As paranoia culture took hold in the ‘90s, I had that weird feeling I suspect afflicted a lot of Tom Baker fans around 2009, of pop culture at large discovering a private obsession. In one of the several Encyclopedias of Monsters I owned (Like I said, obsession.), probably written by Daniel Cohen (most were), it detailed the persistent urban legend of the aliens in the freezer. The entry made the point that every ten or twenty years, the rumor gets legs again, circulates for a time, then drops out of consciousness. What it didn’t expect was that in the ‘90s it would elevate itself into mass culture as the Roswell crash and Area 51. Seemed like everyone had an opinion on it, from niche entertainment to action blockbusters. While it sticks out now, the idea of DS9 doing a Roswell episode made perfect sense at the time.
There are times when the subject matter of DS9 dates itself. Ironically enough, there might be no episode that screams the show’s ‘90s origins as this one, when the Ferengi time travel to July of 1947.
It starts, as these things do, relatively innocuously. The opening shot is of Rom, and there’s no easier way to let us know it’s time for a Ferengi episode. Nog is off to Starfleet Academy and is in the midst of a Ferengi manhood ceremony. When it’s time for a young Ferengi male (always male, never forget) to go off to make their fortunes, they auction off their childhood possessions for what amounts to startup capital. Captain Sisko hovers over the proceedings, showing an appropriate level of paternal investment in his young protege. Worf isn’t so sure about letting a Ferengi into Starfleet, and O’Brien lightly chides him that there are those who would have said the same of him. After that, Worf warms up and buys an electric tooth-sharpener. It’s kind of perfect.
Also perfect is the final send-off Nog gets. Bashir and O’Brien give Nog the gift of a guidebook which gives him some useful information on Earth (leading Nog to find a picture of Gabriel Bell and wondering why he looks exactly like Sisko) and tell him to make them proud. The best is his farewell with Jake. The two of them have been inseparable for years at this point, overcoming serious cultural differences on the road to becoming best friends. I’ve said it before, but this is the finest example of Roddenberry’s vision of utopia. The two young men know, however, that the days of doing nothing on the Promenade are over. Now, all that’s left is the terrifying uncertainty of adulthood.
Quark offers to give Nog a ride to Earth in a brand-new shuttle purchased as payment by Cousin Gaila. You remember him. He owns a moon. Well, it turns out Cousin Gaila isn’t the biggest fan of Quark’s and sabotaged the shuttle. This interacts with the shipment of kemocite Quark was planning to smuggle to the Orion Syndicate (You know, because science.), and instead of making it to Starfleet Academy, they crash land at Roswell in 1947.
That’s right, Quark, Rom, and Nog are the Roswell aliens.
This is a hugely popular episode among the creators, and it’s pretty highly rated on IMDb. It can be pretty hard to swallow for modern viewers, though, and I think I might know why. For one thing, it’s the creators’ attempt to make an early ‘50s B-movie, something along the lines of Them! While this is a defining movie of my childhood, and one of my favorite monster movies of all time, it’s not as much of a cultural touchstone it once was (despite the fact that it features Brooks from Shawshank using a real flamethrower on a giant ant, which is the most metal thing that happened until 1982). The rhythms of the dialogue, the outsized stereotyping of the human figures, and the extreme angles on the shots are all directly out of this kind of filmmaking. It is, in essence, a stone-faced, affectionate parody of an extremely specific genre.
The reaction to Ferengi episodes also varies widely. Comedy is a pretty subjective thing, and it’s pretty easy to see the Ferengi as a bunch of sexually predatory misogynists. Really, they pretty much are (although the show goes to great lengths to rehabilitate Nog and Rom from this), and it’s entirely valid to look at their humor through this lens and not find it funny at all.
Me, I look at the unfiltered delight on Quark’s face when he realizes he’s stuck on a planet with a bunch of idiots who will buy anything, or rattling off what he knows of Earth culture from his time around humans (“Baseball, root beer, darts”). Or Rom breaking down in interrogation (without ever actually being touched), spilling the entire story, and then begging for his Moogie. Or Nog pointing to the place on the map where the fictional Ferengi Armada will invade, and have the nonplussed military man respond, “You’re invading . . . Cleveland?”
This episode largely works for me, because it is so terribly specific. Not just the note of the parody but in the terror of my own mind. The idea that a couple of characters on my favorite show should be the aliens I’ve been reading about from childhood, and everyone is acting like they’re in the black-and-white movies I love? Yeah, it felt like the writers were talking directly to me.
The Ferengi escape with a timely assist from Odo, who stowed away on the vessel because he suspected (rightly) that Quark was smuggling something. Rom uses a little bit of Treknobabble to get them home -- by flying into an atomic explosion while venting kemocite. Sure, why not? It makes for a fun shot of the Ferengi shuttle speeding into stock footage of the Incredible Hulk’s origin story.
Next up: That bat’leth really tied the empire together.