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.
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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.”

While Riker and Laforge attempt to find a way to disrupt the Tamarian polarity coil responsible for the particle beam, Counselor Troi and Commander Data make some progress unpacking Tamarian communications:

RIKER: I'd prefer to find a peaceful solution. If we can talk our way out of this—so much the better.

TROI: Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

RIKER: What have you found?

TROI: The Tamarian ego structure does not seem to allow what we normally think of as self-identity. Their ability to abstract is highly unusual. They seem to communicate through narrative imagery—by reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts.

TROI: It’s as if I were to say to you “Juliet. On her balcony.”

BEVERLY: An image of romance.

TROI: Exactly. Image is everything to the Tamarians.

As their conversation continues, Troi, Crusher, and Data observe that even with this new structural understanding, without a knowledge of the mythical origins of the figures that comprise the Tamarian language they have little hope of understanding the sense of their speech. But on the planet’s surface, Picard has the good fortune of a first-hand account that fills in some of the blanks.

Paramount

PICARD: Our situation is similar to theirs. I understand that. But I need to know more, you must tell me more, about Darmok and Jalad. Tell me, you used the words “Temba, his arms wide” when you gave me the knife and the fire. Could that mean “give”?
 (makes arm motions) Temba? His arms wide. Darmok. Give me more about Darmok.

DATHON: Darmok. On the ocean.

PICARD: Darmok on the ocean. A metaphor, for being alone, isolated. Darmok, on the ocean.

DATHON: (cries out in pain)


PICARD: Are you alright?

DATHON: (waves him off) Kiazi’s children. Their faces wet. Ughhh.

PICARD: Temba, his arms open. Give me more about Darmok on the ocean.

DATHON: Tanagra, on the ocean. Darmok at Tanagra.

PICARD: At Tanagra. A country? Tanagra on the ocean, an island! Temba, his arms wide.

DATHON: Jalad on the ocean. Jalad at Tanagra.

PICARD: Jalad at Tanagra. He went to the same island as Darmok. Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra.

DATHON: The beast at Tanagra.


PICARD: The beast? There was a creature at Tanagra? Darmok and Jalad, the beast at Tanagra. They arrive separately, they struggled together against a common foe, the beast at Tanagra, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

DATHON: Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.

PICARD: They left together. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.

DATHON: The ocean. (then, in pain as Picard comes closer) Zinda! His face black, his eyes red! (then, shooing Picard away) Kalimash, at Bahar.

PICARD: You hoped that something like this would happen, didn’t you? You knew there was a dangerous creature on this planet and you knew, from the Tale of Darmok, that a danger shared, might sometimes bring two people together. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. You and me, here, at El-Adrel.

As Dathon succumbs to his injuries, Picard returns the favor by recounting the earthly tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, doing his best to frame their similar tale in Tamarian syntax, “Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At Uruk.” As Dathon breathes his last, the Enterprise crew finally retrieves Picard, although they had to attack the Tamarian ship to do so, which has retaliated in force. As red alert sounds, Picard enters the bridge and consummates his new linguistic expertise. It’s a scene no fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation will soon forget.

PICARD (as he moves): Hail the Tamarian vessel.

WORF (touches controls): Aye, Captain.

TAMARIAN FIRST OFFICER: Zinda! His face black. His eyes red—

PICARD: —Temarc! The river Temarc. In winter.

FIRST OFFICER: Darmok?

PICARD: …and Jalad. At Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.

FIRST OFFICER (to others, amazed): Sokath! His eyes open!

PICARD (continuing): The beast of Tanagra. Uzani. His army. (shaking his head) Shaka, when the walls fell.

            The aliens again face Picard. Picard takes the small

            book — the Tamarian captain's “diary” — and holds

            it out in his hand.

            The Tamarian First Officer glances at one of his

            officers, who touches a console. The book is

            immediately DEMATERIALIZED, MATERIALIZING next to the

            alien First Officer. He picks it up, showing it to

            Picard.

FIRST OFFICER: Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.

FIRST OFFICER: Mirab. With sails unfurled.

            Picard extends the Tamarian dagger toward the First

            Officer, offering it back to him.

