Tuesday, 12 May 2015

BJ's EWTBCD: The Fall and Rise of the Ferengi, by my friend John!

Armin Shimerman as Quark
Tiny Intro: My friend John is the one who nagged me to watch Deep Space 9 till I got fearfully addicted.  I'm so glad he did.  Its odd, but you'd think there would be prescient political parallels with current UK politics and this post about the Ferengi...but I'm not sure there are, and its a politics free post!  So enjoy this examination of the Ferengi, and Quark and Nog - two of the best sci-fi characters I have ever met.  Over to John...

The Ferengi are perhaps the most simple yet most complex race in Star Trek. The original concept was that they would be the main adversaries for the Next Generation, as the Klingons, now allied, had been in The Original Series. It didn’t work out like that.

The Ferengi were supposed to embody the worst elements of capitalism, they were to be a race that cheated their way across the galaxy. Technologically they were on a level with the Federation, but their only reason for being was profit at all cost.

So what went wrong?

The first mention of the Ferengi was in the TNG pilot ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ where it is hinted that they might eat business partners they fell out with. At this point there had been no formal meeting between the Ferengi and Federation. That was change in ‘The Last Outpost’ the fourth episode of TNG broadcast.

It did not go well.

Actor Armin Shimmerman comments that the director asked him and the other Ferengi actors to “Jump up and down like crazed gerbils.” For most of the episode the Ferengi seem to be doing some sort of bizarre dance. They come over as moronic, comedic and childish. Not a threat to anyone.

However they could have been saved. ‘The Battle’ the eighth episode of the series presents the Ferengi as devious and manipulative. Using cunning to make up for lack of size and strength. Their plot is foiled but only just and the viewer is left with a sense that these Ferengi were a threat. They act more like the Cardassians would later on in the series.
However no one remembers ‘The Battle’ as a good episode. It is a great concept and the Ferengi work as a threat, however it is also the episode where Wesley Crusher crosses over to being a hate figure. The plot against Picard by the Ferengi DaiMon Bok is foiled by Wesley glancing at some scans and solving the mystery and then commenting “Huh Adults”.

After the second season of TNG there was a change in direction on the show. The Romulans returned as the main adversary, while the Ferengi were pushed into more comedic roles. By 1989 with market crashes and recession in the US capitalists were no longer seen as the bad guys they once were. The Tech boom was just starting to take off so the time was right for The Borg.

There are probably a few reasons that the Ferengi were dropped. They had never really caught on with the audience and they were mostly presented as one-dimensional.

Embodying the worst elements of capitalism and holding a mirror up to ourselves, it’s a great idea. However in 1987 greed was good. Plus there was already a character on TV who did just that. J. R. Ewing on Dallas was in his pomp. He was an anti-hero, not an out and out bad guy. 

By the late 80s the greed culture of mid decade was on the way out, after stock market crashes so the win at all cost capitalist was no longer in the real world. Greed was no longer good.

The look of the Ferengi also counted against them. They were short and stocky and had big ears. For most of TNG they walked hunched over. There was always something about them that looked comedic. So they were played for laughs and downgraded.

However in 1993 Deep Space Nine debuted. This was the third Star Trek series and a departure from what had gone before. It was set on a Bajoran space station that Starfleet were to help run. The Bajorans had recently forced the Cardassians to withdraw from their planet after 50 years of brutal rule. This was not the nice Federation; this was the edge of civilisation.

‘DS9’ was populated by civilians and had an area known as The Promenade, basically a shopping mall on which the Ferengi main character Quark ran the bar. To give it is full name ‘Quark's Bar, Grill, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade’. Quark was played by Armin Shimmerman, the first Ferengi we had seen in ‘The Last Outpost’, who has said he took the role to try and undo the damage of ‘The Last Outpost.’ Well he succeeded.

Through ‘DS9’ the Ferengi become more multidimensional. We learn about ‘The Rules of Acquisition’ these rules govern how any Ferengi business deal is conducted as Quark says “They ensure a fair deal for all parties, well most of them.”

All of the aliens in ‘DS9’ are given more colour than in other series. They are more blurred. The station isn’t going anywhere so there is more time to delve into the background of the people. This is most true of the Ferengi. They are fleshed out as characters and we even learn that they were not always so single minded.  

We also see the journey of Quark’s Nephew Nog. In the pilot he is caught stealing yet during the run of the show he joins Starfleet, graduates from the academy and is promoted to Lieutenant JG at the end of the series. In the episode ‘Treachery, Faith and the Great River’ Nog gets things done the Ferengi way, playing by his rules not Starfleet protocols.

It is through ‘DS9’ that the Ferengi become more than just the comic asides they were in TNG. While they are not a threat to the federation they are not a joke either. They are more complex than that. As with the Bajorans, Cardassians and Klingons ‘DS9’ gives us the most in depth look at aliens and how they are different.

The last canonical appearance of the Ferengi is the ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ episode ‘Inside Man’. These Ferengi are a mix of the Ferengi of ‘The Battle’ and the ‘DS9’ Ferengi. Devious and scheming willing to sacrifice the 150 lives of the Voyager crew to make a profit from the Borg technology the ship contains.

But it is a mark of how far the Ferengi have come, that before they know who is behind the plot Starfleet Command think it could be the Romulans.

‘Enterprise’ did feature the Ferengi in one episode, but as comic bumblers. ‘Enterprise’ couldn’t even manage to treat Vulcans with dignity.

Overall given their starting point it is amazing that the Ferengi were used as much as they were. The cost of the ship designed for ‘TNG’ meant they had to appear three times to at least recoup their original investment. But they managed to become great characters.

Five Ferengi Must See Episodes.
1)   The Battle TNG
2)   Suspicions TNG
3)   Body Parts DS9
4)   Treachery, Faith and the Great River DS9
5)   The Magnificent Ferengi DS9

Special mention to the DS9 episodes ‘The Siege of AR-558’ and ‘It’s only a Paper Moon’ not Ferengi episodes but showing the reality of war through the experience of Nog, a Ferengi character.
                                                                                      Aron Eisenberg as Nog

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