I’ve mentioned it before and it’s pretty well known that the Ferengi were a failed attempt at creating a Klingon-style antagonist for TNG. For this episode, Ira Steven Behr (whose name is probably familiar to long-time readers of this feature as the man I’m apparently in love with) wanted to flip the script on that. The Ferengi never worked as traditional villains. DS9 was already playing with them as figures of fun, but Behr wanted to give them a little nobility. It’s tough to find that in our favorite soulless capitalists: you have to dig a little, but it’s there.
Basically, the episode starts as innocuously as possible, so that the second-act twist will shock the living hell out of you. It’s a standard writing trick, and the same reason that the Saw movies always begin with pastoral shots of that island of bunnies in Japan. Or not. I might have weird bootleg versions of those movies. Anyway, Jake Sisko, returning from his exile -- and I’m not complaining, I’m eternally grateful that the writers didn’t feel compelled to shoehorn him into every episode, turning this into Degrassi Space Nine or something -- is working on his science project. Sisko, being the kind of go-getter he is, thinks Jake could do for something a little more challenging, and they settle on a planetary survey in the Gamma Quadrant.
Sisko is looking forward to spending time with his son, camping and sciencing to their hearts’ content. Unfortunately, Jake invites Nog along, who needs to do well on this project or he’s going to drop out of school. Quark then invites himself, ostensibly to supervise Nog, but in reality to talk Sisko into letting him use the station’s monitors to sell stuff. Quark pretty much instantly calls Sisko out for racism, and it’s actually pretty effective. The disdain that everyone not named Dax (and even she can be a bit patronizing) shows for the Ferengi makes it seem like racism toward them is the only culturally accepted kind there is. Then again, lionizing greed, gleefully exploiting workers, and horrifying institutional sexism are objectively bad things. Am I a Ferengi racist? My Facebook feed is about to explode in righteous anger. #NotAllFerengi indeed.
Yet Quark does make a pretty good point. Later in the episode, he says that the reason humans (pronounced “hew-mons”) don’t like Ferengi is because we used to be just like them. Except we’re not. The Ferengi have nothing in their history that equals the horrors of slavery or the holocaust. They kind of have a point . . . which is undermined by the fact that they keep women -- sorry, females -- in a form of slavery. But, Sisko hears what Quark is saying, and it’s a nice moment to see an alien, especially one generally considered to be bad if not outright evil, getting through the utopian arrogance of a Starfleet officer. Once again, DS9 is allowing an alien to get to an excellent point through the lens of their own culture. The writers reach a new plateau in the ongoing evolution of the Ferengi, and it’s pretty rewarding to watch. The writers even give Quark a nice hero moment as he saves Sisko’s life from an attacker. It’s a good hour for the friendly barkeep.
We also get the true introduction of DS9’s defining villains. I am definitely biased, but I rank the Dominion at the very top of all Trek bad guys (and yes, the Cardassians are number 2 -- biased!). They are one of the few that are not monolithic races, and their status as the Dark Federation makes perfect sense in the larger context of the galaxy. Their dystopian empire instantly gives the Gamma Quadrant fascinating texture and provides a springboard for the rest of the series.
I’m getting ahead of myself here. This episode introduces two of the most important races in the Dominion (and the third would not be decided upon until the following season -- or next week if you’re just reading me): the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar. A lot had yet to be decided about the both of them, but coming out of the gate, both are damned successful.
The Jem’Hadar are introduced as they are: the terrifying shock troops of the Dominion. These are those soldiers who wiped out Rurigan’s people (forcing him to make his holographic utopia), and they bear a resemblance to the Tosk way back in the early days of season one. The writers have since confirmed the connection, but it speaks for itself in terms of the common appearance, similar technology, and some of the later revelations about the Jem’Hadar race. They have a full-face mask, too, which is a welcome sight on a species intended to have lots of representatives. They have a scaly/horny look evocative of both rhinos and reptiles, which underlines their status both as warriors and as others. They’re pretty awesome is what I’m trying to say here.
The Vorta are introduced here through the character of Eris (played by Molly Hagan, who is making a nice living doing Lifetime movies, which I review on my blog. There’s your shameless plug of the day). She needed a little more work to get right. Her telekinetic powers, a major plot point in this hour, never once show up in any of the other Vorta we see. Also, in light of later revelations, her being set up as a spy, and her not reacting to Odo makes no sense at all. But, that’s one of the dangers of longform fiction. The Vorta are basically human-looking, sporting a pair of giant, pointy ears and creepy, too-blue eyes, and are the counterparts of the Jem’Hadar. If the Jem’Hadar are the stick, the Vorta are the carrot. The Dominion will give you one or the other, and you get to choose. Also, it’s worth noting that if someone is named Eris -- the freakin’ Goddess of Confusion who started the Trojan War (see the Doctrine of the Original Snub) -- it’s best not to trust her.
Eris sneers at the idea of the mysterious “Founders” who lead the Dominion. This is mostly because the writers hadn’t decided who they would be. That comes next season. Or next week, really. It’s just a jarring moment if you’ve seen the rest of the series. It’s possible to fanwank it to make sense, but the real reason is longform fiction is tough.
The episode culminates with an ironic demonstration of the Worf Effect. You know how when TNG writers wanted to show how strong the alien-of-the-week was, so they just had it kick Worf’s ass? That led to the prevailing wisdom that the entire Alpha Quadrant had kicked Worf’s ass at one point or another. In this case, “Worf” is the USS Odyssey, a Galaxy-class ship that looks exactly like the Enterprise. TNG featured many episodes when the Enterprise could just sit there in space and shrug off enemy fire like it ain’t no thang. Here, the Dominion blasts right through shields like they aren’t even there, and when the Odyssey tries to flee, one of the Jam’Hadar ships straight up rams it, destroying both. It’s a pretty effective way to show that the Dominion is not to be trifled with. Looks like the Alpha Quadrant needs a new ship. No, they need a shipzilla. We’ll see it next week, and it is so great. And, it’s actually closer to shipgamera. We’ll get there.
This is the last episode with Michael Piller as showrunner. After this point, Behr takes over, with his number two man as Robert Hewitt Wolfe from seasons three to five, and Ron Moore for six and seven. The show is truly in the hands of the writers now, and they know what they’re doing. While there is no plan as such, they have started moving with confidence into the truly great stretch of the show.
I can’t wait.
Next up: Founders? I heard they were a myth.