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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Prophet Motive (Review)

This 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.

Now that Star Trek: Voyager is on the air, there’s a sense that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can be more relaxed. The show was undeniably contrarian during the short period when it was the only Star Trek on the air, presenting a series of uncompromisingly cynical episodes to assure viewers that it would not be trying to fill the void left by Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, there’s also a sense that show was acutely aware of it potentially wider audience watching during that window.

During that first half of the season, a new adversary was pushed to the fore, the show did a story about Klingons and featured three guest stars from The Next Generation – although not necessarily the guest stars anybody would have chosen. More than that, though, the show seemed to consciously avoid its more controversial types of episodes. Even by the show’s third year, it had become clear that certain “types” of episodes appeared a few times a year – a couple of “old favourites” for the writing team to fall back on while constructing a twenty-six episode season.

'Ear me out 'ere...

‘Ear me out ‘ere…

As such, it’s telling that the most divisive parts of any Deep Space Nine season were pushed into the second half of the season.  So Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s two Ferengi-centric scripts came after Voyager had premiered. Sure, Quark got to be the focus of the season’s third episode, House of Quark, but he shared that with the popular Klingons. The season’s two big Bajoran plot lines (Life Support and Shakaar) were positioned towards the end of the year.

Prophet Motive feels like the kind of Star Trek episode that could only be produced on Deep Space Nine as part of Ira Steven Behr’s unique vision for the show. It’s the kind of weird script that the show seemed to get away with by virtue of being “the other Star Trek on television.” That doesn’t mean that it’s particularly good, mind you, just that it’s distinctly a Deep Space Nine story.

Quark is a by-the-book Ferengi...

Quark is a by-the-book Ferengi…

Of course, Prophet Motive didn’t actually begin its life as a Deep Space Nine script. The episode traces its roots back to the early days of Behr’s long television career, to an unproduced script Behr wrote for the classic sitcom Taxi. As his collaborate Robert Hewitt Wolfe noted in an interview with Cinefantastique:

Ira always wanted to do a Taxi episode where Louie meets his uncle who he has always modeled his life after, and the uncle had been born again and was this wonderful human being. Louie spent the whole episode trying make his uncle turn back into this other person. That’s what we did, only with Quark.

So Prophet Motive is essentially a story that began as a half-hour sitcom script and ended up as a forty-five minute science-fiction story. That’s hardly the easiest transition to make, and Prophet Motive feels decidedly awkward. In order to justify the comedy plot, Behr and Wolfe have to make it work within the context of Deep Space Nine. This involves all manners of leaps and contortions. None of which really work.

“All clear! Everybody’s watching Voyager. Let’s do ANOTHER Ferengi episode…”

The most obvious is that this isn’t a story about Louie and his uncle. Transitioning the story to Deep Space Nine, Behr and Wolfe decide to make it a story about Quark. Instead of inventing an uncle for Quark or a new character, the writers use Grand Nagus Zek. On the surface level, this makes sense. Zek is a preexisting character. He’s one audiences will recognise. He’s an authority figure. He’s also portrayed by Wallace Shawn, which is excuse enough to keep him around. However, Zek doesn’t really work within the framework of Behr’s plot.

The plot requires Quark to unambiguously respect and admire Zek. Explaining to Rom why getting their hands on the first copy of the revised Rules of Acquisition is a good thing, Quark explains, “It means we’ll be the first Ferengi to benefit from Zek’s wisdom. The knowledge contained in this book could make us both rich beyond our wildest dreams.” There’s no mention of inside trading or gambling or any other secondary means of exploiting the new Rules. No, there’s no such scheming here. There’s a sense Quark is being entirely honest.

The gold standard...

The gold standard…

Quark expects that the new Rules of Acquisition will be great because Zek is great. Zek’s decision to re-write the cornerstone of Ferengi culture isn’t treated as a risky or iconoclastic proposition – Quark’s faith in Zek is so absolute and rock solid that it borders on the religious. In handling the new Rules of Acquisition, Quark acts like he’s touching Zek’s greatness, as if it may rub off on him. If you were to go by Prophet Motive, Quark idolises Zek, which is the dynamic needed to get the plot working.

