This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.
Little Green Men might just be the best Ferengi episode from the seven-year run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
It helps that the episode is very clearly a passion project for writers Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe. More than any other Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine had a deep and abiding affection for classic cinema. Michael Piller might have tried to steer the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager back to classic western storytelling tropes, while Rick Berman and Brannon Braga might have promised that Star Trek: Enterprise would be a “back to basics” reimagining of the show, but Deep Space Nine was a show that adored old-school Hollywood.
This was reflected in a number of ways. In Past Tense, Part II, B.C. planned to escape to Tasmania because Errol Flynn was born there. There was also the fact that Ira Steven Behr could never resist the lure of a good homage to classic cinema – even when it was not the best of ideas. Meridian was written as an attempt to adapt Brigadoon to the Star Trek universe; Fascination was based on the 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rules of Acquisition was basically Yentl; Profit and Loss was Casablanca.
It seemed almost inevitable that at some stage the cast and crew of Deep Space Nine would find themselves colliding with classic Hollywood.
Little Green Men finds Quark and his family thrown back into a classic forties or fifties science-fiction b-movie, populated by chain-smoking archetypes. There are the gruff no-nonsense military types who seem to be spoiling for a fight against these strange new lifeforms; there are scientists and nurses who are excited about the potential for discovery and exploration represented by these unlikely visitors from another world. The influence is quite obvious in its own way, even if the episode is not as stylised as something like Bride of Chaotica!
In a sense, Little Green Men harks forward to the future of Deep Space Nine. The show’s fascination and engagement with old-school cinema would get more and more pronounced as time elapsed. References would no longer be confined to plot homages or familiar story beats, but would feature the actual incorporation of those classic environments and settings into the narrative. When the time came for the show to do an homage to Ocean’s Eleven, it didn’t dress the story up in Star Trek trappings; it sent the cast to sixties Las Vegas.
Little Green Men comes only a few episodes before Our Man Bashir, another delightful homage that features Bashir and Garak playing at sixties spy movies (and James Bond in particular) in the holosuite. That sixties James Bond setting would recur into the fifth season of the show, before giving away to the sixties lounge setting in the sixth season. This lead to the paradoxical situation where the crew would go to Quark’s so they could go to the holodeck to simulate drinking in a bar together. That sixties bar would lead to the aforementioned Ocean’s Eleven homage.
As such, Little Green Men marks a point was which the show becomes quite candid and quite explicit about its own interests in the history and the signifiers of Hollywood cinema. It is not merely the memorable stories or the classic tales that interest the production team working on Deep Space Nine, but the actual material history and iconography associated with the period. As such, Little Green Men doesn’t have Quark has family reenact the Roswell crash on another alien planet in the style of something like First Contact. It actually has them sent back to Roswell in 1947.
As with a lot of episodes in this stretch of the season, Little Green Men began its life as a pitch from some freelance writers. Jack Treviño recalls how the inspiration came to him:
As far as [Little Green Men], the idea came about one night when I was studying for a college course. While studying, I had the TV on in the background. There happened to be an episode of Unsolved Mysteries on at the time. They were interviewing the wife of the pilot who had flown the Rosewell aliens to Texas. She went on to relay her husband’s descriptions of them saying, “They were short, had big heads and sunken eyes.” When I heard her, the first thing that came to my mind was that she was describing Quark. I called Toni and said, “Let’s pitch a time travel story to the Trek producers – one where Quark is a Rosewell alien. We pitched it to René Echevarria and he loved it!
It is a wonderful story, particularly given the significant difference between the pitch that Toni Marberry and Jack Treviño made for Little Green Men and Indiscretion, their other sale to the writing team in the fourth season.
Robert Hewitt Wolfe recalled the pitch meeting in the documentary Charting New Territory:
Little Green Men came from us as a pitch from two freelancers, Toni Marberry and Jack Treviño. In the middle of one of their pitches, they said, “Okay, we’ve got kind of a crazy one. Quark, Rom, Nog and Odo are the Roswell aliens.” And René said, basically, “Stop. Don’t say another word. That’s it. I don’t want to hear anything else. That’s the show.” It was the best pitch we ever got.