PICARD: Temba. His arms open.

FIRST OFFICER: Temba at rest.

PICARD (almost to himself): Thank you…

* *  *

Shaka, when the walls fell is a likeness of failure for the Children of Tama. It’s also not a bad alternative title for the “Darmok” episode, for the Federation never really grasps Tamarian communication, despite their declared success in making contact with the race and forging a path to future relations.

Picard calls it metaphor, and Troi calls it image. For the Federation crew, the Tamarians cite examples that guide their understanding of and approach to the various problems they encounter on a day-to-day basis: as Picard puts it, by citing “a situation similar to this one.” Science fiction often plays with alternate methods of linguistic understanding, and this is familiar territory: The alien is incomprehensible, but in a way that can be overcome through reason and technology.

But there’s a problem: Metaphor and image are not accurate descriptions of the Tamarian language’s logic. A metaphor takes one thing as a symbol for something else: Juliet’s balcony acts as a figure for romance, Darmok and Jalad as a figure for communion through shared struggle. Even though Troi means “image” as a synonym for metaphor when she says “Image is everything for the Tamarians,” she also implies vanity in Tamarian speech. From the perspective of her declarative speech, the Tamarians are putting on pretenses, covering over a fundamental thing with a decorative one.

The Federation’s desire to see Tamarian speech as a process of copying one form into another is a uniquely earthly one, even when sieved through Star Trek’s historical futurism. As Troi and her crewmates see it, Tamarian verbalisms depict the world through images and figures, which distort their “real” referents. Troi and Picard can’t help but interpret Tamarian through their (and our) cultural obsession with mimicry: Metaphorical language operates not by signification, but as poetry, by transforming the real in a symbolic mirror.

But for the Tamarians, something far weirder is going on, precisely because their language is not a curiosity for them as it is for the Federation (and for us television viewers). Calling Tamarian language “metaphor” preserves our familiar denotative speech methods and sets the more curious Tamarian moves off against them. But if we take the show’s science fictional aspirations seriously and to their logical conclusion, then the Children of Tama possess no method of denotative communication whatsoever. Their language simply prevents them from distinguishing between an object or event and what we would call its figurative representation. 

One of four 14th century Franciscan allegorical frescoes by Giotto, in a vault of the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi. This one depicts chastity, locked safely in a castle's keep, where only angels can enter.

Allegory might have been a better term for explaining Tamarian. While metaphor represents one subject as similar to another object, allegory replaces one with another entirely. Allegory’s veiled language is powerful, because allegories effectively freeze time, making a historical or fictional scenario immortal. Allegory is what makes it possible for us to continue to derive lessons from the Old and New Testaments, week after week, homily after homily.

The 20th century literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin lamented this property of Baroque allegory in particular, suggesting that it swaps out historical myth for present-day concerns. As Benjamin puts it, “Evil as such exists only in allegory… and means something other than it is. It means in fact precisely the nonexistence of what it presents. The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers are allegories. They are not real.” When we talk about evil in the allegorical sense—the serpent of the Garden of Eden, or Sauron’s eye in Mordor—we do so as a replacement for addressing the more ambiguous, palpable instances of evildoing in the present. For Benjamin, the allegorist rejects the world in order to embrace allegory, and in so doing it strips art of politics.

But the Tamarians’ version of allegory, if that’s indeed the right name for it, cuts both ways. On the one hand, it fetishizes myth in the manner of allegory, but on the other hand it musters that myth in the interest of serious sociopolitical action, as evidenced by Dathon’s willingness literally to die in the name of myth. So Benjamin’s concerns about the abandonment of the present don’t seem to apply to the Tamarian situation, offering further doubt that allegory is the best way to describe their communication process.

Despite the episode’s popularity, the Star Trek fan community (being a science fiction fan community, after all) has issued numerous gripes about “Darmok.” The most interesting of these is a general disbelief in the technological prowess of the Tamarians. How could a race that thinks in allegory ever accomplish faster-than-light space travel? Just imagine the day-to-day work of designing, constructing, or maintaining a complicated machine like a starship. The Tamarians seem to be incapable of saying something like, “Hey Bob, can you hand me the ¾" socket wrench.” Given this inability to discourse pragmatically, why should we suspend disbelief in the first place?

