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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Family Business (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.

Family Business is surprisingly good, standing as one of the strongest Ferengi-centric episodes produced during the run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is largely down to how Family Business treats its central characters. While still broadly played as a farce, Family Business is rooted in character. Like House of Quark (and unlike Prophet Motive), the episode takes care to treat its characters with a great deal of respect.

This isn’t an episode constructed around stock comedy tropes and trying to get the audience to laugh at one-note caricatures. Instead, it’s an episode firmly built around exploring Quark as a character in his own right. Family Business makes the decision to treat Quark (and its other Ferengi characters) with respect, and it’s a decision that ultimately pays dividends.

Naked ambition...

Naked ambition…

The Ferengi episodes of Deep Space Nine tend to get a bit of a bum rap. The series made a point to include a couple of Ferengi-centric episodes in each season of the show, developing and expanding the culture over the course of the show’s seven seasons.  Like the mirror universe episodes, they became an annual tradition. (Indeed, the show’s seventh and final season combined one of its Ferengi episodes with its mirror universe to produce The Emperor’s New Cloak. But let’s not deal with that until we have to.)

In this respect then, the third season can be seen as an attempt to codify the format and structure of a season of Deep Space Nine. While Crossover was the first trip to the mirror universe, Through the Looking Glass was the episode that suggested to could become a casual “just because” sort of thing. While the first and second seasons each featured an episode around Ferengi culture (The Nagus and Rules of Acquisition), the third season upped the count to two episodes about Ferengi culture, which would become the standard from here on out.

Leavin' on a freighter...

Leavin’ on a freighter…

Much like the mirror universe episodes, the Ferengi stories are frequently regarded as a weaker aspects of the show. This is something of a finely engrained attitude in fandom – one that was frequently expressed as the show was airing, one frequently mentioned in retroactive discussions of the show. Prolific on-line Star Trek critics tend to acknowledge it in their reviews. Consider, for example, this quote from Michelle Erica Green:

When I talk about the greatness of Deep Space Nine and all the ways in which I think it’s the greatest of the Star Trek series, I should always remember to add an asterisk with the footnote, “…except Ferengi episodes.”

It’s fair to say that the Ferengi episodes were very unpopular with fans watching the show at the time, and continued to be unpopular with fans watching the show years later. Rewatching the show years later, one wonders why the producers chose to keep trying – to keep producing them, even when they had this reputation and these problems.

There's gonna be an accounting...

There’s gonna be an accounting…

It isn’t as though the writers were unaware. In The Magnificent Ferengi, the Vorta Keevan sighs, “I hate Ferengi.” He seems to be speaking for the audience, a sly tweaking of the nose from the writers. In interviews, Ira Steven Behr has conceded that the production team could be a little over zealous about the Ferengi:

And what didn’t work the way you intended?

Obviously the simple thing, the one that a bunch of fans are waiting to hear me say, if they’re waiting to hear me say anything, is that once we realized that Armin (Shimerman) wasn’t really connecting to a lot of the humor we were trying to do, we should have probably cut back on some of the attempts at doing humorous episodes, or at least gotten directors who were more comfortable with comedy. It’s so weird. One of the things that Rick (Berman) and I agreed on all the time was Rick would read these comedic episodes and he’d say, “This is great. This is so funny. It’s so funny on the page, but they’re not going to play it, are they?” Not everyone, but some people just weren’t quite going to go there. I’d say, “Yeah, probably you’re right.” But every now and then we’d get a show like Little Green Men or The Magnificent Ferengi, which I thought did work. So every now and then you’d see a glimmer of hope, but we probably should have admitted defeat. It’s just I thought the Ferengi were really cool characters and gave us a totally different feeling. We had so many f—king heroes. It was nice to have people who were like us, scared and looking out for themselves.

In fact, Behr has even admitted that he was originally unenthused at the prospect of bringing the Ferengi into Deep Space Nine in the first place. Still, there’s a sense of abiding affection for the characters.

Business as unusual...

