Written by Joe Menosky and Philip Lazebnik
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
One thing that has been consistent through all of the Star Trek series is communication. There were never any problems communicating with a race, even in “first contact” situations, due to a marvelous invention known as the universal translator.
However, Philip Lazebnik and Joe Menosky, the writers of Darmok, chose to challenge the concept that communication among alien races comes almost naturally in the 24th century.
The Enterprise meets with a race known as The Children of Tama. There have been prior meetings between the Federation and the Tamarians, but they haven’t gotten anywhere diplomatically because the Federation considers them unintelligible.
The Tamarians speak in words that are familiar, thanks to the universal translator, but that don’t make sense. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the Tamarian Captain, Dathon (portrayed by Paul Winfield), attempt communication several times, to no avail.
Suddenly, Picard disappears from the Enterprise‘s bridge. He finds himself on the uninhabited planet below, El-Adrel, unable to communicate with the crew still on board the ship. Dathon appears as well. Not knowing if Dathon is a threat, Picard is leery. However, what the Tamarian has done is create a threatening situation to both men in an attempt to facilitate communication between the races. The planet is not quite as uninhabited as everyone was led to believe.
The Tamarians speak in great metaphors. However, if the person to whom they are speaking does not understand the metaphor, the communication is useless. It would be like using the phrase “Juliette on her balcony” to describe something to someone who has no knowledge of Shakespeare.
I don’t quite understand how the Tamarians could even have the knowledge among their own culture if there’s no way to tell the specific stories, but that’s the language they speak. Somehow, Dathon must make Picard understand the stories to which he is referring so they can find a common way of communication between the two races.
What makes this episode work is largely the two actors involved. Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield give tremendous performances as the two Captains. Stewart has Picard stumbling through much of the episode. At times he exhibits caution and outright fear of the Tamarian Captain, while at other times he exhibits a more conciliatory attitude. His performance is very convincing.
Winfield is amazing, but it’s really no surprise, having seen his work in the Star Trek universe previously. In the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan he portrayed the doomed Captain of a science vessel at the mercy of the evil Khan. His scene when he turns his own phaser on himself is an great bit of acting, and it foreshadows the tremendous job he does in this episode. Repeating the same phrases over and over again, giving them certain inflections which hint at their meanings, he conveys Dathon’s personality without the viewer ever having to really comprehend what he’s saying.
The rest of the Enterprise crew spends their time trying to figure out how to get the Captain off of the planet while not starting a war with the Tamarians. The pacing of this is near perfection, using the scenes with a bit more action interspersed with the scenes of the two Captains trying to communicate. Watch for a brief appearance by Ashley Judd as a young ensign during the scenes aboard the Enterprise.
The episode is easily one of the top five episodes of the series. I watched it twice in a row to hone out my notes, and I didn’t tire of it one bit. It doesn’t feature a great space battle, magnificent special effects, or great conspiracies. It’s focus is on two men trying to force understanding between the two races.