The pitch clearly resonated, to the point where the script was written by the series’ showrunner.
Understandably, Little Green Men became something of a favourite among Star Trek fans. The episode is generally regarded as one of the finest comedy episodes that the franchise ever produced; it might be too much to compare it to The Trouble With Tribbles, but it is well-loved. Megan Gallagher points to it as one of her most memorable roles:
Not to brag, but I’ve got a long resume. I’ve done six television series as a regular and recurred on a lot of other shows, and I have gotten more fan mail about that individual episode than anything else I’ve ever done, including the entire run of Millennium. Actually, I’d say Little Green Men and Larry Sanders are on a par with each other. But I think people loved Little Green Men because it was funny and different, and because of the whole mythology and mystery surrounding Roswell. When you mix Star Trek and Roswell, I think it just triggers various parts of the sci-fi brain simultaneously. And the episode was just really beautifully done, the way they shot it, the Dutch angles, all of the period stuff, the sort of It Came from Outer Space way it looked. It had all these great inside jokes. It just combined so many different and fun things about being a sci-fi fan.
Gallagher certainly has a point. Little Green Men is an episode that is very consciously and very lovingly crafted to hark back to classic science-fiction. Fans of Star Trek obviously tend to feel a connection to that stuff. Quark and his family travel through time, but they also trace the meta-history of the Star Trek universe.
One of the interesting aspects about the use of time travel in Deep Space Nine is the way that it seems to exist as a tool of the larger Star Trek narrative. The other Star Trek shows tend to use time travel as a storytelling shortcut to tell exciting stories about characters in unconventional surroundings. The original Star Trek, Voyager and Enterprise all featured episodes that sent the crews back to the twentieth century so that the television characters might intersect with the real world for a moment.
This is a staple of time travel stories like Tomorrow is Yesterday or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II would demonstrate that the classic formula still worked. Even though Enterprise was not so far removed from contemporary Earth, the production team would find an excuse to send Archer and T’Pol back to twenty-first century Detroit in Carpenter Street. These stories are based around the joy of watching the cast in the real world. In contrast, time travel in Deep Space Nine is disengaged from the real world.
Instead, it seems like time travel is simply a device that can be used to trace the history of the Star Trek universe, both from inside and outside the world of Star Trek. This is perhaps most obvious with Trials and Tribble-ations, with the cast of Deep Space Nine literally inserting themselves into an episode of classic Star Trek. It is also reflected in the way that Past Tense, Part I featured Sisko and Bashir travelling back in time to an event that was a formative experience for the Earth that would become a founding member of the Federation.
In fact, it is also worth noting that time travel on Deep Space Nine frequently becomes a device to texture and expand the show itself. The Prophets exist as non-linear aliens who experience all time simultaneously, but they serve to anchor time travel within the show itself. After meeting “the Sisko”, they send one of their own back in time to ensure his conception. In Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, they send Kira back in time to uncover dark family secrets.
Little Green Men finds Quark and his family travelling back in time to a point before there was Star Trek. as a result, they find themselves trapped in a narrative that predates Star Trek. It has been argued before, and quite convincingly, that the development of Star Trek owed a lot to classic science-fiction b-movies. Forbidden Planet is the most frequent touchstone, but really the entire genre of atomic era science-fiction played a significant role in the development and evolution of the franchise.
In that respect, then, Deep Space Nine‘s looming fascination with sixties pop culture makes a great deal of sense. The James Bond homages from Our Man Bashir and the sixties lounge setting from His Way both provide a contrast between Star Trek and other pulpy sixties pop culture. For all that Deep Space Nine was the most progressive and adventurous show in the franchise, it always had a very firm eye on where the series was coming from. These episodes are examining the primal pop culture stew that would give way to the Star Trek franchise.