Business as unusual…

It is worth briefly examining the commonly-held belief that the Ferengi episodes didn’t work. There are a few obvious stinkers in the list, episodes that rank among the worst episodes of Deep Space Nine (or even Star Trek) ever produced. Profit and Lace is unforgivable, and a serious contender for the worst thing that Deep Space Nine ever produced. From this year, Prophet Motive ranks as one of the weakest shows that Deep Space Nine ever filmed. And then there’s The Emperor’s New Cloak, which is painful and clunky and sexist and awkward.

(Although it’s worth noting that the show was perfectly capable of producing clunkers that had little or nothing to do with the Ferengi. Of the show’s other terrible episodes, Meridian would seem to be the only episode where Quark’s involvement contributes to the episode’s terribleness. Quark is very much only along for the ride in Let He Who Is Without Sin… He is completely uninvolved in Field of Fire or The Muse. He only plays a secondary role in The Passenger.)

The mother of all problems...

The mother of all problems…

At the same time, there are quite a few cases where the Ferengi episodes tend to get shuffled into the middle of the pack. It’s very hard to remember much about Rules of Acquisition beyond the attempt to do Yentl in space!” The episode Ferengi Love Songs is clumsily constructed around credibility-straining coincidences and outdated clichés. The Dogs of War is a perfectly serviceable penultimate episode, but one that feels a little over-burdened with its Ferengi subplot.

And then there are the good Ferengi episodes – spanning the range from “perfectly entertaining” to “wonderful” and even “actually very funny.” Humour being subjective, it’s very hard to argue that any of the Ferengi episodes work as pure comedy, but Little Green Men and The Magnificent Ferengi do serve as examples of comedic episodes using the Ferengi well. Although it isn’t unreasonable to concede that Deep Space Nine (as with any Star Trek) had difficulty with comedy.

'Ear him out...

‘Ear him out…

However, it’s worth noting that many of the show’s Ferengi episodes were dedicated to developing the failed villains into a more complex and credible alien society. The first of these episodes, The Nagus ranks as the strongest of the show’s first seventeen episodes, and probably the third-strongest episode of the first season. (Admittedly, not a tough threshold to cross.) House of Quark brilliantly juxtaposes the Ferengi and the Klingons, one of the franchise’s other well-defined iconic aliens.

The Ferengi episodes also allowed for some good old-fashioned social commentary. Family Business and The Bar Association are surprisingly reflective pieces of work – mostly because they treat their subjects with respect and examine the sorts of issues that really can’t be dealt with in the context of Gene Roddenberry’s utopia. It’s very hard to do a story about sexism while maintaining moral relativism, and while your show is fundamentally sexist, as Angel One demonstrated. You can’t talk about unions in a socialist utopia.

Raising the bars...

Raising the bars…

And then there’s Quark. Artmin Shimerman is one of the best performers in the Deep Space Nine ensemble, even when the material is subpar. Shimerman never really stops trying to salvage it, even if he seems to be working at odds with everybody else in the production – as in Profit and Lace. Shimerman typically steals the scenes where the show decides to treat Quark as more than a mere comedic foil – consider his rebuttle to Sisko in The Jem’Hadar or his conversation with Nog in The Siege of AR-558.

More than that, Quark is an utterly fascinating character in is own right – if treated with respect and consideration. The same is true of Rom and Nog. Indeed, Nog actually gets one of the third season’s strongest subplots in Heart of Stone, as he examines his life and decides that he wants a new beginning. The fourth season’s Body Parts works largely because it’s an examination of Quark’s psyche, and one that takes his fears and anxieties seriously. Like House of Quark, Family Business also works because it treats Quark as a character worthy of our interest.

Taking stock...

Taking stock…

Family Business is a show about a lot of things. It is about Ferengi culture in a very broad sense, but only really superficially. There’s never any question that the audience is supposed to accept the Ferengi attitudes towards women. Ferengi culture is unquestionably sexist and misogynistic, that’s a given. Family Business never argues that any of point of view – accepting the fact from the outset. Of course, this raises all manner of questions about moral relevance and tolerance – about how we treat a society so firmly and staunchly misogynistic and sexist.

