Star Trek The Next Generation: Darmok

In the course of researching an article for Den of Geek on 10 ground-breaking episodes of The Next Generation, my lovely Facebook friends pointed me in the direction of 'Darmok,' which turned out to be rather fascinating.

The basic premise of 'Darmok' is that Picard is stuck on a planet with an alien whose language cannot be translated by the universal translator. It's a rather nice idea, forcing Picard to struggle to understand an alien race and to think about how we as sentient beings communicate, rather than just saying hello and having the universal translators do all the hard work.

In the end, it turns out that the alien's language is entirely composed of imagery and metaphor - the example given in the episode is that it's like saying 'Juliet on her balcony' when you mean that someone is in love. The universal translators can't translate it because they're not programmed with the required stories.

Now of course, there are all sorts of problems with this. For one thing, how did they develop sufficiently complex stories to account for any situation? I supposed they could be relying on visual art, but it's a bit of a stretch. For another, the universal translators seen able to cope with everything in the language that isn't a proper noun, which is cheating really. And although I had the advantage of knowing the set-up beforehand, I still think Picard was a bit daft to think someone was trying to attack him when they offered him a knife hilt-first.

But however unfeasible it is, the idea of a language built on metaphor and imagery is really interesting. Back in the 19th century, philologist Friedrich Max Müller suggested that mythology was a 'disease of language' - he thought that myths grew out of flowery ways of describing the natural world (usually the sun - where Freud was obsessed with sex, Max Müller was obsessed with the sun). So, according to Max Müller, the myth of Eos (Dawn) and Cephalus (literally 'head,' which Max Müller twisted around until he made it mean 'dew') is actually a poetic way of describing the dawn 'kissing' the dew on the ground as it rises in the morning. No one has really agreed with Max Müller's theory for about 150 years, but he would have loved this episode.

Max Müller would also, as a scholar of the East, have loved Picard's re-telling of parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving work of literature in the Middle-Eastern-and-Western world, and one of the oldest works of literature in the world all together. It survives in various bits and pieces of different versions, but a standard version exists and is available in translation from Penguin (if memory serves, there's an older prose translation - that's the one I've got - and a newer verse translation). It's much, much (MUCH) shorter than any of the Greek or Latin epics and, apart from some slightly repetitive sections (a common feature in ancient Near Eastern literature) it's a pretty good read, so I'd recommend having a look if you're interested in epic poetry.

The standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh isn't quite the same as the story Picard tells here but it's close enough, and he gets the most important part right - the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Enkidu's death. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight each other at first, but then become inseparable and like family, and then Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh mourns him. It's a perfect story for Picard's situation, and it's nice to hear it told, as it isn't used in popular culture as much as the later Greek and Roman stories.

At the end of the episode, Picard is apparently reading the Homeric Hymns. I say 'apparently' because Riker seems to recognise what he's reading as Greek, but it doesn't look like Greek, and why is he reading a book instead of a PADD anyway? I'm pretty sure you can already get ancient Greek texts on a Kindle... I'm also baffled as to why Picard has decided to start with the Homeric Hymns, instead of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Maybe he liked that they're shorter. He calls them 'the root metaphors of our own culture' - Max Müller must be jumping for joy in the afterlife.

I liked this episode a lot, despite the logical flaws. The basic story is simple and sweet (I cried) and it's always nice to see a shout-out to the Epic of Gilgamesh. I don't know whether the writers had ever heard of Friedrich Max Müller but this must be one of the first outings for his theory in about a century, so that's nice. And I've never before seen anyone so excited as Picard is here by the word 'metaphor'...

More Star Trek reviews


  1. I once read a review of this episode where the reviewer said that the aliens from Darmok are a gentle ribbing of nerd fandom itself : we can speak to each other in cultural references and know exactly what we mean without having to explain the context or the proper names.

    1. I like that! Wonder if that's where the writers got the idea...

    2. I think that's a bot too clever... I'm not sure the fandom (and conventions) were as intense back then. But I like the idea!

  2. I remember that ep! It's been quite awhile since I've seen it.

  3. This was one of my favourite episodes!

    Damn! I've been meaning to read Gilgamesh for something like 20 years now (scary number!) but for some reason have never done so... Maybe I'll see if there's a free edition for the Kindle...

    1. The new translation won't be free - the older one also probably isn't quite old enough, though it might be cheaper than the new one

  4. As with a lot of TNG, this is an episode that really stands out because of the acting. Stewart and Winfield are simply tremendous. But I've never quite been able to accept the McGuffin and it always throws me out of the story. How do you learn the meaning of those stories without a language to tell them in the first place? How do you develop an advanced technology?

    On the other hand, this use of metaphor and quotation crops up from time to time. There was a fad in the Hellenistic era of using Homer to tell new stories, just rearranging the lines and changing the names. Even later, IIRC, either in very late antiquity or the beginning of the Dark Ages, there was an attempt to retell the Bible using Homer. There's a term for it that I can't remember at the moment.


Post a Comment