By ARSullivan on April 17, 2013
So, don't hold me to this because I might change my mind when "Tapestry" rolls around but I think that "Darmok" is my favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
If you're unfamiliar with this episode, basically, the Enterprise is scheduled to meet with a group of aliens called the Tamarians. No one's ever been able to successfully cross the language barrier with them but Captain Picard is feeling smugly sure of his ability to communicate. He even makes a smug face:
When they finally hail the alien vessel, our crew finds them completely incomprehensible. They witness an argument between the captain and first officer of the Tamarian ship and then Picard is suddenly beamed down to the planet where he comes face to face with the Tamarian captain, Dathon. The Tamarian attempts to communicate and, though we can understand some of the words, we (and Picard) find his language inscrutable. Dathon continually gestures toward Picard, two knives in hand, saying, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra." But it's of no use, they are too different.
Finally, after they're attacked and must work together, the secret to the Tamarian language system begins to dawn on Picard. These aliens speak in metaphor. They use reference as language. Stories make up their vocabulary. When Dathon is saying, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," he's referencing a part of Tamarian mythos that is so ingrained in their culture it has become part of their linguistic system. He means, "Two people, strangers alone, by working together, will become united." Essentially he's saying, "Cooperation."
When I was a kid, this episode enchanted me. I've seen it several times throughout my life only to love it even more after every viewing. I think the reason for that is that there are so many excellent ideas at play here. The idea of two peoples, with seemingly nothing in common, working together to overcome adversity is one. The idea that, if you give of yourself openly, you can be met with still more goodness is another. And, paramount to me, is the idea that storytelling is not only important to culture but necessary.
The ability to cite history or stories, myths and legends, and to be entertained by them and learn from them is uniquely human (at least on this planet) as is our ability to pass these stories on. So much of human history, from proto-humans painting the facsimile of hunts on cave walls, to the epic poems that weren't even written down until long after the fact, to the invention of the novel and, more recently, television and movies, we long to tell our stories. We want to make our mark, ensuring that there is a record of our existence and someday, if we're all gone, we want whoever else comes along to know that we were here. We existed and, not only that, here's how we lived, our mistakes, our successes, our ability to hate and to meet that hate with love, and our continual hope for a happy ending.
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