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Why Darmok Is a Good Star Trek: TNG Episode 512

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-always-wanted-to-see-a-Tamarian-Borg dept.
An anonymous reader writes: "Last week, the Ars Technica ran an article listing their staff's least favorite Star Trek: the Next Generation episodes. They hit a few of the predictable ones, like Angel One — wherein Riker's chest hair takes center stage — and Up the Long Ladder — featuring space-Irish. But a surprising suggestion came from Peter Bright, who denounced Darmok, a fan favorite. (You remember: 'Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra.') Now, Ars's Lee Hutchinson has (jokingly) taken Bright to task, showing how IMDB ratings mark Darmok (5x02) as one of the best episodes of season 5, and among the strongest in the series. He also points out a trend in some of the bad episodes they didn't pick: 'According to the data, the worst episode of TNG by a significant margin is the season 2 finale Shades of Gray, a clipshow episode famously hobbled by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. We also managed to not pick season 6's Man of the People (the one where Troi falls in love with a brain vampire and gets really old) or season 4's The Loss (the one where Troi loses her empathic abilities and gets really whiny) or season 2's The Child (the one where Troi has dream sex with a space anomaly and gets really pregnant).' What are your picks for best and worst TNG episode?"
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Why Darmok Is a Good Star Trek: TNG Episode

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  • The Inner Light (Score:5, Insightful)

    by poity (465672) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:00PM (#46611697)

    manly tears

    • Indeed. When my DVR picks up on a TNG episode, that's the only one I will watch every single time.

    • One of the things that made Picard such a memorable character is that, once or twice a season, he would break out of the British Sea captain shell and reveal the character beneath, particularly the flaws and weaknesses.

      In this regard, some of the best Picard Episodes are, to obviously begin with

      - Chain of Command II (There are Four Lights!)
      - Family (Picard reveals how much his Bord capture affected him)
      - Tapestry (Reveals Picard's stabbing and its effect on his life)

      However, I find one of the most striking aspects of Picard's character is revealed while he is offscreen, by Worf, in an otherwise fairly corny 5th season episode called "The Perfect Mate".

      PAR LENOR: Perhaps your captain would care to invite us to join him for dinner this evening...

      WORF: The captain dines alone.

      It's almost a throwaway line, but manages to crystalise a lot about Picard's behaviour and relationships with the rest of the crew. He's never too close to any of them, or anyone, personally, but instead lives and relates to people through his leadership role as Captain, an effectively Father figure to the crew. There's a pay-off made on this during the last Episode (All Good Things - II) where Picard finally joins one of the poker games.

      However, I think that the single best Picard moment related to this is his wordless reaction on hearing of Ensign Ro's defection, at the very end of the penultimate episode (Preemptive Strike). Ro betrays Star Fleet for personal, patriotic, emotional reasons, and does so precisely because Picard professionally pushed her into an undercover mission.

      Here Picard finally tastes the bitter pill of consequence that he's been dishing out to aliens and miscreants for seven seasons, as his adoptive officer-daughter Ro finally makes her personal, matured, self-determined choice to not live the rest of her life in his perfect Star Fleet family, or by his cherished Federation rules. And after being betrayed by someone he trusted, for reasons he understands but cannot accept, Picard's livid silence makes for a deliciously dramatic conclusion. A crowning moment, no doubt.

  • Troi (Score:5, Funny)

    by wisnoskij (1206448) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:00PM (#46611699) Homepage

    So basically the worst episodes are those featuring Trio.

    • by DudemanX (44606)

      For the most part, yes. They only mention the ones where Troi gets space raped. They don't even bring up the Luwaxana episodes.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        > They don't even bring up the Luwaxana episodes.

        IMHO, one of the finest episodes of the series was Half a Life [memory-alpha.org], which centered around Lwaxana. She had to drop her facade of strength when she faced a very personal moral dilemma, and showed her true vulnerability.

