Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “The Nagus”/“Vortex”
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “The Nagus”/“Vortex”

“The Nagus” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 3/21/1993)

In which Quark gets an offer he can’t refuse, but probably should have anyway…

The Ferengi are basically awful. There’s no real way to get around this; the entire race is essentially a horrible cultural stereotype repurposed as literally alien, and therefore supposedly rendered inoffensive. I doubt, or at least hope, that this wasn’t done on purpose, unless it’s part of some grand scheme to humanize racial caricatures and thus bring all of us closer together through prosthetics and hammy acting—in which case, bravo. But I don’t think that’s the case, much as I don’t think anyone sat down to create the Ferengi and said to themselves, “Oh man, now I finally have a socially acceptable place to funnel all the horrible things I think about that family who lives down the block, you know the one I mean.” Fiction writing is an act of creation, and in that act of creation, writers use everything they can, especially when inventing fantasy environments. So, every once in a while, you get somebody who maybe isn’t the most imaginative person in the world, and they need to come up with an entirely new creature, and that’s how you wind up with Jar Jar Binks or the frog-like Trade Federation stooges who speak in thick “Oriental” accents. (Sorry, I’ve been re-watching the Star Wars prequels lately.) 

Back on point, however the Ferengi were originally conceived, they remain one of the low points of the TNG-era Trek-verse, a lot of bad jokes and sniveling tied up under the guise of culture. Even if you put aside the social issues this raises, this presents concerns from a story perspective. There’s no inherent depth in a stereotype. That’s why it’s a stereotype; It’s an idea created to allow one group to make assumptions about another group, and use those assumptions to dismiss that other group’s autonomy. (This is a huge oversimplification, but bear with me.) So when a writer decides to use a race like the Vulcans or the Klingons, it becomes necessary to try and expand the stereotype into something more complex, while still maintaining a basic consistency with the race as originally presented. With the Vulcans and the Klingons, and most other Trek races, that’s not too hard. Stoicism has enough of a historical precedent to be a believable philosophical foundation, and it’s not like the Earth is hurting for warrior cultures.

The Ferengi, though, are greedy, cowardly cheats. That’s really all they have (that and the ears), and when it comes time to make something more out of it, well, it’s pretty hard to find the dignity in a group whose main goals in life are cheating everyone else out of a good deal and getting their ears rubbed. “The Nagus” does what it can with such a limited platform. The Rules of Acquisition, a series of guidelines which drive the Ferengi’s monetarily fixated culture, aren’t a terrible idea, because they at least attempt to make avarice into a value. Having Wallace Shawn play the apparent leader of the Ferengi, Grand Nagus Zek, is another smart move, because Wallace Shawn is great, and he manages to give the role a certain charm. There’s a clever story here, about the limits of power and how it’s better to be a medium-sized fish in a small pool than a big fish in a big pool. And as always, Armin Shimerman keeps finding ways to ground Quark, and make his morally questionable choices into something more complex than simple self-interest. Without Shimerman, this would’ve been intolerable. With him, it’s surprisingly not bad.

It’s still not good, though. The plot: The Grand Nagus arrives on Deep Space Nine, determined to make the most for his people out of the business opportunities created by the wormhole. He brings together a number of powerful Ferengi for a conference on how best to take advantage of the Gamma Quadrant—a place which has never heard of Ferengi before, and has no idea that they might not always be the most trustworthy. At the end of the meeting, Zek announces that he’s retiring, passes the title onto Quark, and, more or less promptly, dies. Initially overjoyed about the unexpected promotion, Quark soon realizes he’s not cut out for a life of double-dealing and backstabbing, especially not when the backstabbers have actual knives. Zek’s son Krax and Quark’s brother Rom team up to take Quark out, but just when they think they have the drop on him (having trapped poor Quark in an airlock chamber), Odo shows up with Zek, who isn’t dead. The true Nagus was hibernating and testing to see if his son was ready for leadership. Krax failed the test, Zek takes back his staff and robe, and everything goes back to normal.

I’m a sucker for political maneuvering, and the few times “The Nagus” deals in back-room deals and handshake negotiations, it’s a decent amount of fun. The idea that Quark would be in over his head so quickly makes sense, and fits in with what we’ve learned about the character; He’s clever, but clever only goes so far. While the episode doesn’t take the Ferengi’s culture all that seriously, it does put more effort into giving them rituals and goals than most any other Ferengi episode we’ve seen in the past (in those, the Ferengi were almost always the obstacle for the main characters to circumvent), to the point where it’s possible to believe them functioning as a culture, and not just as a group of not-all-that-threatening villains. It’s just that, for an hour that’s supposedly driven by Quark’s attempts first to please the Nagus and then simply to survive, our protagonist is curiously passive. He sucks up to Zek, he lords his power over his brother, and then, when the crisis arrives and he faces really danger, he refuses help from Sisko, Odo, and anyone else. The only reason he survives the episode is Odo’s dogged determination to get to the truth. Which isn’t a bad character moment, and it’s also a nice detail in their friendship, but it leaves Quark on the outside looking in.

