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Darmok

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WARNING:  This article, not unexpectedly, contains large amounts of spoilers for this week's TNG episode, "Darmok".  Those not wishing to be exposed to said spoilers are advised to skip this article at the present time.

Now *that's* more like it.

Much better.  Much more solid.  Not perfect, mind you, but I'll take "Darmok" over "Redemption II" any day.  Details on why will follow, after this synopsis from your local station:

The Enterprise is in the El'A'Dral system to meet with the Tamarians, a race which seems peaceful, but have been described as "incomprehensible" in past encounters.  Both sides try to converse, but no progress seems to be made; although the words are understandable, their meaning is not.  The Tamarian captain, after a brief and heated discussion with his first officer about "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra", beams off his bridge--and Picard is beamed off the Enterprise at the same time.  Attempts to retrieve him fail, as the Tamarians have set up a transporter-blocking field in the planet's ionosphere.

Worf's first assumption is that this is some sort of challenge ritual, e.g. personal combat.  Picard at first believes this as well, and throws away the knife that Captain Dathon throws to him, refusing to fight.  Dathon replies, frustratedly, "Chaka...when the walls fell."  Riker's first attempts to communicate with the Tamarians fail, and he orders Worf to assemble a team and take a shuttle down to save Picard, hoping the Tamarians won't push things that far.  Picard, meanwhile, is still getting nowhere--Dathon appears friendly, and throws Picard a brand with which to light his own campfire, but communication is still seemingly impossible.

The shuttle tries to go down and is hit by Tamarian phasers--but only with enough force to make them go back.  Riker is puzzled.  Geordi thinks that given enough time, he might be able to punch through a very tight beam and get Picard off, but it'll take at least a day to get ready.  Riker orders him to get on it, and orders Data and Troi to work on establishing a communication of some sort.  

They find very little at first--"Darmok", used as a name of some sort, has 47 different meanings in nearby systems.  After Troi expresses her frustration at the situation, they try again, this time with "Tanagra".  It also has many meanings--but the meanings for a particular planet combine nicely ("Darmok" is a mythical hunter-hero, and "Tanagra" is a mythical island).  Meanwhile, Picard examines Dathon's campsite when he finds Dathon gone, and discovers some sort of captain's log.  But just then, Dathon hurries back, and frantically tries to give Picard a knife again, saying "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra!" repeatedly.  Picard refuses--but then a loud growl is heard from not very far away.  "Darmok, and Jilad..." says Dathon with resignation, "at Tanagra."

Picard then takes the knife, realizing that the problem is not with Dathon.   Since ship's sensors are picking up this creature (whatever it is) moving towards the two captains, Riker hurries Geordi along with the transporter, despite Geordi's warning that it might not work.  Meanwhile, as the creature approaches, Picard makes an intuitive breakthrough, and finally realizes that the Tamarians communicate via _metaphor_, by citing examples from their own culture.  "Sucat, his eyes uncovered!" exclaims Dathon in elation.  However, the creature's attack easily breaks through the defenses of both men, and Dathon is sorely battered.  Picard moves to help--and is promptly seized by a transporter beam.  The beam isn't strong enough to get him, though, and Picard (who screamed out *against* the beam when it came) is returned to the surface, just in time to see the creature vanish, and Dathon fall unconscious.

As the situation worsens in orbit (the interference field has now been strengthened, Data and Troi conclude that although they know *how* the Tamarians communicate, they don't know what the examples mean, and Riker prepares to fire on the Tamarian ship to remove the field), Picard "talks" with a wounded Dathon.  Eventually, he pieces together the puzzle--Dathon intended for the two of them to come down to the planet and fight a common enemy to form a bond between them, just as Darmok and Jilad did against the beast of Tanagra.  Picard, in return, tells Dathon a tale of Gilgamesh and
Enkidu--just before Dathon succumbs to his wounds and dies.

When Riker receives word that Dathon's life signs have vanished, and that the creature has been detected moving towards Picard again, he decides they're out of options, and they open fire.  The field is removed, and Picard is saved just in time.  Both ships trade shots several times, and the Enterprise is close to destruction, but Picard manages to communicate the facts of the situation enough to the Tamarian first officer that both sides leave peacefully; not necessarily as friends, but certainly not as enemies.  

