Sunday, November 29, 2015
“A person who trusts no one cannot be trusted”: The Nagus
However as I have previously argued, I feel these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive; there's a great deal to be said, after all, about a group of antagonists who at once embody ruthless capitalist values and blatantly misogynistic attitudes (many of which are at least taken for granted and accepted as “the way things are” in modernity, thus becoming hegemonic, or, in the absolute worst case scenarios, idealized and triumphed) and are also seen as a completely harmless laughingstock by the Star Trek universe. I still believe “The Last Outpost” walks this line fairly well, gerbils notwithstanding, but subsequent Ferengi stories have had a rougher time trying to maintain that careful balance. Too often we've been expected to see them as genuinely menacing and ignore their kind of inherent silliness, which is kind of a hard swallow given the aformentioned gerbil jumping (though there was a Michael Jan Friedman story from the third season that actually managed to pull it off in my opinion). Or, the opposite problem: Writers will portray the Ferengi as a total joke and not taken seriously whatsoever. In stories like “Ménage à Troi”, “The Price”, “The Perfect Mate” and “Rascals” the Ferengi's clownshoes quotient is dialed up to such a degree they become so grating to the point of becoming absolutely unwatchable.
By the first/sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and our first regular Ferengi character in Quark, the show has been sort of forced to develop some more nuance with them, although it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing either. After a good show in “Emissary” and a few assorted memorable moments in other episodes (most notably Quark's subplot in “The Passenger”), for as much good as we've gotten there's also been a lot of bad. As fun as Quark and Odo are to see bicker, when they get overexposed to the point of hijacking the show, such as in the insufferable “Odo and Quark Save the Day” of “Babel”, things become less fun. And then there's the utterly obnoxious grovelling Quark is made to do in last week's stupefyingly awful “Move Along Home”.
With “The Nagus” though we now have an entire episode pretty much dedicated toward exploring Ferengi culture in ways we haven't really gotten the chance to see until now, and thankfully the show more or less manages to pull it off and make it seem somewhat respectable (well, as respectable as the Ferengi can ever get I suppose). There are a few parts that grate on me, but most of them are actually from the B-plot and I chalk that mostly up to personal taste. In spite of this episode's origins as effectively a pastiche of The Godfather (yet another slavish reference to old Hollywood-There's even a scene nicked from the Francis Ford Coppola film shot for shot), I found the Ferengi summit Grand Nagus Zek calls in Quark's bar to be delightfully reminiscent of, say, some self-important CEO indulging himself during an annual sales figures meeting for some giant investment firm as the board of directors goads him on with false sincerity through clenched teeth. It's completely hilarious for one, but it's also genius satire that's the perfect extension of who the Ferengi were supposed to be in “The Last Outpost”: This is exactly the way I would imagine Ferengi foreign policy operates, and their prominent purple and gold lamé aesthetic just further invites the art deco and Manhattan comparisons for me. I also just love how the Ferengi are a society organised around a monolithic corporation comprised of sociopaths, sexists, cutthroats and robber-barons: Just like in real life!
Telling a story about these kinds of themes and exaggerating them beyond infinity also makes it easier for us to take note of the striations that develop in this kind of hierarchical authoritarian system. To put it bluntly, the shit rolls downhill: Krax is forever subservient to his father the Nagus Zek to the point several characters point out how he's always living in his father's shadow. It's his resentment of this, along with his own personal ambition (and youthful hotheadedness), that leads him to spring the assassination plot with Rom, who himself is constantly getting dumped on by his older brother Quark. But even Quark isn't on the top of the dogpile himself, as he and the rest of the Ferengi delegates are still lower on the ladder than Zek, though Quark's strength and stubbornness is shown through him being one of the few Ferengi representatives less than thrilled about having to prostrate himself before the Nagus. And yet at the same time, this also shows Quark to be cut of a slightly different cloth than his kinsmen: He speaks of things like honour, loyalty, dignity and cooperation, concepts that would assuredly be alien, if not anathema, to other Ferengi. He's the most charismatic, upstanding and likable one of the lot, in a kind of grizzled antiheroic way. Which only makes sense, as he's one of us. He lives on Deep Space 9. This bears significance to the rest of the plot threads here and is worth returning to a bit later on.
And at the lowest of the low here is, predictably, Nog. As the child and therefore the youngest, he is also the one who bears all of the vitriol and weight from three generations of his elders taking out their frustrations on and power tripping through him. Just as is the case throughout modernity, children are the most powerless of all, denied the freedoms and liberties of their adult relatives to the point they're effectively indentured servants. And the fundamental unfairness and inequality of his society is something Nog is just now starting to realise and chafe against, as adolescents in modernity have done for as long as modernity has existed. But unlike his father, who chose to play the game to win for himself (and fail miserably at it), Nog is starting to realise that maybe there's another, better path for him to go. Regardless of your feelings on this epiphany coming to him through a whitewashed and idealized version of the Western educational system (I have plenty, believe me), the fact of the matter is it still comes through a form of cultural diffusion. Nog's eyes are opened and his horizons are broadened through interacting with people from other positionalities and knowledge-spheres.
