Darmok (original airdate: September 30, 1991)
Written by Philip LaZebnik and Joe Menosky
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
This is probably my favorite episode of Star Trek: TNG because it represents the very core ethos that Gene Rodenberry set out to show the world. The most simple description of this episode is two people who do not share a language must find a way to communicate or they die. The story is so beautifully executed, and I would argue it is a perfect episode.
Starfleet equips its ships and officers with universal translators, which from a metatextual standpoint, is simply a workaround in the writing to not have to deal with subtitles and new languages. The writers of Darmok acknowledge the translator but posit a question: What would happen if the words translated made no sense to the person hearing it? They are sentences made of words, but they seem meaningless or disconnected from the conversation. This is how the Tamarians speak when they meet the Enterprise, so Picard & company have an insanely difficult time trying to make sense of it all.
The phrase that the title comes from is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a piece of writing that is memorized by devout Trekkies. As you watch the episode and eventually, like Picard, learn what this means and develop an understanding of all the other phrases uttered by the Tamarians, something amazing happens. You learn how to understand an alien culture and communicate with them.
We almost didn’t get “Darmok” on the air, though. It took two years of development, and producer Rick Berman hated the whole premise. Showrunner Michael Piller loved it and helped get it developed further, eventually finding a way to bring in the Epic of Gilgamesh as a vital piece of the puzzle. Picard’s encounters with the Tamarians leads to a closing scene where he is going back over the writer of Homer, pointing out the importance of connecting with our past to understand the trajectory of our present. This is another excellent starting point for new fans, an episode where you can enter into the story without any knowledge of the continuity and backstories.
Ensign Ro (original airdate: October 7, 1991)
Written by Rick Berman & Michael Piller
Directed by Les Landau
While the Borg may have gotten most of the mainstream attention for TNG, they developed other interesting alien races that went on to become the inspiration for Deep Space Nine. These are the Cardassians and Bajorans. The relationship between these two quickly evokes metaphors of the Nazis & the Jews or Israel & Palestine. Even the United States government & Native peoples work. I don’t think the Cardassians & Bajorans represent any one of these, but they create space to explore the reasons why and the ramifications of one culture oppressing another.
In this episode, Starfleet transfers Ro Laren, a rebellious Bajoran ensign onto the Enterprise. She was court-martialed previously for not following orders in a situation that got eight crew members killed on her former assignment. However, because she Bajoran, she provides a valuable resource in negotiations with Bajoran rebels who are attacking Federation colonies as a result of their displacement by the Cardassians. Ro clashes mightily with Picard, but the two slowly learn more about each other and develop mutual respect.
What I loved about this episode was the complexity of the situation. Lots of things are assumed about Ro without really engaging her in a dialogue. She has a very different view of Starfleet, the Federation, and her own people. As this came out in the 1990s, which saw President Clinton seeking some sort of peace between Israel and Palestine, it reminds us that these sorts of territorial negotiations are not purely efforts of procedure and policy. You must take into account the cultural backgrounds of communities when seeking a solution.
Unification Part 1 (original airdate: November 4, 1991)
Unification Part 2 (original airdate: November 11, 1991)
Written by Jeri Taylor, Rick Berman, and Michael Piller
Directed by Les Landau and Cliff Bole
Spock meets Picard. That’s the crux of this two-parter. Sarek, the father of Spock, dies, but before he passes, he implores Picard to find his missing son and help with the development of the Romulan Empire into a more egalitarian collective. While this was a monumental meeting in the Star Trek universe, it was also a cross-promotion for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which came out a few weeks after Part 2 aired. Spock even makes mention of his role in negotiating the treaty with the Klingons, an event that the Star Trek movie would tell in detail.
While this episode is mostly about Spock and his work as an ambassador to Romulus, it also features the return of Commander Sela, last seen in the season premiere. She is the brains behind a plan to solidify the Romulan Empire while weakening the Federation and causing chaos amongst that organization’s allies. When we last see Sela, she is unconscious on the floor but alive, and then…she never pops up or is mentioned again.
Apparently, Sela was a creation of the actress Denise Crosby who wanted to return to the show in a recurring role. She and the writers got together and came up with the daughter of the parallel universe Tasha Yar who showed up in “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Once the character was introduced, and the intrigue began to wear off, none of the writers really knew where to go with Sela. So she was left knocked out on the floor of her office on Romulus. Some novels attempt to continue Sela’s story, but I won’t be reading those, so there’s no real closure for this character. I think some angles could have been explored about Sela’s mixed heritage and that her mother is someone who shouldn’t have existed. But this is it for the story of Tasha Yar & Sela.
Cause and Effect (original airdate: March 1992)
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
This is one of those brilliant time travel episodes that is messing with the audience right from the cold open. We watch the Enterprise encounter an anomaly, an old vessel emerges from the rift, and they both blow up. But then Dr. Crusher wakes up on a completely fine Enterprise going about her day. As the episode progresses, we come to the point we saw in the opening, and the ship is destroyed. Only to cut to Dr. Crusher waking up, so on and so on. There are slight changes with each iteration that the audience might notice before the characters realize they are trapped in a time loop. The moment the characters understand what is happening occurs during the officers’ poker game in such a perfect scene as they start to rattle off the series of cards that will be laid out, suddenly realizing they have done with before countless times.
This was writer Brannon Braga’s attempt to do time travel stuff without using an altered timeline that had come up before in the series. Jonathan Frakes was handed directing duties and said his biggest challenge was filming the same scenes with the same dialogue over and over while trying to add slight hints that each loop was slightly changed. This is sort of the most experimental episode of TNG to come up in this series, and it genuinely had me wondering where the story was going in a positive and intrigued way. Once I picked up on the micro-changes in the loops, it became an even more fun watch. There is also an absolutely genius use of Data in this story that uses his unique nature as a cyborg to further enhance the time loop.