Along with “The Homecoming” /“The Circle”/“The Siege”, “Rules of Acquisition” is probably the first Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story that became genuinely iconic to me.
As I’ve mentioned before, though I was familiar with the show before this run of episodes, my familiarity basically consisted of dissociated images-The water bath clone scene from “A Man Alone”. Some promotional art of a runabout. The offhand conversation in the shadows under a staircase somewhere. That elusive scene of Dax on the parallel bars that I’m half convinced I completely imagined. Vivid as it was, my memory of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in its first season was fragmented, consisting only of brief flashes of lucidity. This is very much a consequence of the way I watched the show at that point: I could only ever catch the odd glimpse of it while flipping through the channels, because my local affiliates stupidly ran Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine opposite one another, and I wasn’t going to chance missing my favourite show to take a gamble on its younger sibling.
(This was not an uncommon happenstance, by the way: I am by no means the only one who made that decision when faced with similar circumstances, and that’s a major contributing factor to the failure of every post-Next Generation Star Trek series.)
So while my experience with Star Trek: The Next Generation was similar, I was always better researched on that show and it didn’t take me long to connect my sensory memories with actual plots and episode titles: I had enough reference guides, VHS tape rentals were not unheard of and eventually the reruns became commonplace enough I gained a working knowledge of that show rather quickly. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I pretty much literally never got to watch again for another ten years: Between the initial run of the first and second seasons and the DVD release in 2003, I had no material critical experience with actually physically watching the series whatsoever. As a result, there were only a handful of episodes of this show I was ever intimately familiar with at the time. And by no coincidence, these were the ones “novelized” in the issues of Starlog’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Magazine that I owned, specifically issues five and seven.
The magazine itself is getting its own chapter in this book because it absolutely defined my exposure to and formative impressions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s world so I have to keep myself from going into too much detail about it here. The reason it’s relevant to tonight’s episode is that “Rules of Acquisition” was the first episode covered in issue seven, which happened to feature our very own Jadzia Dax as its cover girl. This kind of sets the stage, because while I know “Rules of Acquisition” is kind of a sequel to last year’s “The Nagus”, as far as I’m concerned this one is all about Jadzia Dax: This is the story where the Jadzia Dax I know and love finally emerges fully formed and in bloom. It’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first story that clarified for me how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was supposed to operate, and it’s still the standard I hold the series to today.
“Rules of Acquisition” works because it does two different types of stories simultaneously. Three, if you count the stuff it inherits from “The Nagus”. The story of Quark and Pel, its action centred around the bar, is almost a kind of noir plot. It’s about star-crossed lovers and the systems that keep them apart set against the backdrop of a bustling city. But it’s not noir in the Raymond Chandler or Frank Miller sense, it’s closer in tone to the kind of thing Casablanca is doing: It’s a melancholy romantic drama about love lost, loneliness and regret. This is a remarkably good kind of story to give Quark, because the Humphrey Bogart-inspired Ferengi barkeep is incredibly well suited to it, and there’s an episode coming up later on in the season that proves the case even more: For one, Armin Shimerman is just really good at playing that kind of character, and not only is Quark just about the only person on the station who you could do this with, he’s pretty much custom tailored for it, which is something the people who constantly write him as a sniveling latinum-obsessed comic relief never quite manage to get.
But the real star of this episode is Jadzia, specifically because this isn’t her story. She has four comparatively minor scenes across the episode’s runtime, but each one is absolutely defining for her because in each one she’s interacting, and guiding, somebody else. In the teaser and in the denouement she’s an interlocutor for Quark (as well as a counselor and a mentor, though he’d never admit it) and there’s that absolutely brilliant scene in the bar where Jadzia express shock at Pel’s revelation that she’s a woman…after she figured out Pel was in love with Quark. There’s also a scene with Kira where Jadzia concedes the Major’s condemnation of the Ferengi as “greedy, misogynistic, untrustworthy little trolls” but seems not to mind.
This is a very Ira Steven Behr thing to write, because Ira Steven Behr thinks the Ferengi are more admirable and inspiring than the hero crew for reasons that, quite frankly, deeply disturb me. But this scene works on a separate level because it’s coming from Dax, who is special: Although she presents as female (and femme), Dax is of course both male and female. This means she’s ultimately not threatened by the Ferengi’s misogyny, because her male energy renders her immune and her androgynous power places her hopelessly above and beyond their reach, regardless of whether or not the Ferengi are consciously aware of this or are willing to admit it. Because the Ferengi don’t pose a threat to her in a way they might to a normal woman, Jadzia can easily see them for the ridiculous sycophants they are. Kira, in spite of her outward displays of masculine strength, is still inherently a very vulnerable character, and she might see the Ferengi as a threat. What Jadzia is doing here is trying to coax Kira to tap into more of her energy and to different sides of her being so that her gender fluidity becomes less superficially performative and defensive and becomes more an extension of her true self.
Scenes like this vividly define Jadzia Dax as an unforgettable character because they let her do what she was always meant to do: Play a support role. I don’t at all mean to belittle her by saying that, rather, I want to glorify her: Being utopian fiction, Star Trek works best when its main characters behave more like what we would conventionally think of as supporting characters than protagonists, and Jadzia Dax is probably the greatest Star Trek supporting character of all. That’s what I immediately latched onto about her in “Rules of Acquisition”: In this episode Jadzia is at once so unflappably confidant and so perceptively nurturing, caring and supportive all at the same time. That’s a breathtakingly formidable strength of a sort I don’t think I’d ever seen in fiction before, certainly not coming from someone who looked like Jadzia Dax. Lines like her “I’m going to miss her. And so will you” and “Nice try. But I know you too well” etched themselves onto my psyche like stone.
Jadzia’s presence turns to noir narrative into a Star Trek: The Next Generation story, one whose effectiveness is heightened by the contrast of the subject being Quark. If the Ferengi are supposed to represent the worst of us, then Jadzia is the best of us and Quark the embodiment of the potential to learn and grow beyond what we are. It’s hard to tell if Quark has actually learned anything by the end of this story, although when this plot gets revisited later in the year it becomes clearer.
I also have to wonder…Gender aside, Quark’s relationship with Pel is very much a case where deep romantic affection is confused for Platonic admiration. Consider, if you will, Pel as a mirror inverse of Jadzia: A woman who is forced to present as a man to gain respect, rather than a joint male-female energy who chooses to present as female. In that case, perhaps Quark actually doesn’t lust for Jadzia. Perhaps, just as he didn’t want to admit that he harboured real romantic feelings for Pel, he doesn’t want to admit that he secretly hero worships Jadzia Dax.