While it is tempting to dismiss Family Business as being “out of touch” or dealing with subject matter that is outdated or irrelevant to the modern world, it is worth noting that there exist cultures that refuse women the right to own property or attend education. Even Quark’s responsibility to “properly supervise” a female relative isn’t too different from the position of Egyptian law on the “guardianship” of female relatives by fathers, husbands or other family members. As much as we would like to pretend these attitudes are cartoonish or surreal, they are not.

When it rains...

When it rains…

(This is not to suggest that Family Business is exclusively a criticism of that sort of state-enforced and state-sanctioned sexism. In a way, the Ferengi Alliance’s treatment of its female citizens is just a more extreme example of institutionalised sexism that remains all too prevalent and too common in modern society. It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and assume that society has come a long way over the past few decades, but problems remain.)

So Family Business doesn’t treat Ferengi Alliance with any hint of romance. There is no ambiguity about how the male Ferengi treat their female counterparts. (In fact, the suggestion of “indentured servitude” would seem to undermine Quark’s rejection of slavery in The Jem’Hadar.) However, just because their culture contains elements that viewers find distasteful doesn’t mean that their culture isn’t fully-formed or worth exploring. It is worth engaging with other cultures – even when their norms don’t conform to our own.

The bar is in lockdown...

The bar is in lockdown…

(Indeed, it’s worth noting that Deep Space Nine made a point to stress the less flattering aspects of Klingon society as well. House of Quark and The Way of the Warrior are downright scathing in their examinations of Klingon cultural norm, chipping away at the romantic nobility of the “proud warrior race” stereotype by suggesting that Klingon culture is much more than it appears to be, and those facets are often less than pleasant.)

In this respect, then, the portrayal of the Ferengi raises some interesting questions. For the most part, the twenty-fourth century Star Trek shows have attempted to embrace cultural relativism – the idea that values are not necessarily inferior because they are different. As a rule, Picard seemed a lot more tolerant and respectful of other cultures than Kirk. Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s writers’ bible went out of its way to stress that it was not the mission of the Enterprise to bring American cultural values to the wider universe.

The tooth hurts...

The tooth hurts…

In its early days, the show wasn’t very good at this. It seemed entirely unsure what our heroes were expected to do when meeting cultures that did not conform to their values. The Ferengi were introduced in The Last Outpost, a story that featured the cast of The Next Generation lording their moral superiority over the grotesque trolls. Lonely Among Us isn’t too far off that level of condescension. There’s something a little uncomfortable (and more than slightly imperialist) about the crew warping from system to system lecturing the primitives.

On the other hand, it’s easy to user moral relativism as an excuse. While tolerance for other cultural norms is a good thing, the sign of an open-minded society, there must be limits. Occasionally, the franchise bent too far in the opposite direction. The subplot of the episode Life Support, for example, essentially boiled down to Jake learning to tolerate Nog’s boorish misogyny and sexism, because Nog is a Ferengi – and that’s just their way.

Far from music to Quark's ears...

Far from music to Quark’s ears…

So embroiling our Federation heroes in the affairs of other cultures is potentially problematic. Trying to impose their own cultural views upon alien societies leaves an awkward colonial aftertaste. At the same time, our heroes need to be wary condoning or enabling abusive and exploitative practices in the name of moral relativism. There’s a careful balance to be struck, and Deep Space Nine does seem more aware of this than the other shows in the franchise.

And so, the Ferengi episodes typically focus on the idea of Ferengi society from within. Sisko doesn’t immerse himself in Ferengi politics in the same way that Picard would wade into Klingon matters. While Zek occasionally uses Deep Space Nine as a centre of his plans, his interactions with the rest of the cast are minimal – an awkward subplot with Kira in Rules of Acquisition, a quick encounter with Bashir in Prophet Motive.

We'll (F)C(A) about that...

We’ll (F)C(A) about that…

The big players in the Ferengi-centric storylines are almost always Ferengi, to the point where the Federation doesn’t even seem to act as observer or arbitrator. Family Business offers us the first glimpse of the Ferengi homeworld, and it’s telling that we don’t see a single non-Ferengi on the planet. Quark doesn’t even travel home by runabout or with the Defiant. He travels by a freighter packed with Ferengi.

