Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 3.1.8: Revenge Is A Dish Best Served With A Service Charge

The Battle

Star Trek The Battle

The ghosts of the past. Do you see? DO YOU SEE?

The Ferengi are back! Last time round I really went to the mat for those guys and the opportunities they offered as adversaries. Particularly in the era of President Trump, their debut has plenty of interest to say on the topic of capitalism left to run riot.

So what can they offer us this time?

Business As Usual

This, it turns out, is a tough question to answer. Drawing conclusions from Bok’s revenge fantasy is made difficult by how convoluted it is. A brief recap is in order, I think. First, Bok goes to great effort to offer a valuable salvage opportunity – at no cost! – to Picard, a high-ranking military officer from an unfriendly galactic power. Already this makes the Starfleet officers suspicious (and his own crew restless), and Bok only increases his shiftiness quotient when he accuses Picard of having murdered dozens of Ferengi nine years earlier. It was tough enough to believe Bok would return the Stargazer free of charge had it been no more than an unremarkable chance for salvage. The suggestion he considers Picard a killer but is returning the murder weapon as a gift is flatly ludicrous.

Next, he places a large, glowing alien object into Picard’s old quarters. Apparently, Bok figures Picard will covet his long-missing personal effects just enough that he’ll immediately ferry them over to the Enterprise, but not quite so much that he’ll want to waltz down memory lane with them a little first. Bok doesn’t even bother hiding the device – if Picard so much as glances across the room the whole jig is up.

Which makes that element of the scheme ridiculously risky, but at least it has some clear purpose to it. Faking a log entry to suggest Picard initiated hostilities at Maxia would make sense if it could be done well enough to discredit the captain, but the forgery is spotted almost immediately. Besides, Bok’s plan is to mind-control Picard into beaming onto his old ship and then trying to destroy his new one. What good does throwing doubt on the man’s service record do in that context?

In short, this scheme is overly complicated, pointlessly risky, and has unnecessary moving parts. Trouble is, it’s also at the very heart of this episode. That means understanding what “The Battle” is saying about the Ferengi – and through them predatory capitalism – means unravelling the mystery of just what the hell is going through Damon Bok’s four-node brain here.

The obvious starting point is to consider that humans and Ferengi will have very different ideas of what constitutes a sensible plan. At least some aspects of Bok’s scheme might look far more reasonable to the Ferengi mindset. Take him leaving the amplifier in plain sight in Picard’s old quarters. That makes much more sense if you think of gaining possessions thought lost a decade ago purely as a windfall, objects worth nothing until they can be brought to the auction block. And if all such items represent is the latinum larval stage, then surely anyone finding unexpected alien tech stuffed into their belongings will want to hide, hoard and sell it, Better that than risk handing it over to others who might try to cheat you out of your profits by declaring it unsafe.

The risks of this approach might seem clear to us. Then again, so should those involved in attacking vessels of unknown origin in the hope of making quick cash as a space-pirate. Rule of Aquisition 62: “The riskier the road, the greater the profit”. Maybe Bok didn’t leave his strange device uncovered through carelessness. Perhaps he did it deliberately, because to him it’s clear what all right-thinking people would do when presented with an so easy an opportunity for profit.

Now let’s look at Bok’s fake log entry. For Federation officers, seeing their captain implicated in unprovoked murder is at worst a temporary distraction, and at best might offer a clue to a larger threat. For a more cutthroat crew, though, one for who ambition outweighs loyalty, a taped “confession” would be a golden opportunity with a latinum core. The provenance of the recording would matter little when using it as an excuse for a mutiny. Plenty of Ferengi first officers must dream of getting the kind of chance Riker is handed here.

But then there’s Rule of Acquisition 125: “You can’t make a deal if you’re dead”. Riker might not be prepared to risk challenging a captain on his own ship. He might be as cowardly as Bok thinks Kazago is (mistakenly, as it turns out). Once Picard is aboard the Stargazer, though, Riker gets to not only take control of the ship but can legitimately open fire on his own captain in the name of self-defence. Self-preservation and ambition would suddenly start pulling in the same direction. What could go wrong?

