Eruditorum Press

We’re not cancelled; these are just our Wilderness Years

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

13 Comments

  1. Neo Tuxedo
    September 24, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    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.

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  2. Dustin
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    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."

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  3. Dustin
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:01 am

    " . . . 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.

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  4. Prankster
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    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.)

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  5. Prankster
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    (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.

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  6. Dustin
    September 24, 2014 @ 4:13 am

    "[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.

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  7. K. Jones
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

    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.

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  8. Ross
    September 24, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    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.

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  9. Neo Tuxedo
    September 25, 2014 @ 2:37 am

    [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.

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  10. Ross
    September 25, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    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.

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  11. Spoilers Below
    September 25, 2014 @ 7:39 am

    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…

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  12. Prankster
    September 25, 2014 @ 9:14 am

    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…)

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  13. Daru
    October 22, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

    "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.

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