Shaka, When the Walls Fell

In one fascinating episode, Star Trek: The Next Generation traced the limits of human communication as we know it—and suggested a new, truer way of talking about the universe.
The opening scene of “Darmok,” the second episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Paramount)

On stardate 45047.2, Jean-Luc Picard leads the crew of the Enterprise in pursuit of a transmission beacon from the El-Adrel system, where a Tamarian vessel has been broadcasting a mathematical signal for weeks. The aliens, also known as the Children of Tama, are an apparently peaceable and technologically advanced race with which the Federation nevertheless has failed to forge diplomatic relations. The obstacle, as Commander Data puts it: “communication was not possible.”

Picard exudes optimism as his starship courses through subspace. “In my experience communication is a matter of patience, imagination,” he beams to his senior staff. “I would like to believe that these are qualities which we have in sufficient measure.” But after hailing the alien ship upon arrival, contact with Children of Tama proves more difficult than Picard imagined:

DATHON, the Tamarian captain: Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Umbaya. Umbaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray.

(no response from Enterprise, looks at First Officer in frustration)

(slowly, deliberately) Rai and Jiri. At Lungha.

In the Star Trek universe, a “universal translator” automatically interprets between any alien language instantly and fluently. Unlike today’s machine translation methods, the universal translator requires no previous experience with another language in order to make sense of it. Such is the case with Tamarian, at least on the surface, as the Enterprise crew is able to comprehend the basic syntax and semantics of Tamarian utterances. “The Tamarian seems to be stating the proper names of individuals and locations,” offers Data, stating the obvious. But Picard quickly sums up the problem, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”

Picard’s reply to the Tamarians sounds especially staid to the viewer’s ears after having heard the aliens’ exotic prose: “Would you be prepared to consider the creation of a mutual non-aggression pact between our two peoples? Possibly leading to a trade agreement and cultural interchange. Does this sound like a reasonable course of action to you?” His questions cause the Tamarians as much befuddlement as their litany of names and places does the Federation crew. The Tamarian first officer offers the only honest reaction of the lot, a scornful scoff, but he is quickly silenced by his captain:

FIRST OFFICER (laughing): Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.

DATHON: The river Temarc.

The officers immediately stop their laughter—as if ordered to.

DATHON (continuing; for emphasis): In winter.

DATHON: Darmok.

            The First Officer looks very concerned—objects.

FIRST OFFICER: Darmok? Rai and Jiri at Lungha.

DATHON (shrugs): Shaka. When the walls fell…

FIRST OFFICER: Zima at Anzo. Zima and Bakor.

DATHON (firm) Darkmok at Tanagra.

FIRST OFFICER: Shaka! (indicating situation) Mirab, his sails unfurled.

DATHON: Darmok.

At this point, the Tamarian ship transports its captain, Dathon, along with Picard down to the surface of El-Adrel IV. Dathon has brought along two Tamarian daggers; the bridge scene suggests they carry some ceremonial significance. The Enterprise attempts to retrieve Picard, but the Tamarians have alrady created a particle scattering field in the planet’s ionosphere, making teleportation impossible.

On the surface, Dathon tosses one of the daggers to Picard, who misunderstands, thinking he’s being incited to fight. Meanwhile, first officer Riker makes the same error up in orbit. He attempts to contact his Tamarian counterpart, only to be reminded: “Darmok at Tanagra.” “Your action could be interpreted as an act of war,” enjoins Riker. His counterpart laments to his colleagues, “Kiteo, his eyes closed,” before responding to Riker, “Chenza, at court. The court of silence.” He closes the channel.

As night falls on the surface, Picard fails to make a fire while Dathon lounges comfortably around his roaring blaze. Dathon throws Picard a torch, incanting, “Temba.” After first misunderstanding that Temba might mean fire, Dathon clarifies,  “Temba, his arms wide.” And Picard begins to fit the pieces together, “Temba is a person. His arms wide…because he’s…he’s holding them apart. In, in…generosity. In giving. In taking. Thank you.”

As morning breaks, Dathon rouses Picard. “Darmok! Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” he entreats, but Picard still doesn’t know what to make of it. An ominous roar is heard from afar, and Picard finally accepts the weapon Dathon had been offering earlier. Picard wants to run (Dathon interprets this gesture with a phrase we’ve already heard, “Mirab, with sails unfurled”) but Dathon shakes his head. “Shaka, when the walls fell.” Picard makes another tentative discovery, “Shaka. You said that before. When I was trying to build a fire. Is that a failure? An inability to do something?”

As the unseen creature nears, Dathon attempts to take control of the situation.

DATHON: Uzani, his army at Lashmir.

PICARD: At Lashmir? Was it like this at Lashmir? A similar situation to the one we’re facing here?

DATHON: Uzani, his army with fists open.

PICARD: A strategy? With fists open?

DATHON: His army, with fists closed.

PICARD: With fists closed. An army, with fists open, to lure the enemy. …with fists closed, to attack? That’s how you communicate, isn’t it? By citing example, by metaphor! (demonstrates that he understands) Uzani’s army, with fists open.

DATHON: Sokath! His eyes uncovered!

The two proceed with this plan, but just as Picard is about to distract the monster so that Dathon can attack, the Enterprise executes an attempt to retrieve their captain, having found a way to disrupt the ionospheric interference temporarily. Absent Picard’s foil, the strategy fails and the creature pounces upon Dathon, badly injuring him. The transporter effort fails anyway, and Picard rematerializes on the planet’s surface. He runs to Dathon who struggles in pain, “Shaka,” he begins, and this time Picard completes the thought, “when the walls fell.”

Presented by

Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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