30 October 2016


Episode: s5, ep 2

I don't normally enjoy scrolling through lots of fan art and memes to find episode images, this episode is the exception.

What Happens
The Federation have received messages from an enigmatic race called the Tamarians. Previous attempts at communication have been incomprehensible and the recent messages don't have clear content. The Tamarians are letting the Federation know they're there, but no one is sure why, so the Enterprise goes to investigate. They hail the Tamarian ship, but the Tamarians speak in a series of names and short phrases, neither Data nor the ship's translators can understand the meaning. Picard tries to suggest diplomatic relations, but this doesn't go anywhere. The Tamarian captain discusses Darmok at Tanagra with his crew, who seem shocked by his words. He does a symbolic-looking gesture then he and Picard are beamed to the planet's surface and the alien ship creates a barrier that blocks transporters and communications.
Riker tries to get Picard back, but the communication issues with the Tamarians remain. Worf suggests an aggressive approach, Riker wants to avoid that. Picard and the alien captain are monitored by sensors from the Enterprise. The senior staff realise the Tamarians talk entirely in references, but without the context they can't get at the meaning. Data and Troi look at what the Tamarian captain said before he and Picard went to the planet, they figure out that Darmok is a semi-mythical hunter and Tanagra is an island continent. Geordi tries to get through the barrier using tech, but this doesn't work. Worf tries to go down to the planet in a shuttle, but the Tamarians won't let him, although they're careful not to do lasting damage.
On the planet Picard and the Tamarian captain try to communicate, Picard is frustrated because he doesn't know why they're there. He keeps trying to figure out the other captain's phrases, but offers no teaching about his own words. At night the Tamarian offers Picard some of his fire when the Star Fleet captain can't get his own going. In the morning the Tamarian is gone, but Picard finds what he thinks is a journal, though he can't understand the writing. The Tamarian races over and Picard at first thinks he's angry, but a distant roar reveals that the danger is elsewhere. The two captains face down a beastie that phases in and out of sight. As the beastie attacks Picard is nearly beamed away, but the Enterprise can't get a lock on him and when he's returned to the planet the Tamarian is badly injured.
Round a campfire the Tamarian tells Picard the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, two men who came separately across the sea, meet during a hunt and become friends while fighting together. Picard realises that his companion has tried recreating this story between the two of them in order to forge a bond, perhaps just between them or between their people. Picard tells his friend the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, then the Tamarian dies, mirroring the fate of Enkidu.* Picard lays his friend to rest and says he understands his sacrifice. He hears the creature's roar. When the Enterprise sees that the other captain has died Riker is determined to retrieve Picard and they attack the Tamarian ship to destroy the barrier. The ships exchange fire, the barrier is destroyed and Picard beamed away just as the beastie is about to attack. The Enterprise is damaged so they can't go to warp. Picard hails the Tamarian ship and uses the phrases he picked up to explain what happened to their captain, then presents his friend's journal, which is beamed away. The hostilities stop and Picard isn't sure if they've made friends, but at least they aren't enemies.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard is keen to communicate with patience and imagination and is sure the Tamarians aren't truly incomprehensible. He doesn't demonstrate this at all when actually confronted with them. Although neither group have any idea what the other is saying Picard initially suggests a mutual non-aggression pact, trade agreement or cultural exchange. These are not the best concepts to begin with when facing communication and language issues, maybe just start with a friendly greeting? Despite his earlier confidence he doesn't seem comfortable with a situation he can't talk his way out of. The Tamarian captain's solution to the issue is pretty drastic, kidnapping his counterpart and putting them both in dangerous situation to forge a bond. Even if this is the kind of thing that is more acceptable in their culture the Tamarian deputy is pretty shocked by the plan. It's just lucky Picard is wearing a warmer version of his usual uniform, although he couldn't have known in advance that he'd end up spending the night outside.
On the planet Picard first assumes that when he is handed a dagger it is so the two of them can fight, and he throws it back at his companion. It is clear from the other Captain's body language that he is disappointed, but also determined to see his plan through. Each keeps trying to communicate, and the Tamarian initially extends a hand of friendship, but of course he knows why they're there. I'm surprised more isn't made of body language and gesture as other methods of communication. Both are humanoid, space-faring people, so one would think certain similarities could be found, but I suppose that isn't the focus of the episode. Once the danger of the teleporting beastie (if it is teleporting, I'm not really sure and I don't think it matters) is plain the two work in concert through necessity. Picard does not stop talking, even when they're fighting the beastie. He's dismayed when he's nearly beamed away and his friend is injured. Picard grasps the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tenegra and how that relates to their situation; a purposeful recreation of a story. He picks up the meaning, if not the context of many other Tamarian phrases. There's no sign that Picard tries to impart any of his language to his companion, but again the focus is Picard learning, not teaching. 
Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to his injured friend, and although he knows that he can't understand the bulk of the words he tells a simplified version. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known work of human fiction, although Picard only tells one section of it and misses out the bits with the harlot and the goddess.** It has parallels with the Darmok story, two men who come together and participate in a hunt then become friends. It is natural therefore that events should mirror the story with one of the newly-made friends dying. Picard determines that his friend's death shouldn't be in vain, though there's no indication of what the follow-through is, other than Picard using his language skills to prevent hostilities in the short term.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
While Picard is away Riker demonstrates the leadership skills that people keep offering him promotions for. He does all the stuff Picard would probably do. he tries talking to the Tamarians, but they mostly ignore him and he doesn't have Picard's calm. He calls a staff meeting to discuss the situation, including how to communicate with the Tamarians and how to destroy or get around the barrier. The Tamarians make it clear that they won't allow anyone else to go down to the planet, although they too are careful not to escalate the situation. It is only as they realise that Picard and the other Captain are in real danger that Riker becomes more threatening towards the other ship. He doesn't understand their apparent indifference to their Captain's fate, not realising that the Tamarians are in fact displaying loyalty to their Captain's wishes. Once the Tamarian captain dies Riker is willing to attack the other ship to save Picard, but like his counterpart he only uses the force necessary to achieve his aim of destroying the barrier and getting Picard back.

