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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – House of Quark (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

House of Quark is a delightful episode that probably does a better job of setting the tone for the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than The Search. As much as the Dominion were introduced as “a big deal” and clearly intended to change the show’s status quo, the third season does very little with them. There are a few mentions here and there, a late-season two-parter, two scattered episodes looking at aspects of the Dominion, and a series finalé, but they don’t drive the third season as much as one might expect, or as much as they drive the fifth through seventh seasons.

In contrast, House of Quark is a decidedly irreverent look at the world of Star Trek, a decidedly cynical perspective on one of the franchise’s sacred cows – a downright subversive exploration of something that the franchise takes for granted.

A knife story, there, Quark...

A knife story, there, Quark…

There’s a stinging and bitter anger underpinning House of Quark, a show seething at hypocrisy and self-delusion. Here, it’s a rather harsh take on Klingon values. That’s something that the franchise would do a lot during this half-season. Equilibrium is condemnation of Trill culture in a way that seems like a scathing critique of the myth of American classless culture. Past Tense was written as a social commentary on proposed Los Angeles social policy. The Abandoned has undertones that explore Los Angeles’ increasingly high-profile gang culture.

House of Quark really lays into Klingon culture – easily one of the most developed alien cultures in the history of the franchise. To be fair, Ronald D. Moore isn’t doing anything here that he didn’t already suggest as early as Sins of the Father, but House of Quark throws Klingon hypocrisy into even sharper contrast. Far from presenting the Empire as an exotic and alien culture with its own values and social mores, it’s portrayed as society that is fundamentally and irreparably broken. It’s a gigantic “screw this!” to the romance of a warrior culture.

Gowran's attempts to best his own Angry Birds high score was not going well...

Gowran’s attempts to best his own Angry Birds high score was not going well…

For one thing, as Deep Space Nine has been suggesting as far back as Dramatis Personae, there’s the lingering question of how a culture of warriors can function as an organised society. How does it advance without scientists? How does its economy work without trades people? The villainous D’Ghor is presented as a stereotypical blowhard Klingon, but it’s all a facade. For all his posturing and threatening, he doesn’t vanquish his adversaries with a bat’leth, but with a ledger.

“There is no honour in what he has done,” Grilka observes. “If he wanted to challenge my House, he should’ve made a declaration, met our forces in battle.” That is the stereotypical Klingon way. However, it’s also something that makes no real sense if you think about it. As Quark points out, “And risk destroying the very thing he wanted most, your lands and property?” It’s hard to imagine a sustainable economy built around the image that Klingon culture presents of itself to outsiders. (And, it must be admitted, to itself.)

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

However, for all that Grilka might condemn D’Ghor’s strategies, the episode makes it clear that nobody would have called the Klingon out on his underhanded scheming if Quark hadn’t shown up. In fact, the Klingon High Council rallies around D’Ghor. When Quark produces indisputable evidence of D’Ghor’s treachery and manipulations, Gowran won’t even entertain it. “Enough! I don’t want to hear anything more about finances, mergers, or currency transactions.”

Despite the fact that he holds the evidence in his hands and it could (presumably) be verified easily enough by any expert accountant in just about any culture, Gowran still tries to cover for D’Ghor, much like K’Mpec covered for Duras in Sins of the Father – the image of the High Council must remain unimpeached. Gowran is perfectly willing to let D’Ghor slaughter a Ferengi as long as the mere appearance of honour is maintained.

The best storyteller around, bar none...

The best storyteller around, bar none…

(One of the nicer, smaller moments of the episode comes during the “back-turning” sequence that is recycled from Sins of the Father. There, the decision of the High Council to turn their backs on a dishonoured Klingon is used to give the story a decidedly operatic vibe – larger than life, epic, dramatic, Shakespearean. Here, it is used in a decidedly more cynical manner. The High Council turn their backs so that they don’t have to watch the embarrassing and demeaning spectacle of D’Ghor being dragged from their presence.)