Yet, if we take the episode at its word, not only is the Tamarians’ technology on parity with that of the Federation, but it might even be more advanced. The Tamarians were able to scramble transport signals across El-Adrel IV’s ionosphere, and their ship was clearly capable of destroying the Enterprise at the end of the episode had Picard not restored diplomatic relations just in time.

Bob, his socket engaged (Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker)

But what if the Tamarians abstract worldview is precisely what facilitates advanced technological and social practice, rather than limiting it? Watching the episode carefully, the “Darmok” approach appears to be an afterthought, a new idea that strikes Dathon as he realizes the planned diplomatic approach, Rai and Jiri at Lungha, would gain no purchase with the Federation. Likewise, the first officer’s objections to Darmok are both earnest and unrehearsed—he knows exactly what Dathon is talking about, and he doesn’t like it. But once the captain has asserted his authority (“The river Temarc, in winter”), no further instruction was necessary. The crew transports the two captains to the surface, erects the particle field in the planet’s ionosphere, and fends off the eventual Enterprise retaliation.

The skeptic might point out that these omissions in the teleplay are necessary given the compressed structure of the 45-minute television episode, and that just because we don’t see further instructions take place doesn’t mean they haven’t done. It’s equally possible that the Tamarians had already gone over the Darmok approach during their weeks-long orbit above El-Adrel IV, and that the first officer’s objections are rehearsals of an earlier argument that goes unseen during the action depicted on screen. 

Given an absence of evidence either way, why not choose the more aggressive interpretation: Everything that takes place on the bridge of the Tamarian vessel during the episode is encapsulated into the single move, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” So dense and rich is Tamarian speech, that these five words are sufficient to direct a whole crew to carry out an entire stratagem over two days’ time, and not by following a script, but by embracing it as a guiding abstraction.

As Troi explained, the Tamarians’ possess a sophisticated aptitude for abstraction. This capacity responds to fans’ skepticism at the Tamarian’s technological prowess. The Children of Tama would not be delayed by their inability to speak directly because they seem to have no need whatsoever for explicit, low-level discourse like instructions and requests. They’d just not bother talking about the socket wrench, instead proceeding to the actual work of building or maintaining the vessel.

By contrast, consider how the Enterprise engineering crew attempts to overcome the Tamarian particle interference field in their attempt to retrieve Picard from the surface of El-Adrel IV:

Paramount

GEORDI: Matrix levels.

LEFLER: Annular convergence holding at four three nine point two oh five. Confinement resolution at point five two seven.

GEORDI: That isn't gonna do it. Increase thermal input coefficient to one hundred fifty-percent.

LEFLER (working console): Increasing now...

GEORDI: Shunt the overload to the phase transition sequencers in transporter one.

LEFLER: Yes, sir.

While the episode doesn’t provide a Tamarian mythical equivalent, we can speculate on how the Tamarians would handle a similar situation. While I suppose the explicit directive to adjust thermal input by a specified amount might be rendered allegorically (some Tamarian speech is narrower than others), it’s equally likely that the entire exchange would be unnecessary, subsumed into some larger operation, say, “Baby Jessica, in her well.” The rest is just details.

While his declaration that they speak and think in metaphor is most memorable, Picard offers another account of Tamarian during his encounter on the surface. Before encountering the beast, Dathon makes the recommendation, “Uzani. His army. With fist open.” Picard reacts, “A strategy? With fist open…”

“Strategy” is perhaps the best metaphor of all for the Tamarian phenomenon the Federation misnames metaphor. A strategy is a plan of action, an approach or even, at the most abstract, a logic. Such a name reveals what’s lacking in both metaphor and allegory alike as accounts for Tamarian culture. To be truly allegorical, Tamarian speech would have to represent something other than what it says. But for the Children of Tama, there is nothing left over in each speech act. The logic of Darmok or Shaka or Uzani is not depicted as image, but invoked or instantiated as logic in specific situations. In some cases, apparently, this invocation takes place with limited transformation, such as in the application of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra depicted in the episode’s main plotline. In other cases, those logics are used in situations with more play, as when Dathon reassures Picard after the former’s injury, “Kiazi’s children. Their faces wet.” 

