I’ve been watching the third season of Picard over the past few days. The ever-intrepid Patrick Stewart is preparing for the finale in the penultimate episode now. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced my suspenders of disbelief so stretched out by the load of handwavery and ad-hoc chewing-gum plot-fixes. I hope they manage to hold up my trousers of awe until the end.
I’m loving it. Even when I’m shouting at the screen, I’m loving every minute.
I’m having a hard time giving season 3 a chance after the first two. Like, I keep hearing good things, but I decidely did not have a great time, especially in season 2. At the same time, I feel like I typically can trust both of your opinions in this regard.
When the bar gets too low, favorable comparisons begin to lose any meaning. “At least my Mother’s meatloaf was better than Soylent Green” tells you little about the relative quality of my Mother’s cooking.
I’m not there yet. I’m saving the last episode for tomorrow. However, I did blink away a tear as the old geezers stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise-D. And then I laughed through the mist when Picard/Stewart joked that he really missed the carpet. (Fun fact I got from Wikipedia: apparently rebuilding the bridge-set was a real problem, what with the detail-obsessed nitpicky fanbase. The hardest parts were the curved desk behind the Captain’s chair, the one where Worf is always standing, and the precise placement of the carpets. Little in-joke there.)
In the firefight right before that, someone could just as well have been standing at the entrance to the Enterprise with a sign reading “TNG-crew only.”
The line between characters and actors is very thin in the second half of that episode. I imagine they were all a bit touched IRL for seeing the Enterprise again.
You’re of course completely right about the technobabble and hatpulls in the series. I found it even heavier here though. Maybe because it’s not a monster-of-the-week episodic series but a single story arc. It looks like they saved up the entire backlog of plotholes and missing explanations, and decided to address all of them in the first half of the penultimate episode. (And a bit in the one before that too.)
Season 3 is the best of the Picard series in my opinion. But for a large part that’s down to it leaning so heavily on the nostalgia of getting the old crew together again. More objectively, I do think it’s structured more tightly than the previous seasons, with two well-developed (as in “could have been a stand-alone two-parter in TNG”) story arcs feeding into each other.
Mind you, I had a total blast with seasons 1 and 2 also, so I may not be the right person to recommend any of them as particularly good. The pushback against Picard makes me think that many fans are longing for a standard of quality that exists only in their fond memories but which TNG never actually attained except for a rare few episodes (Moriarty, Locutus, the trial about Data’s personhood, and a personal favourite: Darmok…)
Most of TNG, and I say this with great love and tenderness, isn’t that good.
(Bottles up the fact that it’s my favorite Star Trek episode from all of the series)
I mean, the language probably isn’t directly taught to the children. The children probably learn phrases from context, and might not understand the words individually. Shortening the phrases would be like a kind of slang.
But the phrases are composed of words or some other linguistic units that are clearly arranged according to some grammatical rules (otherwise how would the universal translator translate them as grammatical sentences?). Why would the aliens be so language-inept that they couldn’t compose other sentences when they realized they weren’t being understood? Why did they expect other people to understand their history?
Probably a bug in the translator, which would have required more data and context to function, if I really need to come up with something resembling a plausible.
But I feel like that’s missing a much deeper point that people surprisingly don’t point at way sooner…
It actually baffles me that this kind of problem isn’t used more in the show, considering how many idioms and phrases there are in English, which rely on historical knowledge or context. Even in English, though, people just put the words together to exert meaning, and don’t always know the origins of the phrase. Can you imagine what Klingon could referencing in their phrases, based on how important history and legacy are to them??
Honestly, when it comes to how the universal translator works, I just shrug and move on as a rule. The story could have had any alien language to drive the story, but the writers needed something which would specifically break their mysterious universal translator, which had completely trashed all other language-barrier stories like this, just for their own convenience.
The writers realized that they had created a world that makes such stories impossible, but wanted to tell this kind of story anyway, and as someone who is a huge fan of language barrier stories, this episode is my all-time favorite, because it explores a world where the universal translator doesn’t work.
I am already rolling my eyes and calling out issues with the universal translator well before this episode even enters discussion, so I’m not going to start calling out more issues with the universal translator here, to specifically pick apart an episode that shows what Star Trek could have been without it.
This is an episode where the writers take a moment to have some self-awareness about how crazy that plot device is, and take it off of the table for a while.
Late reply because dinner happened, but a few more thoughts occurred to me in the meantime.
If I’m still working within the vague functions of the universal translator, then I think I still answered with this:
The aliens are not aware of their own language when it comes to individual words, but the translator is. It could be that the translator knows the language better than the native speakers do.
A child might conjugate their sentences, and not understand why, other than “this is just how you say it”. Meanwhile, a linguist could tell you the precise rules that govern the child’s language.
I don’t think they expected anything. They are isolated, and didn’t exactly create their own language a few years before Starfleet arrived. They think this is completely normal, just like how English speakers are taken by surprise when there are languages that don’t have words for “left” and “right”. The speakers of that language didn’t remove “left” and “right” from their language just to be difficult to English speakers. Similarly, an alien language—which abstracted itself to the point where individual words and grammar are lost to native speakers—isn’t spoken with the expectation that others should learn their history. In fact, these speakers might not even know their own history. They might have just memorized a wide number of phrases that are associated with meanings, all without any historical context.
