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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Rules of Acquisition (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

The Nagus was a surprising high-point of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It represented a conscious effort to rehabilitate and reappraise the Ferengi, the aliens introduced as potentially major adversaries in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only to wind up as mostly unfunny comic relief. The Nagus dared to suggest that the Ferengi might not be the monsters the Federation considers them to be, suggesting that their culture – while different – was no less worthy of respect or consideration than that of the Klingons.

Rules of Acquisition is a clear follow-up, right down to the way that it includes Grand Nagus Zek. However, it’s nowhere near as charming and successful as The Nagus, because it feels like it’s just treading water. It teases potential developments down the line, but the story seems locked in a familiar holding pattern – right down to the rather convenient ending that inevitably sees Quark snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

It’s not quite a bad episode, certainly not on the scale of the colossal misfire that was Melora, but it’s also not a particularly good one.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here…

To be fair, Rules of Acquisition does take the Ferengi relatively seriously. It’s still a comedy episode, with a decent (if not exceptional or even impressive) hit ratio, but it does continue to develop the idea that the Ferengi are more than just money-hungry schemers. They are money-hungry schemers with their own societies and social values. The title of this episode comes from the rules the Ferengi use to govern their transactions, codifying a way of live.

Rom refers to them as “sacred”, suggesting some religious underpinnings. Pel remarks that she has read “the various commentaries”, hinting that there’s considerable Ferengi jurisprudence. At the very least, Deep Space Nine is continuing to suggest that the Ferengi are a coherent and consistent civilisation that just has a different value system than our own. While the Federation celebrates peace and diversity, and the Klingons value honour, the Ferengi just happen to value commerce.

She's certainly got the lobes...

She’s certainly got the lobes…

It seems weird that this offends the Federation characters more than the Klingon policy of advancement through assassination, for example, but it does. Ira Steven Behr would take on the development of the Ferengi as a personal hobby over the show’s seven years, to varying degrees of success. Part of the charm of his approach was a willingness to probe the implications of various ideas or preconceptions about Ferengi culture.

The sexism of the Ferengi has been around since their first appearance in The Last Outpost. “You work with females, arm them, and force them to wear clothing,” Letek accuses the Enterprise crew. At the time, it seemed the writers were just using it to identify the Ferengi as all manner of undesirable. (Encounter at Farpoint had, after all, suggested that they like to eat people.) It became a recurring gag in stories like Menage a Troi, where the Ferengi kidnap the two Troi women (and Riker).

Forget Schwarzenegger, Brian Thompson is about to meet his real match...

Forget Schwarzenegger, Brian Thompson is about to meet his real match…

It was a cheap gag, a way of turning the Ferengi into ridiculous (and often failed) comic relief as – to quote Kira here – “greedy, misogynistic, untrustworthy little trolls.” However, like Behr did with the Ferengi greed in The Nagus, Behr plays out the idea to its logical conclusion. What role do female Ferengi play? How come we’ve never seen any? What does this say about their value system? Rules of Acquisition is another concrete attempt at world-building, focusing on the story of a Ferengi woman who dares to dream of profit.

The problem, however, is that it’s all rather trite. It goes without saying that sexism and misogyny are bad, so it seems strange to spend so long devoted to the idea – particularly when it’s staged as something of a morality play, where Quark learns not to judge female Ferengi by their lobes. Or lack thereof. It’s nice to get that aspect of their culture fleshed out, but it’s not quite enough to sustain a full hour of Deep Space Nine, especially at this point in the game.

Grand ambitions...

Grand ambitions…

You could argue that portraying Ferengi culture as inherently sexist represents a regression from Behr’s generally more nuanced development of their culture. After all, a lot of Deep Space Nine argued that the Ferengi value system wasn’t inherent inferior or stupid – that there was something to be said for resolving problems through negotiations and bartering rather than brute force or violence. However, the way the Ferengi treat their women is a qualification. However, just because the culture is undeniably and inherently sexist doesn’t mean that it’s flat and two-dimensional.