The problem is that this feels inconsistent with how the relationship between Quark and Zek has been defined in episodes like The Nagus or Rules of Acquisition. Traditionally, Quark has been terrified by Zek – intimidated by the power that Zek wields. Quark seems to respect Zek, undoubtedly mindful of how much business skill Zek must have to manoeuvre himself to the seat of power on Ferenginar. While Quark very clearly venerates Ferengi culture and traditions, and respects the institution of the Nagus as part of that, it has never seemed like hero worship.

Not-so-Grand Nagus...

Not-so-Grand Nagus…

After all, the two haven’t enjoyed the healthiest relationship to date. In The Nagus, Zek played Quark as a patsy, trapping Quark in a grand scheme that almost got our barkeep flushed out of an airlock. While it’s undoubtedly an example of Zek’s keen business acumen, it seems unlikely to earn him Quark’s affection. In Rules of Acquisition, the two end up at odds. Quark blackmails Zek to protect Pel, while Zek cuts Quark out of the lucrative Gamma Quadrant deal. The entire point of the climax was that Quark didn’t see Zek as an unquestionable idol.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that this is meant to be a comedy episode – that we should stop thinking so much about it. However, one of the cornerstones of Behr’s approach to the Ferengi has been trying to develop them beyond a one-note joke culture – to push past the idea that they are just a bunch of funny trolls. Zek’s first appearance in The Nagus ended with the character explaining that Ferengi culture is a lot less violent and bloody than most of the other Star Trek cultures, as if to question the way the franchise vilified it readily.

The episode feels a little empty...

The episode feels a little empty…

It’s easy to imagine a version of Prophet Motive that wouldn’t feel so strained. Quark is a Ferengi who holds an incredible amount of faith in the Ferengi system. He’s something of a mirror to Worf – an outsider to his own culture who has built up an ideal of that culture in his imagination. Quark is not a very good Ferengi, unable to get ahead in the system he venerates, making it wonderfully ironic that he puts so much stock in Ferengi capitalism. It’s not too hard to believe Quark would act the same way trying to protect Zek as an institution rather than a person.

This would necessitate a slight shift away from the episode’s sitcom premise – “crazy uncle Zek!” – but that may not be a bad thing. While experimenting in genre is not a bad thing, there are certain aspects of Deep Space Nine that are beyond the ability of Behr and Wolfe to control. The show’s format is inflexible. It will always be a forty-five minute science-fiction show with its own internal logic that is distinct from the conventions of sitcoms. Trying to nest a sitcom plot inside that structure is asking for trouble, because the structure wasn’t built to hold it.

And the award for Outstanding Prime Time Doctor goes to...

And the award for Outstanding Prime Time Doctor goes to…

This problem plays out in other ways, too. This is essentially a three-hander. It’s a story about Quark and Zek, with Rom along for the ride. However, it’s fitting into the context of Zek trying to single-handedly re-shape Ferengi culture. However, we get no wider context for this. Sure, we get the new Rules of Acquisition and the “Ferengi Beneficent Association”, but all this really amounts to is an old man sitting alone in a room playing with a computer.

Earlier Ferengi stories arguably dealt in smaller stakes (here, Zek is literally re-writing Ferengi society), but they had a much larger scale. It seems like Behr and Wolfe learn from this mistake. The next story Ferengi culture – Family Business – tries to give itself some scope by introducing the character of Brunt and the Ferengi Commerce Authority. It’s still a bit ropey, like any attempt to portray complete social reform in a forty-five minute episode of television, but it works much better than Prophet Motive.

Stealing from Quark? Rom's got some bottle!

Stealing from Quark? Rom’s got some bottle!

And then there’s the nature of Zek’s transformation. In Behr’s original pitch, Louie’s uncle finds religion – he is “born again.” Louie then sets out to transform him back to the way that he used to be, because Louie preferred him that way. It’s a fairly effective set-up, and one that has a bit of an edge to it. Louie is obviously acting selfishly, trying to curb his uncle’s attempts at personal development, in order to preserve the version of his uncle that Louie prefers. That’s a great hook – a nice set-up for amoral comedy, but with some nice ideas to chew over.

