First, an announcement: Season 2 of Lower Decks now has a teaser trailer and a release date of August 12!
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
“The Nagus” represents a return to the overall quality baseline of season one after the fairly dire previous two episodes. More importantly, however, the episode introduces one of the most entertaining recurring characters in the series: Grand Nagus Zek. His strange entanglement with Quark will last over the series’ entire run and will affect the development of the Ferengi as a people. Beyond the character’s far-reaching significance, Wallace Shawn’s Zek is simply hilarious, taking all the best of his Vizzini and giving Shawn room to develop the character. Even if Zek weren’t the episode’s only strength, it would be worth a rewatch, but the dynamic between Jake Sisko and Nog and the resulting tensions with their parents adds a serious emotional counterbalance to Zek’s zany antics. DS9 is best when it allows its characters to be the story, and “The Nagus” is a solid example of why that’s true.
The Nagus, Zek, arrives on the station, accompanied by his son, Krax and his servant, Maihar’du. They proceed directly to Quark’s. In the quarters shared by Commander Benjamin Sisko and his son, Jake, Sisko invites his son to participate in the Gratitude Festival with him on Bajor. Initially excited, Jake declines when he learns that this father intends to leave the next day because he has plans with Nog.
In Quark’s, Krax informs Quark that the Nagus has arrived and that he wishes the use of the Holosuite, heavily implying that Zek wants the suite for its intended purpose. Quark offers up his five favorite programs for Zek to try, and Zek heads into the Holosuite, leaving Quark and Krax to wait. The scene shifts to Keiko O’Brien’s school, where Miles O’Brien has stepped in as substitute teacher on top of his other responsibilities. He asks Nog to turn in his essay on ethics, but Nog explains that he cannot because Vulcans stole his homework. Skeptical, O’Brien pushes him, but Nog persuades Jake to agree with him. O’Brien accepts Jake at his word despite clearly understanding that the boy is lying. Later, when Sisko asks how Jake is doing in school, O’Brien does not tell him about the lie but advises Sisko that Nog is a bad influence on Jake.
Quark worries that the Nagus wants to purchase the bar at a deeply discounted rate, but over supper that night, Zek informs him that he wants to use Quark’s bar with Quark as host for a Ferengi conference he plans to hold the following morning. He also expresses dismay that Nog attends a Federation school, prompting Rom to forbid Nog from attending. The next day, Quark closes the bar and hosts the conference, even going so far as to shoo Morn away. Zek informs the assemblage that he intends to expand Ferengi business interests into the Gamma Quadrant, and the gathered Ferengi, including Gral and Nava, cheer. He then explains that he intends to step down as Nagus and appoints Quark as his successor, disappointing all of the conference attendees and most especially Krax.
Sisko and Jake discuss Nog’s situation over oatmeal, and Jake worries that Nog plans to end their friendship because the divide between Human and Ferengi values is too wide. Sisko tells him that Nog may be right, and he invites Jake to play baseball as a consolation. Jake tells Sisko that he has other plans for the evening.
Quark struts along the Promenade in his Nagus regalia. Gral approaches him and offers his support and protection, implying that if Quark does not accept, his life will be in danger. After he leaves, Quark flees to Rom’s quarters to ask Zek for his guidance. Zek offers some sound advice before dying, leaving Quark stunned. Quark hosts the funeral service in the bar, and Krax sells containers of his father’s remains to various Ferengi. Prompted by the threat to his life, Quark asks Rom to be his bodyguard, but Rom would prefer Quark allow him to run the bar. Quark nearly chokes, laughing so hard. Odo crashes the funeral to question Quark about his new role as Nagus.
Meanwhile, Jake and Nog sit above the main Promenade and discuss the future of their friendship. They both agree that their fathers would prefer they terminate their friendship. Neither Jake nor Nog wants this outcome, so they agree to remain friends and to deal with their respective parents as necessary.
Back at Quark’s, Quark narrowly avoids an assassination attempt using a Ferengi locator bomb, and Odo steps in to investigate. Quark refuses to cooperate, frustrating Odo who heads off to do some investigating on his own. Quark retires to his quarters where he negotiates with Nava regarding Nava’s desire to bring the synthehol trade to the Gamma Quadrant. They conclude their business, and Quark returns to his bar to count receipts. Remaining behind, both Rom and Krax discuss additional plans to assassinate Quark.