        • by DudemanX (44606)

          I enjoyed that one too but when I think Lwaxana the first things that pop into my mind are when she, Troi, and Riker get kidnapped by Ferengi and when she goes crazy because of Troi's secret sister. I did like her DS9 episodes though.

    • by Dan East (318230)

      There was at least one really awful episode involving Beverly Crusher too. So you could say both female leads had some zingers.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by DudemanX (44606)

        Some of the Crusher episodes were good though like the one involving the solar shielding tech(which showed up in a later episode) and the one where everyone on the Enterprise keep disappearing. I'm assuming the awful one you refer to is the one from season 7 where she gets space raped by a ghost candle. The lesson here is that stories about women can be good when the writers give them stuff to do besides being space raped.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      They didn't know what to do with her but needed an attractive young woman on the show. Even in that capacity the terrible costumes tended to ruin it.

  • Ya, maybe the episode would not of sucked so bad if their made up language, that was "completely different to all other languages" was not just a pile of bull.

    Oh, you mean we could not decode the language because every word was just an arbitrary sequence of sounds denoting an idea, instead of how normal words work?

    • by TheGavster (774657) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:10PM (#46611745) Homepage

      I think you missed the point ... the language was formed out of references to a common body of knowledge. The universal translator was doing just fine figuring out what the individual words meant, but without the common story to refer to they made to sense. It's essentially as if an entire culture communicated only in pop culture references. For example, someone might say "You're such a Samantha", but if you haven't watched many hours of Sex and the City, you would have no idea what they meant despite knowing all of those words.

      • Interesting thought, however, since I never watched any Sex and the City, I assumed you were referring to a cute witch housewife with a twitchy nose. I guess it all depends on what generation of TV shows one was raised on.

      • You seem to have missed the point. That is the entire basis of a language, a shared body of specific knowledge. "You're such a Samantha" is from a SatC language, heavily based on English. That is why I and everyone else that know English can understand the words but not the meaning. But, lets assume we know nothing about SatC and English both. In that case "You're such a Samantha" is completely identical to "You're such a slut/bitch/smartypants" (whatever "Samantha" means to SitC fans). Samantha is just a

        • by Rollgunner (630808) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @06:20PM (#46612117)
          It was not a matter of collections of sounds, but rather the societal context of those sounds.

          "Where's the Beef?" when put into a literal translator will never come up with "this is insufficient", and that is precisely how the aliens communicated. No search of the words "Where" "Is" "The" and "Beef" will ever give you the meaning of the colloquialism. All the translator will do is make you think the person has lost a farm animal.

          [back on the planet]

          "I made a shelter for us. I think it will protect us from the storms tonight."

          [exasperatedly waving arms and pointing at the flimsy shelter] "My cow is missing !"
          • by Your.Master (1088569) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @08:25PM (#46612631)

            We have to step back and all recognize that the Universal Translator does not actually make sense as it is portrayed. Not least because you often hear Klingons talking, and occasionally a bit of Vulcan or something else, but also because it makes things perfectly lip-synced, etc..

            So putting that behind us, why do you think that the Universal Translator operates on a word-for-word basis? I assert that it can't work even in English on a word-for-word basis; not even between two extremely well-known languages with lots of time in between. It would have to take groups of words (which are just groups of sounds still) and translate them. Darmok and Jelaad at Tenegrae (however that's spelt) should be perfectly translatable in that context.

            The episode would make more sense if they hadn't established instantaneous error-free communication with hithertofore completely uncontacted species at every turn. It seems a stretch that these guys are the only ones that say "where's the beef?" in the future, when we know that humans of today do it all the time, and that Star Trek loves throwing out idiomatic quotes to confuse Data or whatever.

            I still like the episode; continuity has never been a strong suit of Star Trek. I'd prefer if it did have continuity, but in the context of the show it wasn't as stupid as some of the crap they pulled.