Klingon Warrior
Typically Worf is wary about not knowing motive for the messages, says they could be threatening the Federation border, the others ignore his concerns. After Picard is taken Worf wants to attack the Tamarian ship, but Riker holds him back to find a peaceable solution. Worf is sent to the planet in a shuttle to retrieve Picard, but the barrier causes communication problems and as he gets close the Tamarians fire on the shuttle, just enough to damage it without injury. It is clear the Tamarians still on the ship are being careful and deliberate.

Planet of... Pop Culture References
An entire method of communicating through reference to and imagery from shared stories. It's an interesting thing to explore and means that the little-mentioned -but presumably oft-used- universal translators in Trek only work to an extent. Given how much references are used to communicate in online spaces this concept feels pretty forward-looking. I really like the focus on narrative, history and myth as a method of communication and by creating even the little cultural background we get here it gives the Tamarians more depth than most of the random species that turn up for an episode. Also I'm totally here for Classical and ancient references, so the brief tale from the Epic of Gilgamesh was a lovely surprise.
ETA: So looking through images for this ep I now understand a lot more memes. Also the meta-ness of all this is a thing of beauty.

Not from this ep, but made me giggle
Staff Meetings: 3
1. Picard and senior crew discuss the Tamarian situation and the history of their ambiguous and confusing contact. Worf is wary (natch) and Troi says all previous encounters suggest peaceful intentions so they have to start from there. Picard is (misguidedly) confident about communicating.
2. Riker runs a staff meeting about getting Picard back. Geordi thinks he can help but it'll take a day to work. Worf isn't concerned about Picard's safety as he's convinced of the captain's skills as a warrior, but he does think they should attack to end the stalemate. Troi says they don't know whether it's a challenge and Data says further study could help. Riker wants to leave violence as a last resort, and tells Troi and Data to study.
3. After failing to beam Picard back and realising the Tamarian captain is injured Riker says they have to take out the barrier. Geordi and Worf figure out a way to do it fast using the ship's weapons, Riker ends them to sort that out. Troi and Data report that their research revealed the Tamarians abstract unusually and communciate entirely in imagery based on narrative. They've found definitions for Darmok and Tanagra, bit without knowing the stories behind the words they can't understand the meaning of what is being said. So all that research was a dead end really.

Death by Space Misadventure
Captain Dathon (whose name is said in dialogue only once at the very end and I had to check a transcript and Memory Alpha to be sure that's what it was), who gave his life to create a bond with an incomprehensible alien. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Shaka when the walls fell.

The End
Riker brings Picard a damage report and notices that the captain is reading Greek. Picrad says he's reading the Homeric Hymns, believing that a greater understanding of the root narratives of their own culture may help in future interactions with the Tamarians. Picard wistfully points out that his friend's commitment to communication between them meant more than his life. Picard stands sombrely by his tall window, framed from outside the ship.

* No spoiler warning seeing as how the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known narrative in human history. An epic poem from Sumerian (the oldest known language) and Akkadian, it was told in ancient Mesopotamia (Middle East) back in the early days of human civilisation. Gilgamesh's adventures don't end with Enkidu's death though and the story is worth looking up if you're interested in that kind of thing.

** I'm always amused that some translations of Gilgamesh use the term harlot, presumably because the translations were done by respectable, scholarly men in the 1950s. There's another Mesopotamian myth with a male character in a similar role and he is at times referred to as a play-boy, because there's no good term for a male harlot.


  1. Inanna's stories -- about as old as Gilgamesh's -- are even more fascinating but overlooked because female and not warrior, though similar to Persephone/Demeter.

    1. Oh yeah, Gilgamesh does overshadow Inanna/Ishtar, but I prefer the Descent story myself. I wrote a short story based on the Descent of Inanna and the syncretism of other/later goddesses with similar stories (and how the male figures became more prominent). Not sure how well it worked as a story. I think that's part of why I liked Owl Stretching so much, I read it when my head was in that space.