“Rules of Acquisition” (season 2, episode 7: originally aired 11/7/1993)
In which Quark meets a Ferengi with a secret, in that she’s a lady
So, Quark gets a rom-com this week, and it’s not awful. If anything on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has really surprised me, it’s how much effort the show puts into redeeming the Ferengi as a race. I don’t mean in moral terms; in terms of goals and ethics they’re still just a few steps away from Captain Planet villains. (Just replace “greed” with “pollution,” throw in some cheap animation, and voilà.) But in the handful of Ferengi-centric episodes I’ve seen so far, there’s a definite, not-entirely-joking attempt to make the race more than a one-note caricature of unbridled avarice. It has a political system, it has a history, and, most fascinatingly of all, it has a cultural philosophy that specifically focuses on the acquisition of wealth as the primary, noblest societal goal. Very Ayn Randian, come to think, although none of the Ferengi seem particularly inclined to defend the purity of their beliefs. I doubt Grand Nagus Zek would blow up a building because someone dared compromise it; he’d just charge them a fee for excessive complication.
While this hasn’t made me thrilled to see a Ferengi episode come down the pike, it has prevented these occasional hours from being as horrible as some of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s worst offenses in the realm of comic relief. The less the Ferengi are caricatures and the more they’re allowed their own agency, however odd or narrow-minded that agency might be, the more fun they are to watch. And it’s worth noting that even though there’s been some satire at the expense of how the Ferengi do business, none of this has ever been presented as an attitude that needs some kind of moral comeuppance. Zek (Wallace Shawn) makes his second appearance here, and as with the first, he has plans, the plans are a tad on the sleazy side, those plans come to fruition, and Zek himself isn’t portrayed as a bad guy. Kind of a dick, sure, but not an out-and-out villain who must be stopped. The Ferengi stories have, in addition to world-building, served the arguably more important purpose of helping us to see Quark in context. It’s a lot like whatTNG did with Worf and the Klingons (which means I totally should have seen it coming): When compared to the rest of his people, Quark is actually pretty reasonable. So we netter understand why the Ferengi do what they do, and we like one of the show’s main characters more. That’s not a bad result, all things considered.
That said, don’t mistake “Rules Of Acquisition” for a classic. It’s good-natured and has its bright spots, but it also relies on some mediocre shtick, and, at its worst, gets too eager to make text out of its subtext—“The Ferengi aren’t so bad!” There’s a very small subplot in which Zek hits on Kira because she’s a forceful woman in a uniform, and Kira is understandably weirded out by this, and Dax tells her the Ferengi are cool just ’cuz. Seriously, that’s the conversation; Dax likes ’em because they’re fun to be around, even though every time we see a group of more than two Ferengi, it’s like watching 10-year-old boys hyped up on sugar while fighting over a girlie magazine. It’s nice that the franchise realizes the Ferengi could use a little help in the likeability department, and it’s not as though Kira ever appears threatened or inordinately put out by Zek. And hey, Zek’s infatuation with her fits in with the other, more serious angle of the story: namely, the sad state of actual Ferengi women, who are forced to stay at home and be nude all the time. (Meaning it makes sense that Zek, and every other Ferengi male we’ve met, is super into strong, fully-clothed woman; they want what they themselves have forbidden.) But it’s half-assed.
The main storyline is better, although it takes a while to get interesting. When Zek arrives on the station, he’s got an assignment for Quark—running negotiations with the Dosi to get a certain number of barrels of Tulaberries. Quark is thrilled but nervous, and when his new waiter, Pel, offers to help, Quark agrees without much argument. Pel is very sharp, proving to be a valuable asset to Quark, but something is suspect about the newcomer. Ferengi don’t tend to offer aid freely, which means that Pel has something planned. The twist? Pel is a she, who came to the station to make a name for herself under an assumed name, violating Ferengi gender laws as she did so. The reason she’s so helpful to Quark is that she’s fallen in love him.