        • by Baloroth (2370816)

          But the meaning of the word "toilet" does not (generally) depend on the whole sentence nor on the context of the sentence. "You're such a Samantha", however, does, especially since Samantha doesn't literally mean anything besides the name itself. Samantha does not mean "bitch/slut/etc., except in this context (toilet, on the other hand, retains its meaning even entirely outside any other context). As another example, one could easily translate the phrase "a New York minute" to another language, but conveyin

        • by Kjella (173770)

          You seem to have missed the point. That is the entire basis of a language, a shared body of specific knowledge. "You're such a Samantha" is from a SatC language, heavily based on English. That is why I and everyone else that know English can understand the words but not the meaning. But, lets assume we know nothing about SatC and English both. In that case "You're such a Samantha" is completely identical to "You're such a slut/bitch/smartypants" (whatever "Samantha" means to SitC fans). Samantha is just a random assortment of sounds/letters that denote an idea, No different than any other word.

          Yes, but nearly all languages can be broken down into reusable words. The idea is that in this language the metaphors wildly change meaning depending on the context in which they were spoken. Say that in the context of clothes "being a Samantha" is someone who dresses fabulously, while in the context of sex "being a Samantha" means being a slut. So the would be diplomat tries to say "Your dress looks fabulous" but without the correct contextual clues the universal translator will say "You are such a slut" i

        • by jensend (71114)

          The problem is: we may think it strange that a universal translator that does such a miraculous job everywhere else would be so nonfunctional with this language, Trekkies will come up with some silly technobabble explanation, but the only real reason is that a universal translator is just a handwaving plot device for writers' convenience, and here for once they found it inconvenient. Their way of dealing with it may be illogical, but tossing the crutch for one episode allows them to explore new ground.

          Almos

      • by emorning (2465220)
        The unbelievable part is that the Tamarian's were advanced enough to built interstellar spacecraft and transporters but somehow they weren't smart enough to say to themselves "hmm, you know what, I bet they can't understand us because we only speak in metaphors".
        • by dbIII (701233)
          Stepping back a bit it's probably just a writer having a dig at the idea of machine translation.
          In Star Wars (and one excuse when it comes up in Dr Who) they can get away with it because it's a concious entity that knows a lot of stuff about the other languages and cultures doing the translation. Something like C3PO could translate the Tamarian's language by reasoning out the metaphors but apparently the Trek AI is not supposed to be a full artificial person so cannot.

          Even in the early 1960s the author De
      • by Nidi62 (1525137)

        I think you missed the point ... the language was formed out of references to a common body of knowledge. The universal translator was doing just fine figuring out what the individual words meant, but without the common story to refer to they made to sense. It's essentially as if an entire culture communicated only in pop culture references.

        So, essentially me reading this entire thread having never seen a whole episode of Star Trek, or even seen an hours worth combined (not counting the recent lens flares).

      • Words have specific meanings only within the culture that uses them. The sounds have no meaning of their own.

        This is another case where an episode's plot depends upon the failure of a system that works flawlessly in all other episodes.

        The universal translator should have had no problem with that language. The same as it had no problem with any of the other brand new languages that it had no problem with.

        For example, someone might say "You're such a Samantha", but if you haven't watched many hours of Sex an

        • The translator in that show has never had a problem with translating such before.

          That's because the translator had never encountered a language that relies so heavily on opaque idioms.

      • by ildon (413912)

        But you don't have to know who Samantha is or watch Sex and the City to learn the context of that reference. That's exactly how ALL language works. "Samantha" is no different from "bitch." "Bitch" requires the context of knowing that "female dog" is an insult. (I'm not saying "Samantha" == "bitch", I've never watched the show, I'm simply using that as an example of how all language requires context).