It makes sense that Rom’s plan to get the characters back home involves harnessing the power of the atomic bomb. “We fly straight into the atomic explosion, expose the kemacite to the beta radiation and engage the warp engines,” Rom theorises. “If we have enough kemacite, we should be able to create a reverse time warp and ride it home.” Given that Star Trek is arguably a direct descendent of atomic era science-fiction, it feels entirely logical that the adventures should be able to hitch a ride back home using an atomic bomb.
Of course, it is not quite as simple as all that. While Star Trek might have been rooted in the science-fiction of the atomic age, it was more than simply a continuation of those trends and themes. Star Trek took a lot of its imagery and imagination from those forties and fifties science-fiction films, but it also represented a clear repudiation of some of the themes and ideas. Like the characters at the climax of Little Green Men, the Star Trek franchise rode the ripples of the atomic era into the future.
As Margot A. Henriksen argued in Dr. Strangelove’s America, the science-fiction ideals of Star Trek reflected the sixties countercultural sensibilities:
The futuristic world of Star Trek had absorbed the antiwar and civil rights sensibilities of the sixties, and the series owed its very conception to the changed attitudes of these years. Its optimistic vision of a future of human equality, harmony, and peace was shaped by the cultural revolution of the age, and television’s dramatisation of the very values that informed the rebelliousness of these years revealed the receptivity of America to cultural change.
Boldly going “where no man had gone before”, Star Trek imagined a future life that offered an optimistic alternative to the violent future of death envisioned in Planet of the Apes and throughout the culture’s apocalyptic imagination in general.
Although this is a generalisation that glosses over the more complicated relationship between Star Trek and counterculture, it does explain what Star Trek meant in terms of the culture of the time.
If Star Trek was so much a part of sixties culture, it makes sense that it would serve as something of a repudiation of the storytelling sensibilities of so many classic b-movies. Much like the sixties saw the children who had grown up after the Second World War questioning their elders, it often seemed like Star Trek was criticising and interrogating some of the unspoken assumptions of science-fiction. At its best, Star Trek was a series about the wonder of science rather than the potential horror of it; it was a show about the majesty of universe, driven by hope more than fear.
As much as Little Green Men has fun with its classic setting, the script is also quite critical and subversive of the films that inspired it. Some of this criticism is a little heavy-handed in places. Quark is shocked to discover that humanity was playing with atomic weaponry. “In the twentieth century humans used crude nuclear reactors as weapons,” Nog explains. “They called them atom bombs. They used to blow them up all the time.” Quark seems genuinely shocked by this revelation. “They irradiated their own planet?”
Similarly, the episode has a great of fun with the various human characters smoking cigarettes. It seems like nobody can engage in a conversation without lighting and passing around the cigarettes. “What is that disgusting smell?” Quark wonders. Nog replies, “I think it’s called tobacco. It’s a deadly drug. When used frequently, it destroys the internal organs.” This is all in the context of an America where Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Webb and Henry Fonda were all loudly publically endorsing cigarette companies.
Some of the episode’s ruminations on these aspects of forties culture feel just a little bit too clumsy and awkward. It occasionally feels like the story is lecturing the viewer. To be fair, it does seem like Quark is more surprised than horrified by this revelation, sensing a business opportunity that he might exploit. “If they’ll buy poison, they’ll buy anything. I think I’m going to like it here.” This feels quite in character for Quark, who subscribes to the idea that a vendor has little moral responsibility to his customers.
The script is not particularly subtle on the point. The climax has Quark deliver a moral lesson to the assembled humans. “Let me give you some free advice, just to show I’m on your side,” Quark assures Denning. “You people should take better care of yourselves. Stop poisoning your bodies with tobacco and atom bombs. Sooner or later, that kind of stuff will kill you.” It feels a little on the nose, a little too blunt. The episode does a good job of making its own point through action, as Quark finds himself unprepared for the paranoia of forties America.
