Star Trek has a long tradition of combining its science-fiction setting with comedy. The second season of the original series undoubtedly explored the cross-section of Trek and comedy as well as the franchise ever has on television, with classics like “A Piece of the Action” and “The Trouble with Tribbles” airing in quick succession, and it was of course the fourth movie, The Voyage Home, that rejuvenated the film franchise and proved popular enough to lead into Trek‘s relaunch on television. More significantly, as Shakespeare sprinkled humor into his tragedies to make their dramatic heights stand out more, comedy is of great use to a dramatic TV series to provide contrast and variety. (And if there’s one thing to learn about the original series, as frequently noted on the Mission Log podcast back when it was based in that era, it’s that when Star Trek doesn’t have anything else to talk about it talks about Shakespeare. It’s a handy way to import some highbrow culture.)
After The Voyage Home, though, humor in Star Trek was less well-received. The Final Frontier has some genuinely fantastic comedic scenes, and deserves a redemptive reading along those lines (which is too big a detour to take even here), but it admittedly failed to deftly combine those with its ostensibly-dramatic main plot. The Next Generation made several efforts at integrating comedy into its particular brand of drama, but the general consensus on its more comedic episodes appears to range from horrible to merely decent, with “The Outrageous Okona” on the low end of that spectrum and “Rascals” or “A Fistful of Datas” on the relatively high end, depending on how any particular viewer feels about camp. Eventually, TNG settled into a formula by which it would typically incorporate comedy in smaller chunks — in individual scenes, or in asides, or in occasional B-plots — rather than devoting entire episodes to such tonal shifts.
“The Nagus” sees the beginning, in earnest, of two related but distinct reclamation projects Deep Space Nine is embarking on. DS9 is going to make a concerted effort throughout its run to regularly feature “comedy episodes,” and it only makes sense that the majority of them are going to be focused on the Ferengi, beginning here. As noted in “Emissary,” the addition of Quark to the show’s main cast was a statement of purpose by the creators of DS9 that they would find some value in the Ferengi after the race utterly failed to catch on as The Next Generation‘s primary enemies. That failure was so immense, turning the Ferengi into objects of scorn and mockery, that the low-stakes comedy villain became their main role on the show, leading to Quark’s inheritance of the sitcom aesthetic once he was created. Quark has had a few moments of seriousness, assisting briefly in the crisis (that he caused) in “Babel,” managing a group of mercenaries in “The Passenger,” and attempting to use his experience as a gambler in “Move Along Home,” but he’s been more at home as the dose of light-heartedness injected into many episodes, particularly to the extent that he’s able to pull Odo into his world as the stark — albeit sarcastic — straight man in their pairing.
There are things that Quark, and the Ferengi in general, are allowed to do because of their separation from the traditional dramatic structure where the rest of Deep Space Nine typically resides. The depiction of the Ferengi ethical and economic system quickly becomes a cartoonish vision of capitalism, not only because of the association of the Ferengi with humor, but also because a more serious depiction would require the series to make a concerted effort to examine the multitudinous failings of such a system; in order for capitalism to be depicted as the dominant structure of a society in a franchise with the ideological history of Star Trek, it must be quickly dismissed or it must be made ridiculous. (“I’m old. The fire dims. I’m just not as greedy as I used to be.”) While examining it in a more thorough way is certainly a worthwhile goal for a science fiction series, it’s not the main goal of this particular series, though DS9 will make occasional gestures in that direction.
Most relevantly in “The Nagus,” the Ferengi are allowed to peer through and crack the fourth wall. Grand Nagus Zek is introduced as some sort of cross between a CEO, a decadent Roman Senator of the “bread and circuses” period, and a mob boss — indeed, large swathes of the episode are direct homages to and parodies of The Godfather. Owing to the nature of the Ferengi, though, after (very) briefly being portrayed as ominous, Zek is revealed as the fantastic Wallace Shawn, most famous for The Princess Bride (and in the years following this episode, for Clueless, the Toy Story movies, and in a personal favorite, an appearance as a hapless US Congressman on Murphy Brown). Shawn is the perfect casting choice for Zek, imbuing the character with his distinctive voice and enough pomposity to balance his ludicrousness.
As the leader of the Ferengi, Zek is able to break the fourth wall as much as any of them, when he describes the Ferengi’s diegetic issues in terms that apply just as much to the issues with their writing to date:
It is becoming more and more difficult to find truly lucrative business opportunities here in the Alpha Quadrant. And why? Because no matter where we go, our reputation precedes us. A reputation tainted by the lies of our competitors, who maliciously spread the erroneous impression that we are not to be trusted. But now, thanks to the discovery of the wormhole, for the first time we can now avoid such falsehoods. The Gamma Quadrant, gentlemen. Millions of new worlds at our very doorstep. The potential for Ferengi business expansion is staggering.
It is becoming more and more difficult for the Ferengi to find truly entertaining dramatic possibilities on The Next Generation. And why? Because no matter when they show up, their reputation precedes them. A reputation tainted by the failures of their previous episodes, which undermined them with the impression that they are not to be taken seriously. But now, thanks to the advent of Deep Space Nine, for the first time they can avoid the pitfalls of meaningless villain roles. Quark — and through him, dozens of Ferengi carrying their own episode. The potential for Ferengi storytelling is staggering.
