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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S4E15)’

“Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation. We want to find a way to become the exploiters.”
    — Rom

DS9’s storytelling shows its age in the strangest ways. Last week, we saw the vast gulf between the understanding of consent twenty years ago and now, this week, we’re looking at a political concept that has abruptly become not just politicized but regarded as a creeping specter of genocide by a significant portion of the American electorate. While that’s more a reflection on the growing hysteria of that portion, it’s still instructional on the shifting tides of public opinion. What a difference twenty years makes.

Rom collapses at work from an out-of-control ear infection — which, for Ferengi, is a life-threatening affliction. Dr. Bashir treats the condition and scolds Rom for not coming sooner, but Rom doesn’t get any sick time off. In fact, his pay is getting docked for seeing the doctor at all. Bashir offhandedly tells Rom he should form a union and wanders off, not really comprehending that he just threw a giant cultural grenade in the midst of Rom’s life. This would be like introducing Klingons to Nerf weapons, or Vulcans to Will Ferrell movies. It’s pretty typical of the arrogance of the Federation, as well, a trait only DS9 took time to examine and deconstruct.

Still, Bashir’s right.

Also agreeing with me is Chief O’Brien, who, as it turns out, is something of a firebrand on this issue. He claims to be the direct descendant of Sean Aloysius O’Brien, a coal miner who led the 1902 anthracite strike in Western Pennsylvania. The strike was a success, though Sean didn’t see the end of it, having been shot 32 times (“Or was it 34?” muses O’Brien in front of a clearly terrified Rom). O’Brien speaks of his ancestor with obvious reverence, calling him a “union man,” like there’s literally nothing better to be called by anyone. He even gets in a scuffle with Worf about it, and since Worf is finally off the Enterprise, he can start winning fights again.

Rom embraces this hero worship, as well. It’s fun watching a Ferengi, originally positioned to be the enemies of the Federation, invoking a human as an untouchable paragon of anything, let alone the rights of the worker. This episode is all about Rom growing a backbone, and it’s gratifying to see the character come out of his shell a bit, but still remain the recognizable, sweetly dim sad sack we’ve all come to know and love.

This also features an expanded role for Leeta the Dabo Girl, who was awkwardly shoehorned into last season’s “Facets,” when the writers realized they didn’t have enough women for all of Dax’s past lives. If there’s a better demonstration of the boy’s club that was, is, and remains entertainment, I don’t know what is. Leeta is dating Dr. Bashir, because why not, and quickly becomes Rom’s most loyal and passionate ally in the strike. By the end of the episode, it’s pretty clear she sees there’s a lot more to Rom. And, there is. Still waters run deep.

Strikes, of course, are serious business for the Ferengi. Even discussing them is enough to get the Ferengi Commerce Authority involved. If that doesn’t sound scary, remember that the FCA is the Ferengi IRS, which basically means they’re also the equivalent of the Obsidian Order, the Tal Shiar, or Section 31. (We’ll get there.) These are the secret police of the Ferengi, and they have absolute, unchecked authority. When they threaten to throw people off the spire of the Tower of Commerce (their favorite punishment), that’s something they can do. And, while the title “Liquidator” has financial connotations, one wonders if that’s not a reference to what happens to bodies after being dropped from great heights.

The good news is that Jeffrey Combs is back. That’s right, Liquidator Brunt has returned. Good news for we viewers, because Combs is one of the most consistently entertaining performers out there. Bad news for Rom and Quark, though. Brunt decides to exert pressure on Rom in the most ironic way possible: by having Quark beaten nearly to death. This causes Quark to give in . . . to Rom. As long as it looks like Quark won, he’ll give the strikers everything they want.

The real irony here is in light of the current political climate. In the DS9 universe, unionizing is depicted as the default response. The human response. The only one of the crew decidedly against the strike is Odo, channeling his race’s clearly fascist overtones. When Bashir and O’Brien watch the picket line and bet on who will cross, O’Brien pegs a Vulcan as never crossing. “With their ethics?” he says, explaining everything.

Quark and Brunt come across as Objectivists, which for people keeping track at home, includes most, if not all, prominent Republicans including Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, and presumably a couple guys without “Paul” in their names. Unionizing didn’t used to be considered a radical position. It was just what you did, as unions got us things like 8-hour days, weekends, and sick leave. Things most people take for granted. As Rand’s cult grows, unions (and 8-hour days, weekends, and sick leave) have become politicized and unpopular even amongst people who actively benefit from them.

It all comes down to Rom’s quote at the top of the episode, which is similar to a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Steinbeck: “The poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Rom takes it to the next level and outright states this is not just what he wants, but what his culture as a whole finds desirable and moral. Isn’t this more honest? When a working-class person votes for a leader who promises to help the wealthy at the expense of the poor, isn’t that what they’re tacitly hoping will happen? That one day they’ll be the ones doing the exploiting?

While Rom gets what he wanted from the strike, he doesn’t stick around to enjoy the benefits. He resigns his post to join the station maintenance team, finally putting that technical brain of his to good use. Actor Max Grodénchik initially objected to this, saying it would ruin the character (as Rene Auberjonois did when Odo found his people). The writers reassured him, and he came around. Rom, as it turns out, is vitally important in Ferengi history, but without this first step, this strike, he wouldn’t have been able to take the stage when it mattered.

Next up: Too many Emissaries on the dance floor.


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