Over the weekend I finished watching the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl. Here are a few reflections:
Lies lead to death.
Our lives must be built upon truth.
If we do not face reality, it will eventually come crashing in on us.
Human beings are corrupt and corruptible.
When the world becomes broken, restoration will require sacrifice.
Communist ideology made Chernobyl possible, and even likely.
If jobs are awarded and retained on criteria other than competence, ability, and merit, catastrophe will eventually follow.
When the state is an idol whose reputation must be protected no matter the cost, the people with the least amount of power will suffer.
Scientists are fallible like the rest of us, but we need good minds, trust in institutions, and dependable sources of authority.
Nuclear energy may be the wave of the future, but goodness gracious, if you screw it up…
The five part series is the story of a disaster, but it is much more than that. It is an interesting look at science (you’ll learn how nuclear energy works and how the Chernobyl plant operated), Russian identity and culture, the Soviet state, the loss of innocence, the mindset of an oppressive government regime, the importance of written testimony, and the responsibility of one generation to steward the world and hand it off to the next generation.
The Chernobyl disaster was the result of an inability to face the truth, a desire to cut costs and corners by bureaucrats who did not adequately grasp the destructive potentialities of nuclear energy, and human ego. While certain characters are more culpable than others in creating the conditions that led to the disaster, it cannot only be pinned on select individuals. The ideology, and the nation state, was culpable. In the epilogue to the series, the Chernobyl disaster is credited with causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. I can believe it. It demonstrated that those in power were incompetent, and that their lies could no longer be believed or accepted.
In our age of streaming services and binge watching, a couple of years ago I churned through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show debuted in 1987, when I was eight years old. There are one hundred and seventy eight episodes. The series finale was in 1994.
I can’t tell you when I first saw TNG. But I’m certain that in my teenage years I’d watch late night reruns, so I became familiar with Jean Luc-Picard, Will Riker, Worf, Geordi, Data, Troi, and Dr. Crusher. I admired Patrick Stewart as Picard, a character who is always alert, curious, insightful, and measured. Independent. A pioneer. Analytical. Courageous. I’m a science fiction fan, and of the vast array of explorers, oddballs, and heroes in the genre, Picard is among my favorites.
The second episode of the fifth season is entitled “Darmok,” and it is there that Picard displays his most vital strengths.¹ The Enterprise comes in contact with an alien race called the Tamarians, known to The United Federation of Planets, but, as of yet, unallied. (BTW: Anytime I think of the Federation, The Refreshments’ nod in “Banditos” always comes to mind.)
Communication with the Tamarians has proven to be very difficult, as the aliens communicate using a complex array of metaphor and allegory. Though Picard and the crew of the Enterprise seem to speak simply to the Tamarians, they remain misunderstood.² Without shared reference points, it is impossible to build a bridge.
Picard is undettered. The Tamarian captian, Dathon, and Picard are transported down to the planet’s surface. Dathon holds two daggers, and presents one to Picard, which he interprets as a challenge to a duel. But this is not what Dathon has in mind. Dathon repeats the phrases, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Temba, his arms wide” several times to Picard, who remains befuddled. But eventually, it begins to dawn on Picard that Dathon is trying to tell him a story, and to indicate that both are being pursued by an invisible predator who is seeking to kill them both. Dathon wants Picard to help him fight the beast.
From there, things go off the rails. Just at the moment that Picard and Dathon are fighting the beast, the Enterprise overcomes a field array that was preventing them from beaming Picard back on board. As Picard is taken away, Dathon is severely wounded. Picard returns to tend Dathon’s wounds. The two continue their attempts at conversation, and Picard begins to deduce that Darmok and Jalad were two ancient warriors in Tamarian folklore who joined forces on an island called Tanagra to defeat a dangerous beast. In the process, Darmok and Jalad became friends. Picard makes a connection to The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text from ancient Mesopotamia. Dathon is gladdened by Picard’s insight, and seems to affirm the connection. Shortly thereafter, Dathon dies.
When Picard returns to the Enterprise, his crew and those aboard the Tamarian vessel are locked in battle. Having brought back the daggers from the planet, Picard offers one to the acting captain of the alien vessel, and references the story. It becomes clear to the Tamarians that a breakthrough has occurred, that Picard is offering them friendship, and that an effort has been made to establish diplomatic relations. Both ships stand down. The Tamarians record a new story, “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”³
Is this a weird story? Sure! Is it metaphorical and allegorical? Absolutely! Does it capture something that resonates with human experience? Undoubtedly. Is it true? Undeniably.
As a Christian person, I have a narrative. So do my neighbors. At times, the Christian story and those of my neighbors overlap. In those instances, connections can be made. But work always has to be done. Both parties have to participate. At times, sacrifices are willfully made in order to bring two divided groups to a place of mutual understanding.
Metaphors bridge the gap, often through stories that reach the grand scale of myth. When we are seeking answers to questions about what it means to be human together, propositions can carry us a good distance, if we have enough common reference points. But stories offer us another way of seeing. They open portals to common understanding. They create worlds with enough room for both parties to stake out ground, and to establish what is held in common.
Picard, in many ways, displays the best characteristics of an effective missionary. He is inquisitive, curious, and determined. He listens. He is persistent. He is willing to enter into frustration and confusion. Lastly, he is driven by hope–a hope that where there was once two people, it is possible that they can be made one.