Little Green Men unfolds in a world before Star Trek. It exists in a world where it seems like any and all alien visitors are likely to be categorised as “invaders” and treated like the enemy – as potential spies or as sources of military secrets. They are accused of collaborating with the Russians, tied to chairs, tortured. One imagines that Denning and Wainwright were planning their own impromptu alien autopsy. This is not a world where Zephram Cochrane greets the arriving Vulcans with an attempt at an awkward “live long and prosper” gesture.
As R.J. Lambourne, M.J. Shallis and M. Shortland argued in Close Encounters?, a lot of these classic science-fiction b-movies had a decidedly militaristic subtext to them:
A film like Them! might suggest that such problems had been resolved in favour of the military authorities; according to Twentieth Century, its theme was unequivocally to ‘Place trust in the FBI.’ Science fiction incorporated with great ease much of the retinue of war films, and a lot of the visual apparatus from such films passed unnoticed, if substantially transformed, into science fiction. Dog fights, air travel, weapons, mass destruction and aerial bombardment were sure audience pleasers. The same was true for crisp, clean military personnel. In many films, overall command comes from the barrel of a gun. The army calls the shots and fires them too.
Anything alien was reflexively deemed to a hostile threat to the status quo and so had to be destroyed in order to preserve the peace.
As Brian Murphy contended in They Came From Beneath the Fifties, scientists often found themselves assisting this destruction:
Those beasts and things – Them generally – are awfully real, and, it seemed, we could deal with them only by going back to the very people who spawned them: the scientists working “in full cooperation” (such an important word, that “cooperation”) with the military.
In keeping with the atomic age sensibilities, scientists were largely defined as destroyers who were responsible for unleashing incredible forces upon an unsuspecting world. Only when reigned in by the military could they be trusted.
In effect, Little Green Men begins the transition from that forties and fifties paranoid and xenophobic science-fiction towards the more idealistic vision of the future presented in Star Trek. Notably, Quark and company are only able to make their escape with the assistance of the more scientific-minded individuals working on the base, Faith Garland and Jeff Carlson. Those two scientists are able to overwhelm their military superiors and help the hapless Ferengi make their escape.
Indeed, during the escape, Faith is able to imagine a better future than the world around her would seem to allow. “I only hope that one day mankind will travel to the stars, and take its place in a vast alliance of planets,” she reflects. Rom only has to correct her choice of words to point out that she is effectively describing the “Federation of Planets.” In essence, it feels like Quark and Rom are witnessing the birth of the Star Trek universe, born from the conventions and story beats of a classic science-fiction b-movie.
It helps that Little Green Men is a genuinely funny piece of television. The entire cast do excellent work selling a very funny script. There’s a nice balance between cheesy dialogue and old-fashioned physical comedy; the sequence of the humans banging their heads in approximation of the Ferengi “greeting” is hilarious, as is the suggestion that the Ferengi Alliance has positioned its forces and primed them for a surprise invasion of Cleveland. It helps that Armin Shimerman, Aron Eisenberg and Max Grodenchik all have excellent chemistry and timing.
Just about the only joke that misfires is the classic “oomox” gag. Ever since Star Trek writers figured they could make masturbation jokes if the organ in question was an ear, the Ferengi episodes have leaned far too heavily on the premise. The sequence of Nog tricking Faith into massaging his lobes to his sexual delight (and his father’s readiness to get in on the action) is not funny; it is creepy and unpleasant. Deep Space Nine would keep making these jokes long after they outstayed their welcome, building to the mother of all unfunny “oomox” gags in Profit and Lace.
Still, one spectacularly ill-informed joke does not undercut the rest of the episode. As with the comedy of Our Man Bashir, there is a sense that Little Green Men works so well because the episode remains true to the characters. As much as Little Green Men and Our Man Bashir are comedy episodes, they are comedy episodes written with a very clear understanding of their central characters. Strip away all the James Bond references, and Our Man Bashir is very much about Bashir’s self-image and optimism.
