Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 3.1.4: Make Ferenginar Great Again

The Last Outpost

Star Trek The Last Outpost

The first debate.

I’m writing this on the 9th of November, 2016. Donald Trump has been announced as the next President of the United States. Barring a major surprise, by the time you read this he will have been sworn in to the office. The most powerful person in the world.

“It’s Always Good To Be Underestimated”

Has there ever been an actual human being more Ferengi than Donald Trump?  A man obsessed with money both as status symbol and as determiner of self-worth. Who treats women as objects to be stared and pawed at. Who takes credit and avoids blame the way anyone else takes breaths and avoids cobras. Trump might not actually say aloud that women shouldn’t wear clothes, but he does sneak into their dressing rooms. The only obvious difference between The Art of the Deal and the Rules of Acquisition is that the former is terribly written; a sad waste of wasp food existing only to make Trump more money. Which is a Ferengi move all of its own, of course. Hell, to riff off one of Josh Marsfelder’s many ideas, even the guy’s building gets in on the act, with Trump Tower bearing some small resemblance to the inner ring of a Ferengi Marauder.

Given all these connections, it almost feels like overkill to point out the Enterprise is chasing the Ferengi vessel because Daimon Tarr is a shameless crook.

We should have listened to Wright and Krzemien when they warned us three decades ago. Instead, almost everyone missed the point of this episode. Over the years I’ve read dozens of comments about “The Last Outpost” all saying the same thing: the Ferengi were a failure. The plan to make them Picard’s primary antagonists was scuppered by portraying them here as spasmodic, scuttling aliens, completely lacking in menace. This is not a difficult position to understand, obviously. The Ferengi here are cruel, simpering cowards. They skulk like smarting scavengers when denied an easy kill. They shamelessly offer up ever more pathetic lies to the Portal to try and poison him against Riker. It all almost demands the audience be neither concerned nor impressed.

Which is precisely the point. Something need not look threatening to be a threat. The ridiculous and the risible can be horribly dangerous. Out here in the real world, it isn’t the people who look as scary as their ideas do that cause all the damage. It’s those whose capacity for destruction is hidden under a thin layer of bathos and cringe-worthiness that get to wreck everything. And a big part of why is that their petulant cowardice and thin-skinned pettiness make them easy to dismiss. They give people permission to convince themselves they’d never be taken seriously. Not enough to get anywhere, anyway.

That is exactly who the Ferengi are here. Snivelling buffoons who are nevertheless extremely dangerous. This isn’t even subtext. Data specifically warns Riker they’re more of a threat than they appear. That even cowards can have teeth.

“Part Of The Beauty Of Me Is That I’m Very Rich”

It is probably a reach to suggest the Ferengi were intended as a warning against Trump specifically, even if Daimon Tarr is a suspiciously similar name. Trump was a public figure for at least a couple of years before “The Last Outpost” was written, so both the writers and the production staff were quite possibly aware of him. At the time, though, he was just one more unprincipled money-grubbing blowhard amongst thousands. I mean, of course he was, this was the Reagan era. Greed was good, and everyone was finally allowed to admit it. Trump might have lingered longer in the public eye than most – he wrote a book called Survivor, after all – but thirty years ago he was just one more cash-chewing apatosaurus, lumbering through the concrete swamps.

This episode probably isn’t a warning about Trump as a person, then, so much as Trump as an archetype. No, better: Trump as a brand.

There are many people who doubtless will disagree with this reading of Tarr and his crew. It’s commonly argued that the Ferengi are an obvious and despicable burst of anti-Semitism. That’s not a conclusion I’d feel comfortable declaring is wrong. I mean, after some searching I’ve found no evidence anyone deliberately designed the Ferengi with that in mind. These things don’t have to be deliberate to be real, though.

Whilst it’s not my place to deny the charge, though, I will expand on my own position. Consider the evidence on offer. I’m not going to comment on the claim that the Ferengi make-up represents an anti-Semitic caricature. I realise I’m completely incapable of judging the force of that argument. But this claim is then generally expanded upon by pointing out the aliens’ remorseless pursuit of profit and their disrespect of the Aryan-esque Tasha Yar. Here I feel myself standing on firmer ground. Yes, it’s clearly a vile, damaging and all-too-common practice to accuse Jewish men of being after “our” money and “our” women. I won’t deny that. And again, it is not my place to tell anyone they are wrong if that fact sets off warning bells when watching this episode. I will though point out an alternative reading which I think has at least as much evidence to justify it.

What we have here, I think, is a problem of intersection. The image of the grasping, lustful, unscrupulous pinch-penny that operates as so grotesque a slur against Jewish men is also a perfectly valid satire of the Reagan-era corporate stooge. It’s hard to craft metaphorical digs at the latter without many people concluding you’re attacking the former. If you think this means we just can’t attack rampant capitalists this way because anti-Semites have poisoned the well, I respect that. But closing down that line of attack might come at a cost. People like that need to be attacked, after all. We may need every rhetorical weapon we can lay our hands on to do that. And make-up issues notwithstanding, “The Last Outpost” goes out of its way to underline it’s going after the right targets.

