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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Magnificent Ferengi (Review)

In some ways, The Magnificent Ferengi serves as a logical end point for the Ferengi.

It is, after all, the last good Ferengi episode of the Berman era as a whole. The Dogs of War is not terrible, but it has serious problems. It looks much better following on from the double-header of Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak, which rank among the worst episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ever produced. Then again, it is not like the other Star Trek series had much better luck, with Inside Man on Star Trek: Voyager and Acquisition on Star Trek: Enterprise also falling flat. However, there is more to it than that.

The comedy really Pops here.

The comedy really Pops here.

The Magnificent Ferengi is an episode that revels in one of the franchise’s most reviled recurring alien species, serving as a grand celebration of the work that Ira Steven Behr has done with the Ferengi since The Nagus during the first season of Deep Space Nine. This is reflected within and without the text. The Magnificent Ferengi is  about a band of Ferengi who finally get to be the heroes of their own weird little war story. However, it’s also a celebration of how well-developed the species is that the episode has seven distinct major Ferengi characters.

Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that the best thing about The Magnificent Ferengi is that it puts a cap on the Ferengi as a concept, rendering any further Ferengi episodes completely superfluous to requirement.

Sharp wit.

Sharp wit.

Ira Steven Behr was a producer with esoteric interests. Most discussions of Deep Space Nine tend to focus on the bolder and more iconoclastic elements of the series, whether the needling of Gene Roddenberry’s utopia in episodes like The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II or the more experimental narrative choices like the long-form storytelling that led to the Dominion War. These aspects of Deep Space Nine are undoubtedly important and influential, but they are not the only contributions made by showrunner Ira Steven Behr.

It is interesting to look at Behr’s script credits on Deep Space Nine. As showrunner, Behr’s name is attached to most of the “big” episodes like season premieres and finales and epic two-parters; The Jem’Hadar, The Adversary, The Way of the Warrior, Broken Link, Apocalypse Rising, In Purgatory’s Shadow, By Inferno’s Light, Call to Arms, A Time to Stand, Favour the Bold, Sacrifice of Angels. However, Behr is also responsible for some of the weirder episodes; Prophet Motive, Through the Looking Glass, Shattered Mirror.

A Gaila premiere.

A Gaila premiere.

However, Behr invested a lot of time an energy in developing the Ferengi as a credible culture. His second teleplay credit on the show was The Nagus. He wrote two tie-in books centred on the culture, The Rules of Acquisition and Legends of the Ferengi. Behr made sure that each season of the show contained at least one episode focusing on Ferengi culture and traditions, many written by Behr and his writing partner; Rules of Acquisition, Family Business, Bar Association, Ferengi Love Songs. He also loved writing for Quark; Babel, Little Green Men, The Ascent.

Behr’s commitment to the Ferengi was striking, particularly since they had effectively been written off in the later seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They had been hinted at in Encounter at Farpoint and introduced in The Last Outpost as iconic new adversaries for the crew of the Enterprise. However, they were an immediate flop, appearing sporadically as unconvincing antagonists in early episodes like The Battle or Peak Performance. They were already a joke by the time Behr joined the series, serving as gag villains in The Price and Ménage à Troi.

Coming to Ishka's (Promen)ade.

Coming to Ishka’s (Promen)ade.

Behr responded to the Ferengi, seeing them as a relatively unique alien species in the larger context of the Star Trek mythos. To Behr, the Ferengi were a lot more familiar than the Klingons or the Vulcans:

Ferengi are us. That’s the gag, the Ferengis are humans. They’re more human than the humans on Star Trek because they’re so screwed up and they’re so dysfunctional. They’re regular people.

The Ferengi are not heroic individuals. They are clumsy. They are awkward. They are flawed. Quark is willing to compromise on his ideals in ways that Kira or Bashir would never fathom, whether selling arms in Business as Usual or making piece with the Dominion Occupation in A Time to Stand.

"We're all ears here."

“We’re all ears here.”

However, this flawed nature makes the Ferengi more heroic in a way. The other characters might be skeptical of Quark, but the character has his own moral compass. Rom is perhaps the most innocent character in the entire cast. As The Magnificent Ferengi points out, it was Quark who freed the captive resistance in Sacrifice of Angels, which allowed Sisko to retake the station. It was Rom who set up the minefield in Call to Arms and who sabotaged the weapons in Sacrifice of Angels. It is Nog who joins Starfleet in Heart of Stone.

