satire, fiction and humor

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the Ferengi

The Ferengi: Arguably Star Trek’s most annoying recurring species, and certainly the greediest, shriekiest of them.

Yet we also seem fascinated with them – and the fascination has only grown after four years of living under the “leadership” of a man who would seem to embody every Ferengi virtue except for the fact that an actual Ferengi would throw him off the top of the Tower of Commerce for having so little lobes for business that he bankrupted his own casino.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite recent queries about the Ferengi, in case there’s anything you didn’t realize you never wanted to know about them.

Image: A blue square featuring the title of this blog post, with bars of gold on the left side.

Why has no one annihilated the Ferengi?

For one thing, they actually have firepower.

More importantly, however, the Ferengi are useful.

Try this: Make a list of every single character and species that approaches Quark wanting something during the 7 seasons of DS9. I haven’t, but I’m estimating there are several dozen.

Also, list what they want. It varies from “fence my illegal goods” to “get me a level 7 security code” to “be Grand Nagus for a few days so I can secretly test whether my son is actually ready to be Grand Nagus” to “store this extra furniture.” The only thing all these people have in common is that they went to Quark with the problem – which means Quark is capable of solving a huge range of weird, difficult, or unusual problems.

Often, he’s capable precisely because he’s Ferengi. Being Ferengi gives him both in-born abilities (like a brain immune to telepathy) and access to people, influence, trade routes and markets that others can’t easily get. If DS9 is the hub of Bajoran space, Quark’s bar is the hub of DS9 – which is precisely why Sisko has no qualms about extorting him to stay.

Quark is just one Ferengi. And he’s not even that impressive a Ferengi. His cousin owns a moon, for commerce’s sake. There are millions, maybe billions, of Ferengi who are better at Ferengi-ing than Quark is, yet even Quark is the only guy in the sector who can solve a dozen different problems before the lunch rush.

You don’t exterminate someone that useful, no matter how annoying they are.

What do the Ferengi do with their riches if they have replication technology that can create almost anything they want?

They create ways to spend it.

We know they spend a lot more on basic services (at least on Ferenginar) than the Federation. In “Body Parts,” Quark says his Ferengi doctor must be great because it costs three slips of latinum just to enter the waiting room. In other episodes set on Ferenginar, we see him paying public officials for information literally by the sentence.

We also know they gamble.

Male Ferengi also have to pay for the entire upkeep of female relatives, who are forbidden by Ferengi law from making a profit. While I imagine one could just install a replicator in one’s wife’s/sister’s/mother’s/maiden aunt’s house and call it good, this would probably be seen as a sign that you don’t respect your own family, or worse, that you haven’t acquired enough to afford to pay for their upkeep.

Remember, there are two competing forces at work in Ferengi society. The first is the desire to enter the Divine Treasury after death, which requires you to have acquired and kept considerable wealth.

The second is to be admired by other Ferengi as an outstanding “acquirer” while you are alive. This is why Ferengi like ostentatious wealth displays: It sends the message that you are so incredibly good at making profits that you can afford to spend on the flashiest clothes/ships/moons without a care in the world for your admittance to the Divine Treasury. Your lobes for business are so formidable that there’s always more profit where that came from.

Finally, the Rules of Acquisition put great pressure on the entire society to keep trying to acquire from one another and especially from any aliens they meet. In order for that game to continue, money has to circulate — which means the Ferengi would require an economy where spending itself was an activity independent of the need for basic survival goods.

My guess is that every Ferengi home has the best replicator its owners could afford, if not a better one. But anything they can buy, they do. The point isn’t to survive; it’s to win the transaction game by extracting the most profit (for sellers) or getting the best bargain (for buyers).

Are the Ferengi the richest and most powerful civilization in the Star Trek world, given that they are the most driven by the pursuit of money?

It’s easiest to address the second point first: They are definitely not the most powerful civilization in the Star Trek universe.

They’re not even the most powerful civilization in the Alpha Quadrant.

In a war between Ferenginar and any one of the Romulan Star Empire, the Klingon Empire, Cardassia or the Federation, Ferenginar will lose. We don’t see a lot of Ferengi diplomats in the series, but I’m guessing a diplomat from any of the four political bodies mentioned here would run circles around a Ferengi diplomat as well.

Ferengi are canny, but they’re canny at only one thing: extracting profit. This makes them easy to understand, which makes them easy to outwit.

Second (first): That depends on your definition of “rich.”