There, that should do--lots shorter than last time, too.  (Phew--Vidiot would have killed me, no doubt about it.  :-) )  Now, on to some commentary.

Now _this_ was an intriguing idea, no doubt about it.  I find the concept of a race which communicates only via imagery and metaphor a fascinating one, and that portion of it was extremely well done and well executed.  (One question which I'm sure people will have is "how did they learn the myths in the first place, and how do the myths get passed on?"  The answer to the former, presumably, is that they didn't always communicate this way, and it would seem to me that the myths could easily be passed along in a series of pictures.)

I'll get the gripes out of the way early this time.  Most of the scenes on board the Enterprise didn't work very well for me.  Primarily, Riker was WAAAAAY too hostile and quick on the trigger this time around.  Now, that isn't necessarily a problem--I was expecting towards the end that Picard would probably speak to Riker about it at the end.  Unfortunately, we're given no indication that this was anything but the best course of action.  I don't agree.  It happened to work, but it was lucky at best.  

That was the biggest problem with the Enterprise scenes.  Other, smaller ones are:

--The technobabble was at a much higher and a much less relevant level than usual, both in the shuttle and in Engineering.  I was something less than impressed.  :-)

--Troi's speech during her scene with Data was overblown, unfortunately as usual.  She didn't get this way during "Loud As a Whisper", after all...

They narrowly missed a couple of other objections, too.  At first, I was really annoyed that Troi and Data managed to figure out as much as they did and as quickly.  It's still slightly annoying, but I think what they did figure out was somewhat understandable--once the commonality came up, they probably checked other words in the recorded exchange as well, and presumably found lots of other mythological connections.  If they'd managed to figure out
the rest and actually gotten through to them, I'd have been annoyed--but as it is, I'll let 'em get away with it.  :-)

You may be wondering why I didn't/don't have similar objections about Picard. Simple--it's twofold.  Firstly, Picard strikes me as someone far more likely to be able to figure it out; he's an archaeologist and a historian, and has shown in the past that he has a fairly decent intuition about things like this.  (Plus, if the last scene is any indication, he's also a hell of a linguist, if he's reading Homer in the original Greek.)  Secondly, and more importantly, Picard had a LOT more direct exposure and conversation, and so had more than just a few sentences to go on.  Context is a very valuable thing, and I'm sure it's what eventually won the day for him.

Now that I've gotten my objections out of the way, let's talk about the _good_ things here...

Just about all of the planetside scenes were truly amazing.  It's incredibly frustrating not to be able to get your point across to someone even when they speak the _same_ language--to be in this situation with such a conceptual barrier facing you must be far more so, and Stewart managed to get that across strongly enough that I was really gritting my teeth and feeling it.  (So was Winfield, actually--I shouldn't slight him.  I think he did a far better job here than in "Star Trek II", to be honest.)  

The plot was tight (I wish Riker'd been a bit less trigger-happy, but that's more a characterization goof than a plot goof), again most especially in the planetside scenes.  Although some of the technobabble didn't thrill me, both of the end results (the shuttle sequence and the failed transport) were very nice indeed, especially the latter.  Talk about your lousy timing...

I'm happy to say that Winrich Kolbe has *finally* turned in a superb directing effort.  He's been steadily improving (of course, from "Galaxy's Child", it's hard not to go up :-) ), but this is the first one that really felt right.  In his last effort, "Identity Crisis", I'd said that although he pulled off the eerie scenes quite handily, the "normal" scenes seemed stiff.  Not so here--the Picard/Dathon scenes were easily the best of the show.  (There's one particular shot which beats it, actually, but I'll get to that later.)

What really fascinated me, though (enough so that I was pausing the VCR repeatedly during my synopsis rewatching to try to figure stuff out), was how much of the Tamarian language and culture the show managed to get across in so short a time.  I must confess that I didn't figure out what "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra" meant much before we were told, but that's mostly because I wasn't hearing it as an "and Jilad", but rather as an "Anjilad", which caused major confusion.  :-)  But the Tamarian language strikes me as a rich and vivid one, and I'm looking forward to many an argument over precisely what various statements mean.  :-) (I think some are a given--"Mirab, with sails unfurled" almost undoubtedly is some sort of "let's get the hell out of here" comment, and "Chaka, when the walls fell" and "Temba, his arms open" are both fairly straightforward.  I'm still puzzling over "The river Temoc, in winter!", though.)

