“Shaka, when the walls fell”: Arena (Original Series) vs. Darmok (TNG)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “Arena” (season 1, episode 19)

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Teleplay by Gene L. Coon; story by Fredric Brown; directed by Joseph Pevney; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise visits the Federation outpost Cestus III, where they expect to be greeted with a nice home-cooked meal. Instead, they walk into a trap set by mysterious aliens, who have already laid waste to the outpost and its inhabitants, and who apparently intend to destroy the Federation’s flagship for good measure. After narrowly escaping an artillery barrage on the planet, Captain Kirk takes the Enterprise after the aliens’ ship, intent on revenge. But the chase leads both ships into the territory of yet another mysterious alien race, the seemingly god-like Metrons, who are none too happy about the intrusion. They decide to resolve this conflict by transporting Kirk to the surface of a planet, and forcing him into mortal combat with the alien captain, a reptilian Gorn. Kirk eventually MacGyvers his way to victory, but thanks to the translator devices provided by the Metrons, he learns that the Gorn saw the Cestus III outpost as a threatening intrusion into their territory. Kirk ultimately refuses to kill the Gorn captain, impressing the Metrons with this act of mercy. They return the captains to their respective ships and send them peacefully on their way, admitting that humanity shows the potential to overcome its violent tendencies … some time in the next few thousand years.


Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2)

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Teleplay by Joe Menosky; story by Philip LaZebnik and Joe Menosky; directed by Winrich Kolbe; first aired in 1991

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise D is sent to establish formal diplomatic relations (or try to, anyway) with the Children of Tama, a species who clearly want to communicate with the Federation, but whose language has been called “incomprehensible”. Starfleet’s universal translators can decipher the Tamarians’ words, but they speak in phrases that mean nothing to Picard (or to the audience, on first viewing), like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. After failing to understand each other, the Tamarian captain, Dathon, has himself and Captain Picard beamed down to a nearby planet, and his ship blocks the Enterprise from using transporters or shuttlecraft to retrieve them. An understandably confused Picard thinks Dathon wants an “Arena”-style fight to the death, but it soon becomes clear that Dathon wants the two of them to fight together, side-by-side, against a dangerous entity native to the planet. This, it turns out, is what Dathon meant by “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”, an allusion to a Tamarian story of strangers who become friends by facing adversity together. Dathon is ultimately killed by the creature, but Picard returns to the Enterprise finally understanding that the Tamarians communicate exclusively through metaphor and cultural references. He has picked up enough of these references from Dathon to explain to the Tamarians what happened on the planet, and to pay his respects for their fallen captain, leaving the door open for future communication between the Federation and the Children of Tama.

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In the first post I ever wrote for Trek vs. Trek, I was struck by the way The Original Series and The Next Generation could take a nearly identical premise – a transporter accident creating two of the same person – and build such drastically different stories around it: in “The Enemy Within”, a scenery-chewing William Shatner made a big, dramatic philosophical statement in classic sci-fi fashion, while in “Second Chances”, Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis played out a surprisingly small, personal story that commented on the ambiguity of adult relationships, and offered no easy answers to the questions it raised. Such different approaches to the same sci-fi idea are exactly why I started Trek vs. Trek, as they say something interesting, I think, about how Trek (and maybe sci-fi TV in general) has changed over time, and about the differences between The Original Series and The Next Generation more specifically. And these differences might never be clearer than they are in “Arena” and “Darmok”.

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Again, “Arena” and “Darmok” are both built on a strikingly similar premise: an Enterprise captain must fight to survive after being stranded on a planet with another captain from a mysterious alien race. And I’d find it hard to believe that the creative team behind “Darmok” weren’t conscious of this, given that “Arena” is arguably the most iconic episode, not just of The Original Series, but of Star Trek, period. If someone has only ever seen 5 seconds of Trek in their life, there’s a solid chance those 5 seconds came from “Arena”, and featured Captain Kirk facing off with the rubber-masked Gorn. This endearingly low-budget reptilian has become one of Trek’s most widely-recognized aliens, despite not appearing on TV again until Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 2” in 2005 (as rendered by some very mid-2000s CGI which, personally, left me wishing they’d kept that rubber reptile mask from the 60s). And however much fans like me might insist that Trek is about coexistence and cooperation and peace, the image of Kirk getting into manly fisticuffs in the California countryside – sorry, on an alien planet – in “Arena” (or “Shore Leave”, or “The Savage Curtain”) has probably done much more to shape mainstream culture’s understanding of Star Trek than the franchise’s utopian themes have.

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But after all the Gorn-fighting is over and done with, “Arena” does have a utopian message or two to share with us. The episode deals with the importance of communication, even, or especially, with those who seem very different from us, which is something else it has in common with “Darmok”, even if the two episodes approach that message in quite different ways. In “Arena”, even throughout the two big action set pieces that dominate most of its running time, the episode makes a point of showing us when communication with the Gorn is or isn’t possible. Their long-distance assault on the away team at the Cestus III outpost, in the first half of the episode, serves not only to keep their identity mysterious (and possibly to save the production team from having to make more than one rubber Gorn mask), it also makes communication impossible. Neither the away team nor the audience know who’s attacking, or why, which makes the destruction of the outpost feel all the more heinous, and makes Kirk’s vengeful blood lust seem less out of character than it might have otherwise, for those of us who remember him going out of his way to rescue someone who’d threatened his crew with death in “The Corbomite Maneuver”.