This process begins almost right from the start of the episode. With our first actual glimpse of the Ferengi held back, our initial description of them is via historical analogy: “Yankee traders”. Mercantile Americans, in other words. This would be significant in itself, but it’s then given even greater weight by the ensuing discussion about the death of the nation state. The US, it seems, is an artefact of the past, now primarily associated with the desire to make money. Hell, Riker – the only crew-member currently established as hailing from the former US, something done in this very episode – specifically tells Portal that the Ferengi reminds him of his own culture from centuries ago. “The Last Outpost” really doesn’t seem to be hiding its choice of target. I mean, the Ferengi literally use whips as weapons. How much blunter can the script be? If you’re linking an obsession with material wealth to the use of whips to obtain that wealth, there surely can be no doubt as to the obvious historical parallel.

Even the name itself, “Ferengi”, is based on a middle and south Asian term for Europeans. Yes, obviously, Europe is not the United States. Don’t write in. And there’s an obvious way in which American writers naming their new trader-thieves after Europeans might actually strengthen accusations of anti-Semitism. Again, though, the episode does address this – even beyond Riker’s comments and the utterly unsubtle use of “energy whips” – through the otherwise completely incongruous references to China. These nods are clearly an important part of what’s being done here. Why else would we have to sit through the toe-curling “comedy” of Data getting himself stuck in his Chinese finger trap? Why would he start fiddling around with it mid-meeting? How can a super-strong android not just literally pull his finger out?

The finger traps perform the same job as the shout-outs to Sun Tsu, and the choice of source for the word “Ferengi”. They are to make clear this isn’t a story of white-bread Americans facing down a strict subset of European immigrants. This is about East versus West.

“Foreign Policy Was A Big Chess Game”

In the late autumn of 1987 the Cold War was winding down. But like a pocket-watch in the same position, there were still occasional spasmodic jerks of action. The invasion of Grenada wasn’t even four years old by the time this episode was written. The Russians were still fighting in Afghanistan. It would still be two years before the Berlin Wall would fall. The long struggle between capitalism and communism (to simplify to a ludicrous extent) was still at the forefront of an awful lot of minds, even if the West was past its periods of greatest existential terror. Writing science fiction stories that drew parallels to the conflict wasn’t original anymore, but they were still undeniably timely.

So it’s astonishing that this episode take pains to frame itself as a clash between hemispheres, and then casts the West as villain. The Ferengi are explicitly said to represent capitalists’ worst impulses, which they prove completely once we meet them planet-side. They’re vicious, cowardly thieves jostling for position as they lie to a newly-discovered culture in order to gain advantage. They smear those unlike them with out-of-context half-truths. And ultimately, they defeat themselves by being so completely sure that the Portal will share their perspective – being so convinced “it’s just common sense” and “all right-thinking people agree” – that their criticisms of the Federation end up condemning themselves. Pointing out that Starfleet frequently denies critical technology to less-advanced worlds is a pretty good hit, but the Ferengi immediately undermine that success by complaining non-intervention limits business opportunities. A few moments later they’re insisting the Federation is perverted for allowing their women to wear clothes, and demanding Yar submit to them like a good female.

(There’s a message there, actually. The Gordon Gekkos of the world frequently engineer their own downfall. Sooner or later they start thinking the fact everyone around them agrees with them means they’re incapable of doing anything disagreeable. Which is fun. It’s always nice to see some evidence of karma at work, obviously. The problem though is always how long it takes for the fall to begin, and how many people are hurt while we wait for it.)

In contrast to the Ferengi’s series of embarrassing own goals, the Federation as represented by Riker almost effortlessly passes the Portal’s challenge. This is at least in part because Will has nerves of solid adamantium. As impressive as not flinching when some dude swings a halberd at your head is, though, there’s more to it than that. It’s clear the mind-reading Portal has conceived his challenge according to what he’s already learned from Riker’s thoughts. All his feint is for is to check whether Riker can practice what he preaches.

Which makes it rather important that what Riker is preaching are the thoughts and works of a Chinese philosopher. This story ultimately sees capitalists flaming out through their own inability to see any other point of view, whilst an American who can draw wisdom from cultures very different to his own carries the day. It’s a lovely and pretty unsubtle message.

Admittedly, this approach may not be entirely without problems. A US network show taking pot-shots at western civilisation in the late ’80s is absolutely no small thing, but there’s danger in the shorthand. Sun Tsu and finger traps are no more an encapsulation of China than China is an encapsulation of those places in the Eastern hemisphere that stood against the States during the Cold War.  The implication is that every Communist country is interchangeable, which isn’t a good thing to be pushing. There might even be a least a whiff here of the “magical Asian” trope, with Sun Tsu held up as some kind of mystical genius whose wisdom is taught to white guys wanting to run around the galaxy.

Ultimately, then, it could be argued I’ve led myself to a kind of Catch-22. The more I’m right about my Cold War metaphor, the worse things get in terms of how the episode represents anywhere east of the Iron Curtain. The more I’m wrong, the more circumstantial evidence we can gather regarding the anti-Semitism angle. That in turn might lead people to conclude that there is no direction from which to view this episode from which it doesn’t seem to do more harm than good.

I can understand that. Respectfully though, I disagree. Yes, “The Last Outpost” is far from perfect. Yes, it’s trying to encompass so much it ends up vulnerable to accusations of simplification, even to the point of soft bigotry. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t absolutely doing what needed to be done in the 1980s. What still needs doing today, depressing as that fact is.

It is November the 9th, and Donald Trump will be the next president. Too many warnings were ignored by too many people. But that doesn’t make those warnings worthless, however imperfect they might have been.

Nor does it change the fact that when I watch this episode, I feel just a little bit better.

Ordering

1. The Last Outpost

2. The Naked Time

3. The Lorelei Signal

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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