All of which is to say that Bok’s plan for vengeance fails for the same reason the Tkon Portal rejects Letek and his fellows in “The Last Outpost”. Both times the Ferengi mess up through an inability to understand or account for non-Ferengi psychology.

Unfortunately, once you make that link, you realise the problem. It takes quite some time to pull apart what’s going on here and find out what the central message is, and in doing so all you find is the restating of something from an earlier episode. The statement here is more strongly put, in that Letek was desperately improvising in the Delphi Ardu system and Bok has been putting together his scheme for nigh-on a decade. Even so, what we found here is buried too deep, and when revealed is too familiar, to have made it worth the effort of digging it out.

A Comical Connection

In terms of exploring the standard Ferengi approach, then, elements of this episode seem redundant. That’s not the only exploration underway, however. What we have here isn’t just the story of how Bok’s bid for vengeance fails. It’s about how he was removed from command for failing to pursue profit. This is only our second Ferengi story, and already we’re onto the topic of what being atypical within their society looks like, and what it gets you.

Clearly Bok is very much something outside the Ferengi norm in some respects. He’s strayed so far from the madding crowd that he has become, according to Rule of Acquisition 18, no Ferengi at all. He’s spent his vast fortune upon an array of technological gizmos with which he can avenge himself against the man who shot at and killed a beloved family member. Bok is the Ferengi Batman.

(Just like I pointed out Damon Tarr shares his initials with Donald Trump last time, we can have some fun with letters here. A Damon is equivalent to a Captain, giving us DC, and Bok shares an initial with both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Coincidence? Undoubtedly. When has that ever stopped me?)

Obviously, this is a ridiculous idea. But ridiculous ideas aren’t necessarily useless ones. If you buy the Ferengi as a parody of the “greed is good” American hyper-capitalists of the Reagan era, positioning Bok’s son as Thomas Wayne’s dark reflection does make a kind of sense. Wayne had to acquire his vast fortune somehow, and it’s almost impossible to accrue that much wealth without getting blood on your hands somewhere along the way. Piracy might simply reduce the number of intermediaries there are between the bloodshed and the payday. Hell, I’ll bet you every strip of gold-pressed latinum I own that the Ferengi don’t even call a raid on an alien vessel “piracy”. It’ll be “hostile takeover” or something. I’m also prepared to bet that as far as the Ferengi are concerned, Picard really is the one at fault here. If he’d just arranged his crew’s swag in order of cost and handed it to the Ferengi as they boarded, then no-one would have been hurt.

The point is, it doesn’t actually take all that much effort to translate Bok’s story into a form we’ve seen before, and in doing so make him a rather more sympathetic character.  I’m not saying we should consider if Picard was in the wrong at Maxia – cultural relativism shouldn’t extend to supporting society-approved assaults against the innocent. But perhaps we can move Bok from the role of villain in this story, and replace him with Kazago. Because that dude has some ‘splainin’ to do. Throwing his Damon to the wolves because his desire to see justice for his dead son can’t be monetised? Even in space, that’s damn cold. To return to our Batman analogy, that’s is like Lucius Fox betraying Bruce Wayne because all that crime-fighting isn’t helping Wayne Enterprises’ bottom line.

Fools Of Acquisition

What else could Damon Bok expect, though? He might be Bruce Wayne, but everyone around him is Gordon Gekko. Kazago’s act of cold-blooded betrayal is exactly what Ferengi society requires of him. Were the tables turned, it’s almost impossible to believe Bok would have been any more supportive.

This finally gets us to a new way the Ferengi critique societies which worship money above all else: their fundamental instability, and the refusal of anyone involved to admit that fact. Bok retains power because he has a reputation for making money (whether that reputation is well-deserved doesn’t really matter here).  It takes all of a day or so of that no longer being true for him to be ousted. This means Ferengi power is an extremely limiting prospect – it only exists as long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And sooner or later everyone is going to stop being able to do that, at which point they’re pushed aside and left to fend for themselves. The problem with a dog-eat-dog society is that sooner or later every dog gets too old to defend itself. Every dog will eventually get eaten.