The Ferengi are probably the Star Trek universe’s number-one holders of gold-pressed latinum, which can be classified as “wealth” given that it’s a medium of exchange that (apparently) holds value. By that measure, they might be the wealthiest civilization in the quadrant.

But: Having a lot of money isn’t the only way to be wealthy.

Planets are valuable. (The Ferengi know this; Quark’s brother bought a moon.)

Raw materials are valuable. (Good luck building a warp core out of gold-pressed latinum.)

Basic resources like water and food are valuable. (Cardassia poured 60 years of effort into exploiting Bajor’s basic resources after running through its own.)

Labor-hours are valuable. (Ferenginar prevents half its population from working.)

We see the Ferengi bartering for things like deuterium, implying that they don’t have an endless source of the stuff – which is valuable because it’s scarce and essential to warp travel.

Ferenginar is not a particularly large planet, although it does appear to be amply supplied with rain and tube grubs. Ferenginar is also only one planet, whereas Romulus, Q’onos, Cardassia and Earth are all the seats of multi-planet empires.

Boil down all the resources on all those planets into a dollar amount, including the fact that the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians and Humans all allow women to work, and any one of those empires could probably buy Ferenginar five times over.

Is there an in-universe explanation as to why the Ferengi acted so erratically when they first appeared in Season One of TNG?

Not explicitly, but if you pay attention to a certain bit of character development given to Quark in DS9, a plausible explanation presents itself.

In “Ferengi Love Songs,” we learn that one of Quark’s favorite childhood toys was his set of Marauder Mo action figures. We also get a fairly good look at a couple of them.

The action figures are dressed much like the Ferengi in TNG’s “The Last Outpost” (in outfits more practical and less flamboyant than those embraced by Ferengi in later episodes). They also carry energy whips like those in “The Last Outpost.”

It’s plausible to assume that the Ferengi that Riker and his team encountered were Marauders. It would also explain why the Ferengi in Enterprises’s “Acquisition” were more like the ones we see in DS9 and Voyager – they were your run of the mill opportunistic Ferengi scavengers, not Marauders.

What were the best Ferengi episodes in any of the Star Trek series?

My favorites are all from DS9. “Little Green Men” is hilarious. So is “Body Parts,” in a darker way (you can see the exact moment Garak decides that not fulfilling Quark’s request to be killed will be more fun, because it’ll leave Quark in a perpetual state of fear). “Bar Association” is among the best-written one-off episodes in all of Trek.

Voyager’s “False Profits” and Enterprise’s “Acquisition” are entertaining too, but they don’t quite reach the standard DS9 set for the Ferengi.

Why is Quark not in prison after all the illegal stuff he has done?

For the same reason Garak did no time for murdering 2/3 of an away team on Empok Nor, but did six months for punching Worf in the face: Federation justice is plot-dependent.

It’s been a long road, getting from there to this nebula. Buy your favorite nerd a raktajino.


I Want to Believe (In Myself): The X-Files, Star Trek, and (More Than) Autistic Special Interests

There’s a post at Chavisory’s Notebook today that I recommend you read before reading this, because context.  Also so I don’t have to repeat it.  Picture it cut and pasted in this space (except with more citing and less plagiarism).

I was obsessed with The X-Files as a teenager.  Obsessed enough that, unlike any of my prior so-called “special interests,” my family actually knew about this one* and, to a certain extent, supported it.**  Enough that I actually made a couple friends, the first friends my own age I’d had since elementary school, based on our shared interest in the show.

But even to my friends and family, I concealed the depth of my absorption.  I didn’t really understand it myself.  It lasted from a few weeks after the series’ premiere (“Ice,” actually) until just after the first movie- the second-longest-running special interest I’d had until that time.  The first one was Star Trek.

Watching the new episodes has been hard for me.  For one thing, they’re intensely triggering.  It took me three and a half weeks after they began running to convince myself to watch them at all – merely thinking about The X-Files was stirring up all kinds of amorphous emotional crap I thought I had resolved in my teen years but had in fact simply left behind.  Watching the new episodes themselves stirred up more amorphous emotional crap.

I almost didn’t watch “Home Again” at all.  I’m tired, tired of having spent the entire past week in a PTSD fog, tired of trying to figure out how it is that I’ve rewatched all of The Next Generation and Voyager since my teen years without my PTSD making a peep, tired of carrying, always carrying, this trauma.  I can forget about it at times but I cannot put it down.

