Episode 538: The Dead Author of Your Own Fiction

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we talk the famous Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” less than one month after its twenty-seventh anniversary. (Just go with it.)

Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather tackle the famous Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” on the slenderest of pretexts, considering metaphor as a metaphor for metaphor, as a metaphor for all human communication and artistic endeavor, and as a metaphor for human unity and cultural difference. Nobody is more surprised than us when we stick the landing here.

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8 Comments on “Episode 538: The Dead Author of Your Own Fiction”

  1. Margo #

    In watching “Darmok” my first question is always about what the Tamar technical manuals must look like.

    By coincidence I saw the episode recently. The scene where Picard gives the dying alien the super-abridged Epic of Gilgamesh with that great background music really got to me: “My friend in hardship and adventure is gone forever.” What a beautiful piece of acting. I cannot help but be cautiously excited about the new Picard series, even though the Star Trek franchise has been over-milked at this point. (Insert appropriate metaphor here.)


  2. Jens #

    Thank you for the fun and interesting discussion of this classic episode. One random piece of trivia that you might find interesting: if I correctly remember the secondary literature available at the time, the writers of the episode deliberately chose ‘Darmok’ as a phonetic reversal of the word ‘comrade’, as the entire episode was inspired by a historical lack of communication between the US and Russia.


  3. DeanMoriarty #

    While listening to this, I began to think about what Pete said as far as words or phrases that carry contexts with them that aren’t much thought about.
    For some reason, I started trying to come up with words or phrases that come directly from our shared culture of stories.
    Off the top of my head I thought of: Odyssey, tantalyzing, laconic, phyrric, sysphean, draconian. Granted in our language those words can have their own meaning without the stories they come from. But it made me think that maybe for these aliens these phrases work like words for us. So for them, a phrase, a metaphor, or reference, is the basic lexical unit of speech and cannot be broken down further in any meaningful way.
    Another thing that this episode made me think about is the oft quoted argument against this episode that with this kind of language, these aliens would not be able to tell new stories. But I think even from our own human cultures, we can see that it would not be hard for their stories to be told almost entirely through visual media. Even just information could be transmitted in a highly visual way.
    They have spaceflight, obviously they have streaming video. For all we know the story of Shaka when the walls fell is not a book, but a play or a silent epic movie. And a lot of the “arguments” they have with the enterprise are done via view screen. Perhaps this way of speaking only really took off after this civilization had the technology to communicate visually over distance. Maybe words were never at useful as other, visual, form of communications for them.
    The other thing I thought of is that it’s entirely possible that these aliens have way more metaphors they use and they use them faster. But they are talking to people who can’t understand them, so what we hear in the episode is their attempt to speak slowly to be understood. It’s like when an English speaker trying to speak to someone in a foreign language just keeps saying the same English word over and over, louder and louder. Thinking that volume and speed are what keep non-English speakers from understanding English rather than lack of knowledge of the language. I guess I’m suggesting that maybe the tamarians are actually just bad tourists.


  4. Daniel Ruffolo #

    On the subject of walking out of movies, I saw Sin City in theaters shortly after it came out, and during the scene where a certain person dies hard, somebody at the front of the theater starting shouting obscenities of disbelief the whole way through the theater, out of which they stormed.

    People often don’t quite realize what sort of production they are walking into.


  5. Three Act Destructure #

    I wonder how historocity and re-interpretation apply to this language. If, for example, a new governing body comes into power by claiming that it can make Tanagra great again, does this affect how the story is told and therefore what the metaphor expresses?

    What if Tanagra never existed and the Tamarians find this out? Or what if new archaeological evidence proves that Darmok never set foot there?

    Also, how does a Tamarian even discuss the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra if there are no simpler units of language which it can be broken down into? How could you have an argument about the Odyssey if the only words you could use were “the” and “Odyssey”?

    Language is a fickle thing, storytelling even more so. I’m speculating here but I wonder if these exact sorts of challenges have caused English publications, especially news articles, to reduce in complexity over time: using more but also simpler words to reach the apparently much desired 5th grade-level readership. Attempting to trim away unwanted interpretations by paring down the available word pool and leaning less on culturally understood stories and history to express ideas.

    So, yeah, Tamarians would probably not do well on Twitter.


  6. Stokes OTI Staff #

    We should make a social network called “Tamaria” which has the basic functionality of Twitter except that the only thing you can post are image macros of dialogue from ST: TNG. (Ideally you’d want a robust search mechanism, so if you want to tell someone that you love them you can type “love” and it’ll pull up thumbnails for every time someone on that show said “love,” and then you can pick which one you want to actually send.)

    Nobody would ever actually use this, but I feel like if we could *force* people to communicate in this way for a couple of years (maybe in some kind of Skinner Box scenario), the pseudo-language that they’d develop would be pretty amazing.


    • John C #

      With one alienating tweak, I think you could probably get people involved just to show that they know their stuff: Rather than images, the content can only be the character names and scene references, like…oh, let’s just find a script and dig out a real example…”Picard and Worf: Season 4, Episode 16, Scene 13″ for “I didn’t know we grew up in similar circumstances.” (http://www.st-minutiae.com/resources/scripts/190.txt)


  7. John C #

    I wonder how self-aware the episode was supposed to be, given how much post-Roddenberry Star Trek wants to tell us about the universe rather than telling stories about it, with a few episodes that almost try to get away with dramatic readings of the Technical Manual…

    The other episode that has this sort of potential meta-narrative is much earlier, introducing the Moriarty character (“Elementary, My Dear Data,” I guess?), that has the bit mocking storytelling that just recycles old plot points to make “new” stories, which is funny in a season that’s still partly “Star Trek: Phase II” scripts with the names changed. And then the episode changes metaphors, but I still prefer to believe it’s trying to tell us that any truly original trope would just murder us all to secure its freedom.

    Back to “Darmok,” though, I wonder how much Ernst Cassirer went into the script. If I remember “Language and Myth” correctly, at least one premise is that a lot of metaphysics (magic, gods, etc.) is a metaphor for fears of the day, and the mythology springing up around those metaphysical elements influences the language around those fears.

    Hm. You know, the nature of language and translation highlighted in this episode suggests a fun kind of (“tech manual”) thriller Star Trek spin-off: The Federation is edging closer to war with its neighbors and internal politics between member worlds are getting worse, until we discover that somebody has been manipulating the technology behind the universal translator to divide people by messing with the nuances and metaphors during discussions.

    The main plot would, obviously, be trying to figure out why this is happening and who’s responsible, but would also provide an excuse for “National Geographic” episodes showing the team relearning how to communicate with allies and enemies without the use of untrustworthy mediator technology and coping with the increased danger. And, obviously, this could also return to the franchise’s social satire roots (since Discovery may be abandoning that role) by digging through the equivalents of social media, fake news, big data, advertising, and so forth.


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