This is a bit silly, like all one-off infatuations tend to be (which isn’t to say she can’t come back to the station, but she and Quark fall for each other in the space of a single hour, at least by my watch), and there are some gags which test your patience for, “Ha, it’s funny because he thinks she’s a man!” set-ups. But while the Tulaberry quest isn’t exactly gripping, the fact that the Dosi women are just as much a part of the negotiations as the Dosi men is telling, and the whole thing picks up considerably when Pel finally comes clean. Well, okay, Rom’s the one who finds out her secret and tells Quark, but Pel was definitely planning on telling him the truth. Quark is horrified, but he also cares about her, even to the point of sacrificing profit to protect her from being punished by Zek. There’s the sense that Pel may be the start of some grand societal change; that the Ferengi women might finally rise up against the men who keep them nude behind closed doors, and I’m always a fan of that sort of thing. The rising up, not the forced nudity. (Freely chosen nudity, on the other hand, is better than just about anything.)
Still, as nice as it is to see the winds of change begin to blow, what really works about this episode is Quark himself. Namely, the idea (which has been hinted at before) that Quark is just not that good at being a Ferengi. Sure, he’s greedy, and sure, he lacks what we’d think of as scruples, and sure, he totally gets off on that ear thing. But he has a conscience, which must be a liability in the Ferengi lifestyle, and while he has certain prejudices when Pel admits who she is, he doesn’t struggle that much when it comes time to stand up for her in front of the Grand Nagus. It reminds of me Worf again, but where Worf’s commitment to Klingon ideals was used as a way to highlight the inherent rot of modern Klingon culture, Quark’s inability to commit completely to the ideals of his own race demonstrate how much the Ferengi need to adapt. Sure, you can argue this is just another way for human morality to take precedence, but Quark’s ability to change with the times, no matter how much he might want to resist the change, is actually a darn good trait for any species to have. So maybe it’s not so much that Quark is bad at being a Ferengi; maybe it’s just that he’s bad at being at being a Ferengi right now. Who knows which he’ll be tomorrow?
- Brian Thompson played the male Dosi. He doesn’t do much beyond being Brian Thompson in crazy makeup, but it works.
- During his negotiations with the Dosi, Quark learns that he’ll need to contact the Dominion if he wants to fill his order. I think this is the first time we’ve heard that name; I somehow doubt it will be the last. And given where I suspect this goes, I'm hella impressed to hear the name tossed out so casually.
“Necessary Evil” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 11/14/1993)
In which Odo solves a mystery, much to his sorrow
I’m pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. It’s a weird thing to know about yourself, and I’m really hoping I never have to prove it one way or the other, because I think that’s the sort of test where you lose either way. But yeah, if it came down to protecting someone I loved, and I had the means, I’d be able to do commit murder. This isn’t a brag, because it’s not something to be proud of, nor is it something that feels particularly unique to myself. If I had to put money on the question, I’d bet most of you could also kill. You know, if you had to. There’s a tendency in movies and fiction to equate that final step as being some sort of moral Rubicon, a line in the sand that only an elect few, for good and for ill, can ever cross, but that’s bullshit. It’s not like pulling the trigger on a gun or stabbing another human being in the gut is a rare act. People get murdered all the damn time. The job, then, of anyone who wants to be moral and just, is to try and avoid situations that force the issue. There’s no magical switch in your brain that ensures you are incapable of evil acts. (Most of us do not come from a frogurt shop.) Every day, you have to decide how far that line goes, not because of some ingrained reflex pushing against you, but because of how easy it is to go too far; because of how quickly seemingly straightforward dilemmas become complex systems of uncertainty. And even when you do your best to not break your own code, even when you’re absolutely convinced that killing was the only choice you had—there’s no guarantee you’re right. There’s no blue-ribbon panel of experts to give you a thumbs up. And even if there was, that doesn’t mean the people closest to you will ever look at you the same way again.
