Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“City of prose and fantasy”: The Last Outpost

For a brief period of time when I was younger my family owned a small local toy store. Apart from my more cosmopolitan cousins, visiting their store was one of the only ways I had to keep abreast of the developments in pop culture, or at least the segment they catered to.

Because they were set up as vendors, this got my parents invites to the annual Toy Fair in New York City every year they owned the business. On a couple of occasions I accompanied them on their business trips, and oftentimes they were my only opportunity to be exposed to a genuine world city. One one occasion I recall quite distinctly, we went to go visit the flagship store for international toy retail giant FAO Scwarz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Just like everything else in New York, FAO Schwarz was mostly known for very high-end, luxury things, in particular their life-sized stuffed animals, which they likely at least partially got from German toy manufacturer Steiff, whose products they also carried (and was also probably one of the reasons my parents went there, because their store carried them too).

My memories of FAO Schwarz are twofold. Firstly, I remember making a beeline for the video game and cartoon show tie-in action figures. We didn't have anything on a remotely comparable scale back home, and this was potentially my one opportunity to get physical representations of some of my favourite characters. But secondly, I was struck by how enormous, grand and lavish it all felt: In hindsight this is at least a little understandable, considering it was the flagship store of a major brand on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but I still remember marveling at how upscale and aristocratic it felt. FAO Schwarz seemed to be one of the most New York places we went in New York, if that makes any sense at all; it had every ounce of the archetypical gold-rimmed, art deco feeling that characterizes Manhattan, and it radiated that from every corner. It was at once exciting, but also more than a little intimidating. I guess in hindsight, my visit to that toy store in Manhattan embodied for me all the excess and decadence that capitalism naturally leads to, in spite of the nice things it can also make for us.

I think Andy Probert's work on Star Trek: The Next Generation is criminally overlooked. His fellow designers practically worship him, deservedly and understandably so, but I'm not sure it's as recognised outside of those small and select circles as it really ought to be. His three starship designs in particular are genuine works of art, and look like absolutely nothing else. I've already talked a bit about the Enterprise, though I could talk about the Enterprise basically forever, but “The Last Outpost” gives us the second of the three: The Ferengi Marauder. What strikes me the most about this ship is the thickness of that inner ring, how there are so many tiny windows, and how they all face outward towards us. I find myself mesmerized by windows on starships: I think they can give us a truly awe-inspiring sense of scale that, at least for me, really fires the imagination. Every time I look at one of these ships, especially Probert's designs, I find myself dreaming about everyday goings-on onboard, watching them from a distance. An entire thriving community of individuals, who seem so small because they're so far from us, living and working together in this floating city that seems to have a personality of itself, dwarfed again by the vastness of space it's adrift in.

Looking at those windows on the Ferengi Marauder, I can't help but be reminded of skyscraper office buildings in big cities on Earth. Maybe that's at least part of the reason why when I imagine life on a Ferengi Marauder, I always visualize the interior looking a lot like FAO Schwarz's flagship store on Fifth Avenue. I can't recall offhand if we ever get a look inside a Ferengi starship (if memory serves me there might be a brief glimpse coming up a few episodes from now in “The Battle”), but I don't care and I hope we never do: More often then not when Star Trek: The Next Generation tries to depict an extraterrestrial culture through design, I tend to be very disappointed. I usually prefer my imaginary version much better and find it far more evocative. Perhaps it's on some level appropriate then that one of my first Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures was a Ferengi based on their appearance in “The Last Outpost”.

The Ferengi are, of course, meant to represent unchecked capitalistic greed; the absolute worst aspects of late-20th Century Western society magnified and caricatured to dangerous extremes. Even their name, “Ferengi”, originates from an Arabic term for “foreigner” that's come refer to Westerners most typically in modern colloquial parlance. In this episode they even carry energy whips, a futuristic sci-fi update of the age old symbol of the oppressor and slave owner (and yes, while I know slavery did not originate with the West, they're the ones who made it a booming and lucrative global industry). I suspect the Ferengi would show a lot of art deco influences in their architecture and design, with copious flaunting of conspicuous consumption as a demonstration of the power, status and privilege it symbolizes and that they have managed to accrue through their capitalistic practices. There would be a lot of marble flooring, golden pillars, towering ceilings adorned with faux-classical art, neo-Gothic touches and busy offices looking out into space (all the more fitting, reminiscent as it is of those archetypical “dedicated” office workers we're always told to look up to who neglect their families and their lives to keep long hours at their job into the night). A Ferengi starship would look like a high-rise Manhattan brokerage firm.