From their unique vantage point, the Ferengi seem to see truths about the universe. Quark explains the Federation as intergalactic root beer in The Way of the Warrior. Quark understands (and is entirely comfortable with) the kinds of moral compromises that Sisko has to make in In the Pale Moonlight. Quark can recognise the erosion of Federation ideals under pressure in The Siege of AR-558. The Ferengi make first contact with the Dominion in Rules of Acquisition and The Jem’Hadar. They even get the first hints of the forthcoming Breen alliance in The Magnificent Ferengi.

Infirm opposition.

Infirm opposition.

However, the Ferengi have never been heroes. They have generally been tricksters, characters who offer a wry commentary on the grand narrative arcs of the larger Star Trek franchise. Even in their most influential moments, whether suggesting minefield blockades or springing rebels from prison, the Ferengi are wild cards. They are not the unsung heroes of these stories. They are simply the clever twist in the tale, the most unexpected cavalry, the joker dealt from the bottom of the deck.

And so The Magnificent Ferengi feels like an attempt to correct this. It is an attempt to construct a story in which the Ferengi are unequivocal heroes. The name naturally evokes the classic western The Magnificent Seven, an adaptation of The Seven Samurai that finds a rag-tag bunch of cowboys assembled for one last heroic hurrah. In The Magnificent Ferengi, Quark is tasked with putting together a crack team of Ferengi to rescue his mother from the sinister clutches of the Dominion on Empok Nor.

Crack-up commandos.

Crack-up commandos.

Of course, it’s best not to worry too much about the ridiculous contrivances of the plot. Why did the Dominion kidnap Ishka in the first place? After all, the Ferengi have repeatedly been identified as non-combatants in this conflict, and the Dominion has worked hard to prove to non-combatants likes Bajor that it can be trusted? Even if they did kidnap her, why wouldn’t they immediately try to leverage her over Grand Negus Zek? Even if they don’t know about the relationship, they know she had “special dispensation” for a cosmetic operation?

More than that, why would Zek instruct Quark to embark upon a rescue mission to save Ishka? It seems like Zek genuinely cares about Ishka, but episodes like The Nagus and Rules of Acquisition suggest that he doesn’t really have that much faith in Quark. Why wouldn’t Zek just hire a gang of Klingons or Nausicaans? Why wouldn’t Zek reach out to the Dominion himself? The plot for The Magnificent Ferengi hinges upon any number of ridiculous contrivances. But it doesn’t matter. They are not important.

"Yep, it's a plot hole alright."

“Yep, it’s a plot hole alright.”

The Magnificent Ferengi is both funny enough and focused enough that these logical leaps feel incidental. This is really about getting the Ferengi their moment in the sun, their opportunity to be heroes of their own Star Trek narrative. The Magnificent Ferengi hammers this theme heavily and repeatedly, from the teaser of Quark’s heroic negotiation story getting up-staged by the Defiant’s more conventional heroism through to the closing exchange between Quark and Rom. “So, brother,” Rom asks, “how does it feel to be a hero?”

Indeed, assembling this dirty half-dozen becomes a point of patriotic pride for Quark. “We could put together a commando team,” Rom suggests. “Gather the toughest mercenaries we can find. Nausicaans, Breen, Klingons.” Quark objects. “We don’t need Nausicaans, Breen or Klingons,” he states. “We’ll just use Ferengi.” He insists, “Ferengi can be just as tough as Klingons.” Even Rom seems unconvinced by this assertion. “They can?” he asks. Quark responds, “Of course they can.”

Surrendering their ambitions.

Surrendering their ambitions.

The first couple of acts of the episode loosely evoke the tone and style of House of Quark, a charming juxtaposition as Quark is thrown into a situation that he is ill-equipped to handle. After one disastrous training session, Quark confesses, “We’re wasting our time, Rom. We couldn’t get anywhere near Moogie, let alone rescue her.” Rom acknowledges, “I guess we’re not cut out to be heroes after all.” However, The Magnificent Ferengi pivots around this point. The problem is not that the Ferengi can’t be heroes, it is that they need to set their own narrative terms.

Sitting at the bar, reflecting on their situation, Rom has an epiphany. “Brother, I think we’ve been going about this the wrong way. We’re not commandos, we’re negotiators. We make deals. That’s what we’re good at. The Dominion has something we want, so we need to find something they want…” Quark finishes the thought. “And then we make a trade.” The Ferengi will not succeed by playing by the same rules as the Klingons or the Jem’Hadar. They will succeed by finding a way to shift the engagement to terms on which they can compete.

