Deep Space Nine: A World-building Analysis (part 2 of 2)

The overlap between DS9 and TNG that was mentioned in part 1 of this post allowed for the further development of many races—the Cardassians and Bajorans mentioned earlier are joined by plotlines that showcase Klingon, Romulan, and Trill culture in new ways. As interesting as all of these developments are, the treatment of the Ferengi and the Breen are especially noteworthy from a world-building perspective.

The Ferengi redemption
The Ferengi were supposed to be a recurring adversary on TNG, analogous to the Klingons in TOS. What the show’s creators failed to take into account was how absolutely ridiculous the Ferengi were as villains. Where the Klingons had been violent, short-tempered warriors, the Ferengi are cowardly, profit-driven opportunists. They were annoying more than scary and their introduction was generally regarded as a flop; the show soon replaced them with the Romulans and then the Borg, both of whom served as far better antagonists.

The reason the Ferengi flopped was not because they were poorly developed. On the contrary, they’re an incredible species—the embodiment of pure capitalism in all its ugly glory, a delightfully fresh foil to the non-monetary economy of the Federation. The problem was that their nature didn’t make them exciting enemies. War is expensive; the Ferengi would rather be the profiteers behind the war than the ones fighting.

The Ferengi were relegated to the role of occasional pest by the end of TNG, but got their on-screen due in DS9. The Ferengi in TNG were military commanders; in DS9 we’re given Ferengi civilians. The most prominent, Quark, owns the station’s bar; with him are his brother Rom, nephew Nog, and various bartenders and staffers for his establishment. This shift puts the Ferengi in a role that’s natural to their species.They are predominantly used for atmosphere and comic relief, best exemplified in Quark’s ongoing battle of wits with security chief Odo. Unlike the Ferengi portrayed in TNG, Quark isn’t interested in conflict on conquest. He has no qualms about breaking laws or vows to gain a profit and exploits his employees (even his own brother) but is, at worst, harmless.

To me, the Ferengi represent 20th century humans more than the humans in Starfleet. Their capitalist ideals and treatment of women make them seem backwards and uncouth to the enlightened minds of Starfleet. The more we get to know them, though, the more likeable they become—in part because of their ability to change. It’s a hopeful take on the worst aspects of capitalism. Granted, the Ferengi mostly change in the interest of profit. They’re convinced to expand the rights of women only because it would increase their potential customer base and earnings (when we meet them, Ferengi women are forbidden from earning profit or even wearing clothes). But they can change, and learn, and by the end even have their own representative in Starfleet through Nog.

The Ferengi homeworld is one of the many planets introduced in DS9, and it’s visited in two episodes: “Family Business” (ep 3.23) and “Ferengi Love Songs” (ep. 5.20). Ferenginar is shown to be perpetually damp and covered in lush vegetation (a landscape that supports their diet of live grubs and worms). The one personal dwelling we see is a single-story home with low, curved ceilings and arched doorways. Commerce colors every aspect of their culture. Even the custom of greeting visitors to the home involves the visitor paying an entrance fee and signing a waiver.

Since we talked about religious earlier, the Ferengi have one, too. They believe the universe is bound together by the Great Material Continuum which connects buyers and sellers across reality. Their deity is known as the Blessed Exchequer. If the Ferengi dies having earned a profit, he’s given the opportunity to bribe his way into the Divine Treasury; if he dies with his accounts in the red, however, he goes to the Vault of Eternal Destitution. Ferengi would often auction off their own remains after death so they could gain a bit more money to use after their death.

Ferengi government is—as you might expect—capitalist to a fault. The Grand Nagus is both the political and business leader of the Ferengi Alliance. The Ferengi Commerce Authority, governed by the Board of Liquidators, is a kind of financial police force, and powerful in planetary politics. The Ferengi have no standing army, though they do have military ships and at least some kind of military rank (the DaiMon of TNG). The Ferengi are almost always politically neutral so as not to burn bridges with potential customers.Their conflicts with the Federation throughout TNG were not officially sanctioned military actions, letting the Ferengi as a culture avoid culpability for the actions (it can be assumed they’ve used this ploy in the past to avoid trouble, as well).

All of these details are very much in keeping with the DS9-established identity of the Ferengi—and they all work much better for a species that’s more tongue in cheek than one the viewers are supposed to take seriously. It’s an important lesson to world-builders about making sure the races you create make sense in the role you’ve given them.

 

The Breen: running gag turned villain
The Breen were mentioned sporadically throughout TNG but the references were considered “sort of a running joke” according to Ira Steven Behr—at least, until the shows designers needed a new species to add into the mix when the Dominion War storyline started getting underway. Suddenly, the Breen became a useful piece of the universe.

