Jeopardy! Honors Beloved Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode

  • Science Fiction
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Captain Dathon and Captain Picard on El-Adrel IV in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok." CBS Television Studios

Tuesday night’s episode of Jeopardy! Included a hidden reference to one of the most beloved episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5’s “Darmok.”

Contestants Rich Blashka (returning champ), Scott Simpson and Kelly Lasiter (the night’s winner), tackled the following categories in the Double Jeopardy round: Italian Composers, The Woman in the Movie, Cowboy Talk, File Under “Oz,” Shaka and When The Walls Fell. Combined, those last two categories read “Shaka, when the walls fell.”

“Shaka, when the walls fell,” is a phrase partially translated from Tamarian, the spoken language of the Children of Tama and one of the few species encountered by the United Federation of Planets whose language could not be fully translated by their universal translators. Rather than a language composed of discrete units of meaning — words — combined to generate ideas, Tamarian is wholly allegorical. Each Tamarian phrase references a mythological or historical event in Tamarian history, conveying meaning through the rich subtext and connotations of that event. Unlike English, a language so adaptable it has more speakers for which it’s a secondary language than a primary one, Tamarian requires the complete Tamarian cultural context to truly understand.

In “Darmok,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise works to establish diplomatic relations with the Children of Tama after several previous Federation communication attempts failed. It is only when thrust into a survival situation with the Tamarian captain that the true meaning beyond the seemingly nonsensical phrases becomes apparent.

Hearing the Children of Tama’s Homeric stories around a campfire, Picard begins to see the metaphorical richness in phrases like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” “Temba, his arms wide” and “Darmok on the ocean,” each of which, by referencing an event important to the Children of Tama, conveys meaning. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase referencing two heroes uniting to fight the beast of Tanagra, can best be translated as “cooperation.” “Temba his arms wide” indicates a gift. “Darmok on the ocean” evokes loneliness and feelings of isolation. And though Tamarian remains resistant to translation at the episode’s end — linguistics must be paired with historical and cultural understanding — Picard learns just enough to imagine a future between the two alien peoples.

The episode, written by Joe Menosky (TNG, DS9, VOY and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery), is beloved for a bunch of reasons. The unique language presented in “Darmok” continues to be one of the most thought-provoking sci-fi concepts the TV medium has ever offered. “‘Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.’ So dense and rich is Tamarian speech,” Ian Bogost writes at The Atlantic, “that these five words are sufficient to direct a whole crew to carry out an entire stratagem over two days’ time, and not by following a script, but by embracing it as a guiding abstraction.” As a species we organize our own lives around stories, producing for ourselves memories that shape our lives and collective history into narratives of growth and decline. In Tamarian we can see the richness and power of narrative design to reshape individuals and entire societies.

It doesn’t hurt that “Darmok” is also tightly focused on Picard, offering Patrick Stewart some of his finest acting moments in the series, including his campfire retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

But really the Jeopardy! categories weren’t much more than a fantastic easter egg. The questions in the category didn’t have anything to do with Star Trek. “Shaka” was entirely questions about Shaka Zulu, the Zulu Kingdom monarch known for revolutionizing military tactics and building the Zulu into the regional power that’d take on the Dutch and British in subsequent generations. “When The Walls Fell” had questions about famous barriers, including the Berlin Wall, Jericho and Roman walls in Great Britain. No contestant mentioned the “Darmok” reference, leaving it to sharp-eyed trekkers like Slackin’ Strachan.

The TNG reference on Tuesday’s Jeopardy! is not the first time the long-running quiz show and Star Trek have intersected. In 1999, Star Trek: Voyager cast members recorded video questions for contestants who were mostly baffled, failing to recognize Vulcans, the Alpha Quadrant or LeVar Burton. Contestants faced with an entire category of Leonard Nimoy questions did a lot better. But the best Star Trek / Jeopardy! crossover has to be this Star Trek: Deep Space Nine category swept by a contestant who began with a negative score.

Watching Star Trek always pays off.

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