Cutting retorts.

Cutting retorts.

Although there are certainly action beats in The Magnificent Ferengi, the episode suggests that the Ferengi succeed because they eschew traditional combat. The team only needs to kill two Jem’Hadar rather than an entire platoon, thanks to Quark’s shrewd negotiating. The team gets around the accidental death of Keevan through good old-fashioned hustle and false advertising. “Your people have a reputation for cunning,” Yelgrun acknowledges. “I see that it’s well earned.” It certainly is.

Indeed, The Magnificent Ferengi is a celebration of the failed antagonists in more than just its willingness to cede them the spotlight. It is also an acknowledgement of just how meticulously and carefully Ira Steven Behr has expanded and developed the Ferengi as a species. The Magnificent Ferengi features seven major Ferengi characters (Quark, Rom, Nog, Brunt, Gaila, Leck, and Ishka) and each of those seven characters has their own unique voice and characterisation. It is too much to say that they are all fully-formed, but they are all distinct.

Keeping them in the dark.

Keeping them in the dark.

This is a remarkable demonstration of just how much energy Deep Space Nine has invested in the Ferengi. After all, it is hard to recall seven distinct Ferengi characters from the entirety of the run of The Next Generation. What is the difference between Letek in The Last Outpost and Bractor in Peak Performance, two early Ferengi played by Armin Shimerman? How might one distinguish Sovak in Captain’s Holiday from Par Lenor in The Perfect Mate, two slightly later Ferengi played by Max Grodénchik? However, the characters in The Magnificent Ferengi are all unique.

Quark is the leader of the bunch. Rom is his well-meaning idiot brother. Nog is a trained Starfleet officer. Brunt is a cowardly bureaucrat. Gaila is a convicted criminal and former arms’ dealer. Leck is a kill-crazy sociopath. Ishka refuses to be ignored, even in the middle of her own hostage exchange. To be fair, there is some slight redundancy there; both Brunt and Gaila are characterised as inept cowards. However, even then, there are shades to the characterisation; Brunt is just a bureaucrat out of his depth, while Gaila simply doesn’t really want to be there.

Bearing the Brunt of his animosity.

Bearing the Brunt of his animosity.

Even more impressive, none of these characters are entirely new. All seven major Ferengi guest stars were established in earlier episodes, although Leck was only fleetingly referenced in Ferengi Love Songs and might as well be a wholly original character. Still, Deep Space Nine has a deep enough bench of supporting characters that it can pluck five recurring Ferengi characters out of the ether without using Grand Negus Zek. It is an impressive testament to how carefully and meticulously the production team have built this world.

Indeed, The Magnificent Ferengi is populated with callbacks and references to earlier episodes, a reminder that the Deep Space Nine writing staff have embraced serialisation and long-form storytelling even beyond the season’s epic six-episode opening arc. The Magnificent Ferengi picks up with Brunt from Ferengi Love Songs and Gaila from Business as Usual. Keevan returns from Rocks and Shoals, and gets a pitch black comeuppance. Kira references the events of Sacrifice of Angels. There is a sense that even in a comedy episode, the past still has weight to it.

Hidden Jems.

Hidden Jems.

The Magnificent Ferengi feels true to its characters. Keevan is the same slimy self-centred jackass who made his debut in Rocks and Shoals, just as creepy and manipulative. Yelgrun is played relatively straight, cut from the same clothe as Weyoun or Keevan. Even in the middle of a hostage negotiation, Yelgrun is still working on his sales pitch. “Perhaps one day the Ferengi will take their place as valued members of the Dominion,” he suggests to Quark. He also hints at negotiations with the Breen, which will pay off in Strange Bedfellows.

However, there is also the simple fact that The Magnificent Ferengi works so well because it is funny. This is the funniest episode of the sixth season, a season built around a horrific and brutal war that still finds time for no fewer than four separate comedy episodes. It is at least as funny as In the Cards. It is the funniest Ferengi episode since Little Green Men, if not since House of Quark. The episode is relatively cohesive in terms of internal logic, but it is also abundantly clear that the audience is never meant to take things too seriously.

One fer(angi) all..

One fer(angi) all..

