Friday, October 7, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: Darmok

The Next Generation, Season 5
Airdate: September 30, 1991
101 of 176 produced
101 of 176 aired


The Enterprise receives a transmission from an "enigmatic" race known as the Children of Tama. After a handful of previous attempts to establish contact with this race, Picard is sent in to try and find a means of communicating with them. Things get dicey, though, when it becomes clear that the alien captain also has a method in mind of establishing communication... a deadly method.

When you're a jet, you're a jet all the way...


Matthew: "Darmok" is kind of a tale of two reviews for me. One part of me responds very strongly to the high concept science fiction tale - one of the highest concept stories TNG has done or will do. What happens when an alien race has a totally foreign means of communication? But the other part of me is desperately, almost suicidally bored by the pacing. Now, to be fair, I had my newborn son sleeping on my lap while watching, so that might have pushed me into the direction of slumber-land. But there is also the bevy of long stretches of Picard and Dathan sitting in front of a campfire, with soft, droning music playing in the background, and baby-talk gibberish being delivered. Not exactly a recipe for audience arousal. I know there is an orthodoxy of sorts, we are all supposed to love "Darmok." But I'm willing to bury it as well as praise it. And my first knock on it is the pacing.

Kevin: This is one of those episodes that was better when I was a kid. It was the first time I was being exposed to a lot of these ideas, so they seemed extra cool, a phenomenon that was more than generous to the creators of the Matrix trilogy. On review, the pacing problems are pretty obvious. I also think that the plot on the Enterprise with the Tamarian ship didn't quite work. It smacked of artificial conflict. Maybe another way could have been devised to through Picard and Dathan together and the story could have just focused on that.

Matthew: Praise is of course due to the audacious nature of the story. I don't think this story could have been done by any other show, and on any network that existed at the time. Only TNG, and only syndication, would allow such an abstract concept to be the driver of an episode. It's very thought provoking, the notion that another race would communicate entirely or nearly entirely by mytho-historical metaphor. But I do wonder about the execution. How and what does the UT translate, anyway? It seems to have left the place and person-names unaltered - if the UT can figure that difference out, why did it take Starfleet so long? What sorts of mytho-historical metaphors are mathematical constants used in the Tamarians initial message derived from? How did Darmok and Jalad ever communicate, if they didn't have a prior myth to cite? How did places get names, like Tanagra, or the River Temarc? If they have pictures and writing, which seem to be indicated by the Okudagrams and Dathan's journal, are these also somehow metaphors? If the pictures are representational, it seems odd for an intelligent being to symbolically communicate in one medium but not in another. What qualifies something as a "new" metaphor? The Tamarian first officer seems capable at the end of referring to this incident as Picard and Dathan at El-Adrel. If he can do that with such a recent event, can't they do it with other events, like "Enterprise raising its shields, in orbit." For that matter, how does one invent and publicize new things, like warp reactors, through ancient metaphor? Also, it seems to me like a full Betazoid could end this plot before it begins

Kevin: There's an anthology of short stories about post-finale TNG that includes a revisit to these people that posits modulation in pitch and intensity communicate numerical data, and while I appreciate the attempt, I still agree with Matt that it seems to be impossible to do math in this language. I have less problem with the idea that the metaphor as communication could evolve in a people that had a more traditional language. If the episode really wanted to bore everyone, we could have gotten a discussion of the Tamarian ego and sense of self. That could have been some juicy dialogue for Troi, the idea that their thought process is so foreign, she can't describe it.

Matthew: It was nice having Troi and Data do research to attempt to figure out the basis of the Tamarian myths. It adds a nice scholarly bent to the story and to the characters, and gives Troi something to do besides sensing deception. One thing torubled me about the planet scenes besides the communication questions raised above - Picard demurs for some reason over telling a story. Uh... isn't that precisely why you're here, and something you've already figured out is necessary? And then he goes and tells the Gilgamesh story, in a very nice scene. So you were lying, Jean-Luc? Also, I was kind of off-put by how Picard resorted to stabbiness immediately with the beast on the planet. It seems to run counter to his usual attitude throughout the series.

Kevin: For all the other issues, Picard telling the story is great. The slower pace suit the saga, and they acted the hell out of it, and I am on record as loving any time Troi gets stuff to do. I will say that the problem felt organically solved, something TNG has been getting really good at. Both characters used the skills we know they have, and no one pulled a Wesley out of their hat.


Matthew: Paul Winfield has made the absolute best of tough material in Star Trek. He had to play a simpering zombie in Star Trek II, and now a baby-talk alien in this episode. The way he emotes really sells his scenes, and saves them from being interminably awful.

Kevin: It really says something about an actor who can emote and telegraph with out ever actually speaking words I can understand. Patrick Stewart also gave a stellar performance. Despite all my other problems, the scenes between the two are so quietly moving. The Gilgamesh story is a fine scene. It's a shame that it gets bogged down in some funeral pacing.

Matthew: Ashley Judd makes her debut as Robin Lefler. I really only have two things to say. Ashley Judd is hot. Also, she delivers technobabble well.  Speaking of delivering lines of exposition, Marina Sirtis does a great job with her research scenes. I love it when she explains stuff in that accent of hers.

Production Values

Matthew: I hate Picard's jacket with an ire usually reserved for things Abrams. I hate the way it looks, but it is obviously useless as well - when Picard is cold on the planet (I guess it's not a very good future material), he has to hold it together with his hands, not zip it up. Yargh.

Kevin: I don't mind the jacket. They tweak the shoulders and that is an improvement, but overall, I actually like the purple-gray undershirt. The lack of zipper because it's The Future is kind of silly.

Matthew: We visit Planet California, AKA Bronson canyon, for our location shots. Always a nice location, though at this point in the franchise I wish they'd try to change the native flora a little bit. Spray paint the grass blue or something, you have the budget. Speaking of budget, the Tamarians had nice looking uniforms, nice Westmoreheads, and a really cool looking "catamaran-style" ship.

Kevin: Gone are the days of the blurry triangular ships. It's really an awesome design and really detailed. Also, I like the completness of the Tamarian design. It's not just a squiggle on a forehead.

Matthew: We get two aliens for the price of one, with the "Star Trek Vs. Predator" stuff on the planet. I liked the effect on the alien quite a bit, especially for TNG. It looked cool. We also got a neat look at a new shuttlecraft, the "type 6." I can't say I know what the other 5 types look like, but this is a nice addition, and looks much cooler than previous shuttles. It seems to be a modification (it looks shorter) of the shuttle seen in Star Trek V. We've come a long way from the Season 1 frog.

Kevin:I liked the design of the alien, but I don't like the idea of the alien. It feels a little contrived. I would have like a more organic threat. But, I do agree, the shimmering effect was nifty.


Matthew: I think the acting was quite good, especially on such challenging material. The production values were also above average. It's just the writing that is problematic. But I will reward ambition even when it flies into some severe logic problems. These aren't the stupid kind of "we don't care" problems that an Abrams production would feature. These are "this concept is so out there and we only have 45 minutes" problems. So I'm going to give it a 4.

Kevin: I agree with the 4. I am always happy to reward ambition and this episode has it in buckets. I also appreciate that for all the pacing problems, they never dumb it down. I feel a certain respect from the writers for even trying it. That makes a total of 8 from the both of us.

1 comment:

  1. I was sort of expecting a 9 or a 10 on this one. I guess there is something just heartwarming about this story.