That would be fine if Quark wasn’t already a somewhat problematic character. The show has given him a few chances to define himself before, but “The Nagus” should’ve been a chance for us to understand what drives Quark, or least give him something more interesting to do than toady up to his customers, trade barbs with Odo, and yell at his brother. It didn’t need to be great drama, but texture would’ve been nice. Instead, he goes through the basic one-two-three routine of the comic-relief stooge. There’s no arc for him, just a bouncing from place to place. At first, I took this as an interesting characterization; Quark isn’t a genius, and he’s better off just running the bar. But it’s not that he’s not a genius (although he isn’t). It’s that the Ferengi aren’t to be taken seriously. This whole episode is a joke, and even when life or death stakes are involved, there’s no reason to care. When TNG poked holes into Klingon culture, it meant something. With the Ferengi, it’s like the entire concept is so ridiculous, the writers have a hard time even caring enough to poke.

The most successful part of “The Nagus” has little to do with the title character, or Quark. Jake is still hanging out with Nog, but the two boys run into a problem when Nog’s father, Rom, demands Nog quit school at the behest of Zek. This causes some friction in their friendship, but Jake decides the best thing to do would be to keep teaching Nog what he learns in school. It’s a sweet, good-natured twist on a storyline that, at least for a while, seemed to be heading towards a more angst-ridden resolution. Sisko is frustrated that his son doesn’t want to hang out as much as he used to, and he’s also hearing from Chief O’Brien (who has taken over the school in his wife’s absence) that Nog isn’t a great influence on the boy. Instead of lecturing Jake on who he hangs out with, Sisko makes an effort (on Dax’s advice) to, well, spy on his son, and finds out about the lessons Jake has been giving Nog. So he finds out Jake is a good kid, and that Nog isn’t too bad himself. It’s a simple story, and effectively finds the best out of two characters we’ve been given reason to doubt. It’s too bad Quark couldn’t have been allowed the same narrative indulgence

Stray observations:

  • If Zek is still alive, does that mean the Ferengi who sold his vacuum desiccated remains was in on the joke?
  • How the hell does O’Brien have time to teach school?
  • We’ve seen Morn before, but I believe this is the first time we’ve actually seen a main character talking to him.
  • The riff on the opening scene of The Godfather, with Quark petting some kind of lizard-bladder thing, was unexpected, and funny.
  • UPDATE: I originally suggested that the Ferengi were a riff on bigoted concepts of Judaism. Others have pointed out in the comments that I maybe should've done a bit more research before painting with a broad brush. I still stand by my argument of the first two paragraphs; The Ferengi too easily fit into the "ethnic comic relief" stereotypes for me to be entirely comfortable with them, and if they're intended as satire, well, the joke never gets beyond "HA HA LAME." So, basically, they suck, wherever they came from.


“Vortex” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 4/18/1993)

In which Odo finds he can’t go home again—at least, not yet…

If “The Nagus” tries and fails to give us an idea of Quark’s social life, “Vortex” makes a similar attempt to get into the head of Odo, to greater success. While “Vortex” hints at deeper mysteries and a more complex mythology than the fairly simplistic greedy bastards set up in the previous episode, it’s just as traditional, both in what it accomplishes for the character, and the basic design of the story. To put it another way, “Vortex” is a “hint” episode, offering clues to backstory, but still too early in the series’ run for there to be any real chance that those clue will lead us someplace solid. As such, it’s more interesting for what it says about Odo than it is for anything it says about where Odo came from.

“Vortex” also continues what’s turning into something of a running gag for the series: the difficulties in establishing positive relationships with new races. It makes sense that the wormhole would lead to multiple instances of first contact, and it’s to the show’s credit that this hasn’t always gone smoothly. In fact, I’d say the only time it has gone smoothly was with the Wadi in “Move Along Home,” and even then, the results were confusing, and ambiguous. Sisko’s brief encounter with the Rakhar goes significantly worse. He has a prisoner from their world who needs to be tried for murder and theft, but the Rakhar government—or at least the only guy willing to talk with Sisko—isn’t having it. He wants the prisoner back, he wants him back yesterday, and he just basically hates having to deal with, well, anything, really. So far as I can tell, this is the first official contact between Rakhar and the Federation, but the way this dude acts, Sisko is a telemarketer who interrupted him in the middle of a good lay.

As far as station politics go, though, “Vortex” isn’t about Sisko trying to negotiate the right way to return the Rakharian “criminal” Croden (Cliff De Young, who will always be the dad in Flight Of The Navigator to me) to his people. It’s about Odo deciding just how far he’s willing to go to find out about his past, and just how much he’ll compromise the law in order to protect a good man. The constable notices Croden early in—the guy is an unfamiliar face at Quark’s, which isn’t that unusual, but his nervousness and unwillingness to meet Odo’s gaze puts the shapeshifter on the defensive. While it would be easy to assume anyone would be a little uncomfortable to find Odo giving them the eye, Croden is, indeed, up to something. When Quark goes to a back room to make a deal on a trinket with a pair of Mirdaron, Croden busts up the meeting and tries to steal the trinket. Things go badly, and they get worse when Odo reveals he’s been watching them the whole time, disguised as a drinking glass. There’s a fight, one of the Miradorn is killed, and Croden winds up in the brig. Life as usual on the DS9, until Croden drops the bomb that Odo’s ability to transmogrify wasn’t new to him. He claims he’s seen shapeshifters before, and has, in fact, been to one of their colonies. He calls them Changelings, and has a nifty locket with a bit of Changeling material inside.

It’s hard to get too excited about any of this. De Young is a decent actor, and if he occasionally relies too much on tics and intensity for my taste, he’s fine here (although he looks weirdly dirty in the make-up). But that doesn’t change the fact that anyone who’s ever watched a genre show already knows where this is going. Croden is lying, and the only question is how much he’s lying, and even that isn’t much of a question. When you’re trying to tease out a backstory, you want to tease the audience by offering them more information than you’re actually planning on giving them, while at the same time providing just enough to make sure nobody feels like they’ve been completely cheated. Usually this means some tidbit that pushes us incrementally closer to the main goal. By the end of “Vortex,” we find out that Croden has never actually been to a Changeling colony, and that he picked up the trinket from a salesman. But people really did tell stories about Changelings once upon a time on Rakhar, and the trinket really does seem to be connected to Odo’s people. It’s something, although whether or not it’s enough to justify our time is open to debate.

I’m not sure it’s a great idea to think of episodes of television in brutally transactional terms—I don’t need a certain amount of information provided to me in order for me to feel like I’ve been fairly dealt with. Still, given how much of the story is spent with Odo wondering if he should trust Croden, and Croden offering him (and, by extension, us) more answers than he could possibly imagine, it’s hard not to be let down by how little we get here. So we look to the rest of the episode for sustenance, and there’s some decent bits to chew on, thankfully. As mentioned, Sisko’s interactions with Rakhar fit in well with what we’ve seen of the tedious reality of interstellar communication so far. The Miradorns make for decent villains. They’re a “twinned” race (so I guess they come from the Territories?), and when Ah-Kel loses his partner, he loses more than just a brother; he loses, as he explains to Sisko, his entire reason for being. So he’s really, really intent on getting revenge, which leads to a Wrath Of Khan-esque fight in the vortex that gives this episode its name. Ah-Kel isn’t the most clearly defined character in the history of the show, but he at least has a reason for what he does that goes beyond “EVIL.”

As with “The Nagus,” it’s the small moments of decency that really carry the episode. Croden is lying about what he knows, but he’s at least lying for a reason. Rakhar is, from what we can tell, an awful place, and Croden lost nearly all of his family when he disobeyed the government. He has one daughter left, but he’s hidden her in stasis on an asteroid in the Chamra Vortex. The reason he lies to Odo is so he can get back to his daughter and free her from the statis box; Most likely, he tried to rob the Miradorn earlier in order to buy a ship, but it doesn’t seem like he’s that good at thievery. (Dude is waaaay too chatty, for one thing.) Once Odo realizes what’s up, he’s understandably let down by not getting the answers he wanted, but he’s forced to make a moral choice: Does he take Croden back to his homeworld, where he will be executed? Or does he allow the man and his child to go free? Curiously, up until the end, Odo doesn’t have a lot of autonomy in “Vortex.” While he’s tempted by Croden’s offer, that temptation would never be enough to inspire him to break the law. That’s not how Odo works, but while it’s great that the episode makes an effort to stay true to the character, it leads to him being grumpily sidelined right up until the final scenes.

In the end, Odo figures out how to escape Ah-Kel (killing the Miradorn in the process, leaving a convenient, although completely necessary, absence of witnesses), and he decides to let both Croden and Yareth (the daughter) go. This decision is made easier by Croden’s willingness to sacrifice himself to save both his child’s and Odo’s lives. (This is particularly effective seeings as Odo was trying to take away Croden’t freedom for good.) That’s pretty high up on the Decency Scorecard, so it’s not a shock when Odo, still grouchy, allows Croden to accompany Yareth onto a Vulcan science ship. “Vortex” is, like a great many of episodes we’ve seen so far this season—staunchly mediocre—but its good moments help elevate it from the completely forgettable, and they also serve as a promise that these characters, and this world, are worth exploring.

Stray observations:

  • At one point, Ah-Kel browbeats Quark into giving up that Croden has left with Odo. Quark’s very real concern that his actions might get Odo killed are more positive character development than anything we saw in “The Nagus.”
  • Last week marked (I think) the first official recognition of Morn. This week, we get the first, “Morn won’t stop talking!” joke.
  • So Odo can transform himself into anything, regardless of mass. At least, he can transform himself into anything smaller than himself. I wonder if he could do something bigger?

Next week: “Battle Lines” are drawn, and we sit down to listen to “The Storyteller.”

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