(And indeed, we get more Ferengi worldbuilding here than in any of their previous appearances. After scattered cultural references in a few prior episodes, “The Nagus” establishes the office of the Grand Nagus, the Rules of Acquisition, and the vacuum-dessication & subsequent selling of dead Ferengi, all elements that will become permanent fixtures of Ferengi culture. How that culture relates to the scattered military ships encountered on The Next Generation is less clear, and is never directly explored, but it’s easy enough to assume that the DaiMons and their crews are independently-operating pirates, private military forces belonging to wealthy individuals who live in and/or own the Ferengi border regions, or simply mercenaries on the Nagus’ payroll.)
The actual plot of the episode — Quark’s sudden ascension to Grand Nagus when Zek fakes his death to see how his son, Krax, will try to gain influence, only to return at the end of the episode to interrupt Krax and Rom’s attempt to kill Quark in order to make Krax the new Nagus and leave the bar open for Rom to take over — serves to demonstrate the various Ferengi’s approaches to power, both personal and political. (As if there’s a significant difference between the two, just as Zek and Krax do not distinguish between business and pleasure at the beginning of the episode.) For Quark, power is a thing to be enjoyed and to hold over people, whether in shaming a businessman for not kowtowing to him promptly enough or in belittling Rom for the depraved act of returning a customer’s purse intact, but these powers come with the risk associated with other people’s jealousy and ambition. For Rom, the powerful are to be obeyed, and asked for small favors regarding his mistreatment, until he can take no more. For Krax, power is something he gets to enjoy second-hand, threatening to swallow people up in his father’s shadow; when Quark is seemingly given the power of the Nagus, Krax decides that that power is something to be seized violently, in grand gestures. Zek rebukes this view harshly at the end of the episode: “It’s like talking to a Klingon!” For Zek, power is to be wielded subtly, through misdirection and guile, with grand gestures hiding layers of meaning. Zek sets up his test to see if Krax would see, as Zek does, that Quark’s bar is the perfect location to sit at the locus of galactic events, gathering information from both sides of the wormhole through the various travelers passing through the bar, and gaining influence among them where he can. (It’s actually difficult to say that even Quark realizes this potential, despite some gestures at profiteering off discoveries and visitors from the Gamma Quadrant; once again the joke is on him.) Krax does not see this potential or this subtlely, and Zek declares, in one of Wallace Shawn’s best line readings in the episode: “You failed — miserably!”
The B-plot of “The Nagus” owes something to the comedy aesthetic of the episode as a whole, but instead of indulging in absurdity or parody, instead takes the Very Special Episode as its inspiration and the show’s children as its subjects. Commander Sisko has voiced objections to Jake’s friendship with Nog, most recently in “Move Along Home” when Sisko emphasized how little he wanted Jake learning about girls from “the Ferengi boy.” When the presence of the Nagus inspires some cultural conservatism in Rom, he pulls Nog out of the school (“Now go to your room — and no studying!”) to avoid further Federation indoctrination; Sisko might consider his problem solved, only to discover that Jake has been making excuses to go to one of the cargo bays…to teach Nog how to read.
Nog’s illiteracy is the one element of the episode that feels most at odds with the way Ferengi society is being constructed — considering the Ferengi worship of commerce and profit above all else, one would think their children would be educated from a young age in the minutiae of contract law, statistical analysis, business management, and accounting. (Perhaps if the Ferengi were troll-like price-gougers and also a bookish people, they’d simply be too much of an antisemitic stereotype for polite company. This is understandable.) Aside from that, Jake manages to demonstrate the ethos of Deep Space Nine better than his father, the leader of the ensemble cast, has done lately.
Sisko’s role was established early in the series to be that of a builder: he must get Bajor ready to apply for Federation membership, he must manage the station, and he must foster good relations with the new species coming through the wormhole. He keeps Quark on the station to show people that merchants are staying on the promenade, so that that community will grow, but he still has little regard for the Ferengi in general and would prefer for them to stay in separate spheres. Jake points out that his father’s told him to “make friends with other cultures,” but “human values and Ferengi values are very different. We’ve never been able to form a common bond.” He points, gently, to the hypocrisy of saying that they should forge bonds with other cultures while treating “We’ve never been able to form a common bond” as the end of a line of thought, and of making efforts to work with the Bajorans while merely tolerating the presence of the Ferengi (and sometimes not even allowing them that much).
Through Jake, Deep Space Nine is starting to show the multicultural ideal enacted in a positive way, free of cynicism. Nog may not actually be fit for the school, but together they work out a way for him to learn anyway. Jake doesn’t have any agenda regarding Ferengi society; his view is more granular, seeing only Nog’s struggles in school. His motivation has nothing to do with the movements of political powers; he simply wants to help his friend, and it’s that personal kindness that builds the individual bridges that eventually form cultural bonds.
All Star Trek articles on PTBN, including all episodes of Deep Space Nine covered thus far, can be found here.