Indeed, at the episode’s climax, Gowran explicitly confirms that he wanted to believe D’Ghor was innocent, rather than objectively considering the facts. “I didn’t want to believe the things he said about you yesterday,” he confesses. Gowran doesn’t come out of House of Quark smelling of roses. One of the more interesting and multifaceted supporting characters to originate in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gowran has consistently been portrayed as a very canny political opportunist.

Well, Odo has certainly been waiting for this...

Well, Odo has certainly been waiting for this…

He only steps in when the illusion of honour becomes impossible to maintain. He stops D’Ghor at the last possible moment, as the Klingon is pulling his bat’leth back, ready to swing. We know from Reunion that Gowran is not sexist himself – he was willing to offer K’Ehleyr a seat on the High Council – but is simply very good at playing to an audience. He is quite happy to use the Empire’s sexist policies when they suit his aims (keeping the Duras Sisters off the Council in Redemption), but also willing to bend them when they don’t (allowing Grilka “dispensation” here).

This pragmatism is entirely consistent throughout all of the character’s appearances. Ronald D. Moore and Robert O’Reilly both establish Gowran as a great politician, rather a strong warrior or an especially moral character. In Unification, it was revealed that Gowran was re-writing the history of the Klingon Civil War to suit his own ends. In Rightful Heir, he is willing to make the Kahless clone Klingon Emperor in order to get him out of his hair. In The Way of the Warrior, Gowran invades Cardassia in order to secure his own position. And it all leads to Tacking Into the Wind

Grilka's quite sharp...

Grilka’s quite sharp…

The idea of using Quark as a vehicle for this commentary and exploration is quite ingenious. The Ferengi have really been established as Deep Space Nine‘s direct equivalent to the Klingons on The Next Generation. Much like The Next Generation took a bunch of two-dimensional generic bad guys and fleshed them out into an entire culture, Deep Space Nine expended considerable effort rehabilitating a bunch of failed adversaries. (The Nagus is the first truly good Deep Space Nine episode.)

The success of Behr’s attempts to reinvent and rework the Ferengi can be seen in House of Quark, where Moore is able to construct an entirely plausible and sincere argument that Ferengi culture is at least as valid (if not more valid) than Klingon culture. Of course, neither society is perfect – both have heavily institutionalised sexism, for example – but the show raises the provocative question as to whether Ferengi desire for peaceful negotiation and non-violent manoeuvring can reasonably be dismissed as inferior to the Klingon thirst for brutality.

Quark's got some neck...

Quark’s got some neck…

At one point in House of Quark, the eponymous Ferengi mercilessly lays into the hypocrisy at the heart of Klingon culture, in what counts among Quark’s best moments from the show’s entire seven year run:

Go ahead, kill me. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it, to be killed? Well, here I am, so go ahead and do it. You all want me to pick up that sword and try to fight him, don’t you? But I don’t have a chance and you know it. You only want me to put up a fight so your precious honour will be satisfied. Well, I’m not going to make it so easy for you. Having me fight D’Ghor is nothing more than an execution, so, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. An execution. No honour, no glory. And when you tell your children and your grandchildren the glorious story of how you rose to power and took Grilka’s House from her, I hope you remember to tell them how you heroically killed an unarmed Ferengi half your size.

There’s an incredibly frustration in Quark’s dialogue here – a sense of grim inevitably and passive acceptance of a social injustice. Quark is angry, but he’s also impotent. All he can do is play along with this grotesque pantomime and hope that somebody steps in to stop the grim charade.

A Chancellor Chancer...

A Chancellor Chancer…

It’s a recurring theme in the early third season of Deep Space Nine, carried over from the end of the show’s second season. This stretch of Deep Space Nine might be the most cynical run of episodes in the history of Deep Space Nine. From The Maquis onwards, the Star Trek universe is portrayed as a place where social constructs are impossibly and irreparably broken. Kirk and Picard would get trapped by anomalies, strange phenomena and alien enemies; in contrast, the characters of Deep Space Nine repeatedly find themselves trapped in broken systems.

