“Family Business” (season 3, episode 23; originally aired 5/15/1992)
In which you can go home again, but it’ll cost you…
This week, Quark and Rom return to Ferenginar to deal with their rebellious mother, and Jake tries to get his father laid. Good to see the show getting back to its high-stakes intensity so quickly.
Ha ha, I kid because I’m awful. While “Family Business” has nothing to do with the Dominion or the Founders, it’s a well-built, surprisingly heartfelt episode about the stresses of family, cultural bigotry, and the glories of baseball. Both this and “Shakaar” are the kinds of episodes that Deep Space Nine has been doing since the beginning (more or less), but both demonstrate the confidence of the show’s creative team and cast when it comes to the stories they want to tell, and the art with which they tell them. The tone in particular strikes me as particularly appropriate to the Star Trek franchise, a sort of complex, honest, ultimately optimistic view of the power of communication. Not everyone gets what they want in these hours, but there is a sense of progress, however limited, an impression that it really is possible for people (human or otherwise) to sit down and come to some sort of terms. Whether or not that’s true in the real world, there’s enough fairness here to make it feel true; I want to believe, as the saying goes, and maybe that’s enough.
The most notable element of “Family Business” is that it’s a Ferengi-centric episode that isn’t played for laughs. Oh, there are jokes, and not all of them work: Quark and Rom’s repeated insistence that their mother get naked (Ferengi women aren’t allowed to wear clothes) starts off as sort of “ha ha” silly, but gets weirder and less funny with each repetition. But the main plot itself is played very straight, in a way that never becomes strident or shrill. Trek has done social-commentary episodes before, and the danger is always that the attempt to deal with controversial issues in a metaphorical context is a hard balance to strike. Push too hard, and you get lectures and scenarios which can’t stand on their own; chicken out, and the metaphor loses its teeth. DS9 has managed to handle weighty stuff in the past, largely because its commitment is first and foremost to the integrity of its fictional universe—the metaphor gives weight to the drama without distracting from it.
That’s largely the case here. The premise is that Quark is in legal trouble because his mother, Ishka (an unexpected and terrific Andrea Martin), is accused with earning profit. Ferengi women aren’t allowed to earn profit. They aren’t allowed to do a lot of things it turns out, and the main conflict of the episode is Quark’s attempts to persuade his mother to behave more “appropriately.” Obviously the institutionalized bigotry on Ferenginar—where females are legally prevented from running their own businesses (or investing in the businesses of others), traveling, or even speaking with strangers—is a satire of real-world cultures which operate on the same horrible dogma. The Ferengi take it further than most, but not so much further that the situation becomes detached from any significance outside itself. But while that’s the jumping-off point for the story, and while I have my suspicions that the series will be coming back to this problem down the line (and keeping roughly half your species in bondage is a pretty big problem), this hour isn’t about destroying the patriarchy or fomenting rebellion. Its scope is limited to the effects of Ferengi culture on one family, and by keeping a big issue on a small level, the writers make things personal, and avoid the pitfalls of stridency.
This is helped by the fact that, as fundamentally off-putting as the Ferengi government is, the threat against Ishka isn’t presented as all that threatening. When Quark receives notice about his mother’s crimes (Brunt, an official of the Ferengi Commerce Authority played by Jeffrey Combs, arrives on DS9 and closes down Quark’s bar), the conflict is simple: Either Quark gets his mother to confess what she’s done, or else she’ll be put into indentured slavery, and Quark himself will have to pay restitution for her transactions. Slavery is no joke, but Ishka, who refuses to confess on the grounds that she doesn’t believe she did anything wrong, doesn’t appear overly concerned by the possibility. The script follows her lead, as most of the dramatic tension is centered on Quark’s growing horror at her obstinacy. It’s not played for laughs, exactly, but while it’s clear that we should be disturbed and unsettled by the Ferengi’s awful treatment of their females, Ishka doesn’t behave like someone who is afraid for her life. This is a choice which could be seen as undercutting the episode’s more satirical points, but it serves “Family Business” overall by allowing for our focus to stay primarily on the interactions between Quark, Rom, and their Moogie.
Those interactions really are terrific. Martin’s performance fits Ishka right into the back-and-forth between Quark and his brother. Rom gets another chance to show his worth in a time of crisis; he still isn’t the sharpest businessman around, but he loves his mom, and he loves his brother, and he won’t risk letting them destroy the family. The episode’s strangest scene has Rom and Ishka speaking privately in Ishka’s bedroom. The way Rom keeps averting his eyes from his clothes-wearing Moogie is goofy enough, but her decision to disrobe, then his decision to lay his head on her naked lap, then her decision to sharpen his teeth for him, which he is very happy about—I dunno. I understand the intention, but there’s something distracting about watching a son beg his mother to disrobe that even a basic understanding of (imagined) cultural differences can’t get past. The fact that the writers proceed to rub our faces in the awkwardness is either a drastic piece of misjudgement, or a wicked bit of audience nose-tweaking, I’m not sure which.