The Ferengi were introduced in this episode to be Star Trek: The Next Generation's reoccurring antagonists. This is a pivotal moment in the development of the series, as it's the first time it comes out and clearly states the things it's opposed to, and regardless of your feelings about this episode or the Ferengi more generally, it must be admitted this is a brazen move. Star Trek: The Next Generation is consciously, deliberately taking absolutely everything idolized by the Neoconservative segment of the Long 1980s, twisting it into grotesque caricature and firmly, confidently declaring that this is unacceptable and is something humanity must put behind it if it ever wants to progress.

The scene where Letek and his away team react with horror at the fact that Tasha is allowed to work alongside her male crewmates as an equal, and even *wears clothes*, is actually brilliant: Letek's objection ticks all of the misogynistic pseudo-feminist boxes-He bemoans how Earth women are “forced” to work and wear clothes, arguing that the Ferengi prohibition of such things is a more noble and respectful treatment of women. Just think about how many male chauvanists have tried to keep women from holding the same positions of men while phrasing it as if they're concerned about their well-being or consider women in some sense too special to do that sort of thing, or how many “Strong Female Characters” (in the Kate Beaton sense) refer to bras as “unnatural restraints”. It's a dead-on satire of patriarchal gender norms and assumptions in contemporary Western culture.

A lot of people didn't like the way the Ferengi were depicted here, but I'm personally not as bothered by it for a couple of reasons. One argument is that they're designed to be racist stereotypes of Jewish people which, while provably untrue, is at least easy to understand how someone could come to that reading. Less defensible for me is the common argument that they're too silly and not as threatening as a reoccurring antagonist would need to be. I'm not at all convinced by this for two reasons: One, Mike Gomez's DaiMon Tarr is fine, coming across as suitably larger than life if you're into that. So's Armin Shimerman's Letek, who's delightfully slimy and menacing whenever he gets to take to lead in a scene. But more to the point, I don't think it's ever a requirement that antagonists be scary and threatening, and that the Ferengi aren't here is supposed to mean something. Remember capitalism, especially the kind of high-powered, ruthlessly focused capitalism that the 1980s Neoconservartives love, is inherently patriarchal and masculinist.

There's a severe male power fantasy involved with anyone who plays that game long enough to accrue any kind of status, and I speak from experience here as I've had dealings with a lot of these people both through cultural anthropology work and my own life. What Star Trek: The Next Generation is trying to do here is strip all that away from capitalism, to depict it as selfishly juvenile and shortsighted as it really is. That's why the Ferengi are all short and jump around trying to ineffectually worm their way out of everything. To me, that's a perfectly valid, and indeed laudable, thing for this show to be doing: “The Last Outpost” marks the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation finally puts its money where its mouth is and takes a stand against something. Now I will grant the show gets carried away with this: Apart from Gomez and Shimerman, the Ferengi guest cast does overact some and their incessant gurning and mugging borders on the insufferable. I could see that crossing the line into the mean-spirited for some, and, as Shimerman points out, they were directed to “jump up and down like crazed gerbils”. But the underlying idea, a group of antagonists who are a joke instead of a menace, isn't by definition a bad one.

The Ferengi will undergo a substantial overhaul and reimagining from here, especially on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But oftentimes I fear the Ferengi became *too* sympathetic: Ira Behr is famously fond of them, and he's on record saying they're more real, human and likable than the humans on Star Trek. I think that kind of thinking is both dangerous and reactionary. While there are some great things that can be and will be done with Quark as a character, turning the Ferengi into just another quirky and lovable Star Trek race effaces the very real, very progressive and very anti-authoritarian message they were designed with in mind. And doing that is nothing more than yet another way hegemonic capitalism defangs, nullifies and extinguishes any threat to its entrenchment and authority.

If we allow it to keep doing that, we'd be forsaking our gods, our dreams and our futures.


  1. I can't recall offhand if we ever get a look inside a Ferengi starship

    In "Ménage à Troi", but you won't be getting to that for a couple of whiles.

  2. The Ferengi, here, are as much of a threat as Snidely Whiplash: ostentatiously treacherous and slimy, and just as impossible to take seriously. Only if one does as you've done here and completely abandon any sense that this story is meant to be taken as an actual story with actual characters (rather than the rhythmically-dancing metaphors we're presented with) can these villains become interesting.

    I prefer the Ferengi who become actual, individuated characters once DS9 kicks into high gear. This episode's view of the Ferengi sits among Trek's many shallow, B-movie-like depictions of monocultural alien antagonists, wholly villainous and repulsive. The energy whips are cool, though. Wish the franchise had kept those around.

