"Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra."
The first time I watched this episode, it was because I was writing an article on ground-breaking episodes of The Next Generation, and had crowd-sourced suggestions from my friends. This being back in the days before the whole series was on Netflix, there were still a fair few episodes I hadn't seen, and this was one of them. As soon as I watched it, I could understand why so many people had recommended it, and why it was such a special episode.
I've blogged elsewhere about the episode's use of translation and language, and its references to the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the time, I picked holes a little bit in wondering how a language that functions entirely in metaphor could have developed in the first place — but thinking about it now, I suppose you could argue that it's a late stage of a language that was once more similar to our own. Several people pointed out that the Tamarian language is rather like the way fans sometimes speak to each other, communicating in mutually understood quotations that carry a much deeper meaning than the surface level of the words, and can transmit complex concepts very briefly.
The more I think about it, the more this seems to make sense, and I wonder if that's why the episode strikes such a chord with so many people. Certainly I've felt sorry for my non-British other half sometimes, when my friends and I drift into a conversation built entirely of Red Dwarf quotes, and I must have offered comfort, reassurance or advice in the form of movie and TV quotes many times. Indeed, reactions to this episode itself rather prove its point — any time I post 'Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra" on my Facebook wall, multiple replies of "Shaka, when the walls fell" follow and everyone who replies knows exactly what we mean (everyone else is probably a bit confused...).
Of course, the episode wouldn't have that power without a great story and brilliant performances fuelling those words. Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield are both on top form, captivating and utterly sympathetic (even if Picard is a bit slow to catch on, and Dathon's plan is a bit drastic — it's a shame his culture doesn't have holodecks, which would have been a much safer way of achieving the same ends, though might not have got the sense of sacrifice in the story across quite so well).
Most importantly, the plot of the episode encapsulates exactly what Star Trek is all about — opening up our minds to try to understand and get to know other cultures, rather than closing ourselves off to anything not expressed in exactly the way we expect, or not looking exactly the way we expect it to. It's an important message, and delivered with passion, energy and intelligence.
Bits and pieces
- Paul Winfield had previously appeared in One Of The Greatest Films Of All Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Captain Terrell (who also, spoiler alert, sacrificed himself for a Captain of the Enterprise).
"Shaka, when the walls fell."
An absolute classic, I love it. Five out of five elaborate metaphors (and not just because Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh got mentioned!)
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.