        • by laird (2705) <lairdp AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday March 29, 2014 @09:41PM (#46612891) Journal

          I disagree. The point is that the words mean different things depending on what they're a reference to. So "Samantha" does not mean "bitch" in the way that words in normal languages have meanings, because the same word could mean something utterly different depending on the context. Since I didn't watch that show, I can't come up with examples (which kinda supports my point). But let's use Star Trek for examples: "Picard at Farpoint" and "Picard when he saw four lights" and "Picard after the Borg" and "Picard smiling at Lwaxana" and "Picard and Ro" mean utterly different things, because of the context of those stories that gives meaning unrelated to the actual words. So it's impossible to make sense of the word "Picard" without knowing the stories, because there are hundreds of stories that the translator would need to infer. And if the references weren't phrased literally the same way every time, but were more natural references to the stories, then even the phrases would be impossible to decode.

          Of course, the universal translator deals with simpler versions of this every week. The premise is that the translator can deal with simpler symbolic translation of words from direct context, but can't deal with the deeper metaphore-based communications. For a popular mass media show, that's a pretty subtle idea. If you're going to quibble about that, you shouldn't bother watching anything on TV - none of it stands up to really deep digging, because they're trying to tell entertaining stories to normal people in 44 minutes (or 22 minutes), not publish defensible scientific thesis. :-)

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Arker (91948)
        I think YOU missed the point.

        All the supposed reasons why the UT would fail here - would have made it fail many times before.

        Some of them, mind you, are good reasons. Good reasons to doubt that a 'universal translator' might ever be invented, that is.

        But once you swallow the UT itself, the idea that this one language resists it makes absolutely no sense.

        "You're such a Samantha?" We say all the time "You're such a bitch" and it's the same case. To know what it connotes you have to know not just the denotatio
    • by The Rizz (1319) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:18PM (#46611801)

      All I can really think to say about your post, and your understanding of the episode, is "Shaka, when the walls fell".

    • by adric22 (413850) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:39PM (#46611907) Homepage

      As somebody who studies language - I agree. You can't make analogies in the first place without a functional language. And if you have a functional language, why make up analogies? And seriously, how can the communicate complex ideas? Can you imagine them trying to write a book explaining microprocessor design?

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by wisnoskij (1206448)

        "Can you imagine them trying to write a book explaining microprocessor design?"
        Shaka, when the walls fell

        • Or enough math to do the physics for warp drive. Ask anyone who's taken math-heavy graduate classes: notation, the language, matters a lot. The British fell behind Continental Europe in terms of advancing analysis, and stayed behind, until they finally tossed Newton's notation in favor of Leibniz.
      • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:50PM (#46611957)

        Can you imagine them trying to write a book explaining microprocessor design?

        Bardeen and Brattain at Bell Labs. Shockley, his arms wide!

      • As somebody who studies language - I agree. You can't make analogies in the first place without a functional language.

        Ah, I see you haven't studied Egyptian Hieroglyphs then, eh? As someone who teaches networks of neural networks concepts such as object recognition, relational significance, temporal ordering significance and I don't understand your ignorance of the problem. Imagine a Chinese speaker and an English speaker separated by a wall impervious to everything but sound. They would never come to know each other's languages unless they both experienced some event at the same time, and gave it a name, much like you

        • To me you seem like a philosopher studying epistemology without ever studying cybernetics and learning the fundamental principals of classification and cognition. Perhaps in your pursuit to understand languages you should first understand language itself. Learn by doing: Invent an alien language, then write something in it. Then give it to your peers, and see what they make of it without a translation medium.

          This is the most idiotic thing I've ever heard. You want to learn how natural language works? You study NATURAL language. That's one of the biggest impediments to people working on AI translation -- all of you folks assume that natural languages must work according to some broken metaphors about meaning (like atomistic denotative words, or fundamental laws of syntax which work according to generative grammars or whatever model's in vogue at the moment) that assume that constructed languages work like nat

      • Avoidance language (Score:4, Insightful)

        by tepples (727027) <tepples AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday March 29, 2014 @07:44PM (#46612465) Homepage Journal

        And if you have a functional language, why make up analogies?

