our mythical reality, live at Tanagra

So I’ve been chewing over this article (Ian Bogost’s ‘Shaka, When the Walls Fell’, at The Atlantic) since it was linked really heavily in my Twitter feed back in June. Then, in October, CBS Action launched its service on UK Freeview, just in time to show S4/S5 in its primetime rotation of Star Trek: TNG1 And that was pretty much that. I had to talk about ‘Darmok’.

and Jalad, at Tanagra, yes, okay.

I’ve felt really compelled to talk quite a bit about Star Trek lately, though I am scared everyone will scream NERD and run away in horror. But I saw Trek on three different UK channels in October (yay!), and I am more than okay with that situation, and feel compelled to Say Things. ‘Darmok’ seems a good place to continue this (though I recently watched ‘Space Seed’ and have a LOT of thoughts on Marla McGivers and Khan).

I don’t really want to directly address Bogost’s take, because while I think he’s probably right in at least some ways (my understanding of psycholingustics is not nearly sophisticated enough to say for sure)2. I have a far different sort of take when it comes to this episode and the language of the Children of Tama.

To put it simply: LESS LOGIC MORE FEELS PLEASE. All the thinky about allegory and what allegory is, which I don’t entirely agree with, and all the stuff about how the language works, is interesting but seems to me to mask a big picture analysis. Darmok’s generally treated by a lot of fans as a really nifty thought experiment and/or touching story about communication. That’s fine, but I felt, somehow, that I needed to keep digging.

a picture of Jean-Luc Picard holding a guitar, with text that reads 'Darmok & Jalad at Tanagra September 1991', made to look like a concert promo. art by nerdvana clothing.
this is a t-shirt by nerdvana clothing…and I would not be sad if it were purchased for me, just sayin’.

Firstly though, a bit of complaint: The episode doesn’t entirely make sense, nor does it have a ton of internal continuity, but that’s symptomatic of Trek overall. I will say that in rewatching ‘Darmok’, I find it a little hard to understand how someone with Picard’s diplomatic skills and resources wouldn’t get what’s going on a little more quickly.  Also, Riker is a douche throughout; I accept he’s under stress, but he knows as much or more than Picard does about how the Children of Tama communicate, and he doesn’t handle his frustration worth a damn. Shoot at them, okay, that makes sense. golfclap.

In other words, why the hell didn’t the Enterprise crew scour the texts, which they apparently had, and try to determine some of the context? You know Darmok and Jalad are at Tanagra, which is an island–so how would you not look to see how they got there and how (if at all), they left? There’d be a lot of nuance missing, yes. But that could be worked out, as Picard works out with Dathon via their experiences. Dathon really is the cleverest of all of them, Picard included–he knows what it will take to get the message across, through the bloodymindedness of the Federation, even as dangerous a prospect that that is.

But…and here I set my frustrations with the structure of the episode aside and actually get to why I like ‘Darmok’…

Understanding is dangerous. Comprehension, even if incomplete, of other cultures and languages, even simply of other people’s points of view, is a painful process, but it’s an utterly necessary process. It’s critical to our survival as a species.

There are a lot of people–like Riker, like Dathon’s first officer–who are obstructive to that, whether out of willful ignorance or frustration or hidebound convention to their own ways, are unable to cope with this.  There are people who try to understand, and fail, like Troi, because the concepts are new and their existing methods of processing the world don’t work.

And even with people who try, they’re often wrapped up in their own sense of how the world works, and within the hegemony. It takes time and effort and will to get past that, but as it was for Picard, it’s the only way to actually survive.

This is not to say that people, particularly marginalised people, should hand-hold and spoonfeed to their own detriment. Certainly not to the point of being mauled to death by a phasing monster-beast.3 The burden needs to be on the privileged, and they need to make a fucking effort.

Incidentally: Bogost doesn’t really pick up on the issues of what having a mythopoetic allegory based system would do to that culture’s understanding of reality and how any marginalised folks would express themselves. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but as I understand it, a myth only tells one side of a story and often the meaning is either commonly ‘understood’ (read: set by the dominant culture) or open to such interpretation as to have varied meaning.  If one considers what myths would go into a language like English, there’s quite a bit missing due to the nature of the Western ‘canon’. There’s something to be said for being able to express an idea in words, and marginalised people are regularly criticised for not being able to express themselves in an ‘understandable’ or ‘acceptable’ way, because of tone or word choice or structure. Could an allegory-based language where a specific meaning is commonly held appreciate differences in thought beyond wiggle room? What if there were ideas that were not covered, could not be covered?

Probably something for an essay of its own.

To sum up, my feeling is that ‘Darmok’ is itself an allegory.4  It’s a rather beautiful, though somewhat imperfect, myth about human interaction and our failures and successes to comprehend each other. It’s about the limits of the theory of mind and how we need to push those to succeed.

That’s my takeaway from ‘Darmok’, and I kinda doubt that that’s entirely what the Menosky/LaZebnik writing team was entirely going for, as my view on the world is not theirs. But that’s cool. Unlike Borgost, I feel no need to despair, no need to refer to Shaka, when the walls fell. If anything, ‘Darmok’ gives me hope that there are always going to be people who want to try, and that trying is worth something; even when it hurts, even if there are losses necessary to arrive at something better.

The world (and galaxy) are far more worthwhile when we look at it critically, when we try to comprehend others: when our minds are as Temba, his arms outstretched.


  1. CBS Action television schedulers: if you’re reading this, show more Trek of all kinds and far less NCIS and Nash Bridges, please. 

  2. Hence my ‘sorta think probably some’ language. 

  3. They never do say what that being is except a means to an end, which I find frustrating. What if the phasebeast just wants to have a quiet day without two alien dudes using their own space trying to come to a philosophical understanding? 

  4. We need to go deeper. BRAAAAAAAAP. 

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