Today we turn to Star Trek, I originally posted this on the ooze, but I decided I wanted to share it here also.
Those who avoid Star Trek like the plague have probably, on the whole, saved themselves from a lot of wasted time. There is one episode from TNG (Next Generation) which is a beautiful parable about faith and evangelism and communication and meaning and and and and ... I still weep with joy at the ending (yes, I am that pathetic).
I am going to summarize the episode, but if you have access to the full season DVD sets, you'll be far better served by going straight to the source. The episode is in season five, and is titled Darmok
The Enterprise is zooming across the galaxy answering a request for a meeting with a ship from a race known as the "Tamarians" or "Children of Tamar". This race has encountered the Federation a few times in the past, and each time communication has been impossible.
As the Enterprise orbits the planet El-Adrel, the Tamarian ship hails the Enterprise and we see, on the main view screen of the Enterprise, a bridge of the alien ship, full of aliens with things glued to their foreheads.
The Tamarian captain begins speaking in a very friendly, slow paced voice: "Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray."
Captain Picard gives befuddled look to Troi, his ship's counselor, and he replies in English, slowly as if speaking to someone who doesn't understand English very well, "Captain, I invite you to consider the creation of a mutual non-aggression pact between our two peoples. Possibly leading to a trade agreement and cultural interchange. Does this sound like a reasonable course of action?"
Now it is the aliens turn to look confused and puzzled. After some more incomprehensible dialog on the alien ship, the Tamarians beam Picard and the Tamarian captain (Daithon) down to the planet's surface, and turn on the plot-device which prevents the Enterprise from using their shuttlecraft or transporter to get Picard back.
On the Enterprise, a frantic series of attempts to reconfigure and re-route things fails to get Picard back, meanwhile Data and Troi analyze the log of the Tamarian's conversation and discover that the Tamarian's communication is a series of references to legends and myths, with each reference carrying a meaning. For example "Juliet on her balcony" might be an image of love and yearning. They are also frustrated because they realize that since there is no shared history or mythology, there is no way to know what the Tamarians are saying.
The Tamarians plan all along has been to create a shared story, by beaming Picard and the Daithon down to a dangerous planet, they hope that as they overcome the obstacles there, that a bridge will be built.
After a lot of difficulties (including the death of the Tamarian captian), Picard finally gets it, and in the final scene, he beams back on the the Enterprise and speaks to the Tamarians in their own language, much to the amazement and joy of the Tamarians. "Picard and Daithon, at El-Adrel"
Here's what I like
It makes me laugh to watch Picard's first attempt at communication and see the puzzled looks on the Tamarians faces. This is so like what happens when we tell people that because God is good, they are doomed to burn in flames forever.
I cringe with pain as Data and Troi use computers to analyze the Tamarian speech. So sure of their ability to analyze, they completely miss the point as they pick at the structure and form of language without ever coming near the meaning.
It is pleasing to think of communication being as connection of narratives, each one bringing a new richness to the dialog that extends way beyond the words used to communicate.
I love that Picard had to leave the Enterprise with all the technological toys, become powerless, and enter into a shared experience with the Tamarian in order to learn to communicate.
Finally, in the last scene Picard stands in the window of his ready room, holding the knife given to him by the Tamarians, he touches the knife and then his forhead in a gesture he saw the Tamarians do when they learned their captain had died. It seems so clear and beautiful that if you live this way, you will be changed by those you communicate with.