In which Picard gets smug, kidnapped, and all of the feels.
We are cruising along to El-Adrel, which is near where a species called the Children of Tama live. Also, picard is wearing a jacket over a grey uniform undershirt. They thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did. What, is the ship chilly? If he takes that off, is he going to remember to put his communicator back on?
The Children of Tama (or Tamarians) have met the Federation a few times, and hostilities have not opened, but communication has not yet been possible, despite the existence of a universal translator. Picard is kind of scoffy at the idea of not being able to communicate, or perhaps ‘smug and dismissive’ might be more accurate. However, the jump cut to the viewscreen discussions are, of course, hilarious. The Tamarians, you see, appear to speak entirely in proper nouns in a specific context. Troi only senses peaceful intentions, and the Tamarian captain is speaking loudly and slowly at Picard. When he asks for a treaty, the Tamarians look at him like he’s got three heads and then start laughing because he’s spouting nonsense. Their captain tells them “The river Temarc in winter!” which appears to mean “shut your faceholes,” and tries to continue negotiations.
The captain and his first officer discuss strategies for communications, and the captain proposes one which the first officer clearly doesn’t like. The strategy is “Darmok and Gelad at Tenagra,” and then they kidnap Picard and beam and their own captain down to the surface, and shield the planet from transport thereafter.
Of note: the Tamarian captain’s medals are rough-cut crystals set into bundles of gold sticks. They are clearly the product of technological manufacturing, yet are designed to look primitive and haphazard. That, and the fact that all of their officers wear daggers, provide an interesting first impression of these guys.
Dathon offers Picard one of the daggers, and Picard throws it back, refusing to take part in ritual combat. Riker tries to talk things over with the Tamarian first officer, gets nowhere, and decides to send a shuttle. Picard can’t get a fire going, and the Tamarian captain Dathon starts casting his medals like runes, and places them around the fire. He also manages to communicate a simple concept to Picard, which is a start.
As Worf and Nameless Security Ensign #8 descend in the shuttle, the Tamarian ship very precisely lasers one of the shuttle nacelles so that it can’t complete a round trip but such that the crew are in no danger. Hostile actions without hostile intentions. Worf is eager to end the stalemate even if it means starting a shooting war, but Riker has been studying under Picard long enough to know that this is a last resort.
Morning comes to El-Adrel, and with the Tamarian captain gone, Picard leafs through his stuff. Data and Troi go over the conference logs to see if they can figure out what the heck is going on. Troi does a database search for ‘Darmok’ and finds 47 references, because she doesn’t think to cross-reference it for the other word in that sentence. That’s why she doesn’t get a blue uniform in this episode. Data searches for Tanagra, Troi recognizes a name and then does the cross-reference to find that Darmok is the name of a mytho-historical hunter on a mytho-historical island.
On the planet, Picard keeps refusing the dagger until he hears the growl of a terrifying monster and the Tamarian captain repeats the phrase for ‘take this thing because it will help you not die.’ The growling thing has an EM scattering field around it that the Enterprise can detect approaching the captain, so they rush their transporter repairs via judicious use of technobabble.
Dathon tries to explain the concept of a flanking maneuver to Picard using this historical example language, and Picard finally understands their communication method. Just in time for the monster to attack, start beating the tar out of them, and Picard gets caught in the transporter beam for long seconds while the monster eviscerates Dathon.
Okay, so here’s the inevitable rant. The language is poetic and evocative if you know the context. Leonaidas at Thermopolae would denote a defiant stand. Romeo and Juliet at Verona would indicate a tragic love story. Abramoff at Wall street… well, you get the picture. But it kind of relies you knowing the context beforehand. Oppenheimer at Alamogordo might mean something, but how am I going to tell you something funny my buddy Steve did the other day? Not to mention how am I going to write up the specs for this nifty particle-scattering field that will prevent the Federation from beaming their captain back to their ship? I wish I could offer that this is their diplomatic language and their real language is more syntactical and abstract, but they’re too confused when our crew speak to them, even aided by the universal translators.
Riker is now ready to entertain shooting options and orders the preparations to begin. He’s still hoping for a peaceful solution. Troi explains everything above – basically, they understand the grammar but not the vocabulary. Picard spends five minutes learning the context for one phrase that he’s living – two strangers arriving at a place separately struggling against a common obstacle. As Dathon lies by the fire slowly dying, Picard translates the Epic of Gilgamesh for him.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the desert: Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. Picard at El-Adrel.
With Dathon dead, Picard is about to get killed by the monster. If Picard gets back he can explain how the Tamarians communicate. If not, Riker will probably let Worf destroy the Tamarian ship. As it is, they open fire and beam Picard up just in time, and the Tamarian ship disables the engines in return. Incidentally, the Tamarian ship vastly overpowers the Enterprise. Like, hilariously so.
Picard makes it to the bridge in time and explains that he understands what was going on, but that Dathon didn’t survive. Dathon’s notebook apparently contains enough of an account that Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel will make it into the cultural context somehow. Picard starts writing up recommendations for the next contact, including that the ambassador ought to read a lot more mythology.
Despite the problems with the Tamarian language in general, this episode is one of the more beautiful ones in the Star Trek canon, and you should make time for it.