Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
Twenty-five years ago one of the finest episodes of television aired on your local channel carrying syndicated programming. Arguably the best episode in the history of the Star Trek franchise, frequently found atop “best of Star Trek” lists, and among the best of all science fiction stories, it was Darmok, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode featuring guest star Paul Winfield as the noble Tamarian Captain Dathon. Darmok first aired September 30, 1991, the first standalone episode of the excellent fifth season, which featured memorable episodes including Ensign Ro, Unification, Cause and Effect, The Perfect Mate, I, Borg, The Next Phase, and another highly rated standalone episode that bookended the season, The Inner Light. Written by Joe Menosky and Philip LaZebnik, and directed by Winrich Kolbe, Darmok broke new ground for Star Trek first and foremost by removing the universal translator from the equation and allowing one of the 20th (and 21st) century’s key challenges–communication between cultures–to be the focus of an episode. Like the transporter beam and the holodeck, the translator was a story device–a crutch of sorts–that allowed writers to skip beyond basic problems and move along to more complex conflicts. Darmok took Star Trek back to the basics.
The Federation and the Tamarians–also called the “Children of Tama”–historically failed to break the language barrier, and therefore never could open up diplomatic relations, until 2368. The Tamarians were an intelligent and strong alien race–their ship easily overpowered the Enterprise-D. Piglike in appearance thanks to the make-up work of Michael Westmore, they wore warrior clothing (designed by Robert Blackman) that was reptilian in design, with a vest of multi-colored grommets, and a bandolier of leather, copper, and brass that supported a sheath with a dagger that was both practical and ceremonial. The vest featured totems, crystals wrapped in shaved metal, used for personal spiritual ceremonies. The captain kept a log book at his belt, chronicling his journey in the strange written language of the Tamarian people.
Shaka. When the walls fell.
The Tamarians reached out to the Federation first, resulting in Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) confronting Dathon via bridge-to-bridge visual communication in orbit of the planet El-Adrel IV. Frustrated by the continued dissonance, Dathon beamed himself, and Picard, to the surface of the planet. Dathon’s goal: To use the metaphor of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”–a Tamarian story where two warriors joined together by facing a common foe–to bring himself and Picard–and thereby both cultures–together, one way or another. What took Picard and the viewing audience the course of the episode to learn, that one could begin to understand the Tamarians once you realized they communicated in metaphors, came too late for Dathon. The enemy of the metaphor–the planet’s beast in the reality they faced on the surface of El-Adrel IV–attacked both him and Picard, but not before Picard understood.
Sokath. His eyes uncovered!
As the noble warrior passed on, Picard recounted a similar story from Earth’s ancient history, the epic story of Gilgamesh. Dathon’s sacrifice was communicated to the Tamarian second-in-command, explained effectively by Picard. As a token, the Tamarian had Picard keep Dathon’s dagger.
Dathon and Picard at El-Adrel.
A simple plot? Maybe. But the brilliance was in the storytelling and acting. Paul Winfield, already familiar to Star Trek fans as a Starfleet captain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, delivered an emotional performance, conveying these seemingly nonsensical lines of dialogue intensely and believably. His passion, his determination, his frustration with Picard, his boisterous laugh! Picard, sporting a new casual shirt and captain’s jacket made for the episode, never looked more heroic (and confounded!). Back at the ship Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) captains the Enterprise-D and faces off against Dathon’s own equally determined “Number One” with little success. Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) concoct a plan to rescue Picard. An unusual pairing of Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) go off on their own to break the language barrier on a parallel track to that of the captains down on the planet. And the crew gets a new colleague with the first appearance of Ashley Judd as Ensign Robin Lefler.
Many an adventure back on Earth was begun by way of the episode Darmok. A Facebook post today about the episode elicited nearly 8,500 shares and more than 1,850 comments. Teachers recounted showing the episode to students in classes ranging from language studies to social studies to Native American studies. A mother discussed the importance of the episode to her in light of her autistic son who could speak only in metaphor. A daughter recalled the episode helped her communicate with her father dying from Alzheimer’s disease. Others echoed the message of self-sacrifice and the late Paul Winfield’s acting prowess. The preview of the episode alone inspired Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies to pen the 2008 episode “Midnight.” Children have been named after the noble Dathon. Many claimed it as Star Trek’s best episode. And most recited one of the many memorable lines from the episode. Others recounted where they were when the first watched the episode–on a honeymoon or the subject of a first date. One commenter summed-up the episode best: It was the best episode because it was the most “Star Trek” episode of Star Trek.
Twenty-five years have passed since the episode first ran, and you can watch Darmok at your convenience now, streaming for subscribers of Netflix.