An off-duty Sisko sits in his quarters at an empty supper table, throwing a baseball into a glove. Jadzia Dax enters to ask him to a round of Jokarian chess, and they discuss Sisko’s frustration with Jake. Dax recommends that Sisko go search for his son and make him come to supper. Sisko leaves to do just that and finds Jake sitting in a cargo bay with Nog, teaching Nog to read. Smiling, Sisko leaves them to it.
In Quark’s quarters, Rom helps his brother into his Nagus robes because ostensibly, Quark will be leaving for trade negotiations for miszinite ore with the Stakorians, a Gamma Quadrant species. They meet up with Krax, and both Krax and Rom shower Quark with praise. Having followed Maihar’du, Odo finds the Hupyrian near an airlock just in time to watch him run elsewhere. Odo slithers under the door and follows him. Quark, Krax, and Rom also arrive at an airlock, and Krax allows Quark to precede him into the airlock. Quark notices that there is no ship there just as Krax and Rom close the airlock door. Terrified, Quark pleads for his life, but neither Ferengi is moved. Rom moves to open the airlock just as Zek appears with Mahair’du and Odo and commands him to stop.
Zek reveals that the entire episode was a test to see whether Krax would be a fit successor. He goes on to say that Krax failed because he chose to use force rather than quietly using Quark’s bar to gather intelligence on the Gamma Quadrant. Quark returns the staff, and Zek leaves. Jake and Nog grab snacks at the Replimat and discuss meeting up later for Nog’s reading lessons. Sisko calls to his son and embraces him. Jake is a touch confused, but Sisko only calls him a good boy and sends him off to spend time with Nog.
Much as TNG opted to develop the Klingons into more than a one-note species, DS9 and Ira Steven Behr pick the Ferengi. As such, “The Nagus” marks the first of the “Ferengi Episodes,” which will occur at various points during each season, and despite being an episode largely intended to be comic relief, “The Nagus” gives us some valuable insights into the Ferengi as a people. When introduced in TNG, the Ferengi were bestial, clad in furs and armed with whips. TNG also established their reputation for being ruthless and amoral when it comes to business as far back as Encounter at Farpoint, and that reputation has become so pervasive that Zek looks to the Gamma Quadrant as a way to escape the preconceived notions possessed by the rest of the Alpha Quadrant. It even becomes a gag in Lower Decks. To be fair, I suspect Zek and the rest of his clutch of Ferengi worthies would agree with this assessment, but “The Nagus” also hints at a much more complex culture underpinning this drive to acquire profit.
“The Nagus” gives us the first mention of the Rules of Acquisition, and though they’re played for laughs, the existence of the Rules implies something very important about Ferengi culture. Specifically, the Rules indicate that the Ferengi live within a set of guidelines that shape their approach to the universe. Yes, that approach differs widely from that espoused by the Federation, but in a sense, the Rules of Acquisition are no different, culturally speaking, than the Tenets of Surak. Quark and Zek debate them back and forth and arrive at an interpretation acceptable to both of them, and while the substance of the conversation differs markedly from what would occur on Vulcan, the act of holding the conversation itself does not. This means that the Ferengi live within a framework that governs their cultural moral compass.
We also see some interesting dynamics of Ferengi culture. I particularly like the idea of Zek’s funeral because the sale of his remains demonstrates just how key the concept of profit is to their culture. For a Ferengi, there is no greater tribute than having become so revered that other Ferengi pay for samples of one’s remains as collector’s items. Plus, it allows your family members to make one last profit off of the decedent. We also get a look into Ferengi homelife when Quark treats Zek to a meal. The Ferengi adults eat from an enormous, multi-tiered lazy Susan, indicating a communal approach to food-sharing than we see in Sisko’s household. Everything on the lazy Susan is enjoyed jointly, though as the elder and highest ranking Ferengi present, Zek gets first choice. Nog’s position on the floor, waiting patiently to serve Zek simply reinforces the importance of age and standing.
