Back in 1991, season five of Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us weekly choice cuts of science-fiction filet mignon. “The Inner Light,” “I, Borg,” “Cause and Effect” “The Outcast” and “Unification” all sit atop the pantheon of great Trek episodes. Arguably the most-cherished episode of that golden season is one that regularly ranks high on the list of all-time great Star Trek hours; “Darmok.”
The second episode of the fifth season -- which premiered 27 years ago today, with today coincidentally being International Translation Day -- Picard’s captain's log entry sets the scene.
"Captain's log, Stardate 45047.2. The Enterprise is en route to the uninhabited El-Adrel system. Its location is near the territory occupied by an enigmatic race known as The Children of Tama."
The Enterprise arrives at the world of El-Adrel, holding opposite a waiting Tamarian vessel. While the universal translator could translate individual words, the intent and meaning of the Tamarian words evades them. Speaking in allegory and without understanding the stories of which they speak, communication is virtually impossible. Frustrated at their inability to communicate, the Tamarian captain, Dathon, has himself and Picard beamed down to the surface of El-Adrel IV while a scattering field is raised to make transport off-planet impossible. Dathon utters the phrase "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and throws Picard a dagger. Picard believes the alien is challenging him to a fight, so refuses the blade, but as night falls and Picard is unable to start a camp fire, Dathon offers him fire, saying "Temba, his arms wide." The following day, they are stalked by a fierce predator, and using the language of metaphor, Dathon tries to formulate tactics with Picard to fight the creature. But as they battle the beast, Picard is caught in a transporter beam from the Enterprise. The crew are attempting to beam him off planet, leaving Dathon to fight the creature alone. Picard is agonizingly stuck in the transporter beam while Dathon is severely injured.
Talks with the Tamarians fails, as does a shuttle mission to retrieve the captain, but the Enterprise crew finally realize what Picard already has, that the Tamarians communicate through example, based largely on allegories from their own folklore. Without a common frame of reference, the language remains unbreachable.
On the planet, Picard tends to Dathon’s wounds and the two begin to narrow the language gap between them. Picard deciphers the meaning of the allegories and their intent, telling Dathon the epic tale of Gilgamesh before the Tamarian captain succumbs to his injuries. Meanwhile, the Enterprise fires on the larger Tamarian vessel, scattering the displacement field and beaming up Picard.
Back on the bridge, and to the surprise of his crew, Picard uses those metaphors to communicate with the Tamarian commander, and as he sends Dathon’s personal journal back to his people they add a new phrase to their language - "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel."
The episode ends as Picard and Riker discuss the mission, and how a stronger link to their own mythology would help break the wall of language between them and the Tamarians. As Riker departs, Picard lifts the blade and repeats the ritualistic gesture he had seen Dathon do, paying silent tribute to his fallen comrade.
Championed by the late Michael Piller, the episode took two years to come to the screen. Developed from a story outline by Philip LaZebnik, Piller passed the episode to Joe Menosky to develop. Menosky focused primarily on two leaders learning to communicate as well as the story of Gilgamesh, one of our planet’s oldest known literary pieces.
Filmed over 13 days of studio and location shooting in July and August of 1991, “Darmok” is littered with firsts. It was the first time we saw the Type 6 shuttlecraft and also marked the debut of Captain Picard’s new jacket (believe me, it was a BIG deal at the time). The ensemble was comprised of a a grey undershirt reminiscent of the First Contact colors that would arrive five years later and a red leather jacket. It also introduced us to Ensign Robin Lefler, as played by Ashley Judd, who would more prominently reappear in the fifth season’s sixth episode, “The Game,” a month later.
Unbelievably – to those of us who watched it on its initial run back in 1991 – this episode is now 27 years old, but the intervening years of technical evolution and advances in visual effects haven’t diminished the power of the episode one jot. As compelling and engrossing as it ever was, “Darmok” is not only beautifully directed by the late Winrich Kolbe, but is anchored by powerhouse performances from Sir Patrick Stewart and the late Paul Winfield.
Previously best known in Trek circles for his performance as the tragic Captain Clark Terrell in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, his masterful turn as Captain Dathon in “Darmok” arguably supersedes that.
Every iteration of Star Trek has brought us tales of adventure, exploration, discovery and understanding. Many remain long in the memory, but few are as affecting and distinct as “Darmok,” and for that we salute this most unique of episodes.
"Temba, at rest."