It is something which bares saying, even in this multi-cultural age. I really wish that I could say that we lived in a world where that sort of oppression was a relic of the past, but there are a few cultures around the world which continue to oppress and subjugate women. The Taliban militias still enforce female illiteracy in Afghanistan, recalling Pel’s claim that Ferengi women are forbidden from reading. In many parts of the world, a woman’s right to own property is not recognised. Although Saudi Arabia has made vague commitments to the rights of women, it remains unclear whether Saudi Arabian women actually have a right to vote.

Keeping his ears open...

Keeping his ears open…

It’s really easy to lose sight of those problems, living in the Western world. Of course, we have our own long and troubled history concerning women’s rights – and many people would argue that the debate is still on-going. While by no means as serious as the right to vote or own property or read, it is interesting to not that niche areas of pop culture also have a tendency to be bizarrely hostile to women.

There’s been much debate, for example, about institutionalised sexism in video game culture, and it’s not as if Star Trek can claim to be entirely enlightened. This is a franchise that gave us The Turnabout Intruder and Angel One. Indeed, Star Trek: Into Darkness featured so gratuitous an objectification of a major female character that the movie went into damage control, with the writer offering an apology and the studio releasing a deleted scene of a major male castmember flaunting himself to the camera. Being honest, I’m not convinced that it’s as bad as all that, but it is telling that gratuitous female flesh was retained while gratuitous male flesh was cut.

Kira's earring on the side of caution with Zek...

Kira’s earring on the side of caution with Zek…

Any way, the truth is that Rules of Acquisition probably doesn’t take place in a culture as far away from our own as we’d like to think. It’s worth noting that this the first time that the institutional sexism of a major race has been properly dealt with. The Klingons are also sexist. Despite Gowron’s promise to K’ehleyr in Reunion, it seems that women cannot hold high office in Klingon culture. In Redemption, the Duras sisters need a nephew to make their claim. In House of Quark, a widowed Klingon runs the risk of losing everything she owns.

This doesn’t mean that Ferengi or Klingon culture isn’t nuanced or fascinating, but it does raise questions about cultural relativism that the show only skirts. There’s no denying that the episode is somewhat feminist, demonstrating that Pel runs rings around Quark and possibly even Zek. However, it raises questions about the Federation and the business that it does with these people who treat their women like slaves. Dax seems to be offended by the idea, but all she does is tease Rom, “Is that how you really prefer your women? Naked and submissive?”

Quark is looking for some sexual Trills...

Quark is looking for some sexual Trills…

Cultural relativism is a thorny issue, and it’s something that all of Star Trek tries to deal with, with varying degrees of success. The Prime Directive means not telling other people how to live their lives, even when that involves large-scale oppression. Rules of Acquisition only features the most casual of interactions between the Starfleet crew and the Ferengi, and it seems to suggest that all the Federation can do is just sit on the sidelines and hope that Ferengi culture figures itself out. That doesn’t mean that the Ferengi are two-dimensional villains again, but it is difficult to reconcile “different” with something so openly sexist.

I suppose I should probably be glad that the episode doesn’t degenerate into a Prime Directive angst-fest as our regulars whine and moan about a situation they can’t really change. While it dodges a whole host of ethical questions about just how far Deep Space Nine‘s multi-cultural values certainly go, I do like that Rules of Acquisition is – again – a story told primarily from the Ferengi point of view. This isn’t about Sisko dealing with funny alien values, it’s about Quark deciding how he relates to his culture.

Getting down to business...

Getting down to business…

Armin Shimerman doesn’t get enough credit. He was often saddled with thankless material, but he generally acquits himself impressively. If the Ferengi are Deep Space Nine‘s rather weird answer to the Klingons from The Next Generation, then Quark is a rather skewed mirror to Worf. While Worf was raised by a human family and as part of the Federation, Quark only encountered humans in his adult life. Nevertheless, both characters find themselves balancing their complex racial identity against the reality of the world they live in.