Of course, the show does get progressively darker, leading to episodes like In the Pale Moonlight, Inquisition and Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. However, from the fourth season onwards the show is in a state of perpetual warfare. Injustices and brutality can be justified or excused through necessity. “We did what we had to in order to survive” might not be an entirely watertight defense, but it’s more convincing than “we did whatever was easiest for us a society in a time of peace and prosperity.”

The man with the plans...

The man with the plans…

The Alpha Quadrant is at peace here. The Dominion loom in the background, but they don’t cast as large a shadow as they will in the years to come. And yet, in the midst of this prosperity, the Klingons would murder Quark in cold blood to satisfy the demands of honour, the Trill would willingly allow Jadzia Dax to die to preserve a mythology that they had worked so hard to craft. (It’s also worth noting that even the broken past in Past Tense is also portrayed as prosperous.)

As such, it’s quite easy to see why Deep Space Nine never really managed to pick up all those Star Trek viewers looking for a fix following the end of The Next Generation. Deep Space Nine was airing the only Star Trek show on television at this point. So those tuning in expecting the franchise’s trademark optimism and enthusiasm probably felt alienated by the sheer level of cynicism on display here. This wasn’t a romantic space saga about a magical future, this was the tale of a galaxy full of broken political and social structures.

A marriage of convenience...

A marriage of convenience…

Of course, Deep Space Nine was simply tuning into the nineties pop culture zeitgeist. The decade was built on dissatisfaction and mistrust. The X-Files tied into that by tapping into a rich vein of nineties paranoia. The government could not be trusted; the people out to protect you were actively trying to harm you; the world was full of monsters and nobody cares. Deep Space Nine hit on a couple of these themes and concepts – most notably with the Founders, an alien race who can look like anyone they choose – but it also tapped into a pervasive sense of apathy and indifference.

This is one of the darker secrets of the nineties. As much as a lot of people mistrusted the government, there was a larger segment of people simply disillusioned and apathetic. A Pew Research poll in 1998 suggested that the public were “frustrated with government, not angry at it.” The nineties was the first period of extended peace that America had known since the end of the Second World War. The Cold War was over. The United States had won. And yet the decade’s pop culture reflected an uncomfortable uncertainty.

A stab in the dark...

A stab in the dark…

In Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious, Barna William Donovan argues:

The late 1980s and early ’90s saw the maturation of “Generation X”, people born, roughly, between 1961 and 1981. This generation, according to cultural historians, didn’t reject their parents’ values the way many Baby Boomers had rebelled against the cultural conservatism of their elders, but they felt betrayed by a previous generation that had made promises they did not deliver on.

The post-Cold War prosperity of contemporary America is reflected in the relative stability of the Alpha Quadrant in these early episodes of the third season, and yet the show is anchored in disillusioned cynicism. Our characters are surrounded by institutions that aren’t so much evil as corrupt and ineffective.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

This reflects a lot of the cultural mindset of America between the end of the Cold War and the events of September 11. In The Fate of America, published in August 2001, Michael Gellert reflects that these feelings of disillusionment were part of the American experience in the nineties:

The lack of trust in institutions and others in general is remarkably high, as is the level of disillusionment. Polls show that 75 percent of Americans do not believe that their government can be trusted. Ninety percent of American parents would not want their children to become president. In a 1995 poll, 25 percent of respondents believed that the O.J. Simpson trial demonstrated that there is no justice in the United States; 85 percent believed that justice depends on the defendant’s wealth or race.

As the first Star Trek produced after the official end of the Cold War, Deep Space Nine is uniquely positioned to comment on this particular cultural mood. It’s particularly serendipitous that Deep Space Nine was able to segue so efficiently from the existential ennui of the nineties into twenty-first-century-style perpetual warfare, years before September 11th.

Blood and D'Ghor...

