“Look out there. Millions and millions of stars. Millions upon millions of worlds. And right now, half of them are fanatically dedicated to destroying the other half. Now, do you think, if one of those twinkling little lights suddenly went out, anybody would notice? Suppose I offered you ten million bars of gold-pressed latinum to help turn out one of those lights. Would you tell me to keep my money?”
Characters are fundamentally the sum of the outgrowth of their strengths and weaknesses interacting with the fictional world. With strong characters, they usually have one specific virtue that guides them through their adventures, whether it’s an unbending sense of justice, a keen observational ability, or maybe just the bizarre talent of being able to catch whatever is hurled at their head. This holds true for flaws, and maybe doubly so. Whenever you encounter a character whose only foible seems to be that they’re clumsy some of the time (but never in a way that impacts the plot), quick to anger (but no one seems to mind), or who are just too darn good for this world, chances are you’re looking at some bad writing.
Flaws are harder to write. Partly because the audience needs to sympathize with the main character on some level. They don’t necessarily have to like the hero, and too many stories fall into that trap, but the audience does have to be interested in where the character is going. The threshold is also different for each individual. While I regard Breaking Bad as a triumph of the medium, my mother gave up watching it because she found Walter White too unpleasant to care about anymore. And it’s not like someone’s personal tastes can be wrong; it’s just how they feel. Well, unless they like Voyager better than Deep Space Nine. Then, they’re objectively wrong and should be taken someplace soft for their own safety.
If a flaw is too egregious, or not at least partially balanced by redeeming features, a character is more likely to be dismissed by the audience. This is why so many of the main characters in the Troubled Anti-Hero era of television had loving families. We’re social mammals and that’s the quickest and easiest route to sympathy. DS9 didn’t have this blueprint, but they did it anyway, after a fashion, when they gave Quark a mother, brother, and nephew. Of course, this is Quark, so moments of genuine tenderness are usually undercut with the character’s mild case of comedic sociopathy.
That’s not to say that Quark doesn’t have a heart. In episodes like last season’s “Body Parts” and this season’s “The Ascent,” the character has been dealt with seriously. This week’s episode, “Business as Usual,” builds on the ideas presented in “Body Parts.” Namely, what are the limits of Quark’s greed? Those limits, incidentally, are what separate Quark from other Ferengi, and what keeps him from becoming, if not a hero, than at least more of a funny villain and foil for the more morally upright Federation.
Last time, Quark’s honor as a businessman was tested against his self-preservation. There’s nothing particularly heroic about saving your own hide at the expense of societal norms (although it’s important to note that there’s nothing villainous about it either), but here, Quark is faced with a darker decision.
Cousin Gaila makes his first appearance on the show, after being mentioned numerous times. In the beginning, he was the family member that Quark was jealous of, as Gaila owned his own moon. Gaila later repaid a loan with a sabotaged shuttle, making Quark and his family go back in time to become the Roswell aliens in season four’s “Little Green Men.” Quark has also mentioned that Gaila got rich selling weapons, which Quark refused to do, because he’s a “people person.”
Gaila is looking to retire, and he’s picked Quark as a successor. Gaila’s motivations here are murky. After all, he did try to kill Quark once. Maybe he’s thinking that his business associates are so dangerous Quark will inevitably get himself killed? Who knows. He’s worked out a great racket, though. Using Quark’s holosuites to show off merchandise circumvents laws about weapons dealing, and because Gaila and his human partner Hagath sold weapons to the Bajoran Resistance, Bajor will let them slide on any gray areas they encounter.
Quark, who was drowning in debt and still suffering from the FCA ban incurred in “Body Parts,” was desperate enough to sign on. But when they start making deals with a tin pot psychopath going by the handle “The Regent of Palamar” who talks casually of killing 28 million people, Quark finds the limits of his greed. “Can’t we wound some of them?” he asks plaintively.
DS9’s casting people really knocked this one out of the park. Josh Pais, a character actor who’s been in pretty much everything, brings an oily charisma to Gaila, and Lawrence Tierney is great in his brief scenes as the Regent. The highlight for me is Steven Berkoff as Hagath. I’ll always think of him as Victor Maitland from Beverly Hills Cop, and he carries the same fey menace to DS9. Half the time, it’s impossible to tell if he’s flirting with Quark or thinking about killing him. Maybe both at the same time. He even treats Quark like an abused spouse, showering him with gifts one moment and paternalistically withholding his money the next. It’s possible Gaila wanted to get away from this weird arrangement. Shimerman, of course, plays off everyone expertly, helping their big moments land while using their performances to elevate his own.
Quark learns there are more important things than money. Friendship, even those Starfleet goody-goodies, self-respect, and oh yeah, 28 million people not dying in agony. Taking a page from Gaila and Hagath, who gleefully mention selling arms to both sides of wars, Quark contacts the Regent’s enemies. He learns they’re just as bad as the Regent and sets the both of them up to “discover” one another on the station. You have to admire that. Instead of the heads of armies sitting back while millions suffer, Quark lets the ones causing the trouble sort things out.
While Sisko slaps Quark with the bill to repair the cargo bay where the shootout took place, Quark is far happier to learn that his friendship with Dax has been repaired. Quark now knows there are things he will not do for money, and while many Ferengi would look down on him for this, he can live with himself.
Next up: Kira has a death in the family.