In trying to make that premise work in the context of Deep Space Nine, Behr and Wolfe have Zek’s transformation occur at the behest of the Prophets. It isn’t an organic or personal transformation made by Zek as a development of his character; indeed, Zek seems unaware that it has even happened after the fact. That’s brainwashing; that’s somebody using their strength and power to project their will on to another person. That’s not comedy; that’s horror. And Prophet Motive doesn’t seem to grasp that.

Zek seems to lobe it well enough...

Zek seems to lobe it well enough…

It’s one of the more extreme examples of how tone-deaf the Ferengi episodes can be, how ill-judged the sense of humour might be. This might not be quite as bad as Profit and Lace, but barely. That’s only because the sort of sexism and misogyny (and transphobia) embodied in Profit and Loss actually exist and are unfortunately common in the world today. Prophet Motive can’t be quite as bad because beings with the power to re-write people’s consciousness are strictly metaphorical.

(That’s not to suggest that Prophet Motive entirely avoids these other problems, either. The episode opens with yet another of those “Quark exploits a young woman for oo-mox” scenes, which is essentially leveraging economic power for sexual favours. The fact that it’s explicitly played as a sex scene (“you don’t have to be quite so gentle,” Quark suggests between heavy breaths) makes it even more uncomfortable. It feels weird that the show kept returning to that joke, which was never funny to begin with.)

Zek's not all there...

Zek’s not all there…

Prophet Motive seems incredibly blaisé about the Prophets re-writing Zek’s mind to make him think the way that they want him to think. To be fair, you could argue this is an attempt to portray the wormhole aliens as amoral. They exist outside time, so it’s reasonable that they could exist outside concepts of good and evil. After all, literally changing Zek’s mind is a truly “alien” act, one that reinforces the sense that these aliens operate on an entirely different plane than mankind. Maybe it’s meant to be deliberately ambiguous.

This doesn’t ring true. The series would go on to aggressively argue that the Prophets were unequivocally “good”, especially as compared to the unequivocally “bad” Pah-Wraths. Even when the Prophets do truly questionable and horrific things, there’s a sense that show still accepts them at face value. These are the beings who watch over Bajor, and who sent the Orbs to help the Bajorans to keep their faith. They guard the doors to the Gamma Quadrant.

Rom will memorise them from A to Zek...

Rom will memorise them from A to Zek…

The script also refuses to play the Prophets’ actions as horrific. There’s an extended sequence where Bashir seems rather amused at the fact that Zek has clearly undergone some sort of mental trauma. There’s also the implication that the Prophets’ actions against Zek were motivated by their encounter with Sisko. Somehow Sisko’s human philosophy was acceptable to the Prophets, while Zek’s philosophy was offensive enough that they saw fit to change him into a version they found more acceptable.

For a show that has worked hard to argue that Ferengi philosophy is not measurably “better” or “worse” than the ideals of other Star Trek cultures, Deep Space Nine sets back the cause at least a season. Prophet Motive gives Quark an opportunity to appeal to the Prophets, to mount a spirited defense of Zek’s ideals and his philosophy – to point out that Zek has never directly involved the Ferengi Alliance in a war or provoked his galactic neighbours.

They're the original odd couple!

They’re the original odd couple!

This is a chance for Quark to argue, once and for all, that the Ferengi are not simply comic relief – they are a culture just as valid as the other iconic Star Trek races. Instead, Behr and Wolfe give Quark a variation of the infamous “greed – for lack of a better word – is good” speech from Wall Street. It’s a speech that equates unchecked commercialism with ambition and dynamism, a relic from the eighties and an argument absurdly exaggerated beyond a defensible position. Even ardent capitalists would avoid such a comic generalisation.

“Look, I don’t know how you people live, but all of us corporeal, linear whatevers have certain things in common, and one of those things is the need to improve ourselves,” Quark contends. “Our ambition to improve ourselves motivates everything we do. Without ambition, without, dare I say it, greed, people would lie around all day doing nothing. They wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t bathe, they wouldn’t even eat. They’d starve to death. Is that what you want? Are you so isolated and detached that you would sit back and allow the extinction of every corporeal being in the galaxy?”

This is a whole different ball game...