Throughout Deep Space Nine, Quark is presented as a fairly crappy Ferengi. Sure, he stays out of prison. He even manages to keep the bar open for the vast majority of the show’s run. However, he never manages to achieve his full potential. He never gets to buy a moon, like his cousin Gala did. (It’s quite telling that in Keith R.A. DeCandido’s fascinating A Gutted World, an alternate version of Quark from a world where he never encountered the Federation does get to buy his moon.)

He can't even afford his own shuttle...

He can’t even afford his own shuttle…

Quark is soft. Sure, he’s greed and misogynistic and opportunistic and conniving. However, he’s not really ruthless. Much as Worf’s Federation values prevent him from ever completely integrating with Klingon culture, Quark will never be a completely successful Ferengi. In The Nagus, Zek argued that Quark’s Bar should be the most strategic Ferengi holding in the quadrant, and that Zek’s son – if he’s a good Ferengi – could leverage that to untold power. “The bar, you fool. That was the key. All those visitors stopping on their way to and from the wormhole.” For Quark, just keeping it open is a herculean effort.

Quark will always be a Ferengi, and he’ll never entirely conform to Federation values. However, there’s something very different about him. Discussing Quark with Pel, Dax recalls an attempt to by the Ferengi barkeep to woe her. “You know he once convinced me to go up to a holosuite with him. Turns out he recreated the bedroom I slept in as a child. He overheard me describing it to Kira. Of course, most of the details were wrong, but it was a very sweet gesture, up until he tried to kiss me.”

Girl talk...

Girl talk…

Putting the moves on Dax in a mock-up of her bedroom as a child is just a little pervy. (Okay, it’s a lot pervy.) However, devoting that much care and effort to wooing a headstrong female isn’t a very Ferengi thing to do. Profit and Loss confirms that Quark likes headstrong women – and even has experience with them. Even poor stupid Rom is more hardcore and traditionalist, responding with fire and brimstone when Pel is revealed as a woman. “Such a female must be severely punished.” Even in his early exchanges with Dax, Rom’s philosophy seems far more hardline and traditional Ferengi than Quark’s.

Indeed, it’s suggested that Quark really is attracted to Pel – or, at the very least, genuinely respects her. When Zek finds out, he is furious. “You have no future,” he warns Pel. “I’ll see to it that you spend the rest of your life in prison!” Quark answers back, the first time we’ve seen him stand up to the Grand Nagus, even after Zek made all sorts of unreasonable demands during the negotiations. “No,” Quark insists, relatively quietly, but firmly. That took real courage from Quark, and he wouldn’t do that for anybody.

Quark's made his bed...

Quark’s made his bed…

Indeed, Quark’s decision to abandon Pel at the end seems to stem more from what he wants to be than what he wants to do. Even though Quark is a pretty crappy Ferengi, he still wants to be a Ferengi. He doesn’t give up just because he’s not good at it. His decision not to escape with Pel seems rooted more in who Quark would like to think that he is, rather than what he actually wants. “Then come with me to the Gamma Quadrant,” Pel offers. “No one there cares if I wear clothes or not.” Quark responds with the only answer that a good Ferengi could offer. “I’d care.”

It’s a lovely moment, one which suggests that Behr respects Quark as a character – he might not always be what the audience wants him to be, but he makes a certain amount of sense in the hands of the right writer. (On the other hand, we also occasionally get Invasive Procedures.) Quark becomes this almost grandly tragic figure who will never have what he wants because he can’t admit that he wants it. It’s almost enough to excuse the rather lame final scene where Dax bluntly spells that out for the audience at home, in case we don’t get it. “You really think I’d let anyone come between us?” he teases. She replies, “Nice try, Quark, but I know you better than that.”

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

In a way, that coda really sums up the biggest problems with Rules of Acquisition. It spends far too much time telling us what we already know and covering familiar ground. We know the Ferengi are sexist, and while it’s nice for Quark to meet a woman who can do stuff, this doesn’t work quite as well as his trip home in Family Business. Pel is charming enough, but she’s never more than just a convenient plot device.

We even get a retread of the whole “everybody thinks the Ferengi are a joke and it’s okay to be racist about them”, only with Kira instead of Sisko. The whole “seduction” subplot between Kira and Zek has the potential to be charmingly awkward, but it never develops far enough. All we get is the fact that Zek apparently really likes Kira’s derriere and the “this will haunt my dreams” image of Zek inviting Kira to sit on his lap.