The Magnificent Ferengi looks and feels like an episode that was great fun to produce. Jeffrey Combs conceded as much in an interview with Cinefantastique, citing it as one of his favourite episodes:

Recalled Combs, “As far as behind the scenes, I would say that one was the most fun, because you had seven character actors in this Ferengi makeup. Some of the things that we were doing just sitting around, or waiting for the camera to roll, some of the dialogue was really cool. It was great fun. I made some friends on that show, Josh Pais, and Hamilton Camp. I thought those guys would come back. They just ran out of time in terms of doing everything they wanted to do. I’m sure they would have loved to have The Magnificent Ferengi return.”

Of course, one suspects that a sequel episode might have undercut the charm significantly. After all, the mirror universe had become a source of diminishing returns. Still, it is hard to imagine a sequel being worse than Profit and Lace or The Emperor’s New Cloak.

This plan went down the tubes.

This plan went down the tubes.

The jokes in The Magnificent Ferengi come thick and fast. There are all manner of great jokes from the outset, from the sly gag about a Ferengi travelling to Vulcan “to have her ears raised” through to the confusion of Quark and Rom arriving in Sisko’s office. The Magnificent Ferengi is packed with jokes that work on various levels, offering a very broad selection of humour that hits with surprising frequency. If an audience member doesn’t like an individual joke, there will be a different type of joke momentarily.

There is great banter. After a failed rescue simulation, Quark criticises Leck in particular. “This is the eighth run through and you haven’t been able to hit a single Jem’Hadar. And you shot Moogie.” Leck shrugs, “I saw we weren’t going to rescue her so I put her out of her misery.” Boarding the Ferengi shuttle that will take him to Empok Nor, Keevan warns his fellow travelers, “The moment we leave this station, you’ll have signed your death warrants.” His point made, he deadpans, “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to take a nap.”

"... you realize that there is such a thing as truly funny."

“… you realize that there is such a thing as truly funny.”

There is well-observed character-driven comedy. When Quark is assembling his team, he understands exactly which buttons to push to get Nog to sign up. When Nog declines the first invitation, Quark reflects, “Too bad, though. We were going to make you Strategic Operations officer.” Nog pauses. “You mean like Commander Worf?” Quark agrees, “Exactly like Commander Worf.” It is an exaggeration of Nog’s anxieties and ambitions, the same characteristics that drive Valiant, but it is very much in character and well-observed.

There is even some great physical comedy, from the repeated sequences of the Ferengi scurrying like panicked mice through to the extremely dark fate of Keevan in the final act. Improvising after accidentally killing him, the Ferengi improvise a twenty-fourth century version of Weekend at Bernie’s. As zombie!Keevan staggers through the corridor, Yelgrun seems genuinely horrified. “What have they done to him?” he asks, perhaps all the better for not knowing.

Keevan's career could use a shot in the arm.

Keevan’s career could use a shot in the arm.

The episode leaves zombie!Keevan stuck in a perpetual loop, like a really bad robot. Keevan is stuck forever, constantly walking into the same bulkhead, taking a step back, and trying again. It is an incredibly black piece of humour for a Star Trek episode, one that could easily feel like a monstrous violation of Keevan’s body. However, the image is just absurd enough that it works and Christopher Shea ensures that Keevan is so wonderfully skeevy that this feels like a fitting end, even if the audience missed his brutal betrayal of the Jem’Hadar in Rocks and Shoals.

It helps that the episode’s sense of reality is already heightened by the presence of a very special and very eccentric guest star. The Star Trek franchise has a long and interesting list of celebrity guest stars, from Mick Fleetwood in Manhunt to Christian Slater in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to the Rock in Tsunkatse. Even Deep Space Nine has its own long list of memorable guest stars, including the all-time great guest cast of Steven Berkoff, Josh Pais and Lawrence Tierney in Business as Usual.

He forgot one Kee(van) detail.

He forgot one Kee(van) detail.

Still, Iggy Pop is a very memorable guest star. He is a beloved musician, but not a veteran actor. His role in The Magnificent Ferengi is not a cameo, but he is hardly a featured player. Keevan is featured more prominently than Yelgrun, who plays a major role in three scenes over the course of the episode. However, Iggy Pop is never sidelined or maginalised. No attempt is made to disguise his presence or to write around his relative lack of experience as a film and television actor. Iggy Pop is right there. Yelgrun is even introduced through his distinctive voice.

It is a very weird guest appearance, but one that fits the tone of the episode around it. There is something very surreal in seeing Iggy Pop’s face on a fairly standard Star Trek alien, the prosthetics pronounced without obscuring his distinctive features. Unlike his frequently collaborator David Bowie, Iggy Pop never quite mastered a perfect screen persona. Iggy Pop is nowhere near as convincing as a manipulative Vorta as Jeffrey Combs or Christopher Shea. The Magnificent Ferengi would be a different episode if Combs pulled double duty as Weyoun.

