Wednesday, June 8, 2011

And The Villain Is . . . Language: "Darmok" Is One Of The Best Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes!

The Good: Amazing concept, Great acting
The Bad: Almost no real character development, rewatchability
The Basics: In a truly intriguing episode of television, "Darmok" takes an hour to explore the nature of language and communication.

Star Trek The Next Generation was a show that did many daring things in its seven year run. While it tackled social issues and challenged the viewers by creating stories that had messages and scientific concepts, it also attempted entirely unique concepts. "Darmok" is one of those episodes where it ambitiously pushes the envelope on what television may be.

"Darmok" finds the Enterprise arriving at El-Adrel to meet an elusive race of aliens known as the Children of Tama. The Tamarians are a technologically similar race to the Federation but they have never made a meaningful contact with the Federation. At El-Adrel, the Tamarians abduct Picard and prevent the Enterprise from beaming him off the planet. Picard materializes on the surface of the planet with the Tamarian captain, Dathon. There, Dathon attempts to communicate with Picard while fighting a unique alien life form. Picard comes to understand that the Tamarians speak in metaphor and meaningful contact is established.

The way "Darmok" is pushing the envelope is by making an episode that focuses almost entirely on language. About thirty minutes of the forty-three minute episode is the Tamarians repeating the same phrases to various Enterprise crewmembers and those officers trying to guess at their meaning. This is an episode that is almost entirely about language and how people attempt to communicate when they have no frame of reference.

The idea to do an episode entirely about language and a language that is entirely constructed by specific metaphors that we cannot understand is an ambitious one. It could never have been pulled off had the episode not used quality actors. Here, Patrick Stewart delivers an understandably confused performance as Picard attempting to comprehend the nature of the language and the threat he and Dathon are exposed to. He makes the episode believable for the confusion he exhibits.

However, the one who dominates on the acting front is veteran Star Trek actor Paul Winfield. Winfield plays Dathon and he insists in his alien language so convincingly that it sucks us into the actual dilemma. If it weren't for Winfield's acting, it would have been impossible to make this episode work. Whoever plays Dathon had the ultimate difficulty of making an incomprehensible language believable. Winfield pulls it off, no easy task considering how much latex his face is buried under. He manages to convey with his eyes and voice all the necessary details of the character and the race he represents.

It's almost impossible to say more about this episode. It is a single episode that has the feeling of creating a problem immediately and then setting to solving it throughout the rest of the episode. As a result, everything one needs to know is in the episode and it's remarkably accessible to those who are not traditionally fans of this series or science fiction in general. What makes it worthwhile is "Darmok" is an episode that is unique in television. No one has ever done such a singularly ambitious and daring work where they spend forty-three minutes locked into a conflict about language. Whenever one wants to think about understanding any other person, this is the quintessential piece to use to explore that.

All that is lacking from this episode is genuine character development. Picard learns something in the episode, but it's specifically related to the problem he seeks to solve. Once he accomplishes that, it's done and he does not so much grow beyond that. After the first viewing, "Darmok" endures. It's only when one watches the episode ten or more times that the episode becomes tiresome. There are only so many times that one may hear "Darmok and Jilad at Tenagra." It gets repetitive upon many many viewings, but that ought not to detract from how truly great this episode is.

This is a timeless work that dares to make language the subject of a television show and it effectively captivates the audience. Pretty much everyone who I have ever spoken with about Star Trek The Next Generation remembers this episode and enjoyed it. Add to that, many non-fans used this episode to become interested in mythology and/or foreign languages. If that's not a noble outcome of a television show, what is?

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fifth season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode, DVD set or film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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