Thursday, August 19, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 12: "Sokath! His eyes uncovered!"

12. An episode you've watched more than 5 times.
(This will have spoilers. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who genuinely cares about seeing "Darmok" hasn't already done so.)

Temba, his arms wide.

An easier question, really, would be what good episode of television haven't I watched at least five times. I'm an obsessive rewatcher -- I love going back and finding new details in the things I love. But if I had to narrow down the one episode of TV that I've gone back to the most, it would probably be "Darmok," a classic fifth-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's one of the best episodes Next Gen ever made -- one that I still love, and find myself revisiting again and again.

The premise is a simple one: a mysterious alien race makes contact with the Federation and wants to communicate. The Enterprise is sent to investigate, and runs into a minor snag: the aliens, called the Children of Tama, are completely incomprehensible. Oh, the universal translator seems to switch their speech into English (or whatever it is they speak on Star Trek), but the words don't add up to anything intelligible: "Rai and Jiri, at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons." When talks quickly get nowhere, the Tamarian captain, Dathon, holds up a pair of daggers, tells Picard, "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra," and transports the both of them to the surface of the planet beneath them. Alone, Picard has to figure out the true intentions of his counterpart, without either of them able to communicate with the other.

It's brilliant, largely because it pokes at the way all of these bumpy-headed aliens in the Star Trek world don't seem to have any trouble talking to each other. Even with a universal translator, so much of language is based upon a shared history -- communicating with someone without that shared history can be close to impossible, even if you do share a language. "Darmok," in the way of good science fiction, takes that to an alien extreme: the Children of Tama speak entirely in metaphor and allusion; everything they say is a reference to something from their history books. Without that shared knowledge, the Enterprise crew is left hopeless; so too are the Tamarians, who are left completely baffled at even the simplest attempts at conversation.

It could have turned pretty silly, actually, without actors who really bought into it. Patrick Stewart is as reliable as ever, and the late Paul Winfield is excellent as the Tamarian captain. But on the most recent viewing, I really started to appreciate what Michael Dorn brings to "Darmok" as Worf: the Klingon, of course, finds the constant attempts at talking and discourse to be increasingly frustrating, and Dorn pulls off Worf's warring impulses perfectly. There are also some great tricks of staging that I appreciate that play to the nuances of the crew's interactions -- the episode opens with a meeting in the conference room, everyone seated, Picard leading the discussion just like during any crisis...but when Picard is abducted and Riker is charge, suddenly no one is sitting, the whole crew standing around in a crude circle yelling at one another.

The episode's best moment -- and one of Next Gen's very best moments, period -- comes as Picard discerns what's going on. Darmok and Jilad were warriors who came to Tanagra separately, but left as allies after defeating a common foe -- like the vicious, invisible monster that hunts Picard and his new friend. This is Dathon's last-ditch effort to forge an alliance with the Federation, but it doesn't go as he planned. He is mortally wounded by the creature, and turns to Picard for comfort during a moment of quiet.

As it happens, I've seen "Darmok" so many times that I can actually understand what the Tamarians are saying. Which is what happens in the episode itself: Picard doesn't figure out how to communicate with the Tamarians by finding a history book or doing research on the computer; he just listens, remains patient, and waits to reach understanding. When he does so, and Dathon howls with joy, "Sokath! His eyes uncovered!" his rapture is contagious. And when Picard reports Dathon's death to his officers -- "Uzani, his army...Shaka, when the walls fell." -- the sadness is overwhelming.

I think what appeals to me most about "Darmok" is that it reminds me how my friends and I (and this blog) must sound to someone who doesn't have the deep ocean of geek history to draw on. Christy can quickly find herself lost and baffled if we step too far off the path and start speaking entirely in The Big Lebowski quotes. "Darmok" is also a reminder that, no matter how little you may have in common with someone else, communication and understanding are possible. It doesn't matter if you speak the same language: Picard tells us, "Communication is a function of patience and imagination." May we all have both in sufficient measure.

Temba, at rest.

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