Road trip!

Road trip!

And yet, it works. There is something ever so slightly “off” about Pop’s performance, in the same way that there is something ever so slightly “off” about his very presence in a Star Trek episode. Yelgrun seems curiously detached from the drama unfolding around him, never launching the same insincere charm offensive as Weyoun or Keevan. Iggy Pop delivers compliments and platitudes, but he never seems invested in them. It is almost as though Yelgrun has turned down his inner “diplomacy” setting because he is dealing with the Ferengi.

Instead, Pop’s performance works best when Yelgrun seems bemused or confused, aloof somewhere between genuine curious at the contours of his situation and bored out of his skull with what should have been a routine assignment. Pop plays Yelgrun as the straight man to the chaos around him, somebody who is game enough (and willing enough) to go along with the eccentricities of the Ferengi without feeling particularly invested in any of this.

Dis(Yel)gruntled.

Dis(Yel)gruntled.

There are points at which Yelgrun seems almost inscrutable. As Ishka and Nog fight over which one might be a Founder, Quark apologises, “Family. You understand.” Yelgrun responds, “Not really. I was cloned.” Pop delivers the line as a statement of fact, suggesting no real angst or curiosity, but some sense ambivalence. Rom wonders, “No parents? That explains a lot.” Ishka clarifies, “No parents, no sweetheart, no investment portfolio…” Yelgrun cuts her off, “And no patience.” It’s not a threat. It’s not especially rude. But it does suggest an edge to him.

Yelgrun’s final scene opens with Ishka raving about her latest skincare products. Yelgrun listens politely. He even runs his hand along her lobes to feel how smooth they are, acknowledging that they are pretty smooth. Once Ishka has made her pitch, he responds, “Fascinating. I’d love to hear more, but if your son doesn’t show up soon I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.” Pop’s delivery is delightfully deadpan. It is not campy. It is not sarcastic. It is not playful. It is not angry. It is just a statement of how things are. It’s a beautiful scene.

Cutting commentary.

Cutting commentary.

The Magnificent Ferengi feels very much like the perfect place to leave the Ferengi, barring maybe the coda that plays out as a subplot to The Dogs of War. It is a celebration of all the work that Ira Steven Behr has done in fleshing out the Ferengi and instilling them with a weird sense of dignity that was so sorely lacking during their appearances on The Next Generation. It is confirmation that Behr has fashioned the Ferengi into a multifaceted species that can produce seven unique characters and stand at the centre of a (slightly warped) heroic narrative.

More than that, The Magnificent Ferengi is just fun. It is packed to the brim with clever jokes and wry observations, built into a straightforward plot that balances very carefully between having enough substance to sustain an hour without ever suffocating the jokes. The Magnificent Ferengi is… well, magnificent.

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4 Responses

  1. This was one of the episodes that I watched expecting disappointment, and then was pleasantly surprised that they pulled it off pretty well. Loved the scene with Keevan – it’s rare that Star Trek will actually make me laugh out loud but that scene cracked me up.

    I wouldn’t recognize Iggy Pop if I saw him on the street, but I thought Yelgrun was a nice difference from other Vorta simply because he wasn’t being an ingratiating creep so much as deadpan serious.

  2. Both Vorta and Ferengi in this episode are priceless. The stark comparison in the matter of their nature makes an impossibly absurd frontal clash. Although it’s not really that frontal for Ferengis; they basically hide behind Keevan’s dead-walking body. And we’ve got to see a rather different kind of Vorta; not necessarily good, but still different.

    It’s a great episode – great for laugh, great as in consistent characteristics, great to provide a much-needed diversity. I remember the first time i watched it, I was seriously considering what it would be if the Ferengis were the main decision-making force in the confront with the Domanion. Like Quark once pointed out, it would be totally different and perhaps less deadly.

    Have watched this episode many times, always can’t help laughing at Keevan’s last words “I hate Ferengi” and Yelgurn’s confusion at Keevan’s odd-style walking. It is horrifying but such a suitable end for that selfish and cunning bastard, and feels like a prophet of the Founders’ fate.

    • It is a fantastic little episode. If Waltz should have been the last Dukat episode, then The Magnificent Ferengi should have been the last Ferengi episode.

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