        I haven't seen the episode, but it's possible to have a taboo against using direct language in public. Plenty of indigenous cultures have "avoidance languages" used to communicate with in-laws. Tamarian could just have a rule to speak in analogies within strangers' earshot.

    • Ya, maybe the episode would not of sucked so bad if their made up language, that was "completely different to all other languages" was not just a pile of bull.

      Oh, you mean we could not decode the language because every word was just an arbitrary sequence of sounds denoting an idea, instead of how normal words work?

      Data, his technospeak halted! Vanna White, her job made easy. A function calling itself:

      Spock at his station, one brow raised. Free flaming hairdos from a biblical tower. Einstein, his M and squared C: A Pulp Fictional briefcase, it's contents unshown. A babbling brook's fish swims in 42 ears. Buddha his belly grown large.

      A pig eats pearls at the library of Alexandria. Riker and Picard, both faces palmed. A geek and his card divided.

  • by spike1 (675478) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:06PM (#46611731)

    I'd go for the royal. Hated that one.

    • by BitterOak (537666)
      Skin of Evil was pretty bad too. That's the one where Tasha Yar was killed by an oil slick. I also wasn't too fond of Manhunt. Bloodlines was a real stinker too, especially disappointing since it came so near the end of the series.
  • best / worst? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Amigan (25469) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:17PM (#46611787) Homepage
    I've always been partial to "Who watches the watchers" and thought that "Genesis" (final season) was one of the worst..
  • Because I wish I could.
  • Is the translation software suddenly doesn't work for this alien race. They had a mini crystal civilization living on a rock inside the lab and the computer had no problems translating that never before heard language. Now all of a sudden nobody can figure these people out?

    • by ThatAblaze (1723456) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:26PM (#46611849)

      Language is glossed over in the whole series. For a single episode they decided to address that one elephant in the room, and they did it well and in a memorable way.

    • by fermion (181285)
      One technical problem with ST is that there is so much magic. The transporter, the universal translator,the communicators that always work, the warp engine, etc. All these are so the story does not get bogged down in what is essentially a space opera. But there is so much magic that creating suspense, or dealing with certain human situations, such as the difficulty of communication, is hard to create.

      Bad segments, the The Motion Picture, do a bad job in dealing with the magic. Good segments, like Darmo

  • Not a good episode (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ildon (413912) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:25PM (#46611839)

    Darmok is not a good episode. To be fair, it's not among the worst episodes. It's about average or below average. But it's not a good episode, because it's dumb and goofy. But it's dumb and goofy in a way that's fun, so I still enjoy this episode, but it's a guilty pleasure.

  • Tapestry (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sunyjim (977424) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:32PM (#46611875)
    Darmok was a great episode but I also really like Tapestry where we see that Pickard only got to be captain because of the risks he took http://www.imdb.com/title/tt07... [imdb.com]
    • by dbIII (701233)

      where we see that Pickard only got to be captain because of the risks he took

      I liked how Babylon5 took that idea as well. A well balanced "soldier" type that just happened to use a nuke to solve a military problem was mistaken for a "warrior" type by some stay at home wannabe warrior hawks and put in charge of a peace mission they really wanted to mess up. I think part of the message there is that the military is supposed to be about more than following stupid political orders blindly and blowing shit up

  • There. Are. (Score:4, Informative)

    by pinzvidz (3520933) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:33PM (#46611885)
    Four. Lights.
  • I rewatched the whole series last year, and I got really annoyed at the episodes where magic is featured. There are quite a few, considering it's supposed to be a science-fiction show.

    That's about every episode where Troi uses her magic powers, incidentally. I especially hate when she can sense an alien being's emotions at a distance of A FEW LIGHT-YEARS.

