Shaka, When the Walls Fell

culture, Linguistics, psychology 2 Replies

I have to admit, I’m a life-long fan of Star Trek. I grew up watching reruns of The Original Series, went through Secondary School (High School) with Picard in The Next Generation, thoroughly enjoyed the myth-building in Deep Space Nine, and wound down with Janeway in Voyager. We shall not speak of Enterprise here…

Now, The Next Generation had a number of woefully bad episodes. Some were just egregiously sexist and racist, many were just terribly written, and almost all were awfully costumed. But in *concept*, most of them were a fairly decent story idea. Most. One in particular stands out, and (perhaps because of this?) it seems to be the most quoted The Next Generation episode: Darmok.

A short synopsis is that the Enterprise crew attempt to communicate with another species who communicate entirely in metaphor. Thus the Universal Translator can convert what they’re saying into English (I’m assuming), but it fails to convey any meaning due to lack of context. An example would be me attempting to communicate something by saying “David, at the exam”. You have no idea if I mean success, or failure, or lateness, or elation, or whatever.

And this is, I think, the worst episode concept in the history of Star Trek. Bar none. Yes, really.

Just imagine, for a moment, having to communicate entirely in metaphor. You can’t give directives. No “please come here”, or “Fill out your time sheet by the end of business today”, nor “Please go to the store and pick up some eggs”. You’d need to think of a story whereby Character A moved towards Character B, state that characters name plus sufficient information to specify the scene involved, hope dearly that the other person that you’re speaking to knows the story, understands the context, and then moves accordingly. How would you send someone for groceries using Shakespeare?

And it gets worse: how could you possibly communicate mathematics through metaphor? Explain function transformations by means of Beowulf? I’ve read a lot of books in my time, and I’m at a loss. The best I could do is quote from Plato’s ‘Meno’ and hint that I want someone to draw a square…

What we have, in this episode, is a space-faring race that entirely lack the communication tools to build any kind of infrastructure. At all. And it frustrates me (mildly, I’ll admit) when people seem to keep quoting it as if it was a good episode.

Granted, it appears that I’m not the first to have thought about this: Christopher L. Bennett wrote a short story which included this species, and fleshed out their culture a little, though his fleshing out leaves a lot to be desired. Hey, I’m not going to rule out the possibility of expressing multivariable equations through the use of music, I’m just going to humbly suggest that without either interrogative or stipulative grammar structure, education is all but impossible. Moreover, how did the people in these stories communicate? One could take the charitable interpretation that they just used stories that have since fallen out of fashion, but how did language evolve in the first place? The nonsense that is this concept is overwhelming.

This particular story is bad writing. It’s as bad as Lietenant Yar deciding to have sex with Data, and it’s as bad as Janeway ‘hyper-evolving’ because the ship she was in went to Warp 10: it’s just bad science.

I’m sure my friends will continue to quote this episode the future, and I’ll keep my disappointment to myself. But my disappointment is vast, and I can think of only one way to express that in a way that they understand:

Shaka, When the Walls Fell.

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2 thoughts on “Shaka, When the Walls Fell

  1. Kevin

    I enjoyed it. There is nary an episode that doesn’t fall apart completely under the weight of scrutiny but I think the heart of this episode was in the right place and much of the acting was solid.

    But your post here to me says one thing: You see no way this alien culture could function and I always thought that was the point. They defy that kind of understanding.

    I accept that because this was written by people the actual mechanism of the metaphor thing was super weak. But they fudge the tech at least this mcuh all the time.

    In any case I can’t really think of a better way to represent the crew coming up against something that simply could not be comprehended from a human perspective. They were, to my mind, about the only aliens that weren’t just humans in makeup.

  2. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the episode too. 😛

    I just get frustrated when people are quick to bemoan “obvious” sci-fi nonsense, but happy to embrace psychological nonsense. 😉

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