Playing his cards right...

Playing his cards right…

It allows Rules of Acquisition to engage in a familiar debate about what others think of the Ferengi. When Zek accuses Kira of making insinuations, she replies, “Me? Not at all. No. The Ferengi’s reputation speaks for itself.” Even the fairly anti-Ferengi Sisko has to warn her to back it up a bit. This prompts Kira to have a discussion with Dax, rather like a more aggressive variation of the conversation Sisko had with his son.

“I don’t understand your attitude about the Ferengi,” Kira admits to Dax. Dax counters, “I admit they place too much emphasis on profit, and their behaviour toward women is somewhat primitive.” Kira retorts, “They’re greedy, misogynistic, untrustworthy little trolls and I wouldn’t turn my back on one of them for a second.” Which isn’t a bad idea, given Zek’s predilection for unwanted physical contact. Dax concedes, “Neither would I. But once you accept that, you’ll find they can be a lot of fun.”

What the Zek is going on...?

What the Zek is going on…?

This doesn’t tell us anything new about the Ferengi, and instead feels like a bit of a retread, as if trapped in a holding pattern. That said, there are little character touches which make Rules of Acquisition a bit more interesting than it might otherwise be. For one thing, this feels like the debut of “new and improved” Dax. Jadzia was one of the show’s problem characters in the first season, and she would remain so throughout her time on the show.

However, Rules of Acquisition marks a shift in how Dax is portrayed. Throughout the first season, the scripts tried to present dax as a wise old man in a young woman’s body. So Terry Farrell got a lot of eyebrow raising and pacing with her back straight and her hands behind her. At times, it seemed like the show was presenting her as the stoic one, a niche filled much better by Odo. This obviously wasn’t working, as Dax and Bashir ran the risk of becoming the two least developed characters on the show.

My, what impressive lobes you have...

My, what impressive lobes you have…

As of Rules of Acquisition, Dax suddenly stops being stoic and starts being fun. The rest of her second season appearances and most her appearances afterwards would present Dax as a fun-loving extrovert emboldened by the fact that she was practically immortal. It does diminish a bit of what makes Dax interesting as a concept – all that experience in one body – but it helps Jadzia fit in better with the ensemble. It helps the Farrell plays to this a lot better – relishing the opportunity to turn Dax into the life and soul of Deep Space Nine. It leads to episodes like Blood Oath, and gives Farrell a unique voice in the cast, so it can’t be a bad thing.

We also discover that despite his sexism, Zek has a thing for strong women. Indeed, Kira’s repeated threats of physical violence seem to do nothing to curb his enthusiasm – if anything, he seems to come on stronger. This is a Ferengi who could presumably have anyone he wanted on Ferenginaar, so it’s telling that he responds to strong women. Indeed, it foreshadows quite a lot, as Deep Space Nine had a tendency to do – accidentally or otherwise.

For a macho culture they sure wine a lot...

For a macho culture they sure wine a lot…

It’s become something of a routine to try to retroactively analyse character motivations and development in this second season by reference to the plots lying ahead of this ensemble, to determine what fits and what doesn’t. While it’s unlike character arcs were really planned that far in advance, it often indicates just how solid these early impressions of particular characters were, and how much later revelations stemmed from the same outline as these stories.

Bashir’s back story and motivations in Melora read a lot more cynically in light of the revelations in Doctor Bashir, I Presume?, while Kira’s family history in Ties of Blood and Water fits quite well with her actions in Progress and Duet. Quark’s characterisation here fits quite well with the later revelations about his family life. (Or, I suppose, vice versa, given the order in which they were written.) Given the relationship between his parents, a lot of Rules of Acquisition makes sense – from his attraction to Pel to his refusal to act on it.

What do they bring to the table?

What do they bring to the table?