    This is also one of the earliest episodes I can remember watching. A rerun in '89 or '90, I think. The earliest bits of any Trek that I can remember are: the T'Kon Guardian spinning his axe in fast-forward, the scene in "Heart of Glory" with Geordi's vision transmitted to the bridge viewscreen (a neat thing that they never, ever do again), and the boarding of the derelict ship in "Booby Trap."

  3. " . . . we'd be forsaking our gods . . ."

    And yet, isn't that an essential part of Trek's utopian vision, the human abandonment of god-belief, the end of attributing real-world power to the objects of myth? I think that would be a fine thing.

  4. It's hard to imagine a genre creation as thoroughly wrong-headed as the Ferengi in the early years of TNG, and the fact that they were eventually made to work, sort of, is nothing short of a miracle. While I'm perfectly on board with satirizing capitalism, once this episode has made that (heavy-handed) point, there's literally nowhere left to go with them, and they're saddled with a lot of lousy baggage that had to be seriously reworked.

    The idea of villains who turn out to be ineffectual paper tigers is fine, though I'd argue that's way more suited to a one-and-done gang of antagonists than one that was meant to be an ongoing plot point. It's not so much that the Ferengi have to be BADASS SUPERVILLAINS to work from a story perspective, it's that they're conceptualized in terms of a "villain race" with spaceships, (sometimes) superior technology that can overwhelm the heroes, and so on, and they just don't work in that context. It's not surprising that their focus shifted to be more individualistic and more focused on being "obstacles" than straightforward antagonists. But that brings up another point: conceiving of the Ferengi as a totally unknown quantity prior to this episode also hurts them on a conceptual level. If they truly were the "Yankee traders" of the galaxy, they should have been everywhere in galactic society, wheedling and conniving (not to mention raiding). They're clearly not a "secretive" race--indeed, they're probably one of the least secretive races we see on Trek--and making it impossible to establish a pre-existing continuity with them for the sake of this one episode's "surprise twist" that they're actually ineffectual buffoons hurt the drama in the long term. It's no wonder that the idea that the Federation only made first contact with them a few years before has been thoroughly dropped by the time they start to reappear in the third season. (And I have to wonder--of all the first season ideas that TNG threw out, why did they even come back to the Ferengi? I'm not sorry they did, but there are lots of cool ideas and awe-inspiring imagery in this season, even if the actual writing is wildly uneven, that could have been brought back to good effect. What about The Caretaker? The lightning-throwing drug addicts of "Symbiosis"? The alien puppetmaster bug thingies? Hell, the Traveler *did* come back, but in a perfunctory way--he could have been a great ongoing character.)

    1. (Cont)

      Also, and I'm kind of surprised you didn't bring this up given the focus of this blog so far, but the Ferengi also highlight exactly what's wrong with using alien cultures as straightforward representations of aspects of humanity (while simultaneously portraying humanity as enlightened specimens of perfection). Riker's whole speech to Portal is *insanely* paternalistic and condescending and culturally chauvinist; the fact that the Ferengi are meant to represent a huge portion of what's wrong with humanity doesn't change the fact that, within the context of the show, they ARE a foreign culture, which Riker has known for about two hours at that point. And here he is condescendingly passing judgment on them. The fact that he's basically correct is more due to author fiat than any reasonable behaviour on his part.

      Quite frankly, TNG throughout its run had a serious problem with mocking or criticizing other cultures--fictional alien ones, but the attitude is still problematic--while painting humanity and the Federation as the greatest thing since sliced bread. To be honest, I'd say TOS had a better track record with this stuff in some ways! I mean, an episode where Kirk has to work WITH the Klingons, who at that point are basically his mortal enemies, is more impactful to me than stating that the Klingons are now their allies and then continually portraying them as obstacles beneath contempt, something that happened a lot with TNG, sadly.

      This is why the sort-of-rehabilitation of the Ferengi, making them more complex and sympathetic, was *absolutely* necessary. Trek never lost its focus on the problems with Ferengi culture--and honestly some of the satirical stuff they came up with on DS9 is light years ahead of this shrill rant of an episode--but this later stuff acknowledged that they're still individuals constrained by a negative culture, who deserve at least some measure of dignity and to have their struggles taken *somewhat* seriously, not to be a cheap straw man. After all, if Trek is supposed to be about reconciliation between cultures, presenting them with the challenge of reconciling with a culture that stands opposed to everything the Federation represents is exactly the right place to be going from a thematic and storytelling perspective.

    2. "[T]he Ferengi also highlight exactly what's wrong with using alien cultures as straightforward representations of aspects of humanity."

      The Planet of Hats problem.