The implication is obvious. While Ferengi culture is oppressive and broken, it can only be fixed from the inside. Rather pointedly, it isn’t even Quark’s exposure to the Federation that threatens to undermine and re-write Ferengi cultural norms. Ishka has never been allowed to leave the house, and she can still recognise that the system is fundamentally broken. Ishka seeking to assert her own rights leads to massive cultural change in the Ferengi Alliance, change that has absolutely nothing to do with the Federation’s own values.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

In this respect then, the introduction of the FCA in Family Business is a logical development. The dogmatic oppression and repression of women seems to run counter to the ideals of Ferengi society – as fun as it is to present the Ferengi as a bunch of greedy trolls, it seems weird to exclude half of the population from a free-market capitalist society. The more people who spend, the more money there is to make, logically. (Just as the rules against unions in The Bar Association seem to run counter to the logic that “organised labour keeps an economy healthy.”)

Here and in The Bar Association, the FCA is presented as a dogmatic organisation that seems more fixated on the symbolic value of events than any objective measure of their impact – almost religious in their inflexibility and utterly unwilling to compromise and accept that some changes to Ferengi culture may help the Ferengi’s hyper free-market economy. After all, one would imagine that the Ferengi ideal would be a market with an absolute minimum of regulation, which far from what the FCA represents in its appearances across the show.

This isn't what it looks like...

This isn’t what it looks like…

For example, it turns out that Ishka has been convicted of a rather insubstantial offense. The FCA has caught her earning “three bars of gold-pressed latinum.” While Deep Space Nine was not quite nerdy enough to set a fixed value for Ferengi currency, this doesn’t seem too much. It’s just over half of what Nog and Jake made in Progress. The episode itself seems to support this. Quark can carry it in a tiny pouch. Rom is surprised at the weight being brought to bear, given the money involved. “Three bars of latinum? Isn’t the FCA overreacting a little?” Of course, that’s entirely the point; it’s not about money, it’s about the status quo.

This suggests that these beliefs are more rooted in culture and tradition than in practicalities or reason. In fact, it suggests that misogyny and oppression exists quite separate from the Ferengi obsession with profit – a nice way of divorcing some of the ham-fisted elements of their introduction during The Next Generation. Indeed, it’s not hard to belief that Ishka may just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg here and that social change may be inevitable, despite the efforts of certain socially conservative elements of Ferengi culture.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

Indeed, when Quark accuses his mother of trying to undermine the Ferengi way of life, of reducing order to chaos, Ishka take pride in the suggestion. “If you ask me, this society could use a little chaos,” she responds. Ishka didn’t set out to upset the establishment, she just wants her piece of the pie; however, if she does have a chance to shake things up, she will proudly take it. Naturally, Quark counts among those conservative elements in Ferengi society. Reacting to his mother’s appeal for social change, he informs her, “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

One of the more interesting aspects of Quark’s character arc on Deep Space Nine is that his exposure to (and absorption of) Federation values has not left him a liberal Ferengi. Quite the opposite, in fact; Quark’s politics seem very conservative and reactionary, seemingly in direct response to his own exposure to Federation norms – recognising that he is being affected by his time spent on the station.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

In the episode’s opening scene, Quark laments the erosion of Ferengi values at the hands of the Federation. “He’s a disgrace to his family and to Ferengi everywhere,” he comments on Nog. “He should be here, helping us earn profit, not in his room, learning how to be more like a human.” Quark is a character who frequently critiques the Federation’s pervasive influence, often serving as a skeptical voice in the show’s ensemble.

When Rom points out that Nog is simply joining Starfleet, Quark replies, “It’s the same thing. Don’t you see? That’s is how it begins. All it takes is for one impressionable youngster to join Starfleet, and the next thing you know, a whole generation of Ferengi will be quoting the Prime Directive and abandoning the pursuit of latinum. It’s the end of Ferengi civilisation as we know it and it’s all your fault.”

Even Rom and Quark can't agree about the quality of the Ferengi episodes...

Even Rom and Quark can’t agree about the quality of the Ferengi episodes…

This is Quark’s central tragedy. The more Quark is forced to question his values, the more steadfastly he refuses to compromise. While those around him (Nog, Rom, Ishka) are able to evolve and change, Quark holds to his romantic ideal of Ferengi culture.  This is probably the strongest part of Family Business. As much as it’s an exploration of a broken system, it’s also an interesting look at Quark as a character. While Quark aspires to preserve Ferengi norms and values, the fact remains that Quark really isn’t a good Ferengi.