There are other nice touches as well. In a franchise that never properly embraced homosexual or transgender characters, Rules of Acquisition at least makes a polite acknowledgement. Dax is – for instance – far more shocked to discover that Pel is a woman than that she is a man. When Zyree walks in on what she thinks to be two men making out on a bed, she just excuses herself as if she walked in on a heterosexual couple. It’s a nice way of acknowledging that two guys in love isn’t a big deal, even if Star Trek seemed terrified of following through on this premise.

To be honest, I’d love to give Deep Space Nine more credit as an LGBT-friendly show, but this is the spin-off which gave us the glorified “deviant lipstick lesbianism and depraved bisexuality” of the mirror universe and all of Profit and Lace. It seems that Deep Space Nine was a show of extremes. Rejoined is one of the two best explorations of sexual intolerance in the history of the franchise, and there are lots of nice touches like Dax’s response to Pel’s crush on Quark or Odo’s casual acknowledgement in If Wishes Were Horses… that not everybody conforms to conventional genders, but that is balanced out by some seriously questionable decisions.

The Ferengi get a Dosi of their own medicine...

The Ferengi get a Dosi of their own medicine…

There’s also something to be said for Zek’s business savvy here, as he proves he’s not an idiot. Behr tends to treat the Ferengi with respect, even as he uses them as comic relief. It’s funny to look back on the second year of Deep Space Nine and remember that it is Grand Nagus Zek who makes first contact with the Dominion. It’s not the Federation, it’s not the Cardassians. It isn’t politics or first contact, but simple business. And the way that Zek manipulates everybody involved suggests that there’s a reason he has ascended to the top of the Ferengi totem poll.

I’ll talk about the Dominion a bit in the rest of the episodes scattered throughout the season. After all, they are only mentioned here. However, it’s a great idea to “hide” their first mention in what amounts to a silly Ferengi episode. It’s also just a great idea to give Deep Space Nine something concrete on the other end of the wormhole rather than merely “space stuff where funky aliens come from.” Given that Deep Space Nine existed in the shadow of two shows that were about exploration, it needed to distinguish itself. The opening three-parter of the second season did that, and the Bajoran politics seeded throughout the season would help. However, the Dominion would become the key.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

As an aside, and apropos of nothing, I like how Behr makes the Dosi a vaguely matriarchal society. I love Michael Westmore’s design for them, because it feels like a consciously silly science-fiction alien species. I’ve always argued that Deep Space Nine was the spin-off closest to the aesthetic of the original Star Trek for a variety of reasons – from the cultural references it mines, through to the western vibe and even in its choice of call-back and guest stars. The Dosi feel like they could have shown up in the sixties and looked totally awesome. It’s not a radical or overly complex design, but it’s striking and effective.

Anyway, without making a big deal of it, Behr suggests that the Dosi are a business empire controlled by women. While Zyree is accompanied by the muscle-bound Inglatu, she is the one who closes the deal at the end of the episode. When the initial negotiations aren’t going well, she wonders why they are talking to Quark and Pel. “Now see what you’ve done,” Inglatu warns Quark. “You’ve made me look foolish.”

Beware Ferengi bearing gifts...

Beware Ferengi bearing gifts…

While the Dosi men seem to fight and glower and threaten and posture, Inglatu is unable or unwilling to negotiate the final deal with Quark. It’s Zyree who offers a solution. “If you really want a hundred thousand vats of tulaberry wine, I can put you in touch with the right people. For a price, of course.” The episode doesn’t make a big deal of it, and it’s certainly not Angel One, but it is an interesting flip side of the coin to Ferengi culture. (It’s also worth wondering if a more close-minded Ferengi than Quark would have dealt with Zyree at all.)

Rules of Acquisition isn’t terrible. There’s a lot of good stuff here. However, it all feels a little too simplistic, a little too convenient, a little too trite. It seems a bit much that Quark finally gets all the profit he wants only to have to surrender it at the last minute. After all, Zek has more to lose than Quark if it’s revealed Pel is a woman. It’s just a cheap way of making sure that nothing too much changes, giving the impression that Rules of Acquisition is just moving in circles.

You might be interested in our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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2 Responses

  1. I loved that show. It is still top ranked on Netflix 20 years later…

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