(This is probably why even actual dogs don’t go in for this model, because even animals that can’t tell the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a swarm of bees recognise that it’s a transparently awful idea.)

What’s more interesting though is despite all of this being trivially and obviously true, Bok somehow gets blindsided. His scheme fails not just because he assumes Riker will act like a Ferengi first officer, but because he assumes his own Ferengi first officer won’t. He’s reliant upon a set of rules he’s somehow convinced himself he’s exempt from (hence how I can make use of him as an example both of Ferengi thinking and distinctly un-Ferengi behaviour). This too though is a direct result of the Ferengi system, an inevitable consequence of prioritising reputation above results and encoding the false flattery of those above you into your culture’s philosophy. Everyone who experiences even a little short-term success ends up feeling bullet-proof, right up to the point they’re shot. While the money keeps rolling in, the boss’ self-delusion is an irrelevance, and once the cash-flow stops, it becomes an opportunity. You’d think sooner or later people would get wise to how this always works out, and yet somehow the wheel simply keeps on turning, pushed upwards by those desperate to reach a position from which they will inevitably be pushed.

Whilst I’m not without sympathy for Bok, then, that’s tempered by the fact he played his culture’s game long enough and seriously enough to gain command of a Marauder. His hands too cannot be clean. By reminding us here of what fully buying into the Reagan-capitalist mode means, then, “The Battle” suggests an unavoidable end point for the careers of those like Trump. Sooner or later, the people beneath them find a way to make more money from exploiting their bad behaviour than from ignoring it. Eventually the hits run out, and all of a sudden someone remembers that business with the thought-maker and feels compelled to spill the beans. When you buy loyalty, you only get as much loyalty as you can pay for.

All things considered, that seems like a safe bet, in general. Trump somehow survived long enough to get into political office, but for the rest of his kind the prediction seems at least a plausible one. Obviously it’s rather discouraging that this was written over thirty years ago and we’re still having to wait for the Reaganite businessman to go the way of the dinosaur – a shame, because the fossil fuels they would become would burn extra bright for irony involved. That’s hardly something we can blame on Forrester and Wright, however. They most certainly tried to warn us.

So, to wrap up, then. There are a number of rather interesting ideas delivered by “The Battle”. Like those being broadcast by the thought-maker though, they’re acting mainly as undercurrents, and are overly reminiscent of the past besides. Still, the buried and familiar beats the obvious and unpleasant, which is enough to put this episode above “Miri”. On the other hand, “…Megas-Tu” demands similar sweat from the viewer to pull apart, but offers far more reward when you take the time to do so.  Still, the Ferengi might not move as far forward here as it could, but there’s definitely motion in the right direction. The show remains dedicated to using this alien race to set itself in opposition to the prevailing attitude of greed and selfishness that infested the culture of the time. That’s always my kind of stance, and I appreciate it being reiterated here.

(There’s also the lovely idea here that humanity has worked out how to avoid stress headaches, presumably by no longer overworking people in order to make more money from them. That’s the sort of glorious detail I delight in. Trek should always be able to offer us throwaway gems like that one.)

Ultimately this episode has solid elements to both its concept and its execution (the Stargazer for example is a lovely bit of design). The problem is just that those elements that work don’t build on each other to give us something special. As a result, this feels like our first average episode of The Next Generation. That isn’t meant as an insult. I mean it in the sense that so far we’ve seen episodes that generally ranged from the sloppy to the appalling, with even the show’s two highlights so far shot through with an oddness difficult to reconcile with either how the franchise began or what it became. “The Battle”, whilst far from a classic – in fact it’s definitely sub-par by the standards of TNG at its peak – feels like our first glimpse of the show we recognise. There’s a tightness here not seen before. After almost two months of experimental sprawl which has more than once brought this brand new show to the brink of disaster, there’s the sense the show is settling down in the groove that it will follow into greatness.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

Ordering:

1. The Magicks Of Megas-Tu
2. The Battle
3. Miri

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