The fascinating, quietly devastating “Necessary Evil” doesn’t look like it’s an episode about Odo and Kira’s friendship. At least, not at first, and even when we realize that Kira’s going to be involved with Odo’s current investigation, there’s no reason to think she’s anything more than a red herring. That’s what I assumed, probably because I was so distracted by all the coolness the rest of the episode throws out. What starts off looking like a fun but almost certainly goofy murder mystery involving Quark, his brother, and some mysterious Bajoran femme fatale quickly turns into a chance for Odo to reminisce about the past, complete with flashbacks to his time on Deep Space Nine during the Cardassian occupation. Those flashbacks dominate the hour, showing a less confident Odo dragged into his first assignment at the order of Gul Dukat. While I vaguely remember seeing glimpses of Kira’s past before, this is the first chance we’ve had on the show to see DS9 during Dukat’s reign, and while it’s about as unhappy a place as you’d expect, it makes for riveting viewing.
This is, as far as I can recall, the first time any Star Trek series has ever done a serious “how the band got together”-style episode. The original series certainly never bothered with it, because back-story there was created almost entirely on the fly, and continuity never viewed as a primary concern. We found out a few things about Spock (hard-nose Dad, human mom, freaky mating rituals), and every so often Kirk would run into somebody he knew from the old days, but most of this were matters of convenience necessary for the events at hand. The idea of a sustained history created to deepen the characters and the world didn’t really come into play until later—what mattered was what happened on the screen, then and there. TNG expanded on this somewhat, giving us a semi-origin story in the pilot (aka, “This is how most everybody got on the Enterprise and met Q”), some semi-mythology with Data, and “Tapestry,” the great sixth-season episode that has Picard traveling back in time to learn the importance of being stabbed. But while TNG was a lot more serious about continuity than TOS ever was, it still never does what “Necessary Evil” does here. Apart from the pilot, all of TNG’s back-story was fashioned in isolation. When we learned Riker made some dumb choices as a junior officer, or that Picard struggled with his temper, those incidents were about the characters and the characters alone, and didn’t serve to connect either character to the rest of the ensemble, or to the world of the show as we then knew it.
With “Necessary Evil,” we get an episode whose primary focus is to enrich our understanding of certain key figures on the show, as well as slightly recontextualize DS9 itself. Simply showing Odo in the olden days (i.e. before now) would’ve been enjoyable enough, but here, we see him on a version of the station which is very different from the current one, a version which was implied at the start of the series (remember the mess?), but never quite hit home like this one does. Not only that, we see Odo meeting Gul Dukat, and I have to admit, this is probably the first time Dukat ever really took off for me. I’ve read comments talking about what a terrific villain he is and nodded my head, but this may be the first episode Marc Alaimo truly shines. The Dukat who greets Odo in the first flashback is horribly, horribly friendly. The sort of friendly that makes you feel smaller every time he says your name.
Most of what we’ve previously seen of Dukat put him on the opposite side of the power structure; he’s already lost Bajor, and while he’s surely plotting to return, his plots have been deep-cover stuff we only have stumble across at the moment of crisis, when Sisko and Kira and our other heroes turn the tide. Manipulative villains can be great, but because manipulation, when done well, is the subtle act of making others do what you want done without them realizing it, it’s not enough to just say, “He’s out there. Oooooo.” You need to make an effort to demonstrate just how powerful all that manipulation can be. To put it another way, one of the reasons Ben on Lost was such an amazing bad guy is one of the reasons people often cite as proof of Michael Emerson’s genius: the way the character was elevated from a henchman to Grand Vizier only after his first few appearances on the show.
Now, I don't dispute Emerson is a terrific actor, but it’s worth pointing out that the decision to make “Henry Gale” into a major player wasn’t simply a matter of rewarding talent—it was also a brilliant narrative move. We get to see for a sustained period of time how effective this character was at controlling a situation even when he was nominally at the mercy of his enemies. Ben ran rings around Locke, managing within a few days to zero in on the fundamental crack in Locke’s psychology which had been sitting there, waiting to explode since the fourth episode of the show; but even more importantly, Ben fucked with our heads. He beat us, because we never really knew one way or the other how important he was right until the big reveal. Of course he had to be the main bad guy. Who could ever top that? Gul Dukat pulls off a similar trick in “Necessary Evil.” Meeting with Odo, giving Odo a job to find out the identity of a murderer—well, that’s obviously Bad Guy 101. He’s clearly up to something. But he seems so relaxed and open and charming about it, and he has such good reasons for giving Odo the gig, that maybe… A great manipulator should make you doubt yourself even when past experience has given you every reason to doubt them. This is the first sign that Dukat is in that category.
