Season Five proper gets underway with this episode, in which a unique and
very bizarre linguistic stunt attempts to underpin the drama in
a disappointingly formulaic Trek action plot.
As I am a very keen student of the basic grammar of a wide variety
of real Earth languages (in other words, Klingon excluded), you might guess
that this story would be just my thing. But no.
I consider this episode decent, but I don't much care for it half as much
as most other fans seem to. The bottom line for me is that I really
don't find the premise of it to be very believable.
The race we meet here, known as "The Children of Tama", could never
properly function in precisely the way they are presented here.
Perhaps to begin to look at them properly, I think we need to look at
what does work about them. Buried in the middle of the show is a really
good bit of detail that gives us our best handle on something that might work.
It is said that their psychological make-up features an underdeveloped ego,
and that they thrive on citing example as both a means of not only
communicating, but also thinking. That's absolutely fabulous, and I'd
go with that concept 100%. Now, where would that lead them? I'd say
that's justification enough for them to develop a language where everything
is expressed in the third person. In other words, they never say "I"
or "me" or "you" or "us" or "our". They can only conjugate verbs
for "he, she, it" and "they". I can swallow the premise enough
to go that far with it.
But to limit their communication to the point where they can only manage
a litany of proper names as they attempt first contact with another culture....
No, I'm sorry, this renders them far too BACKWARDS to be able to build
spacecraft and fly around the galaxy. Such a form of communication
would indicate a society in great regress, their ideas recycled back upon
each other and suffering Beaudrillard's decay of meaning with each iteration.
They could not possibly grow within such a strict limitation.
We should also notice here how they don't really stick to that strict limitation
throughout the whole episode. Their stories are embellished with a lot of
phrases with proper third person grammar. And in fact, how could you ever
revel in or express any of these high-level ideas of communication such as
mythological tales and examples without first developing the lower level
stages of communication like words, verbs, nouns, and the grammar that puts
One of the great missing pieces of the puzzle for this episode's credibility
is the concept of education in the society of the "Children of Tama".
How do they teach their children all these mythological stories, and pass on
the meaning of so many different proper names, to the point where they
can enjoy a spacefaring technology? We can, of course, come up with a number
of answers to that question, but then logically, those answers also need to
show up in the episode, as things that Captain Dathon might attempt with
Picard and crew. Would they not show them videos, or put on plays,
or at least attempt an exchange of literature or something? A Rosetta stone
for their language? Could they not have tried beaming over a copy
of Dathon's Captain's log, instead of having Picard steal a glimpse of it
by accident on the planet?
Indeed, it is the sequence of methods that the "Children of Tama" use to
attempt communication which doesn't quite ring true. Remember, they start
off on a brilliant note, sending a signal containing a simple mathematical
progression. This demonstrates that, not only do they understand mathematics,
but also that they are capable of thinking about what they might have in
common with other species, and that they recognize the importance of starting
with the simple basics (grammar falls into this category) before building
up to the higher levels of advanced communication (mythological metaphor
depending on proper names falls into this category).
So now, can we really believe that a society would be space-faring and intelligent,
begin contact with mathematics, proceed with a litany of proper names upon
and.... here comes the real kicker:
ignore all kinds of other sensible approaches, to instead
resort to one of the most boring and overused
Star Trek action plots instead.?!
Holy cow! This is perhaps my biggest beef with the episode. I really don't
like episodes that trap one of the regular characters on a planet against
their wishes, predictably for the middle 80% of its screentime. It puts my
emotions on automatic disengage, and I want to fast-forward to the end of the show,
when you know they'll finally be allowed to come back unscathed. TV Trek has
been overusing that formula since it began in the sixties. Today's example
of forced bonding through a shared hardship is filled with a lot of other
overused dramatic clichés as well, most icky of all being the reverence
surrounding the pointless noble sacrifice of Captain Dathon's life by the writers.
Not very original, and to my tastes, not satisfying at all.
A friend of mine remarked what a shocking moment it was when Picard was
caught in the transporter beam, and frustratingly couldn't help his new found
friend and ally. I was a bit less than impressed, having seen another example
that engaged my emotions to a far greater degree in
Part 8 of "The Trial of a Time Lord"
(and really, do watch the earlier 7 parts first or the moment won't have
the proper impact).
Also quite prominently making its debut in this story is a new piece of
wardrobe for Picard: An outer jacket in his traditional red colour code for
command, which hangs loose enough to reveal the very dull bluish-grey
basic tunic underneath. Although the jacket idea is okay, I was never
too enamoured with the outfit, particularly the dullness of the undergarment,
which left Picard sporting the wrong colour in many jacket-less scenes later
in the season. It seems a bit bizarre for him to be wearing such an "outdoorsy"
outfit at the beginning of this story, as though he knows in advance that
he's going to be captured and suddenly end up on the planet. Plus, as with
many of the other old Trek clichés getting another tired outing
in this episode, he follows one of Kirk's great traditions in getting
his new shirt ripped and thoroughly ruined while having his exciting
action adventure, and then it is miraculously replaced for the
rest of the season. Time to sigh, do a faceplant, and empathize with Kif
No, this story just didn't do it for me. It's not bad in some ways,
gives you something interesting to think about, and has a number of
worthy scenes that work. But I think to really explore the central
idea properly and do it justice, the society of "The Children of Tama"
needs to be fleshed out much better, and the episode needs a completely
different plot that believably suits that society.
This early season five gimmick didn't produce all that great an episode
in the end.