There’s also a subplot about Sisko’s gradually developing involvement with Kasidy Yates (Penny Johnson, who I’ll always remember as the first character I really loathed on 24—though she’s a fine actress), the freighter captain Jake mentioned in “Explorers.” It’s a cute story, and it’s nice to see Sisko getting back in the game, so to speak. He and Yates have good chemistry together (Johnson always comes off as tough, and that seems like a solid match for Sisko), and the scene where Benjamin learns that Kasidy’s brother plays baseball is cute and fun. It really is impressive at how good DS9 is at doing this kind of low-key, personable storytelling. It helps the characters and the setting achieve a lived-in feel, which in turn means that when the stakes get high, we’re invested in what comes next.
Still, the main focus of the hour is the battle between Quark and Ishka, and it’s impressive how fair the writers are to both characters. The main sympathies should be with Ishka: she’s oppressed, she’s only trying to do stand up for herself, and, as it turns out, she’s absolutely fantastic at earning profit. In fact, Brunt’s initial accusation only covers the smallest fraction of her actual dealings, a fact Quark quickly discovers when he starts looking in to her affairs. But Quark, who opposes every change his mother is fighting for, isn’t portrayed as a monster. Partly that’s because we’ve already spent enough time with him to know he’s basically a decent sort—greedy (but then, that’s his culture), willing to lie if it will benefit him, but not outright evil, and even, in his own small way, heroic. (We’re going to ignore the whole “sexual harassment of a Dabo girl” accusation for now.) But mostly it’s that the episode treats his problems as coming from an understandable place, even if his objections are wrongheaded. Of course Ishka should be allowed to earn; of course the restrictions on her freedom are ridiculous and evil and should be fought against. But the idea of a son struggling to live his own life, while being unable to understand why his mother would want the same for herself, isn’t that difficult to relate to. Odds are, most of us have had times when our parents or siblings have behaved in ways we couldn’t understand, and which drove us crazy, although hopefully not in a situation as dire as this one.
It all ends happily enough. On Rom’s insistence, Ishka and Quark resolve their differences; Ishka admits that she’s more like Quark than she sometimes likes to let on, and Quark allows that his father was probably not the best businessman in the world. This doesn’t really change the fundamental disagreements between them, but it re-establishes enough common ground to allow Ishka to finally give in to Quark’s demands without losing her dignity. She also only gives up about a third of her profit, which is character consistent, and also helps ensure the idea that the Ferengi way of life, at least with regard to the females, is going to change. It might not happen today or even tomorrow, but it’ll happen, and ladies like Ishka are going to make sure it costs someone every step of the way.
- Speaking of cost, I liked the Kafkaesque orientation of the Ferengi Commerce Authority; everything comes with a price.
- Dax is weirdly invested in getting Sisko laid. On Yates: “Let me put it this way: If I were Curzon, I would’ve stolen her from you by now.” Sounds like someone’s sublimating!
- Rom really is great in this. It’s fun to watch the writers figure out his strengths.
“Shakaar” (season 3, episode 24; originally aired 5/22/1995)
In which you can go home again, provided you’re willing to throw a few punches…
It’s been a while since we’ve had a good Kira episode, hasn’t it? Probably either “Defiant” or “Second Skin,” which is over half a season ago. After being one of the show’s most dominant characters, the major has stepped back into the ensemble; it’s not so much that she’s less important than she was, as it is that everyone else has gotten comparatively more important, and the series doesn’t need to rely on the former Barjoran terrorist to do as much of the dramatic heavy lifting. Still, it’s good to see her front and center again, in an hour which in some ways feels like a throwback to the first two seasons. This isn’t meant as a criticism. “Shakaar” isn’t awkward or forced in the way some of the series’ earlier episodes could be, but it does focus its attentions on Kira and her place in Bajoran politics, specifically the relationship between the provisional government and the freedom fighters who helped to ensure that government’s existence.
Hey, remember Kai Winn? Of course you do. Funny story: The head of the provisional government has died of a heart attack, and Kai Winn is the only one running to take over his place. This would make her the de facto leader of both the spiritual and political existence of the planet, and if that doesn’t make you deeply concerned, well, you haven’t been paying attention. Interestingly, no one complains too much about the religious leader taking a political role; as an American who believes the separation of church and state is one of the smartest thing the Founding Fathers ever did, the idea makes me deeply uncomfortable, but on Bajor, the issue is less about the what than the who. Kira is troubled by the news, although in a conversation with Odo, she can’t effectively explain her concerns. Odo accuses her of blaming the Kai for Bareil’s death, and letting that blame cloud her judgement, which sounds like Odo has forgotten quite a lot of past history. Really, this is a woman who arranged an assassination attempt on a vedek when he stood in her way; who conspired with another Bajoran to drive away the Federation presence around Bajor in order to consolidate their control; has proven time and again her willingness to go to whatever lengths necessary to achieve power. The only reason her run as Kai hasn’t been a complete disaster is that she’s presumably canny enough to know how far she can go, and that a stable Bajor is, in the long run, the best chance for her own success.