Miscellaneous short bits--

--Looooove that new outfit of Picard's.  I want one of the jackets.  :-)

--Obligatory Donaldson reference:  Okay, who else was reminded of Covenant's aborted summoning to the Land in _The Power That Preserves_ when Picard was caught up in the failed transport?

--Picard says he's not much of a storyteller, and then casts a truly riveting rendition of one of the many Gilgamesh legends.  Modesty *does* have its limits, Jean-Luc--I mean, really.  :-)  (Actually, the biggest thing this did was whet my appetite for Stewart's "A Christmas Carol" reading this December!)

--And about Gilgamesh--I'm a little bit surprised that that particular mythos was chosen.  I doubt most of the audience will recognize it.  (Actually, I'm at something of a loss myself--I know who Gilgamesh was, but I don't know most of that set of legends.)  Not a complaint at all, mind you--just interesting.

--That wonderful shot I referred to at the earlier was at the end, when we see Picard, at the window, grimly saluting Dathon.  That image itself was pretty powerful, but somehow the warp-starfield reflecting on the window, making it look as though the stars are moving through Picard's face and uniform, absolutely blew me away.  Marvelous piece of work.  Kudos to Kolbe and to whomever else was responsible.

--The music was once again by Jay Chattaway the Underused and Underrated, and was superb.  Bits of it reminded me of Courage's original TOS theme (and in all the right places, too), and other bits of it reminded me of the best music out of "The Emissary", which is one of TNG's best bits of music, IMHO.  Nice work.

--Since I'm sure someone will ask "why didn't the translator work!", I'll answer it.  This wasn't a translation problem--it was a conceptual, comprehension problem.  All the translators in the world won't help you if you aren't thinking in even marginally similar ways.  

And now, a special bonus:  the last sequence of dialogue between Picard and the Tamarian first officer.  I figure tons of people will ask (and it's nice to see the statements up for analysis later), and besides, I think the scene was really nice.  :-)  For those of you reading this without having seen the show yet, I'll apologize in advance--the voices are a powerful part of this.   Anyway:

[the Tamarians are hailed]

"Sinda--His face black, his eyes red!"

"Temoc!  The river Temoc--in winter!"

[inquisitive] "Darmok?"

[decisive] "And Jilad.  At Tanagra.  Darmok, and Jilad--on the ocean."

[pleased]  "Soca, his eyes open!"

"The beast of Tanagra.  Uzani, his army.  Chaka, when the walls fell."

[the Tamarians bow in reverence to Dathon.  Picard holds Dathon's log in his hand--they beam it over.]  "Picard, and Dathon--at El'A'Dral.  [to his crew] Mirab, with sails unfurled."

[Picard holds up the knife, offering it] "Temba, his arms open."

"Temba...at rest."  [they depart]

Marvelous, marvelous scene.  

Aaaaaanyway, I think I've babbled on long enough.  It's a pity the shipboard scenes weren't a bit better, but in the grand scheme of things they didn't hurt much.  The show is _extremely_ worth seeing, just for the Picard/Dathon scenes if nothing else.  This year, as last year, a slightly muddled (or more than slightly, in this case) season opener was followed up by a complete change of pace, and a very worthy one.

Anyhoo, the numbers:

Plot:  9.  The shipboard problems were more of a characterization problem than a plot problem, so just down a point.
Plot Handling:  10.  The cuts between the shipboard and the planetside part of the plot were done well, and Kolbe finally figured out how to direct well.
Characterization:  7.  Points off for Riker (2) and Troi (1).  Everyone else was either stellar or unimportant.  :-)

TOTAL:  9.5, after rounding up for the music.  Much, MUCH better.

NEXT WEEK:

Cardassians, sabotage, terrorism and war.  Oooh, great fun.  :-)

Temba, at rest.

Tim Lynch (Cornell's first Astronomy B.A.; one of many Caltech grad students)
BITNET:  tlynch@citjuliet
INTERNET:  tly...@juliet.caltech.edu
UUCP:  ...!ucbvax!tlynch%juliet.caltech....@hamlet.caltech.edu
"Sucat, his eyes uncovered!"
                        --"Darmok"
--
Copyright 1991, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...

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