As with Worf, there’s a sense that Quark venerates his own culture too highly. Considering the implications of Ishka’s breach of tradition, Quark assumes that such a violation would leave the family cut off from Ferengi society. “If our disgrace is made known, do you think we could ever do business with another Ferengi again?” he demands. “I wouldn’t do business with me.” There’s no reason to doubt Quark’s sincerity – it’s quite likely that Quark would think twice before dealing with a Ferengi officially ostracised. After all, he could not bring himself to live with Pel in Rules of Acquisition.

They have a lock to pick with Quark...

They have a lock to pick with Quark…

However, Quark clearly does not speak for the majority of Ferengi. Later in the show’s run, Quark does find himself cut off from Ferengi society, but this has a minimal impact on his interactions with other Ferengi. His successful cousin Gaila has no concern about doing business with Quark in Business as Usual, while several of the Ferengi waiters (including Broik) remain on staff at the bar. For all Quark’s concerns about being cut off for being a less-than-perfect Ferengi, the reality seems a great deal less absolute.

(This would also seem to suggest that Ferengi culture as a whole is more pragmatic than dogmatic – for all the FCA might exist to enforce and regulate these cultural norms, it seems that most Ferengi don’t pay too much attention to them. And it makes sense. After all, why restrict the people with whom you can do business? If women can’t own property or money, they can’t buy anything. If Ferengi are ex-communicated, they can’t contribute to the Great Material Continuum.)

Take a lobe off...

Take a lobe off…

Family Business works wonderfully as a character study of Quark, and an exploration of a dysfunctional family. It does a lot to explain where Quark came from and what he seems to be reacting against. His denial about his own business acumen and his emotional investment in the integrity of Ferengi culture seems routed in his idolisation of his father, Keldar. “It’s the law,” Quark states at one point. “That was good enough for Father, and it’s good enough for me.” His mother replies, cuttingly, “A lot of things were good enough for your father. He was a lobeless failure and if you’re not careful, you’re going to end up just like him.”

Family Business is also worth noting for the introduction of FCA Liquidator Brunt, Jeffrey Combs’ second role on Deep Space Nine and his first recurring guest spot on the series. Brunt is a fantastic creation, probably the franchise’s best recurring Ferengi outside of Rom or Nog. A lot of this is down to Combs’ superb performance, which is filled with lots of little touches. In particular, he spits out the letters “F… C… A…” in a way that is designed to mimic Anthony Hopkins’ enunciation of “F… B… I…” during a crucial scene in The Silence of the Lambs.

Quite a taxing profession...

Quite a taxing profession…

However, Brunt works beautifully as a parody of a mid-level civil servant, and Combs plays him as a character who buys into Ferengi culture completely. While Quark rather blandly sleepwalks through the ritual welcoming Brunt to his home (“please place your imprint on the legal waivers and deposit your admission fee in the box by the door; remember, my house is my house…”), Brunt seems much more invested. Indeed, he’s so taken aback by Ishka’s forthrightness that he seems incapable of responding to it. Combs doesn’t play Brunt’s response as anger, but as outright confusion.

The character’s make-up is also very effective. The decision to give Brunt tiny lobes ranks as one of the most deliciously mean-spirited visual jokes in the history of the franchise; the fact that nobody comments on the link between that and the character’s inferiority complex is a touch of subtle comic genius. Jeffrey Combs’ Brunt is one of the most endearing and enjoyable aspects of the entire Ferengi mythos, a rare character who is almost perfectly defined by both actor and teleplay from the moment he appears.

Bringing to bear the Brunt of the establishment...

Bringing to bear the Brunt of the establishment…

We get our first glimpse of the Ferengi homeworld in Family Business, which makes a great deal of sense. After all, it was the third season of The Next Generation that finally brought us to the Klingon homeworld in Sins of the Father, another episode about an alien cast member returning home to fight off a family dishonour. (Another way that Deep Space Nine plays off the Ferengi world-building against the work its predecessor did with the Klingons.)