Little Green Men never looses sight of Quark and Rom in the midst of all the hijinks. The episode is predicated on the idea that Quark is fundamentally unhappy on Deep Space Nine, that he considers himself trapped and his life to be a failure. The shuttle “Quark’s Treasure” represents a very real possibility of escape for Quark – both in a literal sense and in the opportunities it presents. When Rom assures Quark that the shuttle is fully functional, Quark responds, “You don’t say? And it’s all mine. I can go any place I want.” The possibility clearly appeals to him.
This one of the great ironies and tragedies of Deep Space Nine. Quark is very much a fixture of the station. He was there long before Sisko arrived and he would remain there long after Sisko left. He is the show’s great survivor, but his life is a constant string of disappointments; as much as Quark might want to escape, he never can. It might even be possible that Quark’s negative reaction to Nog’s decision to join Starfleet is not just his conservatism acting up, it might be resentment of a young man who is taking opportunities that were never open to Quark.
Even landing on Earth in the late forties is considered a step up from operating a frontier bar. “Uncle, I hope you’re not thinking of doing anything that would disrupt the timeline,” Nog advises Quark at one point. “Changing the history of Earth could affect the entire galaxy. The Federation, Deep Space Nine, your bar could all cease to exist.” Quark simply and sarcastically responds, “Wouldn’t that be a shame?” Quark doesn’t just resent the bar as an albatross hanging around his neck, he would actively erase it from history.
Similarly, Little Green Men alludes to aspects of Rom’s character that have been largely downplayed since the first two seasons. Scripts like The Nagus and Necessary Evil suggested that Rom’s happy-go-lucky exterior masked a very clear desire to take over his brother’s assets at some point. The scheming and murderous Rom in The Nagus is very much an early aberration, but elements of Little Green Men suggest that there is more to Rom than meets the eye. There is an extra layer hiding beneath the genius hiding beneath the klutzy exterior.
Repeatedly, Rom suggests that Quark might be able to give up the bar and that this might not be a bad thing. “Maybe it’s time you considered that early retirement we talked about,” Rom suggests after examining the shuttle. “I could take over the bar, and you could fly off into the great unknown never to return.” Realising he has overplayed his hand, Rom quickly adds, “Unless you wanted to.” Quark sees through his brother’s quick recovery and responds, “Don’t get your hopes up.”
At the end, Rom plays the fool when Odo takes Quark into custody for smuggling. Quark asks Rom to find him a lawyer, and Rom immediately suggests turning to the rich and successful cousin who just tried to murder the two of them. The obvious implication is that Rom probably doesn’t mind having Quark out of the way for a little while. It seems unlikely that Quark will face any real consequences, but his absence allows Rom the opportunity to climb the career ladder – even briefly. It is a nice touch.
Of course, this approach to Rom does conflict with some developments in The Bar Association. Later episodes of Deep Space Nine suggest that Rom really is far too sensitive a soul for the workings of a Ferengi business. In fact, Rom’s ultimate fate in The Dogs of War suggests that the characters (and the audience) are supposed to take Rom’s well-meaning and book-smart persona as his true face. In some respects, Little Green Men is the last glimpse of a (borderline) cynical Rom.
Even if Little Green Men doesn’t quite fit with Rom’s future character development, it does underscore the tragic comedy of Quark and Rom. Quark is trapped by the bar, destined never to escape it. Quark will never escape the bar, never move on to bigger and bolder things. As a result, it seems like Rom is trapped under him. Rom is stuck working at the bar, destined never to escape from under Quark because Quark can never move on. It is a rather bitter piece of black comedy. At least Nog has a happy ending. (And, by the end of the season, so will Rom.)
Little Green Men is a delightful comedy and a wonderful piece of Star Trek.
Filed under: Deep Space Nine | Tagged: aliens, atomic age, deep space nine, ds9, Ferengi, history, Ira Steven Behr, nog, past, Quark, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rom, roswell, star trek: deep space nine, time travel |