“Darmok” is the 102nd episode of the American science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the second episode of the fifth season.
Set in the 24th century, the series follows the adventures of the Starfleet crew of the Federation starship Enterprise-D. In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise is unable to establish meaningful communication with the crew of an alien vessel, which is resolved by the struggle of the ships’ captains to defend each other from a vicious beast. It is often cited as one of the best episodes of both The Next Generation series and the entire family of Star Trek television series.
The alien species introduced in this episode is noted for speaking in metaphors, such as “Temba, his arms wide”, which are indecipherable to the universal translator normally used in the television series to allow communication across different languages. Captain Picard is abducted by these aliens with one other of them on the surface of a planet, and must try to communicate.
The senior crew discuss their latest mission: to make contact with the Tamarian race who have been transmitting signals toward Federation space for weeks. They mention that several prior contacts have occurred, but no meaningful interaction has ever been achieved because the way the Tamarians communicate could not be understood. The Enterprise makes contact with a Tamarian ship in orbit around the planet El-Adrel. Though the universal translator can translate their words, the Tamarians communicate only through allegory – using brief allusions to historical and mythological events to convey thoughts and intentions – which baffles the Enterprise crew because they do not understand this yet, nor do they even know the stories and names to which the Tamarians’ language refers. Likewise, the Tamarians seem equally baffled by and unable to understand Picard’s straightforward use of language.
Frustrated by their failure at communication, the Tamarian captain, Dathon, has himself and Captain Picard transported to the planet’s surface. The Tamarians then create a scattering field in the planetary atmosphere to prevent transport functions from being used on either captain. On the surface, Dathon utters the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and tosses Picard a dagger. Picard is unsure if this is some kind of formal challenge to a duel and so tosses it back to Dathon. As night falls, Picard fails to make a fire and Captain Dathon shares his fire with the phrase “Temba, his arms wide.” The next morning, Dathon comes running and Picard realises that there is also a hostile predator in the area that is stalking them both. Picard finally begins to understand the way the Tamarians communicate when he recites one of the allegories and sees the meaning underneath it: it is a direction on the tactic Dathon wants to use to fight the beast.
The two attempt to fight the beast together, but the Enterprise’s ultimately unsuccessful transporter attempt to rescue Picard mid-battle prevents him from participating at a crucial moment. Dathon is severely wounded.
On the Enterprise, First Officer Riker and the crew struggle to understand the aliens’ language and Riker has Commander Data work with ship’s counsellor Troi in hopes of translating it. Lt. Worf, in the meantime, thinks that the Captain is being tested as a warrior and advocates an aggressive stance, which Riker says he will take as a last option. Riker has Worf take a shuttlecraft to try to retrieve the Captain, which fails when the aliens precisely disable the craft and force it to return to the Enterprise. Chief Engineer La Forge and Worf work on a way to disable the Tamarians’ scattering field to beam up Picard, while Troi and Data work on deciphering the Tamarian language. They deduce that it is entirely based on allegories from Tamarian folklore. They learn that Darmok was a hunter and Tanagra is an island but nothing else. Without the stories behind the allegories, the Tamarian language remains indecipherable.
While tending to Dathon’s wounds, Picard keeps him talking and slowly deduces that Darmok and Jalad were two warriors who met on an island called Tanagra and were forced to cooperate when confronted by a dangerous beast dwelling there, becoming fast friends in the process. Dathon tried to recreate this event between himself and Picard on El-Adrel, hoping that their shared adversity would forge a friendship where words had failed. Picard recounts for Dathon the Epic of Gilgamesh, a human story that parallels the allegory of Darmok and Jalad. Dathon seems to understand and appreciate the story but eventually succumbs to his wounds.
The Enterprise fires on the Tamarian ship, disabling the scattering field, and beams up Picard. The Tamarians return fire, and a battle begins. Picard uses his newfound knowledge of Tamarian allegories to communicate a simple message to the Tamarians, that he understands Dathon’s intentions now, and the plan indeed worked – just like the mythical Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, he and Dathon had become friends and begun a journey of mutual understanding through their shared adversity. He offers Dathon’s knife to the Tamarians, using the same expression Dathon had used to give him fire, out of goodwill and friendship, as well as returning Dathon’s personal journal. The battle ends, as the Tamarians joyously perceive that Picard’s eyes have been opened wide (“his eyes open!”) by understanding. On reading the diary, the Tamarians record the new story as “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” – a new phrase in their language. Picard mourns Dathon, who sacrificed his life to open relations between their two cultures.
Picard later reads the Homeric Hymns in his ready room, explaining to Riker that more familiarity with their own mythology may help them to relate to the Tamarians. Picard notes to Riker that Dathon sacrificed his life in hope of communication and wonders if he would have been willing to do the same.
After Riker leaves the ready room, Picard picks up the knife given to him by Dathon, and looks out of the ready room window into space while he repeats the seemingly ritualistic gestures that he saw Dathon engage in. Picard thus pays silent tribute to his fallen comrade.
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Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Winrich Kolbe.
- Writer(s): Joe Menosky and Phillip LaZebnik.
- Release Date: 30 September 1991.
- Running Time: 45 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.