At the beginning of October a friend sent me an email about the TOS episode ‘Arena’ and how the TNG episode ‘Darmok’ might be seen as a less-macho gloss on it. Originally my reply was going to be a sentence or two, but I found myself putting together more than a few paragraphs on it, and while they do not form a coherent whole, let alone an essay of any sort, I thought I’d post them if not for posterity at least for my own reference.
Said friend wrote:
It just occurred to me that the iconic TNG episode “Darmok” is a remake of the iconic TOS episode “Arena,” only filtered through the less macho, more touchy-feely (and to my mind, preferable) lens of TNG. Do you suppose I’m crazy in thinking this?
Crazy in thinking this? I replied. Not at all. And left it at that. But that’s only a reply to the explicit question.
Then I continued in a separate email: “I just gave ‘Arena’ another look. Less macho, more touchy-feely? A bit, but at the same time ‘not really.'” Not that this is a helpful clarification.
The two share in both broad and specific strokes a lot of plot similarities, such as a captain-vs-captain fight on a desert-ish planet; the Enterprise crew cannot interfere; and there’s a general lack-of-knowledge regarding what’s “really” going on, leading to misunderstanding and eventual comprehension.
But ‘Arena’ has a bunch of non-‘Darmok’ traits that also appear in a bunch of  other sci-fi stories and  TNG episodes … of course, they’re just pretty standard sci-fi tropes. We have the abandoned or attacked outpost (see also: ‘Starship Troopers,’ the movie), which is more a relic of westerns and frontier stories (forts being attacked by ‘Indians’). There’s the super/god-race, space battles of sorts, ‘come back when you’re more civilized,’ ‘engineer-your-way-out-of-this,’ etc.
And ‘Darmok’ is also home to a bunch of features not found in ‘Arena,’ such as a focus on communication, a third party they have to team up to fight, more of the honor-bound-warrior-race, and so on.
‘Arena’ feels like a very old-school sci-fi episode, and while I wouldn’t exactly call ‘Darmok’ ‘touchy-feely,’ it is more of a post-New-Wave sort of thing. The respective conflicts and resolutions are not just a matter of a macho/touch-feely divide. The older story is explicitly about reason and understanding (in the sense of rationality). Can Kirk ‘figure out’ gun powder? He thinks discursively. On the ship Spock and McCoy think it’s possible that their outpost was an intrusion (that the attack against them was not unprovoked), and they conclude that they could be in the wrong. It’s the lack of knowledge / factual information that causes misunderstanding: if they have / had more knowledge, problems can / could be avoided. And over time, the god-race announces, they may develop / evolve to be more civilized. It’s all very master narrative and modernist.
In contrast ‘Darmok’ puts two groups in opposition and from the get-go while they are opponents the ‘other’ is not an obvious villain that has to be shown not to be a villain. A lack of sufficient knowledge is a given, not a conclusion reached. They can’t just reason their way out of this because the two sides do not exactly employ the same notion of ‘logic’/’language’/’reasoning’. A solution is not found through logos but through mythos and metaphor (in language, at least). Low-technology (knives, fire) are a given of a sort, but new technology is not engineered from ‘parts’; it’s not a reality TV competition show, rather ‘tools’ are used in a non-tool-like way, as ritual or fetish times.
In ‘Arena’ the other looks alien enough but is shown to be a lot like them; in ‘Darmok’ the other is superficially similar but shown to be sufficiently incomprehensible. There’s something fundamentally ‘postmodern’ about ‘Darmok’ insofar as liberal, modernist optimism (‘universal translator’, anyone?) is shown its bounds, but it’s not undermined in a pessimistic or dystopian fashion.
Far too often I’ve listed ‘Darmok’ as one of the best TNG episodes without considering its plot/story, focusing instead on its ‘message.’ So bringing ‘Arena’ into the fold is a great exercise. As noted, there’s a lot of similarity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somewhat intentional. The first season of TNG features a lot of episodes that would have been at home in TOS; TNG didn’t know, it felt to me as a repeat viewer, how it related to TOS. Then they went and changed a lot of things midway through the season. Sure, they introduced the Ferengi as a way to bring something ‘new’ to TNG, but they gave up on making them a real threat; they brought back the Romulans, but in a new way; the Klingons existed in a post-Star-Trek-VI universe; and then came the Borg. If ‘Darmok’ had been a first season episode I think it would have been precisely what is described: a less-macho ‘Arena,’ but coming later it has a real TNG identity.
Aside: ‘Arena’ also moves away from ‘macho’ in a sense. What begins as a war-western and follows up with Kirk fighting a guy in a lizard suit, turns to Kirk using his brains, not to out-smart his opponent, but to out-engineer him. The loser, the lizard man, is the one who insisted upon primal/macho hand-to-hand violence. It also fits with season 1 Kirk: in the first Kirk episode he is shown to be as smart or at least more cunning than Spock, besting him at 3D-chess.
Furthermore, the two episodes also suggest other ways in which the two shows handle similar tropes differently. Both have their share of super/god-races, and each begins its run (not counting the original TOS pilot) with the Enterprise going out further than normal (the edge of the galaxy, an encounter at ‘Farpoint’ respectively) and encountering an advanced being (ESP-sensitive crew ‘developing’ god-like powers in TOS, Q in TNG). Alas, while TNG’s god-beings, especially Q, provide for some nifty stories, they’re all fundamentally just plot devices who do not ‘live in’ the universe as such. Interestingly TOS’s god-aliens tend to live on planets, have cultures or civilizations, and have ‘base(r)’ emotions: they’re stand-ins for anthropomorphic gods (as indicated by how often they appear in Greco-Roman garb). TOS does not do multi-episode arcs, really, and so these characters also remain mere plot devices … but they at least suggest something to be explored: they have a ‘place’ in the Star Trek universe.
To conclude, if I were drawing comparisons between the theme(s) of ‘Darmok’ and other television/movie instances, I’d think specifically of the SG-1 episode (season 4, episode 8) ‘The First One,’ in which Daniel Jackson is captured by an Unas. They don’t speak a common language but Daniel learns Chaka’s by the end, etc. A few seasons later there’s the related episode ‘Enemy Mine,’ and there you have a reference to the movie of the same name, which is a bit of ‘Arena’ and a bit of ‘Darmok’. When SG-1 meets the Nox in the first season or so, you have a better comparison to ‘Arena,’ as you have humans crafting weapons (bows and arrows) to defeat their enemy, while being mediated by an ‘advanced’ species who, at the end, finds that the humans  are immature but  have promise.
I could ramble more, I suppose, but this is enough of a monolog for now, so I’ll just hit ‘publish’ …