STTNG – Darmok (Review)

If Redemption was much better than it had any right being then Darmok is surely much worse. This is a touching episode with a good and important theme broght alive by the fine performances of two consumate professionals (Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield), and in spite of all that it’s horrible because its central premise just doesn’t work. If I ever draw up a list of litmus test Next Generation episodes (the ones you only like if you’re born with the TNG gene and are actively drinking the kool-aid on a regular basis), this one will feature prominently

The premise is dead simple: the Federation is eager to make friends with a mysterious race called the Tamarians – mysterious because all attempts at communication with them have failed. Now we’re going to have another go. Upon encountering them, it’s clear that the problem isn’t the Universal Translator, since we can understand all the individual words. The problem – which is immediately obvious to the audience but the crew has to pretend to be stumped in the interest of having an episode – is that the Tamarians only ever speak in allusions. So, the words make sense, but the references don’t. The Tamarians are so eager to communicate, and so frustrated at their inability to do so, that they transport Captain Picard down to the planet’s surface (there’s always a planet) along with their own captain and then blanket it with a force shield to prevent anyone beaming him back off again. Naturally the Enterprise mounts a couple of rescue attempts, but they all fail because the Tamarians block them. On the planet there’s one of those semi-visible, extremely hostile creatures (comments in some reviews compared it to the Shrike from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels, which works; personally it reminded me of the moster from the id from Forbidden Planet). Apparently the idea is that by forcing Picard to face a mutual threat with him will also force him to learn how to communicate.

The setup is extremely stupid. Tenser said the Tensor has done an excellent job cataloguing the many ways this supposed communication barrier is implausible that I won’t try to add to. No one thinks of all of these on their first watch through, probably, but it hardly matters. You don’t need to think deeply enough about this one to counter all the vain attempts its supporters make to save it. It’s maddening that they even try. The root problem – that there simply can’t be a language that has a rule commanding people to only ever speak in allusions, nor if there were could such a rule be internalized to the degree necessary to make it "impossible" for the Tamarians to understand the Federation’s more literal speech – is simply unavoidable.

And yet, the fans do try. Read through the comments section on pretty much any well-trafficked review of it and you’ll find a dizzying array of excuses. The two that I find most frustrating: (1) "human language has lots of metaphors in it too, ya know" and (2) "you buy transporters, why can’t you buy this?"

The first one is just ridiculous. Doing a lot of something and doing only that thing are qualitatively different. Greg Louganis does a lot of swimming, but that doesn’t make him a fish! There’s no denying that metaphor is central to Language. Just as there’s no denying that language isn’t all and only metaphor. Just as there’s no denying that in order to understand a metaphor (or an allusion) you have to first be able to parse the literal meaning of a phrase. Indeed, the whole point of metaphor is that it’s in a sense a play on the literal substrate of language, a semi-conscious departure frmo that mode. There’s a real sense in which metaphors (and allusions) don’t even work without a more functional substrate to depart from. Yes, human languages – all of them as far as I know – make hefty use of metaphor and allusion. Nothing about noting that undeniable fact gets us anywhere close to establishing the plausibility of a language that’s only metaphor! Any more than noting that English has prepositions makes it remotely plausible that there could be a language made up exclusively of prepositions.
The second one is frustrating – because it makes the wrong half of half a point. Of course it’s correct to say that we can’t even begin to engage with fantasy literature without a willingness to suspend our disbelief. No, transporters aren’t remotely plausible, and we don’t really believe in them, but we accept them for the sake of a good story. We even accept their technical failures as the basis of a good story – as in episodes like Tuvix or The Enemy Within. What the people who make this point are missing is that even in episodes like Tuvix or The Enemy Within, the transporter failure is not the point. It doesn’t actually matter how Tuvix came to be. If we did a survey and found that the idea of a transporter failure merging two people into a brand new person was too much to swallow, we could just as easily attribute it to a phase shift, or a rogue Q, or whatever other mechanism. The point of the episode was just to create the moral conundrum; we really don’t care how we got there. Defenders of Darmok will claim that that’s all that’s going on here too – they just want to film an episode about the importance of communication and the difficulty of achieving it between alien species, and our nitpicking about the details of the barrier are getting in the way. That’s a good argument to the extent that the episode isn’t interested in the details of the barrier. Unfortunately for them, this particular episode made the details of the barrier its central focus. If you’re going to go and do that, it’s no longer nitpicking, folks. It would be as if Tuvix had spent most of its dialogue not on the philosophical problem of Tuvix’ right to exist and the ethics of killing him to bring back Tuvok and Neelix, but on the details of how the two halves had merged and which aspects of transporter technology had led to what kind of merging. Such a story would be ridiculous … as Darmok is ridiculous. And in fact it’s even worse than that, because at least if Tuvix had been primarily about transporter design we would still respect the writers’ right to set up (almost) whatever arbitary rules about how transporters function they wanted, since a transporter is a thing that doesn’t actually exist. But language is a thing that not only exists, but forms a critically important part of our lives. We’re familiar with it, perhaps not always in the sense of knowing how it works, but certainly in knowing how it doesn’t work. The langauge the Tamarians speak simply doesn’t work. Not only that, but we know from experience here in the real world that Picard has less trouble breaking the communication barrier with the Tamarians than we do with foreigners right here on our own planet. Picard’s counterparty – the Tamarian captain – uses not only comprehensible gestures (itself largely – I won’t say completely – implausible for a supposedly alien species), but comprehensible words. If I were trapped on an island fighting a Shrike with a Zulu speaker, I’d only have the gestures to work with, and probably not even that to the same degree that Picard implausibly does here. So nope, sorry, but this one’s a massive cheat.

Yes, it’s a well-acted cheat, and with good music and good sets and even interesting effects for the Shrike-like creature. And there’s that kind of great scene where Patrick Stewart tells us the Gilgamesh story. But none of that helps if the main story is stupid, and it’s stupid. Defending this by noting what a great job Paul Winfield did in the role is like saying that you could refilm an episode of Knight Rider with a movie budget and the Royal Shakespeare Company and spin it into gold. You can’t.

Overall Rating D

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