“Let’s just say, if you want to do business in the Gamma Quadrant, you have to do business with the Dominion.”
When working on a long-form project, writers are engaged in a sub rosa battle with their fans. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, that battle’s chief tactic and goal is surprise. The writer has to properly lay the foundation for crucial plot twists in advance, so that they feel organic, but not foreshadow them so heavily that the audience figures it out beforehand. Meanwhile, the audience desperately wants to be able to lean back with a smug smile, take a victory sip of their macchiato, and mutter into the face of a stunning turn, “Called it.” Who can blame them? It’s fun being the smartest person in the room, even if the price tag is having all your friends hate you. Writers hate these superior bastards more than you do, and there’s nothing we like more than the gobsmacked expression of a truly shocked fan. You think George R.R. Martin writes stuff like the Red Wedding for his health? To preserve surprises, writers will often resort to underhanded tactics. Stories have a language that we all understand from our years of listening, reading, and watching. This language informs a specific unwritten contract between writer and audience, and there are writers who love to violate this contract with intent of surprising people. In this week’s DS9, Ira Steven Behr did just that when he hid the first mention of the Dominion inside an otherwise innocuous Ferengi episode.
Two things should be mentioned here. The writers weren’t exactly sure what the Dominion was at this point. It is hinted that the Dominion is a great power, and a consortium of species, implying that unlike the areas of space explored in TOS, TNG, and the upcoming (at the time) Voyager, the Gamma Quadrant already had a single great power shaping it. Unexplored space, as Behr pointed out, didn’t do anything for the show in terms of telling interesting or unique stories. Giving it a character, making it the dreaded other, does exactly that. The second thing is that Ferengi episodes, following the example of Season 1’s “The Nagus,” tend to be a little more light-hearted than others. With the welcome return of Wallace Shawn’s Zek, the audience would be primed for more of the same, and any revelations therein would be dismissed as part of the comedy. Behr knew this and slipped the freference to the Dominion here as a way to throw viewers off the scent.
The episode opens after hours in Quark’s, with the barkeep and his employees playing the Ferengi game of Tongo, which is sort of a combination of poker and roulette. Jadzia Dax plays with them and endures the usual amount of friendly sexual harassment and casual misogyny one associates with our favorite bug-eating capitalists. The scene introduces a new waiter, Pel, who has obviously taken a shine to Quark and can quote the Rules of Acquisition with the best of them. The game is interrupted by a subspace call from Grand Nagus Zek who informs Quark that he will be heading up the first negotiations in the Gamma Quadrant with a race of facepaint enthusiasts called the Dosi. Zek’s scheme: Get a bunch of tulaberry wine and turn that into the must-have beverage in the Gamma Quadrant. Guess he’s not a Slug-o-Cola fan. Slug-o-Cola, the Slimiest Cola in the Galaxy!
While Quark is over the moon at his sudden promotion, Pel councils caution for a very simple reason: Cover Your Ass. If Quark succeeds in his negotiations, Zek is hailed as a genius; if Quark fails, he’s the fall guy. Good to know business hasn’t changed in the 24th Century. Quark instantly promotes Pel as his advisor. The thing is, Pel seems way more interested in Quark’s well-being than a nobly self-centered Ferengi really should be. This is because Pel is a woman — or “female” in the parlance of the Ferengi Alliance — and has fallen for Quark. Remember, Ferengi women are forbidden by law from reading, wearing clothes, acquiring profit, and they certainly aren’t allowed on sensitive business negotiations with powerful alien races. They’re completely disallowed from participating in their race’s culture. Pel has a pair of false “lobes” that cover her much smaller and sleeker ears, and it’s suddenly abundantly clear why the Ferengi associate ear size with business acumen. (It’s a d–k metaphor. It’s always a d–k metaphor.) Pel’s unexpected love for Quark is derailing her noble quest for profit. (Incidentally, I’m now writing a movie about caveman Ferengi and calling it Quest for Profit.)
The Dosi are represented by Inglatu (played by genre-stalwart Brian Thompson — you remember him as The Judge from Buffy and the alien bounty hunter in X-Files) and Zyree. They come off as weird combination of Ferengi, Klingons, and extremely lost Cirque du Soleil performers. When the Dosi refuse to sell the initial amount of tulaberry wine Zek wanted, and the Grand Nagus abruptly demands ten times the amount, Quark figures out that something is rotten in the state of Ferenginar. Eventually, he, with a lot of assistance from the shrewd Pel, works out that Zek is intentionally sabotaging negotiations with the intent of making contact with a more powerful member of the Dominion. Quark manages to work his way to mention of the mercantile Karemma, a race that eventually does appear several times on the show as the Dominion’s merchant caste.
As for Pel, she does come clean to Quark, and he shoots her down. He wants a traditional Ferengi wife, something he says to Dax early in the episode. As a man who allows his female to read, wear clothes, acquire profit, and nearly anything else she gets it in her mind to do, it’s a little baffling to understand why anyone would want what Quark wants, thousands of years of cultural tradition be damned. Quark does get a nice hero moment in the end when he essentially blackmails Zek to keep quiet about Pel’s gender, but it’s a hollow victory. Pel is still forced to flee to the Gamma Quadrant, all for the crime of possessing a vagina. Or whatever it is Ferengi females have down there. Space vaginas? I suspect only Dr. Octagon knows for sure.
With the national conversation about sexism actually happening — turns out ignoring it in the hopes it would go away didn’t work out — this episode takes on added importance. As I’m writing this silly, little review of a long-defunct show, the brilliant critic Anita Sarkeesian has been compelled to flee her home in the face of horrible threats to her life and safety. What was her crime? Pointing out troubling trends of sexism in games. The response? Virulent, terrifying attacks that invariably reference Sarkeesian’s gender. The Ferengi seem like straw men, but aren’t their barbaric gender regulations what the culture is trying to impose when mobs try to silence someone like Sarkeesian? Aren’t they mad that she’s wearing clothes, reading, and acquiring profit? Aren’t they mad that she’s entering a male-dominated world and refusing to pretend that everything’s cool? And, Sarkeesian is just that part of the iceberg the Titanic can actually see. Whenever a woman is harassed on the street, that’s an implicit demand for nudity. When a woman on average earns 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, that’s interfering with her ability to acquire profit. The Ferengi were ridiculous when this aired in 1993, and Sarkeesian is getting death threats 21 years later. This is the amazing and depressing thing about science fiction. One of the sacred goals of the genre is to comment on the problems of the day without being didactic. Yet the problem this episode addresses — institutionalized sexism — is still going strong. At least the increasing visibility has created a slew of new allies for those fighting the good fight, and with any luck, Ms. Sarkeesian will soon be appointed our Grand Nagus.
Next up: There are a million stories in the big station.