Here we might distinguish between the invocation of a particular logic and the simulation of a creature, thing, or idea by replicating its image. The simulation of life in art often concerns the reproduction of surfaces: in painting, the appearance of form, perspective, or the rendition of light; in literature the appearance of character or event; in photography and cinema the rendition of the world as it appears through optical element and upon emulsion or sensor; in theater the rendition of the behavior of a character or situation.

While all these examples “simulate” to various extents, they do so by a process of rendering. For example, the writer might simulate a convincing verbal intercourse by producing a credibility that allows the reader to take it as reality. Likewise, the actor might render a visible behavior or intonation that is suggestive of a particular emotion, event, or history that the theatrical or cinematic viewer takes as evidence for some unseen motivation.

A logic is also a behavior, but it is a behavior unlike the behavior of the literary or theatrical character, for whom behaving involves producing an outward sign of some deeper but abstracted motivation, understanding, or desire. By contrast logics are pure behaviors. They are abstract and intangible and yet also real. 

If we pretend that “Shaka, when the walls fell” is a signifier, then its signified is not the fictional mythological character Shaka, nor the myth that contains whatever calamity caused the walls to fall, but the logic by which the situation itself came about. Tamarian language isn’t really language at all, but machinery.

* * *

Since we don’t know very much about Tamarian history and culture, it’s hard to say much about how their conceptual machinery works. But we do have an earthly metaphor by which we might understand it: computation.

When we think about the kind of representation that computers enact, we typically commit our own Shaka, when the walls fell error. Computational media are generally seen as an extension or acceleration of existing mimetic methods. Take computer graphics as an example. We see computer images as extensions of photographic or filmic representation. In both Hollywood digital video effects (which are offline rendered to achieve high resolution and detail) and in computer games (which are real-time rendered to facilitate player interaction), a variety of algorithms produce two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional scenes that, at their best, reach a level of credibility that can be mistaken for reality.

This take on computational representation sees the computer as a new method for producing appearances, the images that fascinate the Enterprise crew in “Darmok,” and that fascinate us by means of their broadcast as television. But we err in taking visual appearance as a primary replacement for reality.

In CG films, we don’t notice this problem—computer images just become yet more frames of film. But in computer games, realism is always more than just a visual affair. In a 3D game, movement through a real-time rendered world can produce a sense of place, not just an image. Yet, the thoughtful player will quickly find an enormous chasm between visual realism and other sorts of realism in computer games. For example, the appearance and sensation of being in Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City initially suggests enormous verisimilitude, until the player attempts to enter a building that turns out just to be a Potemkin stand-up, or to interact with a non-player character whose verbal and physical actions amount to a few repeatable lines of stock dialog and a pathfinding algorithm that helps steer her around the player’s avatar.

In computer graphics, ray tracing calculates the color and appearance of rays that will reach the viewer via a virtual camera positioned to look at the scene (Wikimedia Commons user Henrik)  

So, while we think that computer graphics represent the world “as it appears,” instead they mimic the logics of visual verisimilitude themselves more than they do the logics of the real world. The method of producing 3D computer graphics known as ray tracing works by carrying out linear perspective painting in reverse, rendering light from back to front and hiding areas where that light will not meet the position of the virtual camera due to obstacles. Ray tracing algorithms produce the rationale of Renaissance perspective, to exact mathematical specification. Computation doesn’t represent the world so much as logics from the world, just like the Tamarian language doesn’t reproduce the figures so much as the processes of its cultural history.

Take SimCity as a parallel example. There have been many editions of this city construction and management simulation game, but all of them share the same features: tools to zone and construct infrastructure in a physical environment, including roads and rail; housing, commercial, and industrial sectors; electrical and other infrastructure; and services like police and fire, along with taxation, advising, and management tools to run the city on an ongoing basis. Playing the game involves a combination of construction and operation, a dynamic that led its creator Will Wright to compare the experience to gardening.

