In brief: Not bad, but "Darmok" it certainly ain't.
In my review of "The Catwalk," I mentioned that the biggest threat facing this series was its inability to transcend average. "Dawn" plays like the case-in-point confirmation of that theory. Here is an agreeable but derivative outing that is reminiscent of TNG's "Darmok" ... except without the truly interesting linguistic puzzles and the push for higher-minded understanding that made that show a classic. "Dawn" is the simplified, mainstreamed version of "Darmok" — the junior-high edition rather than the collegiate one.
How far we have fallen. Or should I say, how far it has fallen: that of the producers' respect for the intelligence of the average Star Trek audience member. Are they wrong to underestimate us? Possibly not. Just look at the ratings for Joe Millionaire.
To be fair, "Dawn" is an okay show with some aspects to recommend. If the creators' respect for their audience's intelligence has eroded over the years, they at least still believe the audience is open to the idea of looking for peaceful solutions to problems, even when the aliens seem awfully quick on the trigger.
In "Dawn," Trip's shuttlepod is shot down without warning while orbiting one of many moons of a gas giant. He crashes on the moon's surface, and realizes that the enemy ship that shot him down — from an enigmatic and not particularly friendly race called the Arkonians, with whom the Vulcans have not had great luck — also crash-landed on the moon, also with a lone pilot on board. So it's just Commander Tucker and the apparently hostile Arkonian and their weapons and ingenuity, in a premise that at first looks like it's going to be TOS's "Arena" before the two enemies meet face-to-face and the show begins to more closely resemble a low-rent "Darmok."
Since both Trip and the Arkonian are conveniently (and inexplicably) without a Universal Translator, they can't understand each other's languages, which makes the show an hour about difficult and often failed communication. The Arkonian's name is Zho'Kaan (Gregg Henry), and for the first half of the show there's little trust to be found, as first Zho'Kaan holds a weapon on Trip and forces him to make repairs to his shuttle, and then Trip gets the upper hand and in turn holds the weapon on Zho'Kaan.
Meanwhile, the two try — sometimes futilely — to get their points across to each other. The story's approach is to show two people faced with a situation where neither trusts the other while communication must be achieved with tone of voice and gestures. While the idea is appealing on bare-boned Trekkian terms, I must again go back to "Darmok," which conveyed a communication barrier with so much more originality.
It doesn't particularly help that Trip goes to such pains to talk loudly and slowly, as if that will make his words more understandable. The episode might've been better off had it focused on the way people communicate with universal gestures. But "Dawn" isn't really serious about analyzing language or communication the way "Darmok" tried to; it's simply the framing device to set the story and action, which is more interested in explicit friction (before, thankfully, turning a 180 and being about working together and having compassion).
To prove my point: At the center of "Dawn" is a prolonged fight scene between Trip and Zho'Kaan where the two hammer away at each other until neither has the strength to stand. Part of me, I guess, can understand the feelings being expressed here — two frustrated guys who have reached the limits of their patience for each another and need some sort of explosive release. But, come on — is this really necessary? Is Zho'Kaan sufficiently motivated to attack Trip during what is Trip's biggest gesture of trust? It's as if the scene is saying: Yeah, these two guys are going to work together toward that cooperative Star Trek ideal, but not before they beat the living crap out of each other for the audience's visceral delight! (At the very least, I'm glad to say the violence here looks like it actually hurts and takes a physical toll on the characters, whereas on some other shows it would be depicted as an unbelievable cartoon sequence.)
Eventually, these two characters are no longer at the mercy of each other but instead the extreme heat as the sun rises and the temperatures head toward deadly levels. This week's Ticking Clock™ is that the Enterprise and an Arkonian vessel must track down our marooned duo (searching dozens of moons) before they perish in the hot sun. You'd think two people about to die from heat exposure would search for shade, but apparently a cave or a ledge casting a shadow wasn't in the episode's budget. (I also wonder, if it's true as Trip suspects and Zho'Kaan cannot sweat, what would cause him to become dehydrated. Perhaps a biology expert — Arkonian or otherwise — could educate me.)
The drawback to this material isn't that it's unworkable or misguided, but that it simply pales in comparison to a concept like the 11-year-old "Darmok," which made a considerable effort to break down words and syllables and metaphors. The problems and solutions in "Dawn" are not without merit, but they do not engage the mind or imagination in a way that gives one much optimism that Star Trek has not already exhausted everything it can see and do.
It's probably worth noting that "Dawn" is a good fit for Commander Tucker insofar that "Darmok" was a good fit for Captain Picard; the heroes perhaps get the stories they are worthy of. Picard was diplomatic, patient, and cerebral. Tucker is ordinary and pragmatic — the perpetual everyman with good intentions. And "Dawn" is in turn the everyman's "Darmok" — simple, decently presented, but without challenge or vision.
Trip helps save Zho'Kaan's life while barely reaching the understanding of words like "food" and "bad." At one point, Trip notes how Hoshi would be proud of him for learning some new alien words. Some of us in the audience will simply think back on more subtle times, remembering how once upon a more cerebral storytelling era, Picard reached that point where he understood the significance that was "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra."
Trip could take some lessons from Picard. For that matter, so, probably, could Hoshi. And this series.