Star Trek TNG: Darmok

I have been continuing my rewatch of Star Trek The Next Generation and am now up to Season 5. I have found another episode called ‘Darmok’ that strongly related to my own challenges and experiences of Autism.  This is a 14-part thread and please Boost if you enjoy reading.

In this episode as described on, [Captain Picard] is captured, then trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language incompatible with the universal translator. They must learn to communicate with each other before a deadly planetary beast overwhelms them”.

This is a challenging episode to describe given the communication difficulties but as someone experienced in explaining Autism, I may be able to pull it off with you – even if you haven’t seen this episode.

The communication challenges the crew have with the aliens they encounter in this episode is they can’t find meaning to the aliens’ words. Even though individual words and sentences have been translated to English by the computerised universal translator the aliens still make no sense.

These challenges aren’t dissimilar between an Autistic and a Neurotypical person.  Neurotypicals are very successful at communicating nonverbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. Many Autistic individuals have difficulty in expressing non-verbal communication. Autistics can be judged incorrectly from their communication because things like their voice tone and facial expressions aren’t perceived to complement what there trying to express.

The Enterprise and the aliens fail to communicate. It’s almost like the aliens speak in riddles and vice versa of English to them. The alien captain utters the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” then beams himself and Picard from the Enterprise to the uninhabited planet below without consent. The aliens employ countermeasures to prevent the Enterprise communicating with Picard and are unable to rescue him. Picard and the Enterprise perceive this as a hostile act. Though they do not want war.

Upon beaming down on the planet, the captain of the alien ships faces Picard holding two knife-like weapons drawn. He hands one of the knifes to Picard and repeats “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. Picard refuses as he assumes the captain wants to face him in combat. We later come to understand the alien was actually trying to befriend him or be some kind of ally on this strange planet.

When I communicate with people I don’t consciously make eye contact though I’m more capable of it than some Autistic people. One thing I particular struggle with is my voice tone. Sometimes I am misinterpreted for being aggressive when I am just stressed or anxious from socialising whilst communicating. I could relate to how the alien captain may have felt from being rejected by Captain Picard in this instance. Like Picard I have learnt to be more careful in what I can control in my communication.

During nightfall on the planet it becomes cold. Picard is unable to make a fire but the alien captain makes one for him and says “Temba, his arms wide.” Picard thanks the alien captain but obviously has no understanding. In the morning the alien offers Picard a knife again and says “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. Picard eventually relents when he hears a loud animal like roar from a distance. Picard understands the knife is so they can defend themselves from the creature.

Picard and the alien captain are attacked by the creature. The alien is severely injured. Picard finally understands these aliens communicate by citing example in metaphor. It seems that Darmok and Jalad were two legendary figures, strangers who faced and defeated a common enemy on the island of Tanagra. Much like the alien and Picard are doing on this alien planet. Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh to the alien, a human hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology from 2500 BCE.

Sadly, the alien captain dies from his injuries but his sacrifice has enabled the first successful communication between his people and the Federation.  The Enterprise crew manage to overcome the alien ships countermeasures and beam Picard back to the Enterprise. In order to prevent combat with the alien vessel Picard addresses them with metaphors relating from Darmok and Jalad to him and the deceased alien Captain. Both ships leave peacefully.

As an Autistic I could relate to the dyeing alien captain in having to make social sacrifices to communicate. I am less capable of social nuance and social niceties in my communication. So, my directness and blunt style of communication rarely makes me popular.  Though I must balance my own needs from being met and to the greater good of others. This is where I can encounter much misunderstanding and exclusion.

At the end of the episode Picard is reading ‘Homeric Hymns’ which is a collection of Ancient Greek poems in the style of Iliad and the Odyssey. He explains to Riker that familiarity with our own mythology may help communication with these aliens in the future.

As I have strived to learn about myself and the culture of people I felt what Picard said could be true between Autistic and Neurotypical people. Much of Western culture originates from Christianity, Roman and Greek civilisation. In my own journey to interpret the Bible and Ancient Greeks I have found new meaning in the origins of why people behave the way they do today. That is our shared heritage. It can help make sense of our relative sensibilities today.

Overall, this episode teaches the communication difficulties we can all face in all walks of life such as between governments as well as any possible new life we encounter in the future. Autism research and support services today are dominated by non-autistic people. Genuine social inclusion with the acceptance of neurodiversity may lead to new understanding beyond Neoliberal thinking and one of social justice for Autistic people.