What city does SimCity represent? Not New York or London or Valenciennes or Albany, for recreating particular cities proves difficult in the game. Nor does the game simulate the role of mayor (even if its interfaces and paratexts sometimes refer to the player as a mayor), since no mayor has the arbitrary power to create and destroy as the SimCity player does. Nor is it the Platonic ideal of a “city,” since some types of cities are more and less feasible within the SimCity simulation. New urbanist mixed development is impossible, social welfare-style taxation policy is impossible, and rail-based mass transit always leads to faster growth than road-and-freeway automobile transit. In this sense, even though large SimCity cities may “look like” credible urban environments, they don’t bear much resemblance to any actual city. Dense, modernist cities demand mixed-use development and increased infrastructure and services; sprawling middle-American metroplexes rely on slow, historical growth in suburbs that draw commercial activity away from and then back to city centers; neither type of city is possible in the game.

A player’s attempt to approximate New York City in Sim City 2000 (EA/Maxis)

If it mimics anything, SimCity characterizes a particular logic of urban planning, one that most closely resembles the urban dynamics model of Jay Forrester, an inspiration Wright has himself acknowledged. Urban dynamics emerged out of Forrester’s post-war research at MIT in system dynamics, an approach to the interactions between industrial systems and social systems in large organizations. Originally a project integrating management and engineering, by the late 1960s Forrester had the accident of sharing an office with former Boston mayor John Collins.

As a result of this encounter, in 1969 Forrester published Urban Dynamics, a controversial account of urban policy that took the form of a model that Forrester and his students also implemented in computational form. (One example of its controversy: While low-income housing might seem to offer succor to the poor, Forrester’s model suggests that such development creates a poverty trap that stagnates an urban district, forcing it deeper into poverty rather than leading it toward prosperity.) While Forrester’s computational design goals entailed prediction intended to drive policy, Wright’s adaptation of Forrester’s urban dynamics was mostly a matter of convenience: It offered a formal logic for urban behavior that could be abstracted and implemented in the form of a creative work.

Unlike a painting or an actor’s performance, the game does not recreate outward appearances (crime, high rises, property values, and so forth), but the logics that then produce those appearances. Rather than translating logics into descriptions or depictions, computational representation like that of SimCity translates logics into logics. It embodies a particular take on how cities work through a computer program that makes them work that way. In my book Persuasive Games I call this technique “procedural rhetoric”—the use of computational processes to depict worldly processes.

“Darmok” gives us one vision of a future in which procedural rhetoric takes precedence over verbal and visual rhetoric, indeed in which the logic of logics subsume the logics of description, appearances, and even of narrative—that preeminent form that even Troi mistakes as paramount to the Children of Tama. The Tamarian’s media ecosystem is the opposite of ours, one in which behaviors are taken as primary, and descriptions as secondary, almost incidental. The Children of Tama are less interesting as aliens than they are as counterfactual versions of us, if we preferred logic over image or description.

Paramount

At the end of “Darmok,” Riker finds Captain Picard sitting in his ready room, reading from an ancient book rather than off a tablet. “Greek, sir?” Riker asks. “The Homeric Hymns,” Picard responds, “One of the root metaphors of our own culture. “For the next time we encounter the Tamarians…” suggests the first officer. To which his captain replies, “More familiarity with our own mythology might help us relate to theirs.” A charming sentiment, and a move that always works for Star Trek—the juxtaposition of classical antiquity and science-fictional futurism. But Picard gets it wrong one last time. To represent the world as systems of interdependent logics we need not elevate those logics to the level of myth, nor focus on the logics of our myths. Instead, we would have to meditate on the logics in everything, to see the world as one built of weird, rusty machines whose gears squeal as they grind against one another, rather than as stories into which we might write ourselves as possible characters.

It’s an understandable mistake, but one that rings louder when heard from the vantage point of the 24th century. For even then, stories and images take center stage, and logics and processes wait in the wings as curiosities, accessories. Perhaps one day we will learn this lesson of the Tamarians: that understanding how the world works is a more promising approach to intervention within it than mere description or depiction. Until then, well: Shaka, when the walls fell.

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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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