The Cap’n and I have a very cooperative attitude towards watching TV and movies: he watches my 18th and 19th century British costume things, and I agree to sit through his swashbuckling slashers like “Kill Bill” and “Memento.” Our interests converge with fantasy (LOTR, Harry Potter), absurdity (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series), anti-nonsense (Penn and Teller’s “BULLSH*T”), and sci-fi (Star Trek and the new Dr. Who).
I didn’t care much for the original “Star Trek” show. I thought Spock was cool, but Kirk was a rather pathetic ladies’ man, and Bones just a big kvetch. (Chekov’s accent was cute, though—“nuclear wessels” has replaced “nuclear weapons” in my personal lexicon.) I missed most of the “Next Generation,” being out of the country, in graduate school, or otherwise occupied. The Cap’n and I watched the last season of “Voyager” in our first year of marriage, catching up with episodes we’d missed via re-runs. I found a woman captain and a male first officer much more interesting than the crews up to that point, and enjoyed the rest of the cast and themes as well.
Fast forward eight years. After Bill was born, we watched seven seasons of “The West Wing” in a few months, and began casting about for something else to engross us longterm. Someone here in Efrat had “Star Trek: Deep Space 9,” which I had missed completely but had heard good things about. I have enjoyed meeting a new cast and more interesting characters. Odo, the shape-shifting chief of security, is a delightful curmudgeon; Dax, this show’s jiggle factor, has an interesting back-story (seven lifetimes stored in a pod to which her body plays host as a Trill); but perhaps my favorite is Quark, the Ferengi bar-owner.
It soon became clear to me that with their unlovely appearance, ruthless pursuit of profit, and good heads (literally) for business, they were, if not gross caricatures of Jews, at least inspired by unfavorable historical representations of them. (The Cap’n corroborated this, as does the Wiki page on Ferengi, and indeed, the four Ferengi characters most often seen on the show are played by Jews: Armin Shimerman, Max Grodénchik, Aron Eisenberg, and Wallace Shawn.)
This probably bothers some Jews whose sensibilities are fine-tuned to cultural slights. It does not bother me. First of all, a bar owner could just as easily belong to the Italian mob or be a Irishman selling Guiness in Southie to homesick ex-pats. (The bartender on “The Love Boat” was Black.) And secondly, the Ferengi are (in my opinion) some of the cleverest and most amusing characters in the series. Where Avery Brooks (Commander Sisko) took until the third season to smile, Major Kira is a battle-scarred Bajoran ex-freedom fighter who never seems to relax, and Doctor Bashir’s medical genius is matched only by his ego, Quark and his ilk provide much of the comedy (and garner most of the audience’s affection) in the show.
According to the Wiki page (written by someone who knows his Trek trivia, though I made a few edits to the page myself), here are some of the qualities of Ferengi:
- They live by 285 Rules of Acquisition, which govern the main goal of their existence: turning a profit. “The Ferengi also recognize the five Stages of Acquisition: infatuation, justification, appropriation, obsession, and resale.” When a Ferengi plays host, he greets his guest with the following formula: “Welcome to our home. Please place your thumbprint on the legal waivers and deposit your admission fee in the slot by the door. Remember, my house is my house.” The guest is expected to reply, “As are its contents.”
- The Ferengi religion holds that the afterlife reflects a person’s pursuit of profit in life. Upon death, a Ferengi’s financial statements are reviewed by the deity, the Blessed Exchequer, and if the departed earned a profit, he is admitted to Ferengi heaven where he is given the opportunity to bid on a new life. Those who failed to amass wealth in life are damned to the Vault of Eternal Destitution.
- While nothing that interferes with profit is valued or practiced by Ferengi (e.g. racism, war, labor unions, sick leave, vacation), cheating or selling family members is considered acceptable if it results in profit. Women in particular are treated poorly in Ferengi society, being prohibited to wear clothes, profit, talk to strangers, or travel without permission from the paterfamilias. They are also expected to soften their family members’ food by chewing it for them. (Really, with the sexism this over the top, who can’t laugh at it?)
- In a conversation with Commander Sisko, Quark identifies the root of the mistrust and apparent dislike humans (pronounced by Ferengi as “hew-mons”) feel for his people: The way I see it, humans used to be a lot like Ferengi: greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We’re a constant reminder of a part of your past you’d like to forget. … Humans used to be a lot worse than Ferengi. Slavery, concentration camps, interstellar war; we have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see? We’re nothing like you. We’re better.
All of the above describes the qualities of Ferengi as a general society. But of course, the Ferengi one meets aboard DS9 (that great IUD in the sky) are individuals, and buck Ferengi tradition in all sorts of ways. While he adheres to the traditional male attitudes towards Ferengi females, Quark actually has a few steamy romances with females of other species, as well as having a high regard for Dax (not least because she’s a whiz at the Ferengi game of Tongo). Rom, Quark’s brother, is actually a technical genius who rarely gets to show his true quality, instead living day to day being bullied and bossed by Quark in the bar. Nog, Rom’s teenage son, sees his father beaten down by the monolithic Ferengi culture of greed and profit and rejects that life, choosing instead to apply to Starfleet Academy. And Ishka, Quark and Rom’s mother, defies Ferengi law by wearing clothes around the house and amassing a vast fortune of her own, which she schemes with Rom to hide both from Quark and from the Ferengi Commerce Authority (the Ferengi IRS).
The Cap’n and I were discussing the recurring themes of “Voyager” (the great value and desirability of being human) and “DS9” (leaving one’s own people and their flawed and/or evil ways to embrace the universalist, kumbaya-singing world of Starfleet). We noted that Odo has refused to join the other Shape-Shifters in running the Dominion, one of the chief adversaries in the series; Worf has at last made a clean break with the Klingons; and Nog has applied to Starfleet Academy as the first-ever Ferengi to abandon profit for altruism. While it’s a good enough foundation for these series, the idea of interstellar cooperation, making and enforcement of treaties, negotiating peace between warring races, and ethical free trade can get a little saccharine after a while. (Quark reflects this in his occasional complaints about the taste of root beer, which he replicates in his bar and describes as “so bubbly and cloying and happy. Just like the Federation.”
A dose of unbridled libertarianism, shockingly unethical behavior, and political incorrectness is just what the show needs. Without it, I would die of boredom and Type II diabetes.