Maybe a linguist from their civilization could do this:
But the general population might literally not be able to. It could be that they didn’t happen to have a linguist aboard. These aliens didn’t seem to have a mission of building a Federation of their own; they were isolated. They might have thought “Oh, these outsiders have technology that understands other languages. This means that we must be understood. Maybe they’re just stupid?”
They wouldn’t have any other misunderstandings with aliens to use as data. It’s their civilization compared to what they observed from the rest of the galaxy. Unless another alien race solved this problem already, they might not recognize the symptoms of “our universal translator is making mistakes”.
Maybe the one who went to the planet with Picard was the only one who realized “Wait… The behaviors of the outsiders might not be rude or stupid if their translator is failing them. Maybe somebody should compose other sentences to make our speech more clear. Too bad we don’t have a linguist handy, because we thought the outsiders were just being rude to us.”
It might have been a completely novel idea, and a wild theory. If I was faced with an alien species, my first question would be “Do you even use verbal language to convey ideas”, much less “I assume your body language and actions are informed by the exact same body language and motives I fail to understand in my own species.”
Other countries have different body languages, too. If you can’t read the face of the alien, and cannot understand the language of the alien, you really have nothing to go on that could tell you they have a universal translator, much less that their universal translator isn’t working.
And this is just if I’m playing within the fuzzy rules of the show.
Yeah, most of the idioms and metaphors we use are entirely opaque to us nowadays! For example, when you’re surprised, you’re “taken aback”. What does that have to do with your back?
Well, you see, in older English you could put a- on the front of any noun to mean “to that direction”, so “ahead” is toward your head, “across” is in the direction that crosses something, “along” is in the long direction, and so on. So “aback” originally meant “toward your back”.
When you’re sailing, you want the wind to be pushing your sails away from the mast, that’s the direction that’ll make you move. If the wind’s blowing the sails into the mast, then you’ve got the sails rigged in the wrong direction to go anywhere, and you need to fix that. (Note: I know nothing about sailing, I may have messed up the details here.) Since that’s the back of the sails, the sails would be said to be aback.
So if you’re in a naval battle, and your enemy has their sails set the wrong way, they’ll be taken aback: caught with their sails aback and not able to move very well. And so we started using this as a metaphor in other contexts: you’re “taken aback” if you’re caught in a situation you weren’t prepared for and can’t respond quickly.
Of course, if the universal translator can understand “taken aback”, it should be able to understand those other metaphors too. But this can easily be explained! If the translator’s been trained on a much older version of the language (maybe the Federation made first contact centuries ago), it might know the literal meanings of a lot of these words, but not how they’re actually used in modern speech—it could tell you that “a-” means “in the direction of” and “back” means “reverse side”, but would have no idea how people actually use “aback” nowadays. It would know that “behind” is formed the same way (“be-” + “hind”), but have no idea why “taken behind” means something totally different from “taken aback”.
It’s less about a stable situation where you have the sails rigged wrong and more that the wind shifted or you didn’t coordinate the sails with the steering and the wind tipped from one side of the sails to the other, stopping/slowing the ship suddenly, potentially swinging the sails around violently, putting unusual sudden strains on the mast, etc. So the saying makes even more sense: getting taken by surprise and not responding quickly enough.
I have an out-sized reaction to it because I thought it was eh, and everyone else talks about it like it’s the greatest thing ever. And yeah, there’s always squidgy stuff, but usually those are just ways to keep the plot moving along (like reversing the polarity of a tachyon field), whereas in Darmok the squidgy part was the point of the episode.
That may be a better way to put my feelings about TNG into words.
I have a half-written manuscript and a pile of notes somewhere in my parents’ attic. They were for a rather bland cliché fantasy story (ill princess, find the McGuffins, save the realm) I wanted to write as a kid. One chapter was at least partly inspired by Darmok: a monastery where the monks only communicated by quoting Scripture, book and verse, at each other. So: instead of “Pass the salt,” they would say “IXX;342a.” This was partly a parody of strict christian theological debate, but also heavily inspired by the Trek episode.
Aren’t we cluttering everyone else’s merely “positive” thread with Star Trek’s “awesome”? Should this go to the Nerdery thread? Or a separate Trek Thread?
Yeah, I kept meaning to ask the @moderators to move this to the Nerdery thread, but every time I posted here I had to handle something else right after, so it kept slipping my mind. I’m sorry about that.
In addition to all the things Joey said, which I heartily second, I can believe that the translator can pick up basic words and sentence structure, because it does that. I have a little more trouble believing that an entire species can’t just easily say “Hand me that crayon. No, the red one.” It’s a very weird way to culturally evolve. Yet we see cultural and linguistic evolution on Earth that’s equally weird. Like, why do we conjugate verbs? Koreans don’t do it (except for tense), and they obviously have a highly sophisticated and expressive language, and they aren’t hampered by it, because if you think about it, conjugation is totally pointless. Why do some languages gender everything? Am I missing something because English doesn’t do that?
Anyway, if we are all the result of directed panspermia (The Chase episode), and we all more or less look the same way and have the same goals, then it follows naturally that we’d have similar legends and apocryphal stories, and these would inform our communications to a great degree. Idioms are notoriously the biggest barriers to fluency in another language, and it’s amazing the amount of idiom and cultural story literacy we need to understand other people.