Which is actually a theme that resonates at multiple levels throughout “The Nagus”, reinforcing a major tenet of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's utopianism. The “opportunity”, a Zek puts it, is the wormhole. And not just the wormhole, but specifically Deep Space 9 and its proximity to it. People from all different societies and experiential spheres mingle here, resulting in a net positive for everyone. For Zek it's an opportunity to line his pockets. It is for Quark too, but it's something a bit more than that as well: Take notice of how he's the only one who doesn't raise an objection to Nog attending the O'Briens' school over dinner, and how he mentions in passing that he's always wanted to see the wormhole-Not because of where it takes him physically, but merely because of it itself. Because of his permanent presence on Deep Space 9, Quark is beginning to embody its ideals of empathy and self-growth just like his fellow residents.
This is all still a tentative process, mind, just as it is for everyone. And it's therefore wonderfully appropriate how trust, or lack thereof, is a major theme of this episode as well. Chief O'Brien doesn't trust Nog and express his concern about his relationship with Jake to Commander Sisko. The Ferengi famously distrust on principle: None of the delegates trust each other, though Quark does trust Rom and Krax (even though he shouldn't) but doesn't trust Gral, Commander Sisko, Odo and Doctor Bashir (even though he should). And meanwhile, Ben himself isn't entirely convinced he can trust Jake anymore, and likewise Jake distrusts his father enough not to tell him about his entirely benign plans to teach Nog how to read and engage in amateur business ventures with him.
But what's critical here is how the show handles this: Never once do we get the impression this is being done simply to wallow in negative emotions for the audience to voyeuristically partake in, because in each case it's an individual, unique manifestation of utopianism: Quark's decision to “keep things in the family” instead of putting faith in Sisko, Odo and Bashir almost gets him in serious trouble, and the Nog's dilemma over continuing to attend school is framed as really being about the benefits of exposing oneself to other cultures and other ways of thinking instead of remaining isolated in an insular comfort zone of fundamentalism. Even the Ben and Jake story has undercurrents of this, albeit far more subtle ones: What their impasse boils down to is essentially a failure to communicate. Jake is projecting his experiences seeing Nog's frustration with Rom onto his relationship with his own father.
Ben isn't outright forbidding Jake and Nog to see each other out of a basal xenophobia, actually the contrary: He's championing Jake on his enthusiasm to go out and meet new people who are different from him, he's just cautioning his son that part and parcel of everyone having different beliefs is that not everyone's beliefs are compatible and not everyone is going to necessarily like him. The problem is Jake doesn't fully understand what Ben is trying to tell him because, well, Jake is a teenager. One of the things that makes adolescence rough is that constant exposure to new and unfamiliar experiences can be overwhelming to the point of not being entirely sure what to believe anymore. In those circumstances, some teenagers have a tendency to cloister themselves up because they're not entirely comfortable with their experiences and beliefs, have a hard time expressing themselves and aren't always sure who to trust, and that's what Jake's going through here. That doesn't make him wrong, it just means he's a regular kid. It's a damn sight more accurate and realistic a depiction of adolescence than any kid's show or young adult fiction I've ever read, and it's a great call to address it as part of a larger story where trust (and learning to trust) is such an important theme elsewhere.
This also leads to yet another brilliant Jadzia Dax moment. The scene where she basically invites herself into Ben and Jake's quarters for dinner is classic Jadzia, and throughout she demonstrates an absolutely uncanny sense of perceptiveness and empathy. Because of course adolescence is just as hard on parents: We're all just people trying to do the best we can, and there's no playbook telling us exactly how to fill these kind of roles. So this scene is about Ben not being entirely sure how he should act as a dad-Jadzia senses this and, displaying the same preternatural awareness of the narrative she showed in “The Passenger”, guides him into a position to act that's beneficial to both him and Jake employing some abjectly brilliant double reverse psychology. She says if Jake were her son, she'd be the strict (authoritarian) parent, find him and demand he come back to eat his dinner.
But of course she says she's not the type to be a mother or a father (and she really isn't) and has pretty much failed as a parent each time she's tried: She knows it's not the right thing to do, but she also knows a lot of parents think it is the right thing to do (after all, she's been in that position before herself), and she plays on Ben's desire to Do the Right Thing to get him into a place where the rift can be healed. Again, we never explicitly get to see Dax figure out what Jake and Nog are really doing, but we can pretty easily infer that she has and is popping by with that in mind to help smooth things over a bit, just because she's Jadzia and incredibly perceptive and this is the sort of thing she does all the time. I'll bet she knew perfectly well Ben had been waiting on Jake for dinner for a half hour and came by *specifically because* of that. It's a moment that's deeply reminiscent of early Guinan scenes because, just like Guinan, Jadzia plainly does not mean what her words would superficially indicate she means. She's playing an interlocutor to help move the plot along to a more positive place, and it's all in Terry Farrell's inflections and body language, something she's every bit as good at as Whoopi Goldberg.
“The Nagus” is another terrific example of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine doing what it does best. The broad-strokes comedic tone works to obfuscate some storytelling that's far more intricate than the brief might lead to to believe. It's another fantastic use of the ensemble where every major character has a subplot centred around the themes of the week; themes that are a subset and microcosm of the show's larger set of themes and ideals it looks at each and every week. If there's parts that wore on me a bit, it's honestly only because I'm overly familiar with some of the teenage beats and have long since grown beyond tired with them (although I stress this is hands-down the best I have ever seen them examined) and the Ferengi always walk a thin line between endearing and unwatchable for me. But they certainly keep the balance here, and it all adds up to yet another stellar week On the Edge of the Final Frontier.