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The mystery aspect to all this builds suspense for the reveal of the Gorn captain, whose appearance, however low-budget its execution, is markedly more alien-looking than most of the species we’ve seen in Star Trek. But it also sets up the introduction of the universal translators, given to both Kirk and the Gorn captain by the Metrons. At first, Kirk uses his device simply to record a Captain’s Log of sorts, which serves more or less the same narrative purpose as his usual log recordings: it provides a beat-by-beat commentary, for the casual viewer, on Kirk’s MacGyver-like construction of some sort of crude bamboo bazooka. It’s pretty funny that Kirk’s first impulse in a crisis is to narrate that crisis, and it’s even funnier that it apparently never occurs to him that the Gorn captain can hear, and understand, every word of that narration, despite being told so, explicitly, by the Metrons. But once he does realize that the device allows him to talk with the Gorn captain directly, he quickly learns that the Gorn and his crew thought they were acting in self-defence when they attacked the Federation outpost. While Kirk still has to fight for his survival, this knowledge of the Gorn’s motivation immediately makes him less eager to take bloody revenge against them. Here in the first season of the first series of Star Trek, “Arena” is making a statement which, simplistic as it might be, would inform much of the franchise’s philosophy, going forward: an inability or unwillingness to communicate almost always causes problems, but when communication does happen, it almost always solves problems.

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And “Arena” builds on that simple statement with another, which is a staple of Star Trek’s philosophy in its own right: since communication isn’t always possible, we must be willing to show mercy, and to forgive, when that lack of communication results in misunderstandings. Granted, the Gorn’s deliberate slaughter of the entire Cestus III outpost, and their attempt to do the same to the crew of the Enterprise, is a pretty darn massive misunderstanding, which makes this message on the importance of mercy a tougher sell than it ought to be. I can’t help but wonder if the episode’s insistence on mercy for the perpetrators of a sneak attack on that scale feels more or less radical today, in this post-9/11 world, than it did in the late 60s (though Discovery would make a similar argument against dehumanizing one’s enemies at the end of its own first season, in 2018). But however well this message on the importance of mercy fits into the episode, tonally, it does illustrate something important about Trek which is often overlooked. The Federation isn’t meant to represent a version of humanity which has reached its final utopian state, but one in which people consistently work against their own destructive impulses to actively maintain a fragile state of utopia, or near-utopia. The Metrons make this explicit, by claiming that the Federation – a beautiful, hopeful paradise, from our perspective – shows promise, but will take a few thousand more years to be truly “civilized”.

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“Darmok”, coming around the mid-point of The Next Generation’s run, fully embraces the implications of this. It doesn’t necessarily challenge the overly simplistic message, from “Arena”, that more communication inevitably leads to better understanding; for that, I think, we would have to wait for Deep Space Nine, where no amount of communication could change the fact that the interests of the Federation were in direct, unresolvable conflict with those of the Maquis rebels, or that Gul Dukat simply couldn’t be trusted to set aside his own “alternative facts” and speak honestly, in good faith (making him the inspiration for the brilliant parody Twitter account, @realGulDukat). But even if “Darmok” still subscribes to the very, very optimistic idea that communication and understanding always go hand-in-hand, it at least acknowledges that communication can sometimes be really, really hard; that it can require an enormous amount of work, a great deal of time, and an honest desire to understand the other; and that even with all that time and hard work and the best of intentions, there are still no guarantees of successful communication. As Captain Picard says, “A single word can lead to tragedy, one word misspoken or misunderstood, and that could happen here, Data, if we fail.” The way “Darmok” recognizes and dramatizes this hard reality helps to make it both an unusual episode of Star Trek and, somehow, the quintessential episode of Star Trek (though you can feel free to take that grand pronouncement with a grain of salt, since “Darmok” is also my personal favorite episode in all of Trek).

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Again, I think “Darmok” walks that paradoxical line by embracing the idea, taken from the last moments of “Arena”, that the Federation is a utopian project in progress, not a finished, perfect paradise. This is an aspect of The Original Series that early seasons of The Next Generation often seemed to reject, suggesting instead that the 24th-century Federation really is a perfect, post-scarcity paradise (even if the specifics of how that paradise actually works are left infamously vague); TNG’s first episode states this explicitly, its plot revolving around Picard and his crew proving to the god-like Q that humanity has fully outgrown its baser instincts. But later seasons of TNG would give us episodes, like “The Drumhead” and “Ensign Ro”, which show a more fragile utopia, one that must work to stay utopian. “Darmok” doesn’t highlight a threat to utopia from within, like the admirals behaving badly in “Drumhead” and “Ro”; it shows us a Starfleet which really does take its mission of peaceful coexistence very seriously. Picard tells us, “In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination,” and he believes “that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure.” But as optimistic as this sounds, it’s striking that “patience” and “imagination” are the qualities he chooses to focus on. These qualities emphasize the time and work that go into maintaining a just and peaceful society, and the need for us to actively imagine the kind of society we want to live in, instead of expecting our own society to naturally evolve into something better. Picard is subtly telling us, here, that 24th-century humans get along with most of their alien neighbors not because that’s the inevitable future humanity deserves, but because these humans (and most of their neighbors, like the Children of Tama) work damn hard at it, and think seriously and imaginatively about it. And he makes this message a bit less subtle at the end of the episode, when he says, “The Tamarian was willing to risk all of us just for the hope of communication … connection. Now the door is open between our peoples.”