So we get to see Dukat in his element, and we get to see a humble, half-terrified Odo trying to figure out his place in the world. We get to see the station full of starving refugees and laughing Cardassians, and everything’s in a low light and miserable-looking. And we get to see Kira with long hair, meeting Odo for the first time. This might be the single most important aspect of the episode, because it expands Odo’s memories beyond just himself. Dukat is just an intermittent bad guy—Kira is a regular presence, and by having her pop up here, we get to understand the character more in the same way we’re getting to understand Odo. And we’re seeing how these two came together, which is a big deal, because it enriches their relationship. We knew they had a history, but now we’re seeing it in action, so it becomes, in effect, part of our history with the show. From now on, when we see them, we’ll have this memory in the back of our heads, and we’ll know that they have that same memory, and it means their interactions are more than just ways of meeting immediate plot demands. A similar thing happens when Odo meets Quark for the first time; the back and forth between the two of them helps to explain how they deal with each other in the present. Plus, it’s just fun to watch. It’s like seeing a friend hanging out with other people you don’t know, but he does. You’re seeing a different side to someone you assumed you knew.
Then there’s the ending, when we learn that Kira, who Odo (and me, and I’m assuming most of the audience) dismissed as uninvolved with the murder, actually killed Mr. Vaatrik. Vaatrik was a Bajoran working with the Cardassian government to betray the Bajoran underground, and he had a list of other Bajoran spies in his shop. Kira went to grab that list, Vaatrik caught her, and she killed him. This is understandable, and it fits with the episode’s title; killing is wrong, but compared to what would’ve happened if Vaatrik was allowed to proceed, one life is arguably worth sacrificing for many. But the title has multiple meanings. The “necessary evil” here isn’t just Kira killing Vaatrik. It’s Kira lying to Odo about what she did, banking on his trust and compassion to get away with it. She uses the knowledge that another Bajoran freedom fighter had been assigned to sabotage the station the night of the murder as an alibi, putting her at Odo’s mercy in such a way as to distract him from the whole truth. By confessing her role in the rebellion, Kira gives Odo just enough of the truth to make him trust her, but holds back enough to let him let her go without violating his own code of ethics. When Dukat comes calling, Odo can both protect Kira, and, he believes, be completely honest when he tells the Gul that Kira had nothing to do with Vaatrik’s death.
It’s understandable that Kira is nervous when Odo finally learns the truth. Their friendship is one of the touchstone relationships of the show. It’s not usually the main focus of any given hour, but it’s been there since the beginning, and Kira values Odo’s opinion of her. Kira is a woman perpetually in the act of proving herself, and Odo is the most perfect arbiter of character-worth: he’s an outsider, he’s detached, but he’s just sympathetic enough not to be a complete dick about it. And now she’s failed him. The murder was bad enough, but she betrayed the most important aspect of their friendship, their trust, and she never told him about it until she was forced to by circumstance. That puts her in a sketchy position, and even though it’s entirely possible to see where’s she’s coming from, it still makes sense that the episode ends on an ambiguous note. Given the nature of his existence, Odo has spent his life apart from other sentient beings, and, seeing where he ended up, it’s reasonable to assume he has a somewhat cynical view of them. He expects people to let him down; he expects that we can murder each other for reasons beyond comprehension. That Kira could kill couldn’t have been a surprise, but the way she tricked Odo—however good her intentions were—was. She showed him that his best, most noble impulses, could be used against him. That’s not a lesson anyone wants to learn from a friend, no matter how necessary it is.
- My favorite “How the band got together” episode: “Out Of Gas” from Firefly. It might even be my favorite episode of that show. I never get tired of it.
- I hope we never find out what the “Cardassian neck trick” is.
- “You’re not as stupid as you look.” “I am too!”—Odo, breaking Rom
- Rom has the best scream.
Next week: We worry Bronson Pinchot will show up with “Second Sight,” and start our run to “Sanctuary.”