That much of this episode involves families–both Ferengi and Human–sharing meals together is not an accident. “The Nagus” subtly implies that the Ferengi are more similar to the Federation families than either group might first realize. The key issue being that both groups cannot recognize their similarities due to yet another similarity, they both hold biases against the other group. “The Nagus” doesn’t quite touch on how that affects the Ferengi, but the episode does a nice job of subverting Federation smugness. Sisko calmly assumes Humans and Ferengi have values that are too radically different for them to develop a real relationship, and it’s pretty clear that the rest of the station considers Quark lacking because he is a Ferengi. However, Jake legitimately calls his father out for that prejudice, throwing Sisko’s own Federation dogma back into his father’s face. Jake is entirely correct here, and because he doesn’t have the same built-up bias, he’s able to develop a relationship with Nog. Jake meets Nog where he is rather than expecting Nog to conform to Federation values and in doing so teaches his father something about diplomacy and relationships.
I do find Sisko’s casual acceptance of Nog’s illiteracy a bit jarring. Considering the Federation emphasis on education and science, Sisko’s reaction seems strange. I suppose that detail could be there to reinforce Sisko’s sense of moral superiority, but as a detail, Nog’s inability to read still strikes a sour note. Quark and Rom can clearly read. Considering Quark’s ability to read a replicator menu, Quark can read either in Federation Standard or Cardassian, maybe even both. While I can accept that Rom may not be the best father, not teaching Nog to read restricts his ability to be useful in a business setting, which runs antithetical to Ferengi culture. Nog might not be able to read Federation Standard, which implies that Nog has been using a computer to translate his homework from the Ferengi in which he drafts it. That, in turn, is interesting because I can’t imagine that the concept of “ethics” as the Federation uses it exists in Ferengi culture or language. However, that’s a rabbit hole for another time.
Rom’s easy betrayal of his brother also strikes an odd note in a comedy episode. That’s a little dark, even though Quark’s acceptance of same is clearly supposed to be funny later. Still, it’s weird, but in no way does it detract completely from the quality of the episode.
A solid triple
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- Miles O’Brien finally reappears after his trip to Earth! It’s been awhile! He makes for a solid substitute teacher, though him doing so really is just an opening to show how the friendship between Nog and Jake develops.
- Commander Sisko comments that Molly O’Brien is three, which may or may not be true, depending on when this episode takes place. Notably, “The Nagus” doesn’t have a stardate, but as Molly was born in TNG’s “The Disaster,” which took place a year and a half prior to this episode, there’s either a time gap or a mistake on Sisko’s part.
- Maihar’Du is played by a man who goes by “Tiny Ron.” Ronald Taylor changed his name for SAG as another actor had already registered “Ronald Taylor,” and he may be the second basketball player to land a guest role on Star Trek. He follows James Worthy who played Koral in “Gambit, Part II.” Unlike Worthy, Ron Taylor did not play in the NBA but rather the American Basketball League. He stood at a legitimate 7 ft (2.13 meters) tall.
- The Ronald Taylor who beat Tiny Ron to the punch in registering the name with SAG would also appear on DS9 as a Klingon chef.
- Quark introduces the Ferengi pleading gesture in this episode, and it’s another great way to deepen the Ferengi culture.
- Zek’s frustration with his son stems from Krax’s reliance on outright violence, and that’s an important point. Zek wants his son to acquire power carefully and subtly, which in turn implies that Zek values stability over chaos. Chaos is bad for cash-flow, except in certain cases. That implies that the Ferengi likely do not wage war as a culture, which is an interesting sidenote. Zek’s use of the word “Klingon” to condemn his son is illustrative of this point.
- Going back to Nog’s illiteracy, it may also be that Nog is accustomed to dictating his work. If so, he’s clearly got an amazing memory. I have watched my father draft hundred page agreements with a Dictaphone, keeping the entire text in his head and making alterations on the fly verbally, so it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I still think it’s an odd detail, though.
- The Ferengi use chopsticks! There’s a whole analysis on the Ferengi that suggests their origin lies in Jewish stereotypes. I think there maybe something else at work, but again, that’s an entirely different essay.
- The scene between Quark and Nava is a direct reference to the Godfather, down to having Quark pet…whatever that is. I’ve included links so that you can compare the two scenes.
- Also, why didn’t Quark negotiate harder with Nava for a bigger cut? That seems vastly out of character! Did becoming Nagus overwhelm his lobes?