The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

A Race that Communicates Entirely in Metaphor

One of the best episodes of the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was an episode in which the Enterprise is sent to negotiate with an enigmatic race known as the Tamarians, who are notoriously difficult to communicate with. When communication fails altogether, the Tamarians in a last-ditch effort to build a relationship, transport their Captain Dathon and Enterprise Captain Picard to the surface of a planet on which a strange beast dwells. The Tamarian captain keeps saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” over and over, which Picard cannot understand. Eventually, it becomes clear to Picard that Dathon is attempting to communicate something through these odd turns of phrase.  He comes to understand that in Tamarian folklore, Darmok and Jalad were two hunters who met on the island of Tanagra, where they fought and defeated a beast and became friends. Picard realizes that the two situations are meant to be the same and that the alien captain’s intent is to build relationship through mutual struggle. The strategy takes a tragic turn when Dathon succumbs to wounds sustained fighting the beast.

Throughout the episode, both Picard and the crew of the Enterprise above, as each tries to resolve this crisis, describe the alien mode of communication as being “through metaphor.” In the end, when Captain Picard is able to communicate with the alien vessel using the metaphors he has learned from Dathon, it is a triumph for him and for both species, now on terms of friendship. As the alien ship is about to depart, the officer in command says, “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel,” indicating that the struggle here will live on as an example in the future. The episode is one of the most poignant and meaningful of the entire series and has long been a fan favorite.

There’s just one problem: the aliens aren’t communicating through metaphor. They’re communicating through allusion. There’s actually not a single metaphor spoken by the aliens throughout the entire episode. Ironically, the humans use them throughout:

  • “Is there any way to get through to them?”
  • Close the channel, Mister Worf.”
  • I’m betting they’re not going to push it that far.
  • I’ll take that course when it’s the last one left.
  • The apparent emotional dynamic does seem to support that assumption.
  • The name clearly carries a meaning for them.
  • We will have tipped our hand to the Tamarians.
  • Open a channel to the Tamarian ship.
  • They have closed the channel.
  • Now the door is open between our peoples.

It is we humans who communicate through metaphor. And we do so all the time.

1 Comment

  1. Kate

    I was not familiar with this episode of Star Trek before reading this post last week, but since then, I’ve see it references two more times. In a poignant tweet

    "Pooh?" said Piglet. "Yes, Piglet?" said Pooh. "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," said Piglet. "Shaka, when the walls fell," said Pooh.— Michael G. Munz (@TheWriteMunz) November 17, 2015

    And in an article at *The Atlantic*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *