Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.10: Tragic Comedy

The Nagus

Star Trek The Nagus

“You’d better not have put any iocane powder in here!”

“I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: “The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair.” In these words he epitomized the history of the human race.” – Bertrand Russell

This Magnificent Ferengi

“The Nagus” is the kind of episode that I think demonstrates the value of re-watching Trek in the unusual order I’ve imposed for IDFC. Up until now, I’ve never been a huge fan of “The Nagus”. It always just felt like one more piece of filler fluff in a season that, after an exceptionally strong opening, seemed to be quickly running out of steam. Watching it again to write this post, though, I can see I was wrong. The biggest problem the episode has is where it’s placed in the running order. It seems a clear mistake to put this directly after “Move Along Home”, though admittedly far less bad an idea than filming that episode to begin with. It’s just too much to go from Quark’s board-game marathon to his promotion to Godfather.

With a few weeks to scrub the blackened mess of “Move Along Home” from the front of the mind, however, the lightweight nature of “The Nagus” proves far less of an issue. It helps, obviously, that it’s clearly a much better episode than the one preceding it. Ira Steven Behr attempts three things here, and broadly speaking succeeds with all of them.

Each of these involves demonstrating that a specific type of episode can work on the show. The first was inevitably going to be tried – episodes carried mainly by Armin Shimmerman. It had been standard practice for years by this point for the majority of Star Trek episodes to focus on a single main character, whilst most of the other cast got a comparatively light role. Sooner or later, Quark was going to have his day in the spotlight. As it turns out, it was later rather than sooner, with Shimmerman being the last of the leads to get an episode focused on them (other than Cirroc Lofton, though Lofton’s name in the opening credits was never really reflected in his screen-time anyway). This seems like a sensible move, actually, Shimmerman’s obvious experience and talents notwithstanding. With make-up as heavy and restrictive as that of the Ferengi, giving him time to settle in before shining the spotlight on him seems sensible.

Whether he could have done this earlier in the season or not though, Shimmerman certainly nails it here. Somehow he never fails to make Quark magnetic, even when he’s caught between his cowardice and his greed, or even while being actively cruel. He does have help, of course. Max Grodénchik has finally found his feet – and voice – as Rom. His mixture here of bumbling straight guy and half-witted schemer complements both Shimmerman and the episode’s larger themes. Wallace Shawn is an absolute delight as the repulsive Zek, playing him as one part dirty old man to two parts capitalist Skeletor. Rounding off the main players of the A-plot is Auberjonois, who as always is faultless, giving us an Odo with just the right balance of irritation, bemusement, and prideful conviction in his inevitable ultimate victory. Nevertheless, this is Shimmerman’s show, and it’s a total success.

None of that comes as a huge surprise, given the amount of experience in front of the camera our main players have. Of the three actors playing adult Ferengi, Grodénchik has the latest initial entry on IMDB, twelve years before this episode aired. Auberjonois had been working in the industry for at least thirty years by this point. These are actors who absolutely know what they’re doing.

More specifically, they know what they’re doing when it comes to comedy. Auberjonois and Shawn were in MASH and The Princess Bride respectively, both films that regularly show up in “Best Comedy” lists. Shimmerman was chosen to play Larry Fine in Stoogemania, which was admittedly badly received and a flop, but still – someone recognised him as having sufficient comedic chops to impersonate one of the most famous comedians of the twentieth century. Grodénchik had enjoyed guest-spots and bit-parts in several sitcoms in the decade before landing the role of Rom.

All that talent and experience also functioned as resources that could be tapped in the pursuit of the episode’s second goal – proving Deep Space Nine could do comedy. This too succeeds, at least to a point. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the end product particularly funny (though Rom’s position and face as he corrects Sisko on how to address Quark made me laugh out loud). There are much better (and yes, exponentially worse) Ferengi jokes yet to be written. But then that’s comedy for you, though. You almost never get it absolutely right the first time. The potential here is pretty clear. Given a decent script and a strong guest star to bounce off of, Shimmerman, Grodénchik and Auberjonois can absolutely deliver the goods.

American Psychos

I’m sure you’ll have noticed the missing name above. What about Aaron Eisenberg? Well, it’s here we start to run into problems. Not with Eisenberg himself, who as always does a commendable job of playing a truculent, pubescent time-bomb whilst under the twin burdens of heavy make up and being in his mid-twenties. What bothers me here is how badly the strained melodrama of Nog’s plot rubs against the stated goal of making a funny episode. Yes, there’s something rather pleasing about how a trope is inverted here. Making the black kid the academic success and the white one the ultimately decent kid who’s about to drop out is a neat switch. There’s too much of a whiff of “after school special” about the whole set-up, though, which doesn’t fit with the Ferengi shenanigans elsewhere.

(Just as a side-note, I’m horrified that the show’s concept of education in a post-scarcity paradise includes demanding essays from students who can’t actually read. Where’s Nog’s bespoke education programme? Why hasn’t Keiko briefed the substitute teacher on Nog’s progress? Don’t these people know a teacher should never humiliate an illiterate pupil by demanding in front of the whole class that they produce an assignment they clearly could never have completed?)

On the other hand, while pitting Nog against the written word undermines the episode’s efforts to work as a chuckle-fest, it does have its uses. In particular, it helps “The Nagus” with its third goal: proving an episode about the Ferengi could actually work.

You can see why the production team might have been nervous about trying this. The last time a fledgling Trek show built an episode around the Ferengi it was almost universally labelled a disaster. I strongly disagree with that judgment, and I’ve said before that the failure to understand people can simultaneously be obviously pathetic and horribly dangerous, and is a big part of why we’re in such trouble now. It doesn’t really matter how much credit the franchise deserved for making Reaganomics the enemy in 1987, though. The point is that the credit never arrived.

The Ferengi of Deep Space Nine’s first season had to work differently to their forebears from five years earlier, then. Quark wouldn’t be using an energy whip to spin his dabo wheels faster. And actually, this would probably still have been the case had “The Last Outpost” gotten the kudos it deserved. “The Nagus” comes firmly within the period where the franchise preferred presenting differences in politics and philosophy to conflicts with implacable foes. Compare how the Ferengi were first introduced compared to, say, the Cardassians. Even the Borg weren’t the incomprehensible existential nightmares they once were, as “Descent” made clear.

Fortunately, whilst Trek’s approach was changing, so was the American zeitgeist. Or maybe luck had nothing to do with it. Perhaps stepping away from monolithic hostile alien empires and a focus on political debate and compromise was the natural result of the Cold War ending, alongside the simultaneous arrival of the Democrats in the White House after twelve consecutive years of Republican dominance. Whatever the truth about the correlations and causal relationships involved, though, the parallel nature of the two shifts meant this show’s first Ferengi episode could mirror Reaganism just as TNG‘s did. It was just that the nature of Reaganism had now changed. Clinton had won the Oval, wresting it from a man unsuccessfully trying to maintain Reagan’s legacy. Bill was never even close to being an enemy of Wall Street, but by simple dint of not being so slavishly in hock to them he was able to create the illusion of opposition. It was possible for people to believe America had come to its senses. That it had realised greed was, in fact, no longer good.

This was reflected in the Ferengi of “The Nagus” being portrayed as people whose day had come and gone, whether they realised it or not. The Ferengi Alliance is no longer a base from which to conquer the galaxy in the name of rampant capitalism. It’s a nature reserve for yuppies. What had once threatened to take over to become a horrifying new normal was now on the wane. The hope was that one day it would be seen as some sad historical fact, an embarrassing reminder of how badly mainstream society once lost its way (this of course had become explicit within the show by”The Jem’Hadar” at the latest). Just take a look at the Nagus’ band of fawning would-be tycoons. They’re just Patrick Bateman and his mates, with less interest in calligraphy. They’re Stratton Oakmont just before the cops show up. Indeed, this is all so Wolf Of Wall Street it’s amazing it took until Zek’s second visit to the station for beetle-snuff to make an appearance, given how badly the Ferengi were crying out for a cocaine metaphor.

Tube Grubs And Tumbrels

With the dimensions of the study established, then, it’s time to talk about what we actually observe. The first thing to note is how completely oblivious Zek is to the fact his culture is destroying itself. The whole of the Alpha Quadrant is now wise to the Ferengi; their own unscrupulous greed is costing them more and more opportunities because there’s almost no-one left who will trust them. It’s only the miraculous discovery of the Bajoran Wormhole that offers a way out of this trap of their own making, and that too can only be temporary.

This is the problem when your income depends on exploiting others. You can only keep the money flowing by constantly increasing the degree of that exploitation. Once you run out of new people to exploit, you have to keep turning the screws on the people you already have access to. Even leaving the moral implications of that approach aside, this approach is clearly unsustainable. A society that wants to keep building its towers higher will need a constant supply of stone. If you can’t find new land to quarry from, you’re going to have to steal from your own foundations. Do that long enough, though, and you’ll take one stone too many and the whole thing will collapse on top of you. Societies like that are always tumbling toward revolution, because there’s only so much you can take from people before they decide it’s time they take it back. For the Ferengi then the central dilemma is not so much expand or die, so much as expand or be sent to the guillotine.

There’s always a third option, of course. The Ferengi could reorder their society so it’s no longer desirable or even possible to increase one’s own status by inconveniencing or even damaging those around you. As I say, this isn’t even a call for developing a social conscience. It’s a necessary step to avoid self-destruction.

The Ferengi we see here clearly have no interest in the long-term stability of their approach, however. This is obvious in everything they do. It’s not simply the certainty they’ll eventually poison the Gamma Quadrant against them, just as they have the Alpha. There’s not even any real interest shown here about what comes next for their own families. Zek seems more interested in humiliating his son than he does grooming him for power. OK, his lecture at the episode’s end makes some sense, but the only advice we saw Zek offer Krax before faking his death is that his son should be able to subconsciously predict the appearance of stable wormholes. HOW HELPFUL! Rom meanwhile is so desperate to be part of a society that nakedly despises him he’ll prioritise his social “better’s” racism over his own son’s ability to read, and to learn about the very aliens their society requires he attempts to take advantage of.

The message here seems fairly unambiguous. For the Ferengi, the next generation is something to be dominated and berated. One more way to revel in their own supposed superiority. One more direction in which to punch down. Punching down is all they know how to do, actually. This is helpfully demonstrated by the brilliant but sad scene in the bar where Quark harshly punishes Rom for little real reason, and Rom immediately passes the punishment on to Nog with even less justification. This moment is played for laughs, but in the context of the larger episode it’s clearly a tragic moment – Quark gets bullied by the Nagus, so he bullies Rom. Rom gets bullied by Quark, so he bullies his son. The ultimate result is a miserable and illiterate teenager, a man so sick of being treated like dirt by his own brother he’s willing to countenance murdering him as a way of finally getting a break, and the new ruler of an entire civilisation immediately realising that every smiling face beneath him is reflected in the knife they’re pointing upwards. Everyone is unhappy. Everyone is denied the chance to reach their true potential. Everyone is trapped.

What this results in is a second Ferengi duality. The first one, as mentioned, was about how the obviously pathetic could still be terribly dangerous once it found its way to power. This time it’s about how darkly funny Ferengi society can appear to those with no stake in it, but how absolutely tragic the results are for anyone on the inside. When Ben Sisko warns his son about how different Federation and Ferengi values are, I don’t think he’s saying Nog might be a bad influence. I think he’s trying to prepare his son for the distinct possibility that being friends with Nog is going to involve a lot of pain. That watching his friend crushed by degrees by his cruel, vicious culture is going to be profoundly upsetting, and there will be nothing he can do.

All of which are pretty important and sobering insights, made even better by Jake ultimately demonstrating his father is wrong about humanity’s inability to help. The fact Deep Space Nine manages to offer it to us with an episode billed as being basically a bit of amusing fluff is genuinely impressive.

So, to bring this post to a close, why have I ranked “The Nagus” below both “Haven” and “The Corbomite Maneuver”? Given how coherent and important its skewering of cultures of greed clearly is, should it not be higher?

Well, maybe. I think the main reason I’ve chosen this ordering, though, is because while this episode does an excellent job of sketching out the problems with the Ferengi approach, I ultimately prefer stories which tell us how things should be over the one that tell us how they shouldn’t. I want to see exemplars of moral behaviour, even – especially – when those actions come from characters that are far from perfect themselves. It seems to me that we could all do with a few more opportunities to watch people do the right thing. These days it can feel like counterexamples are all that we ever get.

Ordering

1. Haven

2. The Corbomite Maneuver

3. The Nagus

4. Mudd’s Passion

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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