the story: Picard must learn to communicate with an alien who seems to speak in gibberish.
similar to: "Arena" (original series), "The Enemy" (Next Generation) "A Night in Sickbay," "Dawn" (Enterprise)
my thoughts: Being marooned on a planet with someone who appears to be an enemy and being forced to help each other survive...Yeah, that's a Star Trek as well as sci-fi in general (Enemy Mine)trope, from the debut of the Gorn in "Arena" to Geordi bunking down with a Romulan in "The Enemy." Yet it's "Darmok" that's the undisputable classic.
It's not so hard to see why. Unlike the divisive "Night in Sickbay" from Enterprise (though another classic), "Darmok" is actually the story of Starfleet finally making a breakthrough with an alien culture that previously proved too difficult to penetrate, and as such serves as another feather in the cap of Picard and his crew, surely the most intellectual from throughout the whole franchise. This is arguably the best example of that, as the strange language of the Tamarians is deciphered, simultaneously, both in researching their culture through databases and by the experiences Picard has with his counterpart.
It's the rare opportunity to see a situation explained to have no ill-will, no matter how the circumstances look, and while it would certainly have looked better for all involved if there had been no trickery involved, for the Tamarians this was a last-ditch effort, a desperation play, and it's only Picard with his infinite patience and powers of comprehension who can make the breakthrough.
It's a textbook Next Generation episode, perhaps the one to show anyone skeptical about it, whether original series partisans or those who have never watched Star Trek at all. You don't need to know anything about the series itself to enjoy it, and as such is also an excellent argument for the episodic nature the franchise was once allowed to embrace, because this really is about as good as it gets.
It's also worth singling out Paul Winfield's performance as the alien captain. Previously featured in Wrath of Khan, Winfield boldly appeared completely unrecognizable, speaking lines that hardly flatter an actor's natural instincts. And is a large part of why the episode works so well.
criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)
Ashley Judd (Robin Lefler)
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)