But of course, the scariest questions are the ones that most need an answer.  And the answer to this one – why Star Trek still excites me to the point that I literally taught a class about the Borg in Voyager last year but why The X-Files is an emotional minefield – is becoming a way in for me to start to unravel the trauma of my teenage years.

I didn’t have the word “trauma” when I started watching The X-Files.  In fact, I didn’t have any words at all for what was happening to me – for what it’s like to go through puberty, without friends, with a mother who insists you pull a perfect Elsa, while autistic but without the word “autistic.”  If I’d had words like “trauma” or “autistic,” I don’t think I could have accepted them.  Not on my own; not without help.  And the help I would have needed to accept them would itself have greatly reduced the trauma.

The words I had were words like weird.  Wrong.  Secretly insane – literally; I believed for a long time that I had what my parents’ 1970s psych textbooks called “childhood schizophrenia”***.  Crazy.  And, yes, spooky.

Both Star Trek and The X-Files stick with me because each of them gave me a vocabulary for who and what I was, at a time in my life when I desperately needed a vocabulary.  They are two very different shows; they generated two very different vocabularies.

Star Trek was (as it has always been) an aspirational vocabulary.  It gave me hope for a world run by and for the benefit of humans in which I, markedly “other,” could be accepted and valued nevertheless – valued for my otherness, even.  This, I think, is why I don’t find rewatching Star Trek triggering.  The Star Trek universe in general, and Deep Space Nine and Voyager in particular, are about places I could belong.  I don’t identify with Barclay but I get Barclay.

The vocabulary The X-Files gave me was more realistic.  The X-Files was, for me, a show about the dangers of being different and the impossibility of being anything else.  It was a show about my reality: about the obliviousness with which most people go through their lives until you scratch the surface of that life, and about the incredible risks that boil out when you do.

As a Facebook friend of mine recently pointed out, autism is not an invisible disability.  It shows in our movement, our behavior, our use of language in various ways.  Difference frightens the human brain, especially when it is close enough to be “just like us” but…not quite.  Freud’s word for it was “unheimlich,” or uncanny.  Star Trek made aliens just like us; The X-Files made them….not quite.

To be uncanny is dangerous.  And we know it.  This is why parents of autistic kids spend tens of thousands on therapies whose only goal is to make the kid appear less uncanny.  Those parents are terrified.  That terror is a survival mechanism.  It arises pre-conscious thought, and so its presence, itself, is not cause for judgment.  It’s what people do once that terror becomes conscious that is a cause for judgment.

Star Trek presumed that humans would “grow out” of that pre-conscious terror of the uncanny, essentially rendering it canny.  The X-Files disagrees.  It does not have a particularly optimistic view of how people will react when faced with the uncanny – or, indeed, how they will react when faced with the idea of the uncanny.  Sure, there are moments, like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or Season 10’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” that can be remarkably accepting.  But this is largely a show about danger.

It’s also a show about the importance of being right – even when you are wrong.

The X-Files was my anti-ABA.  It taught me that one could get away with being weird or crazy or spooky, as long as one was, at least, not wrong for being so.  It taught me that “weird and crazy and spooky” and “wrong” are not synonyms – that there is a way to be right even while being uncanny.  It taught me that pursuing that sense of being right, even when it made me uncanny as hell, was good.  And it taught me that it was okay to believe that I was maybe not wrong even when the whole world was telling me I was.

That was my fascination with The X-Files, and with Mulder in particular.  I could sound completely crazy but maybe I was not wrong.  

It took over twenty years and four new episodes for that message to sink in.  Like Mulder, I wanted to believe.  But it was not the same thing as believing.

And maybe there would be someone – someone who wasn’t uncanny, who spoke the language that in my wrongness I didn’t speak, someone ordinarily human – who would back me up on this.

*(and still gives me shit about it, as if it were nothing but a garden-variety crush which of course had to have been on David Duchovny and could not possibly have been on Gillian Anderson – but I digress)

**By which I mean “they let me commandeer the VCR to tape episodes and rewatch them until the tapes wore out, and also bought me the show guides, several of the novels, and both “Songs in the Key of X” and the Mark Snow soundtrack,” and also “they did not actively try to stop me being interested.”  They would have said “Oh, The X-Files is her favorite TV show,” as if “favorite” could begin to adequately encompass what that show did for me.

***Turns out I was right: “childhood schizophrenia” was the diagnosis given to a great many people in the mid-twentieth century who actually had – you guessed it – autism.