WHEN THE ORIGINAL Star Trek series got rebooted back in the 1980s as Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was delighted. In those days, science fiction was not well represented on television. I gritted my teeth through some truly awful episodes during the first season or so of TNG, and became a fan of what turned out to be quite a long and successful franchise (if we include the three spin-off series, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, the Star Trek TV reboot endured more than twenty seasons).
While a lot of it was just fun to watch, one of the things I admired about the series was the writers’ willingness to grapple with perennial human and social problems while telling tales of grand adventure. (As I’ve said elsewhere, I think this is what the best science fiction always does). Although the more topical episodes were seldom the best in terms of pure entertainment value, nonetheless some of them were truly memorable.
“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”
The episode that has stuck with me most persistently is one that I admired more for what it attempted than what it achieved. I’ll pass over its defects and concentrate on what I find compelling about this episode, “Darmok.” Captain Picard and his crew encounter an alien race called the Tamarians. This is not the first time representatives of the United Federation of Planets have encountered this race, but it is the first time they have tried to enter into serious discussion with them. This is because, although Starfleet’s vaunted universal translator can render any alien language into Standard English, even in English, what the Tamarians have to say doesn’t seem to make much sense.
It takes Picard and his crew a painfully long time to figure out what must have been clear to most television viewers very quickly: the Tamarians communicate solely by literary references, allusions to the great epic tales of their culture. Because he does not know the stories from which these cryptic quotations are taken, Picard has trouble understanding what his Tamarian counterpart means by such enigmatic references as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms open wide.” When it is almost too late , the Starfleet captain finally understands and tries to communicate his understanding and goodwill in terms the alien will appreciate—he tells him the story of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu (watch clip), which parallels their own relationship in some notable ways. Having finally made this cultural connection, Picard is able to end the standoff between the alien commander’s ship and the Enterprise, even though the alien commander has died — but only because he is able to bridge the cultural gap between them. Watch:
Cultural Literacy Matters
When I first saw this episode, I was deeply struck by it, despite the fact that the plot, in many ways, just didn’t make much sense. At the time, I didn’t know what exactly it was that made such an impression on me, but several years later I found myself teaching a college course called Humanities in the Western Cultural Tradition, and I remembered that Star Trek episode, and even fantasized about it to my students on the first day of class, as a kind of apologia for the course. I wanted them to become conversant in our great cultural tradition, not only because doing so would feed their souls but also because it would allow them to converse with all the preceding generations for whom these cultural references were full of meaning and wisdom. I wanted to be able to teach them great works from our western cultural tradition and allow them to see the wisdom and truth to be found there—“Sokath! His eyes open!”
Cultural literacy matters. The past is not dead and lost; important parts of it live on from one generation to the next. I wanted to convey to my students (and now to you, too, dear reader) a sense of just how vital it remains, particularly for anyone who wishes to believe himself “educated.” These stories are (or, at least, have been until recently) deeply embedded in our culture, and they have given that culture its form. To know these stories well is, in some sense, to know ourselves, not merely as atomistic individuals but as members of something larger than ourselves, something much older and (God willing) more durable than our own personal tastes and meager efforts.
In the epilogue of the “Darmok” episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard arrives at a similar conviction about the importance of understanding one’s own culture. We see him sitting quietly reading a book, which turns out to be a volume of the Homeric Hymns in the original Greek (what a Renaissance man!). Had I ever shown this episode to my students, that scene would have been the kicker: even in the distant future, the ancient past will still be “relevant.”
So, as I continue to work on other things, I will try not to neglect this blog’s ongoing discussion of the great (and sometimes merely good) literature of the Western tradition, as well as contemporary works that I think will be of interest to my readers.
Here are some of the works I hope to be writing about over the coming weeks and months:
- Graeco-Roman epics, including The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and perhaps Beowulf as well
- Medieval Arthurian Romance, including Chretien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail and the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- The works of Flannery O’Connor and other modern Catholic authors
- St Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and his City of God
- Philosophical works, including Plato’s Republic, Cicero’s De republica (chiefly The Dream of Scipio), and Thomas More’s Utopia
- Catholic social teaching, beginning with Rerum Novarum
Are there any “great classics” you would like to have illuminated? If you have any suggestions or requests, please mention it in a comment below.
If you’d like to read an extended analysis of the “Darmok” episode, take a look at this article from The Atlantic.