Their previous mentions had built an air of mystery that made the Breen a menacing off-screen threat. The costuming used for the Breen enhances this mystery by keeping even the form of their faces completely hidden—there’s a hint of a snout, perhaps, and the suits are supposed to be refrigerated, hinting at a very cold climate, but none of that is ever verified. Of course, there was a practical aspect to this design, as well. The Dominion War arc featured lots of Klingons, Cardassians, and Jem’Hadar—races with very time-intensive makeup demands. Being able to throw a mask on the Breen and call it a day made things easier.Thanks to the race’s established secretiveness, the decision was easy to justify in-world.

We don’t get many details about the Breen in the course of the show, but the hints we do get are interesting enough. The Breen’s knowledge of cold-storage, energy dampening, and disruptors makes them formidable adversaries; their decision to join forces with the Dominion twists the proverbial screw on the Federation’s floundering resistance, and they make a bold arrival into the fray by attacking Star Fleet headquarters on Earth. Unlike most humanoids, they lack a liquid circulatory system, and their brain is four-lobed like the Ferengi, making them unreadable by Betazoids and other empaths. Basically, rather than come up with all the details of the Breen, the show’s creators made them a people that intentionally obscured their details, saving the writers a lot of work without making the Breen feel flat.

My big takeaway from the Breen: every little piece of a world that you design has the potential to be useful to you in ways you didn’t imagine at first. When you get stuck trying to come up with a new character, plot point, or device, look back over the world you’ve created—the answer could be hiding in an off-hand comment or setting description you established earlier in the process.

 

Language
The Universal Translator is Star Trek’s out for dealing with intergalactic communication. It’s so assumed as part of the world at this point that it’s rarely even mentioned—except in those rare cases where it won’t function.

This is not to say the languages of alien cultures aren’t established. Some of the most complex and broadly-known constructed languages have come out of the Star Trek universe; Klingon is arguably the most prominent, but DS9 also features ancient Bajoran script along with Cardassian, Romulan, and a host of other languages.

Generally speaking, language in DS9 is visual, on the display readouts of screens; when it’s spoken, it’s typically in the context of a ceremony or ritual (as to why the Universal Translator doesn’t get involved for those isolated words, your guess is as good as mine).

There are a few notable exceptions to this rule. In “Sanctuary” (ep. 2.10) DS9 is visited by the Skrreea, a Gamma quadrant race that traveled through the wormhole in search of a new homeworld. The syntax and grammar of their language initially confounds the Universal Translator when they come aboard (they do eventually establish it and the conversation proceeds in English). In this application, the conversational use of an alien language serves to show just how different they are from what the Federation’s accustomed to.

In “Little Green Men” (ep 4.08) a ship malfunction accidentally sends Quark, Rom, and Nog back in time (because sciencey things, just go with it) making their ship the one that crashed at Roswell in 1947. Not only are the three Ferengi shown speaking their native tongue from the human’s perspective, there indecipherable “English” the Ferengi hear the humans speaking is played, too. The alien language is used here for comic relief (as are most things in the Ferengi-heavy episodes). Rom is eventually able to fix the Universal Translators, and the Ferengi is dropped.

One last intriguing non-ritualistic use of an alien language in DS9 is in the case of the Breen. Their language is never translated for the viewer, instead coming out as their native tongue (a somewhat garbled electronic-ish sound). The content of the Breen speech is inferred by the reactions of other characters to them. I have two theories as to why this choice was made, and they’re related to the points brought up about the Breen above:

1) It enhances their mystery that you can’t understand what they’re saying
2) The “easy on” helmets used in the Breen costumes were incredibly restrictive and would have likely warped any lines the actors spoke beyond comprehension, necessitating some kind of workaround,

…as far as the in-world explanation for the Breen’s incomprehensibility, that’s a bit more baffling. The Breen dialogue comes in places where the Cardassians are interacting with the Vorta and Jem’Hadar—in other words, it’s very likely some kind of translator is in use. It could possibly be a variation on what happened with the Skrreea, where the language is so foreign the translator can’t handle it, but that would be extra impressive considering the system is already able to handle both Alpha and Gamma quadrant speech.

Another option is that the Breen requested their language not be included in any translation systems, which would be a pretty significant commentary on their race’s ideology if true. That would be in keeping with the construction of the Breen as secretive and untrustworthy, if they’d prefer not to be understood even by their military allies.

The main point that’s clear to me (thinking about the use of alien languages in Star Trek more generally) is that the languages are never used without a purpose. This is a universe that has spawned at least one fully-functional language. They could translate entire episodes into Klingon—and yet they don’t. Saving the alien languages for specific moments in the plot spares the need for excessive subtitles that take the viewer out of the action. The atmospheric benefit of using an alien language is not always worth the logistical struggle of making it work—an important lesson for world-builders to keep in mind, especially those of us that have a tendency to get lost in the details.

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