Thursday, November 29, 2018


In my previous post, LOL of the Day, I shared a meme which, quite frankly, I knew a lot of people wouldn't get.

And that's OK. I even know some Star Trek fans who had forgotten the episode "Darmok".

Now, that particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation happens to be my favorite for several reasons.

A quick synopsis, for anyone not familiar with the episode:
  • The Enterprise is dispatched to meet an alien race. 
  • Picard is beamed off the ship as the aliens cast a "scattering field" which prevents Enterprises transporter from beaming Picard back up.
  • Picard discovers that the intent of the alien captain is that he and Picard cooperate to fight a creature.
  • Slowly, Picard realizes that the reason that the Federation has never been able to communicate with this alien race is that they only speak in allegory and metaphor; likewise, they find straightforward speech baffling.
  • The alien captain dies, but Picard is now able to communicate with the aliens, so Everything's Fine.
How many Standard Star Trek Tropes did you spot in that executive summary of a synopsis?  (More at Darmok - Wikipedia and Star Trek One Trek Mind: Deciphering "Darmok".)

One of the reasons I like this episode is that it is one of the few examples of science fiction in media where there was an honest attempt to live up to SF's nickname "The Literature of Ideas." While any literature can be described as starting from the question "What if...?" -- "What if the teenage children of two feuding families of Verona fell in love and secretly married?" -- in Speculative Fiction the "What if?" gets to be (one might argue should be) more out of the ordinary.

In this case, "What if we met a race/culture that only communicated in metaphor and allegory?"

This is cool.

Mind you, it is also absurd, because, as is pointed out in the article "Deciphering 'Darmok'" I linked above,
Yet there's one annoying thing about “Darmok.” If the Tamarians only speak in these metaphors, how did they ever learn the words that later came to be used in the phrases? How did they know that walls fell around Shaka if they need a phrase to symbolize the word “wall?”
They had words for stuff, but they couldn't just use a word? They couldn't say "Here", meaning "take this", they had to say "Temba, his arms open"? How did they learn what "arm" or "arms" or "open" were? Or "his"?

Not to mention, how does a race that only speaks in metaphor develop the science and math needed to become a space-faring race?

My assumption has always been that there were certain ceremonial occasions on which it is an unbreachable imperative that one speak in these metaphors, not unlike a Vulcan's dedication to logic. We know Vulcans are actually susceptible to emotion and illogic, and that they must fight to maintain their control, so perhaps this alien outreach mission would be regarded as a failure if they didn't play by their own internal rules. ("Deciphering 'Darmok'" posits a race that is partially telepathic.)

Another thing I liked about the episode is that they routinely broke every other magic double-talk generator device on the show, but this is the only episode I remember where Universal Translator failed.

Given Roddenberry's known utopian vision for the future -- routinely ignored on the show, when it was convenient, but don't dare suggest to him that he was full of shit! -- he probably had some Chomskian notion of a "language organ"...

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