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Is the ST:TNG Episode “Darmok” Genius or What?

An irritated Tamarian
(Thanks to Memory Alpha for the image)

Incendiary Todd of the Funk writes,

Is the ST:TNG episode “Darmok” genius or what? Can’t decide.


To recap, the episode involves a spacefaring species, the Tamarians, that nobody can manage to talk with because (as it turns out) their only means of communication is with cryptic metaphorical references to the stories of their culture. When the Enterprise runs into them, the jolly crew under Captain Picard is finally able to figure this out, after the usual requisite manual combat, and begin a dialog.

The whole premise is ridiculous. Here’s why.

First, the Universal Translator is magic. It can hear a few words of a completely unfamiliar language and translate flawlessly, with no delays or unidentified words, from then on. Such a tool is impossible, and serves only to move the plot along. No such thing could exist in reality. The use of metaphor is far from the only impossible obstacle. There are lots of words whose meaning isn’t obvious from context — there are words in known languages — Latin, for instance — that nobody can puzzle out the meanings of anymore. Some language might not use words. Vocal tone can be important to meaning. Speed can matter. What you do with your hands/tentacles/eyebrows can matter. By selecting just one linguistic difficulty and bringing it to our attention, they’re breaking the agreement that lets us suspend disbelief to allow the UT to function at all.

Second, the premise of the episode is ridiculous. How do Tamarian children learn these stories? How did they ever get into space with a language that doesn’t allow expressions of concrete instructions? How does a Tamarian say “Increase the power level in the starboard froomis bus by 14%” via metaphorical reference to pre-technological stories? If they can say “when the walls fell,” why can’t they say, “Land ship there. We talk.”? How can they be so stupid that they don’t realize that other species won’t share their cultural knowledge, and just say the same things over again that they would have to realize wouldn’t be understood?

What we really have here, is an example of pro-human bias in storytelling. Only humans can solve problems. Vulcans are a fairly human-like so they do okay. But Tamarians don’t look very human at all, so they’re extremely stupid and helpless to solve anything on their own.