One of the things I have, in the past, criticized Star Trek for is how simplistic the show opts to depict alien cultures. I am not simply referring to the way they would slap noses or ears or forehead ridges on actors and call it a day (if that much), but instead how little the show often goes into how different these beings are from the humans of the setting. Compare that to other sci-fi shows I really like, namely Babylon 5 and Farscape, and you see a real difference between Trek aliens and what other shows do.
But that isn’t to say Star Trek didn’t go into these other races. They did if they had a prominent enough character on a given show to represent that race and explore its culture, and for the Ferengi, well, Deep Space Nine took some of the worst villains the franchise had created and actually made something of them, as demonstrated by episodes like “Rules of Acquisition”.
The first time we met the Ferengi over in Next Generation, they were described as being akin to early 19th century New England capitalists fond of “dickering,” and as such, were shown to be hyper-interested in profit and little else. They were viscous, dishonest, mean, and a whole lot of other horrible adjectives that essentially made them look like a bunch of nasty weasels, an impression not helped by the fact the Ferengi are, as a rule, rather short compared to other races, and with mouths full of sporadic if pointy teeth. It’s not that surprising they were quickly replaced as reoccurring villains by more traditional Trek adversaries like the Romulans.
Then along comes Deep Space Nine and we have actual Ferengi in the cast. Quark, as we’ve seen, has been rather profit-minded, but he does have a line. He isn’t much inclined towards violence, and he doesn’t really want to see anyone dead. He just wants profit and lots of it. He knows the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition inside and out, and he keeps getting the attention of Grand Negas Zek for one reason or another.
But there was one other Ferengi point that came up in Next Generation that could be explored further in Deep Space Nine, and that was the treatment of female Ferengi. From the beginning, we saw only male Ferengi, and the reason was simple enough: females were considered inferior by the males, and we saw again and again in their early appearances how shocked and outraged male Ferengi were that female Starfleet personnel were not only allowed to hold positions of power, they were also allowed to wear clothes, often interspersed with cuts of various female Enterprise female characters looking uncomfortable.
Now, I’ve seen enough TV to know that when the cold open for this episode started, showing Dax playing a Ferengi game and winning with a mob that included Quark, Rom, and a new waiter named Pel that the female thing would come up because the Ferengi reminded us about all that during the course of the conversation. And Pel, well, Pel’s voice is kinda scratchy and sounds off, and Pel is a bit short even by Ferengi standards and oh wow I didn’t see that coming Pel is female.
Apparently, females have smaller ears. Given how many times I’ve seen Quark manipulated by women rubbing his ears, that may be a bit of a weakness. But Pel is a female, masquerading as a male because she also wants to earn profit. She knows the Rules as well as Quark does. And when Zek shows up to send Quark to cut a deal with some Gamma Quadrant aliens, Quark takes the ambitious, clever Pel as his assistant, not knowing Pel is female.
Rom, jealous, finds false ears in her quarters.
Dax, perceptive, notices it herself by accident (even she’s never seen a female Ferengi before) when she realizes Pel is in love with Quark. Not that male aliens can’t love each other, but this was 1993 and we were probably lucky to know gay people even existed on TV back then.
Meanwhile, Sisko is driving a hard bargain with Zek to get Bajor some supplies, and Zek for his part is trying to woo Kira in a subplot made of “gross”. Kira can’t just tell the guy off like she’d like to, especially when he gets handsy and oh God has this episode aged weirdly.
I mean, I know the Ferengi are supposed to be a bit…behind other races when it comes to gender, but this one really doesn’t hold up well the more I think about it.
Pel’s secret does come out, and this is the Ferengi, so there’s a lot of running around and a general decision by Quark and Zek to keep it quiet because otherwise it’s too embarrassing for all of them. Pel was never going to stick around, but there is a sign that Ferengi culture is changing, and the men may not like where it’s going from here.
Then again, Quark and Pel’s negotiations for tulaberry wine did give them some more information: the real power in the Gamma Quadrant may be some group called the Dominion…