Blood and D’Ghor…

Of course, House of Quark is a comedy – something that often prompts shivers from even the most hardened Star Trek reviewer. Barring the original Star Trek, the franchise has a hit-and-miss history with comedy. While Deep Space Nine hits more consistently than any of the other spin-offs, it also misses quite frequently. This is the show that would produce Profit and Lace, for example. House of Quark, however, works. It is easily one of the show’s four strongest comedy hours – along with Our Man Bashir, The Magnificent Ferengi and Trials and Tribble-ations.

Humour is something that is very tough to get right, and it’s a testament to how comfortable Deep Space Nine is with itself that it can so easily poke fun at the Klingons. The Klingon Empire is treated as inherently illogical and absurd here, a far cry from the over-the-top melodrama witnessed in The Next Generation. Turning your most developed alien race into the punchline is a risky move, and it’s to the credit of all involved that it works so well.

Quark's got a bat'leth to grind...

Quark’s got a bat’leth to grind…

House of Quark benefits from an absolutely superb guest cast. Mary Kay Adams is absolutely superb as Grilka, who remains one of the best female guest stars in the history of the franchise. Grilka is portrayed as intelligent, competent and well capable of faring for herself. The script makes it clear that if it weren’t for the sexism built into Klingon society, she would be well able to handle her own affairs. (Indeed, there’s a sense that Grilka has effectively been running her husband’s house behind the seasons anyway, and the implication is that she’s not too devastated by his loss.)

Robert O’Reilly is superb as Gowran, particularly when trying to process Quark’s evidence of D’Ghor’s misdeeds or trying to pronounce Quark’s name. Armin Shimerman is absolutely wonderful as Quark, demonstrating that he’s one of the more versatile and charming actors in a talented ensemble. Joseph Ruskin, an actor who has appeared with every Star Trek television ensemble, offers strong support as Tumek.

Cutting remarks...

Cutting remarks…

Ronald D. Moore is also adapting quite well to working on Deep Space Nine. You’d have little idea from House of Quark that he only joined the show three episodes ago. Between this and René Echevarria’s script for Equilibrium, the new writing staff members were really thrown in the deep end. Moore, in particular, has had a prolific year writing for Star Trek, penning the finalé of The Next Generations, the script to Star Trek: Generations and the opening episode of Deep Space Nine‘s third season. He was certainly carrying his weight.

The other notable aspect of House of Quark is the subplot involving O’Brien and Keiko. It’s a lovely little character interlude, the type of thing that Deep Space Nine did so well, counting on the characters and actors to carry the show rather than plot or excitement. Despite the franchise’s historical difficulties writing romance, the O’Brien family is actually pretty charming. There’s something very sweet about O’Brien’s sincere affection for his family life, along with Keiko’s desire to retain her own agency and her own sense of self.

Gowran seems to find all this accounts stuff quite taxing...

Gowran seems to find all this accounts stuff quite taxing…

This is something that Star Trek hasn’t always been good at portraying – a healthy balanced and loving relationship between two adults. The O’Brien marriage faces all manner of problems during the course of Deep Space Nine, but those problems only hit home because the family is so loving and stable. The “O’Brien must suffer” stories are more effective with O’Brien than they would be with Sisko or Bashir because O’Brien is very much a regular guy. He’s not a genius or a prophet or the best in his field. He is a man doing a job who comes home to a loving family.

There’s something quite sweet about how House of Quark deals with Keiko’s depression. It’s entirely logical and understandable, but it’s also not something that can magically be whisked away with a few romantic dinners or grand romantic gestures. O’Brien’s attempts to make Keiko feel better are incredibly moving – there is a genuine sense that these are two people who deeply love one another – but they aren’t enough to paper over Keiko’s problems. Real marriage and real relationships involve more than grand gestures (although they help), they require real compromise and real effort.

Keeping his head down...

Keeping his head down…

And there’s something very sweet about how the entire cast tries to help, while realising that Keiko ultimately has to empower herself. Bashir, of all people, is astute enough to point out why O’Brien’s plan to build a hydroponics bay won’t solve the underlying issue. On paper, O’Brien’s plan is great, but it doesn’t take into account Keiko’s agency. “You can’t ask her to turn her profession into a hobby.” People aren’t engineering problems to be solved so you can move on to the next issue in the following episode.