This is a whole different ball game…

The Prophets see through the ridiculous argument, spotting the rather glaring logical hole in Quark’s argument. “Your argument is specious. Changing you will not result in the termination of all corporeal existence.” However, Quark never asks why the Prophets accept Sisko’s view of “the game”, but not Zek’s. Sisko’s vision of “the game” has the appeal of randomness and unpredictability – but it’s not entirely appealing. His view cannot be the only valid view in existence. One of the virtues of Deep Space Nine is the way it opens itself to other perspectives.

While Sisko makes a convincing argument for keeping the outcome of the game, it seems weird that the Prophets couldn’t be swayed by an argument that knowing the game ahead of time reduces suffering and hardship. Zek isn’t a random Ferengi. He’s the Grand Nagus. You don’t climb to that position without knowing how your society works, and without being able to defend its philosophical underpinnings.

Being the Nagus' friends Rules!

Being the Nagus’ friends Rules!

While the line “we found the concept aggressive/adversarial/dangerous” is a hilariously melodramatic way of describing Zek’s unchecked greed, it underscores that Zek was basically going through his own version of Emissary. The Prophets were essentially acting as gods – arbitrating his beliefs and values to judge him worth. The fact that Sisko’s morality is treated as absolute and Zek’s warrants a hard reboot of the Ferengi as a concept has uncomfortable undertones. The Ferengi are just inferior, apparently.

Instead, Quark wins the day by essentially bullying the Prophets into changing Zek back to the way he was. He argues that the Prophets will be bothers by a stream of inquisitive Ferengi knocking at their door. In essence, Quark wins the argument not because the Prophets were wrong to change Zek in the first place, or because Ferengi society is worthy of dignity and respect, but because the Ferengi are incredibly annoying and the Prophets just want the episode to end. There’s the faintest hint of self-aware irony to all this, but not enough to justify all this.

A prize-winning appraisal?

A prize-winning appraisal?

So that’s the episode’s primary plot, which is undoubtedly the weakest Ferengi episode to date. It effectively undermines any development that Behr has done on the Ferengi, revealing that – no matter how far they have come – they will probably always be the franchise’s stock comic relief. It’s unfortunate, particularly coming from a writer who worked so hard to make the Ferengi a credible (if still goofy) concept. The best Ferengi-based episode of the third season actually comes from Ronald D. Moore instead of Ira Steven Behr.

Prophet Motive comes with its own little subplot. Bashir is nominated for “the Carrington Award”, a high-profile medical award that officially recognises the best in the profession. The youngest nominee in the history of the award, Bashir has no chance of winning. And then… he doesn’t win. It’s a subplot that could easily be trite or annoying, but there’s something surprisingly honest about this little narrative thread. Like Odo’s deconstruction of the unrequited love trope in Heart of Stone, it seems very self-aware.

Bashir woz robbed.

Bashir woz robbed.

How often have our heroes won against all odds? How often has all the evidence pointing to an outcome unfavourable to our heroes been proven wrong? The “triumph of the underdog” is a great little narrative, one of the great stories. It’s an endearing archetype, one that always makes people feel particularly good. So it’s nice to see a small example, with absolutely no stakes, that plays out pretty much exactly as everybody expected. Bashir said he wouldn’t win, gradually hopes that he might, and then doesn’t win. It’s not a satisfying story, but that’s entirely the point.

Of course, the subplot was infamously inspired by the fact that the seventh season of The Next Generation managed to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Given that the seventh season was pretty ropey and this was the show’s first nomination (in its final year), there was never any chance that the show would actually win. Like a Christopher Nolan film in the Best Picture race, it was just a polite nod to a piece of genre work that existed just below the threshold of respectability for the award in question.

Getting that Emmy nomination practically put a bullseye on The Next Generation...

Getting that Emmy nomination practically put a bullseye on The Next Generation…

Various people involved with the franchise have complained at how Star Trek was shut out of the creative Emmy nominations during its time on the air. Patrick Stewart has gone on record several times complaining that none of the actors, writers or directors earned their deserved kudos for their work on the franchise. Despite the impression the franchise left on the pop culture of the nineties, it never received much love from the major awards bodies.