Ferenginar is quite fascinating. Playing up the “Ferengi as trolls” subtext of their make-up design, the episode portrays Ferenginar as something of a swamp. It is always raining. The world looks grim and stormy. One particularly nice touch – given how heavily Behr and Wolfe reference Tolkien in Legends of the Ferengi – is the way that Quark’s home is built to resemble a Hobbit Hole. There are lots of circles and arcs – the entire domicile has a sense of smallness to it. Even Quark has to stoop when entering or leaving the house.

How I met your moogie...

How I met your moogie…

Family Business is also notable for the introduction of Kasidy Yates, the character hinted at by Jake during Explorers. Yates would go on to become one of the show’s most important guest stars, brought to life by a superb performance from actress Penny Johnson. Yates serves as a romantic interest for Sisko, but it’s telling that she’s cast as a freighter captain. She isn’t a civilian, but she also isn’t part of Starfleet. As such, she continues to offer Deep Space Nine an opportunity to sketch out and develop its world.

It’s also nice to see Sisko given a romantic subplot. One of the more remarkable aspects of Deep Space Nine was the way that it allowed its characters to truly grow and change over the course of its run. Sisko was introduced in Emissary as a man still haunted by the death of his wife. Allowing Sisko to go on a casual romantic date, spared the melodrama of something like Second Sight, underscores just how far Sisko has come in the two-and-a-half years since Emissary.

It's also a little cool that Kasidy outranks Sisko (at least for another episode or so)...

It’s also a little cool that Kasidy outranks Sisko (at least for another episode or so)…

Of course, it also affords writer Ira Steven Behr a chance to reintroduce baseball into the fourth season. Baseball was something of a passion to Star Trek staffers Behr and Piller, to the point where the duo frequently met at games. Michael Piller’s first script for Star Trek: The Next Generation – the third season premiere Evolution – featured a show stopping scene where the guest character Stubbs lectures Wesley about the sport.

In that same scene, Piller revealed that baseball was long dead in the show’s history. Behr never quite seemed comfortable with that, and Deep Space Nine featured numerous references and shoutouts to baseball. Sisko’s iconic baseball is perhaps the most obvious, but the show resurrected a fictitious baseball player for If Wishes Were Horses… and Sisko bonded with the people of the twenty-first century over baseball in Past Tense, Part II.

Family misfortunes...

Family misfortunes…

With Family Business, Behr just bites the metaphorical bullet and reintroduces baseball into the twenty-fourth century, fitting comfortably inside a reference to Arena. (The reference to Cestus III which – for those convinced Deep Space Nine can’t do humanism or optimism – suggests the Federation did eventually make peace with the Gorn.) It’s a nice little touch that creates a sense that Behr is well and truly making Deep Space Nine his own following the departure of Michael Piller.

Family Business is a great little episode, one of the stronger episodes of the troubled third season.

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

2 Responses

  1. Move Along Home is another terrible episode and that’s a Quark-centric one, but I wouldn’t say he’s the reason. Nothing to say about Andrea Martin, Darren? What a shame she never reprised the role (the makeup was too suffocating), because I never felt Cecily Adams made the part her own. Martin made Ishka seem like a force of nature that never once overbalanced into parody (unlike Majel Barret as Mrs Troi).

    In the VGR episode Flashback, Tuvok criticised humanity for trying to impose its values on the rest of the universe, but I think it would have had more impact if he had said this to a TOS or TNG character. The opening talk with Quark and Rom foreshadows the one between Quark and Garak in The Way of the Warrior (one of my top 3 DS9 scenes). Brunt also says “one…by…one” in The Bar Association. I’ve never noticed Brunt’s tiny lobes, so perhaps that’s why he overcompensates. Couldn’t the Ferengi invest in umbrellas?

    • They’re probably too cheap for umbrellas!

      I remember being surprised how much I liked Family Business on rewatch. It’s astounding how good some of the Ferengi episodes are, despite the bum rap they get. But I suppose that Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak do a lot to weigh down the “bad” side of the scale, and even the Ferengi plot in Dogs of War could be seen to distract from the more important threads that need wrapping up.

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