It’s a very light plot, and it’s something that it’s hard to imagine The Next Generation doing well. This is understandable, of course. It requires the concession that these characters are living in a static environment, where Keiko’s first few days unemployed can legitimately be extrapolated to present a vision of her life going forward. It also requires the concession that the episode’s conclusion – the decision reached – has to have real weight and impact.

Yes, 'I'm married to the most wonderful woman in the galaxy' day is a sacred Irish tradition.

Yes, ‘I’m married to the most wonderful woman in the galaxy’ day is a sacred Irish tradition.

The O’Brien subplot in House of Quark is decidedly light. It’s a far cry from what one expects from the franchise. Indeed, as Ira Steven Behr notes in Cinefantastique, it gives the episode some heart:

“The thing that was most successful about the show was Colin [sic] O’Brian and Keiko [Rosalind Chao],” enthused Behr. “I think it’s one of the best, truest relationships in all of Star Trek. Some of the takes were really, really heavy. They really got into it. It was very It was very touching. People were uncomfortable when we watched it in dailies. The other thing that show did, which became one of the best things about the season, was it really helped Bashir and O’Brien.”

In fact, according to The Deep Space Nine Companion, the whole point of the plot was to write Keiko out so the show could focus more on O’Brien and Bashir as friends. If that was the case, the resulting plot turned out very well.

A cutting retort...

A cutting retort…

And the show does take pains to reaffirm the new status quo for the series, well aware that it might benefit from the chance to pick up the odd stray Next Generation viewer looking for their Star Trek fix. The episode’s teaser is sure to namedrop the Dominion, and provide information on how things have changed. “It’s all Sisko’s fault,” Quark muses. “If he’d handled things better with the Dominion, none of this would’ve happened. They want a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant? Cut a deal, make a few arrangements, give them a little something for their trouble.”

Equally, even Keiko’s redundancy is structured in such a way as to make it clear what the show is not about; at least, not any more. In The Search, Part II, Admiral Nechayev went out of her way to explain that Bajor was no longer a top priority. She was speaking for the Federation, but she also seemed to be speaking for the show. After a disappointing reactions to Bajor-centric episodes over the show’s first two years, the studio urged the writers to shift their focus away from the planet. Although later seasons did manage a couple of episodes around Bajor, it never occupied the centre of the on-going narrative after the third season.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

Even Keiko makes the shift in focus clear here. “My last two Bajoran students left today,” she tells her husband. “Their families relocated back to Bajor.” Bajor is no longer a core part of Deep Space Nine. Despite Sisko’s mission as stated in Emissary, the series never follows through Bajor’s potential membership of the Federation. It is broached in the fifth season, and never discussed again. Instead, the Dominion becomes the driving narrative force, along with the relationship between Sisko and the Prophets – but not the relationship between the Prophets and Bajor.

House of Quark is a lovely little episode that demonstrates how solid Deep Space Nine has become. It’s one the show’s stronger comedy efforts, and is cleverly underpinned by a sincere character-driven subplot.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Hit and miss is right Darren, but when DS9 does do comedy and gets it right it works rather well. I think The House of Quark is the first truly successful attempt at it, even though the list has not been filled with shining examples up until now.

    Although I love the subplot too, I always had the nagging feeling that Rosalind Chao was written in and out of the show (until she disappeared altogether) because, honestly the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with Keiko. Turning her from a botanist to a schoolteacher always seemed one of DS9’s miscalculations in the first two seasons and restoring her to botany only to then cut her out of the show only further reinforces that they had no clue of where to take her character.

    • The lack of focus of Chao is frustrating, because she and Miles have one of the more unique relationships in the franchise. Having a family man in the primary cast is a great example of the diversity of approach taken by DS9 to its characters.

  2. I blog quite often and I seriously appreciate your content. This great article has really peaked my interest. I’m going to take a note of your website and keep checking for new details about once per week. I subscribed to your RSS feed too.

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