! His face black, his eyes red. Callimas at Bahar.
PICARD: You hoped this would happen, didn’t you? You knew there was a dangerous creature on this planet and you knew from the tale of Darmok that a danger shared might sometimes bring two people together. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. You and me, here, at El-Adrel.
DATHON: Kira at Bashi. Temba, his arms wide.
PICARD: My turn? No, I’m not much of a story teller. Besides, you wouldn’t understand. Shaka. when the walls fell. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. You want to hear it anyway. There’s a story, a very ancient one, from Earth. I’ll try and remember it. Gilgamesh, a king. Gilgamesh, a king, at Uruk. He tormented his subjects. He made them angry. They cried out aloud, send us a companion for our king. Spare us from his madness. Enkidu, a wild man from the forest, entered the city. They fought in the temple. They fought in the street. Gilgamesh defeated Enkidu. They became great friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.
DATHON: At Uruk.
PICARD: The new friends went out into the desert together, where the great bull of heaven was killing men by the hundreds. Enkidu caught the bull by the tail. Gilgamesh struck it with his sword.
PICARD: They were victorious. But Enkidu fell to the ground, struck down by the gods. And Gilgamesh wept bitter tears, saying, ‘he who was my companion through adventure and hardship, is gone forever.
At this point, sadly, Dathon dies. It’s a haunting moment in a terrific script, made all the better by Patrick Stewart and guest star Paul Winfield (as Dathon). It amuses me that they have Picard claim to not be a very good storyteller, and then he goes on to make even this Cliff’s Notes version of the Epic of Gilgamesh riveting.
I’ve heard some fans over the years wonder why they never revisited the Tamarians on Trek. I’m not sure, but I do think that as good as the Trek writers were, they weren’t always great science fiction writers, and to really be done well, the concept needed someone on the order of, say, a Vernor Vinge. The idea of a society whose collective memory has become so ingrained as to literally form the basis of its language is a fascinating one, and it would need to be done justice.