    3. [T]here are lots of cool ideas and awe-inspiring imagery in this season, even if the actual writing is wildly uneven, that could have been brought back to good effect. What about [t]he alien puppetmaster bug thingies?

      I don't remember where I read this, but those bugs were originally going to be the true form of the Borg. I don't remember why they changed that, either; I may in fact be remembering the whole thing wrong. But as what-could-have-been, I still find it thought-provoking.

    4. I've heard various versions, but I think the bugs weren't going to be the borg per se, but rather, the Borg were to be slightly different bugs, of which the puppetmaster bugs were a vassal race.

      The original plan, it is often recounted, was for them to be fully CGI. I like to imagine that over the course of the fall of 1987, the production team caught an episode of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and realized exactly how ridiculous a fully CGI alien would look in the 1980s, so they ripped off the design of Lord Dread instead.

    5. Whoops, I said "Caretaker" and I meant The Custodian. I think that was what it was called, right? The thing from "When the Bough Breaks". It was really cool looking and an interesting concept--the whole planet was. Even if it has a name that makes it sound like an intergalactic janitor.

      I actually did know that the bugs were replaced by the Borg (for budget reasons, I think) but I still think they could have reappeared later in the show's run, and they could have reconceptualized if CGI was a problem. (Lord knows we got plenty of CGI critters in the later years of Voyager and Enterprise...)

  5. I do recall a lot of talk in the nethersphere about how the Ferengi were ultimately unsuccessful as a new recurring villain because they weren't threatening or scary enough, but I have to disagree. I think the Ferengi are one of the great successes not just through their renovation in DS9 but in TNG as well. They might become overused in writerly terms, but nothing about oversaturation of the market should be considered that much of a joke.

    The satire is spot on, here, and guys like Shimmerman from day one are working to mitigate and advance vague origins and poor direction into something important and relevant. And while I've always understood the tendency to view them as possible Jewish caricatures, I've always tended to look at Star Trek races - especially the big ones - in terms of Fantasy literature, or legends.

    The Ferengi are very obviously classical Goblins. The short stature, the sharp teeth, the big ears. A macabre but familiar form of surprisingly civilized barbarism. These are not far from the breed you find in Goblin-Town in Tolkien's "The Hobbit", and the influence runs long under the surface until the writers and designers outright admit Hobbity influence and give the Ferengi round doors. Even the dank, mushroom covered world they occupy resembles the kind of dank caverns under the mountains a Goblin would reside in. And to top it off, there's the direct transliteration of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" poem.

    The Ferengi being direct adaptations, Space Goblins, is one of the elements that most strongly carves out traditional Fantasy archetypes and niches in the Star Trek world for me, a race very similar to us, but which represents the worst of us - taken to the logical next step of "if we advance to become spacefaring utopians, what then would 'the worst of us'" look like then?

    It's also one of those weird scenarios where the actors portraying bit parts and guest roles did as much work to define and carve out this alien race as the writers did! And while Letek in canonical terms might not be Quark, when we hear of things like Quark's vague backstory having served on a Ferengi cruiser once, effectively, this is the same character. We just haven't gotten to see what the interior of the Goblin Market looks like, yet.

    In a way, the introduction of the Ferengi is almost as successful at establishing a "parallel antagonist race" as Balance of Terror and TOS Romulans were (for another 18 episodes, anyway)

    Interesting, too, that the direct allegory of "Yankee Traders" was thrust upon the American Riker's conscience, right from the outset, by Data and Troi, as if this was his personal relationship with his humanity's ghosts we were dealing with.

  6. My inclination about the early Ferengi is that they are, essentially "Capitalist Pigs" in a universe that can see through the bullshit our civilization uses to make unfettered capitalism seem like a good idea. It's like if Gordon Gecko had been played by an actual literal lizard.

  7. It should come as no surprise that Riker objects to the Ferengi and those moral-less "Yankee Traders" so strongly. After all, his southern ancestor Jamie Lee Hogg lost out on winning Daisy Duke's heart because he was a counter-fitter who didn't actually earn his money fair and square. At least in the end he did the noble thing and turned in his partners, though it sent him to jail to do so.

    We didn't cover the Dukes of Hazzard, of course, but if every character is in some sense connected to the actor that portrayed them...

  8. "The Ferengi are very obviously classical Goblins."

    Absolutely agreed. They had that feeling for me when I first watched these episodes in my teens. I remember one of my friends (Billy) had a complete VHS collection of the show and we would marathon on it, in between epic weird RPG adventures with our friend Phil. I had watched them as they first came out and remember a bit of a feeling of awe and excitement and a new race being revealed, as well as the utter beauty of those spaceships that as you say Josh, reflect perfectly who the Ferengi are.