  • by BitwizeGHC (145393) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @05:51PM (#46611973) Homepage

    I frequently refer to it when discussing what the internet will make us into, except instead of mythohistorical metaphors like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra", the 22nd century's equivalent of Crime and Punishment will be composed entirely in lolcat snowclones and rageface comics.

  • I hated pretty much all of seasons one and two.

    Fortunately the series improved significantly after that, and I'd argue it finished very strong overall - which is very unusual for TV shows in general.

  • For the most part, TNG was competent. At its best it was brilliant. I'm with people on episodes like The Inner Light and The Measure of a Man. Add in, for me, Cause and Effect, The Emissary, a few others. The human condition, in space. Good stuff.

    Unlike many, I actually liked The Dauphin.

    I thought Darmok was an interesting idea. How do you make aliens who are, well, alien, but not so alien that you can't interact with them? This was an issue with the Borg, badass aliens who could kick the shit out of Kl

  • by TrollstonButterbeans (2914995) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @06:28PM (#46612153)
    Some of these episodes are from over 25 years ago.

    Although Star Trek TNG was outstanding, the real problem is that there hasn't been much high quality science fiction TV series in the last 25 years.
    • by C0R1D4N (970153)
      Deep Space 9, Falling Skies, The 4400, Kyle XY, Doctor Who relaunch, Firefly, SG1, Battlestar Galactica, X-Files, Mutant X, The 100, Star Wars The Clone Wars, these are all at least as good as TNG. Some much better.
  • Darmok is Awful (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dcollins (135727)

    I agree, Darmok is probably the single-worst of all Star Trek episodes. Coincidentally, it came on TV last week in a hotel room I was staying at and I started swearing up and down at it to my girlfriend.

    The central thesis is totally incoherent: all language is based on referents, and if the universal translator can't work on that, then it can't work on anything else, either. Or on the other hand, the alien race would have no way of expressing the legends to which they're referring to each other in the first

    • by haruchai (17472)

      Darmok truly sucked.

      I've seen it several times and with each viewing, I disliked it even more.

  • What are your picks for best and worst TNG episode?

    Troi: What do you think?

  • I think my least favorite episode was the one that featured Montgomery Scott from TOS being revived.

    Just felt like they trashed the character through out the episode needlessly.

  • How... how many of them?

  • These people would never have invented mathematics never mind space travel saddled with a language based entirely upon metaphor. Can you imagine what their logic classes in philosophy would be like? Or their legal system?

  • My favourite for one reason - the Enterprise finally get seatbelts! Seriously, did they get rid of all Health and Safety regulations in the future? How many minor injuries could have been avoided if they'd buckled up!

    • by gmueckl (950314)

      So you want to strap yourself to an exploding console? Neat!

      I actually wonder at the many plot devices that placed high power conduits through control consoles. I mean, really? Why wouldn't you design the bridge system as low power system sending control signals to high power equipment in some cabinets a few firewalls away?

  • Any episode with Q was horrible. (John Delancy was great)
    Holodeck centered episodes -- lame (Barkley's stuff was passable)
    Any episode focused on Troi, Data,or Wesley, were really bad.
    Worf or Geordi episodes were more palatable.

    My favorites:
    Arsenal of Freedom
    Inner light
    Thine Own Self
    Peak Performance
    Who Watches the Watchers
    The Defector
    The Hunted
    Best of Both Worlds
  • by Mr_Wisenheimer (3534031) on Saturday March 29, 2014 @07:41PM (#46612447)

    I liked the first episode and I liked the last episode. There was very little of redeeming value in between. The second season actually had even worse episodes than the first as well as my least favorite character, but it also saw the introduction of an excellent new character and as well as one of the series best episodes ("Measure of a Man"), so no competition, the first season wins hands down as the worst episodes despite not having Dr. Pulaski and "Shades of Grey".

    I mean, in two of the first episodes of the first season they could not afford makeup for their aliens, so they just made one alien race all-black and the other all Scandinavian. Talk about phoning it in.

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