When he and Picard are unable to communicate, the Captain of a Tamarian vessel arranged for the two of them to be stranded on a planet with an invisible and aggressive monster. Picard eventually realizes that the Tamarian communicate purely by metaphor, and that the other Captain has arranged this circumstance in the hopes that the shared danger would allow them to understand each other. The other Captain dies in the battle, but before he does the two are able to communicate. Picard is able to return to the Enterprise in time to prevent war from breaking out between their two peoples.
Story by Philip Lazebnik and Joe Menosky. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. Directed by Winrich Kolbe .
Since I started this process of re-watching Next Generation, I have been looking forward to this episode. It has always been one of the highlights not only of this season (I presume), but of the entire series. Seeing it again now, even all of these years later, really bears this out. The plot is simple and yet surprising, the drama gripping, the performances practically unparalleled, and the overall package hard to beat. Probably the only reason that episodes like Best of Both Worlds and Yesterday’s Enterprise are remembered more strongly is just because the scope of the stories they were telling were so much broader. Here, the stakes are relatively small – we’re just trying to achieve understanding with another one of the practically uncountable (Troi reminds us) alien races that the crew is always bumping into.
But it becomes deeply personal by putting Picard into the position that he is placed in. Here is Starfleet’s ultimate explorer and diplomat, fighting not only for his life but for his ideals and principles. “In my experience,” he says with some confidence, “communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe these are qualities we have in sufficient measure.” Is he right? Do his values actually have any meaning? That’s what the episode is really putting to the test. And so effectively.
The premise of the story is sort of the opposite of the original series episode The Arena. There, two enemy Captains were put on a planet together in order that they might duke it out. Here, it’s effective that that’s what Picard at first assumes is happening. Patrick Stewart is wonderful as he takes the audience on a journey of slowly discovering the truth. The revelations that Picard receives time perfectly with our own.
Paul Winfield joins the ranks of the likes of Mark Lenard and David Ogden Stiers of one of the very best guest performances that the series has ever had. Captain Dathon is a compelling figure, and his sacrifices are genuinely inspirational, if not somewhat extreme. Every scene between the two Captains (and the episode is primarily made up of them) is powerful, and feel very, very real. Dathon’s slow death, as he revels in listening to Picard’s rendition of Gilgamesh, is particularly riveting.
Does the episode have any weaknesses? Well, it is hard to imagine how a species like the Tamarians can actually exist. How do you learn to express yourself in metaphor without having a normal language first? Can you really develop warp engineering without being able to talk in concrete terms? But these and other small issues are easily overlooked in the light of the true gem that this installment of the series turns out to be.
• Ashely Judd makes her first of two appearances as Ensign Robin Lefler (as well as her first credited IMDB appearance) in this episode. Since then , she has had major roles in films such as Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy, and Dolphin’s Tale.
• Paul Winfield guest stars as Captain Dathon. He is a very well known actor whose character was killed by self-inflicted phaser in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, killed by relentless futuristic cyborg in The Terminator, and killed by a horde of mutated post-apocalyptic cockroaches in Damnation Alley. He also played Rev. Martin Luthor King, jr. in the TV miniseries King.
• Is this where we first see Picard’s Captain’s jacket? I think so.
• Worf has his typical “prudent” response, one which they labor on quite a bit. “I have confidence in his ability as a warrior. He will be victorious.”
• The detailed but unexplained rituals performed by Captain Dathon before going to sleep are an effective element – they help to bring a lot of verisimilitude to this mysterious alien culture.
• Funny moment: Darmok also refers to a frozen dessert on Tazna Five. I want to have a taste of that.
• Cute: Troi cannot remember how many alien races she has met, but Data can.
• It’s a great moment when Picard realizes that he is looking at a Captain’s Log.
• It’s a bit uncharacteristic that Picard just attacks that thing with his knife without knowing more, or attempting to reason with it. I guess he feels pretty threatened.
• Tragic how the Enterprise‘s efforts to save Picard leads to the death of the Tamarian. Picard’s cry of “No!” as he is caught in the transporter is one of the series’ best moments.
• Very effective climax as the Enterprise moves toward war and destruction
• The Tamarians don’t seem to know, for whatever reason, that their Captain is dead until Picard tells them.
• “New friends, Captain?” “I can’t say, Number One. But at least they’re not new enemies.”
• Nice image at the end of Picard imitating Dathon’s ritual with the reflection of the stars passing by.
Dialogue High Point
This is an episode whose strength is the performances more than the dialog itself (though there’s nothing wrong with the script) so the episode’s best line is really, “Temba, his arms open!” when Picard is finally beginning to understand.
As for a line of pure dialog, I’d have to go with the one I already mentioned…
Are they truly incomprehensible? In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe these are qualities we have in sufficient measure.