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Among the utopian elements of the Federation that tend to be taken for granted, and left unexplained, throughout much of Trek – like its post-scarcity economy, and the seemingly complete elimination of conflict and injustice on Earth – one that’s led to a lot of jokes is the near-miraculous ability of 23rd and 24th-century humans to communicate with almost every species they encounter. This is, first and foremost, a narrative device for allowing Trek to tell stories about alien encounters without spending valuable screen time explaining how those encounters are possible in the first place, and the questions this narrative device raises are largely technobabbled away by the existence of “universal translator” technology, like that given to Kirk and the Gorn by the Metrons. And for the most part, I’m fine with this, since I believe – and have written before – that most species in Star Trek are meant to serve as metaphors for how humans interact with each other, not to deeply, seriously explore what any future encounters with alien species might be like. But in the Children of Tama, “Darmok” gives us both of those things, simultaneously. The Children illustrate something interesting about how human communication works in the real world, while also asking a question Trek could, and maybe should, ask more often: what would it be like to encounter a species who simply see the world (or galaxy, or whatever) in a fundamentally different way than we do?

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Now, how successfully “Darmok” pulls off that last part can, of course, be debated. As much as my own love for this episode makes it hard to be entirely objective about it (to whatever extent that’s ever possible), I’ll admit that the Children of Tama aren’t fleshed out in a way that makes much sense if you spend any time thinking about how a society that communicates entirely in metaphors and cultural references might actually work. Would a Tamarian ship’s technical manual give instructions like, “To fire phasers, press the button that [insert proper noun] pressed in the battle of [insert proper noun] to defeat [insert proper noun]”? We’ll never know, since the highly-episodic nature of TNG, with its hitting of the reset button at the end of most episodes, means we never meet the Tamarians again, despite Picard telling us that “the door is open” between them and the Federation (in the same way that Kirk coming to understand the Gorn’s motivations in “Arena” is made less impactful by the fact that The Original Series would never mention the Gorn again). But, maybe unsurprisingly, I’m not too bothered by this, because whatever else they are, the Children of Tama are a refreshing reminder that the ability to honestly, truly communicate can never be taken for granted … a reminder that’s maybe never been more relevant than it is today.

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The idea of a “universal translator”, as appealing as it is, can come off a bit silly because it ignores the ways that language and culture are intertwined. Understanding someone’s language is one thing, but sharing a frame of reference with them is quite another. Just think about all the cultural and historical references you use daily with the people in your life, and imagine how nonsensical those references might sound to someone from another culture – let alone from another world – even if they understood most of your words. This is what we, the audience, experience when we first hear the Children of Tama speak. On first viewing, it’s genuinely disorienting to realize that the Children’s language is being translated for us, and yet we still don’t know what they’re talking about, thanks to all the proper nouns we don’t recognize, the metaphors we’re not in on. Not only does this paint a timeless picture of what language learning is like, it also speaks presciently to something that’s taken up more and more pop culture real estate since “Darmok” first aired in 1991: meme culture. The Tamarians have “Shaka, when the walls fell,” and we have a dog in a burning kitchen, insisting that “Everything is fine.”

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Much like the Internet itself, memes have the ability to simultaneously connect and isolate; they contain a great deal of meaning if you understand a single, very specific reference, and no meaning whatsoever if you don’t. Who understands a meme is at least as important as what’s understood, and much of the way we communicate, both online and off, now seems to follow that model, encouraging us to think more about who we agree or disagree with than what we agree or disagree with. I’m not trying to make a “both sides” argument, here; there’s no need to deal in good faith with people who have proven that they can’t be trusted to do the same. But the Tamarians’ inability to communicate with other species illustrates the downsides of spending too much time in an echo chamber. And unlike many of us, the Tamarian captain sees this for the problem it is – so much so that he is willing to die, if that’s what it takes for the Tamarians to escape their own echo chamber. His experience with Picard doesn’t guarantee that will happen, of course, but then that’s what “Darmok” adds to Trek’s take on cross-cultural communication: honest, open-minded, outward-looking communication never guarantees understanding, but at the very least, it carries the potential for understanding. Or, as Picard tells Riker of the Tamarians, near the episode’s end:

Riker: New friends, Captain?

Picard: I can’t say, Number One. But at least they’re not new enemies.

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Next week, we’ll take our first look at a new format for Star Trek, when we compare the first Short Trek, “Runaway”, with an early classic from Deep Space Nine, “Captive Pursuit”!

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