But now that the government job is open, all bets are off the table, and it’s strange that no one but Kira seems to be bothered by this. The problems begin almost immediately. Winn comes to Kira asking for a favor—which means, of course, that she demands a favor, in the politest, most cutting way possible. A group of farmers on Bajor is holding on to a set of soil reclamators that Winn thinks would be better used elsewhere. She has her reasons, namely that the reclamators could be used to help the growth of crops that will sell better in galactic market, thus raising Bajor’s status and making the planet more desirable to the Federation. Only, the farmers who are currently holding on to the devices were promised more time with them, and desperately need that time in order to sustain their own farmland. And it just so happens that the leader of these farmers, Shakaar, was also the head of Kira’s resistance cell during the Cardassian occupation.
You can see where this is going, right? Winn wants Kira to get the machines back because of her connections; Kira, who probably feels guilty about her suspicions of the Kai, agrees to try. But when she meets up with her old comrades, she realizes they have claims every bit as legitimate as Winn’s. So Kira tries a compromise, Winn snaps, and eventually Shakaar, Kira, and the others take to the hills, forming the core of a new rebellion which could, if everything continues to go as badly as it has, lead to a civil war.
There’s a lot to like in this episode. I remain fascinated by post-occupation Bajoran politics. Most stories end when the rebellion finally defeats its oppressors, and the fact that DS9 started in the wake of the Cardassian departure was always a point in the show’s favor. It fits into one of the central tenets of the series design, namely the idea of staying in one place and seeing things through. A victory is only one moment; it’s great while it lasts, and can mark the start of a better time in one’s life, but the only permanent solution to any problem is a mortal one. While the Bajorans had a common enemy, while the stakes were obvious and incredibly high, the moral choices tended to be clear-cut: Either stand up for your people, or sell out to protect your own skin. Now that the obvious threat has been removed, conflicts become more complicated, and villains are harder to pinpoint.
Take the episode’s most intense scene: Shakaar and the others lure their pursuers into a box canyon, believing that the only way out of the chase is a direct fight. Kira and Shakaar both recognize the leader of the pursuing force, a man who once served and fought in the resistance just like they did. They realize he’s a strong fighter, and should be their first target. Shakaar takes aim, and the others wait for his signal—but neither he nor Kira is able to pull the trigger. They both realize things have gone too far, and move down to talk with their target face to face. But even that almost ends in catastrophe when someone fires a shot without orders, and the canyon nearly turns into a killing field. The speed with which former allies can turn on each other, without any real reason to do so beyond the immediate circumstance, is telling. Everyone is too used to taking up arms and fighting when life doesn’t go there way. Violence was the necessary answer for so long that it’s started to look like the only answer.
The only real disappointment, then, comes in the ease with which Kai Winn’s ambitions overreach her. This isn’t an episode-killing complaint, but the timing overall is rushed, especially when it comes to the story’s resolution. Once Shakaar and Kira realize that Bajor doesn’t need a civil war, Shakaar decides to run for the office Winn had assumed was hers for the taking. If the Kai tries to run against him, they’ll reveal her inept handling of the reclamator crisis; the fact that she nearly started a major conflict over a handful of machines (and how hard would it be to get some more? I assume this isn’t a question we’re supposed to ask, since no one mentions it, but still) doesn’t speak well of her abilities. While it’s satisfying to see Winn cut back down to size, there’s something overly convenient about it as well. While Winn has always been on the shady side of the moral gray area, part of the power of her ascension is the implication that her methods work. She doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and without the chaos and shifting uncertainties of Bajoran society, she wouldn’t have done nearly as well.
So maybe her defeat is an indication that the people of Bajor are starting to get their shit together. That’s a fine idea—I just wish it hadn’t been quite so simple. Conflicts like this are more interesting when everyone is at least a little bit to blame, and Kira basically gets everything she wants without it costing her a dime. Nice as that is for her, it makes for somewhat muted drama. Still, Bareil remains dead, and hopefully this will help her move on from his memory. And maybe I’m just a little too cynical. After all, people like Winn have the DNA of their eventual defeat hardwired into every victory.
- Oh, and there’s a subplot about O’Brien having a really good run at the dartboard, before injuring his arm and losing his luck. Stories like this are the downside of the show’s forays into light drama. It’s pleasant enough, but the arc is so predictable and silly it barely exists. Although the idea of a Vulcan playing darts is pretty amusing.
- “So if I were you, I’d start packing.” Concerns over the ease of the victory aside, it was really, really satisfying to see Kira finally throw Winn out on her ear. (And it’s not like she’s losing her position as Kai. She just doesn’t get to sit in both chairs.)
- One of the (excellent) frustrations of Kira-Winn scenes is that Kira just can’t compete with Winn’s brilliant grasp of passive-aggressive control. Sisko, on the other hand, competes just fine, mainly because Winn has no real power over him. Their scene together in this episode is quite fun.
- I wonder if this episode might’ve worked better if it had focused more time on Winn. As irritating as she can be, this is really as much (if not more) her story than Kira’s; she finally gets all the power she could dream of, and for the first time in her career that we’ve seen, she loses her grip.
Next week: We close out the third season with “Facets” and “The Adversary.”