There’s been an extended dialogue about whether the Emmys will ever truly recognise genre television. Although it’s worth noting that The X-Files was a perennial nominee during the nineties and Scott Bakula earned repeated nominations for his work on Quantum Leap in the years when Patrick Stewart was overlooked. Ronald D. Moore was eventually nominated for his work on Battlestar Galactica. Of course, the irony is that the bias may not be based on genre at all. The Emmys have traditionally shown a bias against networks like WB and UPN.

Zek gets his head together...

Zek gets his head together…

Indeed, the nomination for the final season of The Next Generation isn’t historically notable because it’s a piece of genre television. Twenty years after the fact, The Next Generation remains the only syndicated television show be nominated for the Outstanding Drama award. The nomination itself was a tremendous accomplishment. Given the questionable quality of the season to which it is attached, it works best to read it as a cumulative award for the show.

Whatever the case, Prophet Motive was inspired by this nomination, with Bashir’s underdog “no way he’s going to win, but let’s hope he might” plot reflecting sentiment on the Next Generation production team at the time. Indeed, even the revelation that frontrunner “Wade” is not going to win feels like a nod to the Emmy race of 1995 – frontrunner NYPD Blue lost out to Picket Fences. Similarly, it makes sense that Bashir stands in for The Next Generation. The character is the member of the Deep Space Nine ensemble who would most easily fit in on that show.

“Don’t worry, we’re still a couple of weeks away from the NEXT Ferengi episode.”

The whole thing is a harmless and playful in-joke. There’s a sense that Deep Space Nine is playfully teasing its occasionally over-earnest older sibling. There’s no malice in this, despite the fact that Deep Space Nine would never earn a similar nomination. Instead, it’s a bit of sibling nose-tweaking – Deep Space Nine reiterating that it doesn’t feel obligated to walk the path set by its direct predecessor.

Prophet Motive is notable as the first of eight episodes to be directed by cast member Rene Auberjonois. Auberjonois would direct two episodes in each of the third, fourth and fifth seasons. He would direct a single episode in each of the sixth and seventh seasons. As with a lot of actors-turned-directors on Deep Space Nine, he tends to work better with drama than comedy. Of his two Quark-centric episodes in the third season, Family Business is by far the stronger.

To Auberjonois, direction was not necessarily an end of himself. Unlike some Star Trek actors-turned-directors, Auberjonois did not see his experience as opening a second career path to him. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to work with people he already knew:

I blame Rick Berman for putting me through that. It was a real education. When it was all over, people would say, “Well, are you going to go to other shows and direct them?” I’d look at these people like they were crazy. I had no interest in going to a show where I didn’t know the actors and the crew and the producers and everyone involved, where I wasn’t part of the whole world, so I wouldn’t really know the story. I mean, I could watch other episodes, but I wouldn’t be as immersed in anything else as I was in Deep Space Nine. Rick sort of nudged me into it and he was very supportive.

Perhaps reflecting this sensibility, Auberjonois tended to work best when directing actor-driven material. The stand-out episodes directed by Auberjonois (Family Business, Hippocratic Oath, The Quickening, Waltz) are all rooted in superb performances and character psychology.

The Bashir plot is the best thing about Prophet Motive, and it’s really just an extended in-joke. Prophet Motive feels like a waste of an episode, a story that does a lot to reverse any goodwill that Behr has built up for the Ferengi over the past two-and-a-half years. The fact that it’s not even the worst of the show’s Ferengi episodes is quite depressing.

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

2 Responses

  1. The fact that Zek makes Rom the new Grand Nagus in the penultimate episode The Dogs of War in order to reshape the Ferengi Alliance in more benevolent directions suggests to me that maybe the Prophets didn’t entirely undo the “damage” they did to Zek. Consider this – in all his subsequent appearances, he gets involved with Ishka, a radical female Ferengi, and slowly begins the reformation of the entire Ferengi Alliance. Hmmm. And I always thought Prophet Margin would have been a much better title.

    • That’s actually a very fair and valid point that I hadn’t really twigged with regards to the subsequent characterisation. You’re right. Zek doesn’t appear in the fourth season at all, so the next time we see him. He has changed.

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