“Darmok and Gilad at Tenagra.”
If you’ve seen this episode, you’ll understand what that means.
Here’s an episode that asks an interesting question–what if in our exploration of the universe, we encountered a alien race who we could easily understand the words they used but couldn’t fanthom the meaning of them? Could these two sides be brought together and eventually learn to communicate?
The Enterprise is headed toward a planet where a ship from the Tamarian people is orbiting, sending out a signal. The Federation has encountered the Tamarians before, but communication between the two has been next to impossible. There is a great deal of speculation among the crew members about the Tamarian language and their intentions.
Picard is hopeful that maybe their encounter might yield some clues and lead to an opening of communication between the Federation and the Tamrians.
The Enterprise arrives at the planet and Picard and the Tamarian captain are transported to the surface. The Tamarain ship begins to emit a particle field that inhibits the transporters and doesn’t take kindly to a shuttlecraft attempt to rescue the captain. The two sides–both in orbit and on the ground–suffer from a lack of ability to communicate. Meanwhile, on the planet, the Tamarian captain and Picard are pitted against some kind of energy creature in a type of combat.
As the episode unfolds, Picard and the crew discover the Tamarians communicate by metaphor. Their communication system is done by citing a story or reference and expecting the other side to understand it. Not exactly an easy system to learn, but by trial and error and some coaxing by the Tamarian captain, Picard eventually figures out the point of what the Tamarians are trying to do and is able to avert a near war between the Federation and the Tamarians over the misunderstanding.
The idea of an alien race that communicates in metaphors is a fascinating one and the way the episode unfolds is interesting. It allows for Picard to misunderstand the purpose at first and the frustration both captains feel at trying to figure out what’s going on is palatable as the episode unfolds. The scenes of the two trying to meet in the middle and understand each other are nicely done and the Tamarian captain is superbly played by Paul Winfield.
This is one of those episodes that strikes a good balance between the central mystery, character moments and a good showcase for the actors involved (mainly Winfield and Patrick Stewart). It’s interesting that this episodes comes from season five and between this and “The Inner Light” we get book ends of great shows that really showcase Picard and Patrick Stewart’s portryal of him.