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  • Writer's pictureAaron Fonseca

Armin Shimerman Used DS9's Quark to Fix His TNG Ferengi Mistake

This week's Your Nerd Side Show:

There are many things fans love about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a series that had to fight for its reputation like Captain Sisko against the Dominion. Along with new and legacy Starfleet characters, the space station was filled with familiar and fresh alien species. However, the station's Ferengi bartender is perhaps the series' most important one. Quark wouldn't exist as he does had actor Armin Shimerman not made a huge mistake when he played the first Ferengi character on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Any new iteration of the franchise is controversial amongst the fans, and DS9 was no different. One of the things they lamented in fanzine letters columns and early internet forums was the return of the hated alien species from TNG. The large-eared uber-capitalists were generally loathed by fans and critics at first. This proved to be a problem because series creator Gene Roddenberry wanted them to become the next big threat to the Federation. Instead, they became, at best, comic relief antagonists and, at worst, a terribly hacky sci-fi concept that would've felt out of place on The Original Series. Rightly or wrongly, Shimerman takes the blame for fumbling the Ferengi ball right out of the gate. Whether this is true or simple magnanimity, fans should be thankful. Quark represented a chance to redefine who these aliens were, and Shimerman played him with enough depth and nuance that he became one of Star Trek's most beloved characters.

Why The Ferengi Arrived In The Star Trek Universe

The seeds of what the Ferengi would become came from Gene Roddenberry, who tasked producer Herbert J. Wright to develop them more fully. They were to be the "new" Klingons, and some Star Trek fans believe they represent a problematic cultural stereotype. In fairness, the Klingons were conceived as an allegory to the US conflict with communism in Asia, and the early Klingon design featured problematic features. While TNG had issues with this, particularly in the first season, who the Ferengi are supposed to represent was obvious at the time.

Wright intended the Ferengi to be a harsh, brutal critique of a greedy and violent culture in the United States in the 1980s. They were ruled by greed and violence, with no respect for others. But characters are also shaped by performance. On The Shuttlepod Show Armin Shimerman said he delivered "nothing like what I was told they wanted, and I'm the one that screwed up." He knew the Ferengi were supposed to be this new, horrifying threat. "I thought I played it seriously," he said, "I failed miserably." TNG Season 1's "Last Outpost" is enjoyed, if at all, as a farce.

Shimerman is being too harsh with himself. Blame for the Ferengi failure to launch is shared amongst the writers, the director and his fellow performers. Successive Ferengi stories were both rare and deliberately played for laughs. Deep Space Nine afforded Shimerman a second chance. "In all of Quark," he said, "my whole agenda for seven years, was to eradicate" the lingering effects of that first performance. While the Ferengi stayed funny, DS9 gave them powerful stories and moved them closer to Wright's original allegory.

How Armin Shimerman Rehabilitated The Ferengi People Through Quark

Despite what Armin Shimerman thinks of his performance, it was enough that producer Rick Berman thought of him five years later for the role of Quark. "I think what Rick said to me was they remembered how strong a Ferengi I was…." Still, they wanted Quark to be a character who could "play chess with Captain Sisko" or, as he did early in the run, out-logic a Vulcan. This was more in line with what Shinnerman wanted to do with his original Ferengi character. In Star Trek: TNG Season 1's special features, he says he thought of them as "the Richard the thirds" of the franchise.

Much of the credit goes to Deep Space Nine's writers for shaping the Ferengi and their culture. Yet, Shimerman dedicated himself to making sure what happened on TNG never happened again. A renowned Shakespearean actor, Shimerman applied a disciplined approach to his work on DS9. He would host Sunday rehearsals at his home the week before shooting a Ferengi episode, according to What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The gatherings were specifically for the other Ferengi actors: Max Grodénchik who played Quark's brother, Rom, Jeffery Combs who played the antagonistic Brunt, Wallace Shawn of The Princess Bride fame who played Grand Nagus Zek, and Chase Masterson who played Leeta, a Bajoran and Rom's wife.

These Ferengi-heavy episodes were primarily comedic romps, but they also hid emotional stories about family, duty, and heroism. The late Aron Eisenberg, another frequent guest at Shimerman's rehearsals, played Nog, the first Ferengi in Starfleet. In Season 7, Nog has a powerful arc dealing with the harsh realities of war and how difficult it was to go "home" after it. Rom, Nog, and even Quark himself can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best Deep Space Nine heroes.

Quark And His Fellow Ferengi Made The DS9 Aliens Fun Again

While his appraisal of his first performance may be skewed by self-criticism, Armin Shimerman is not exaggerating when he credits it for defining the species. In his conversation with The Shuttlepod Show, he revealed that Grodénchik, who also played a Ferengi on TNG, told him producers gave all the actors "The Last Outpost" to learn how to act like one of them. Both Grodénchik and Shimerman auditioned for Quark, and the latter actor likely won the role because he approached the character "dramatically." Grodénchik played it for comedy, which is likely how he won the role of Rom.

Still, even Quark's airheaded brother developed into a real, serious character. The writers developed him into a brilliant engineer, a caring father, a spy for the Federation, and eventually the ruler of the Ferengi people. Similarly, Nog was developed as more than just Jake Sisko's weird alien friend into a Starfleet hero. Because all Ferengi orbited Quark, Shimerman remained the anchor and model for the species, he was just able to evolve it beyond the growling caricature from TNG. In fact, the series' main antagonists, the Dominion, were introduced as an offhand mention in a Ferengi romp.

They were still excellent comic relief characters, specifically Wallace Shawn's Grand Nagus Zek. Even through layers of wrinkled prosthetic makeup, it's clear the veteran actor is having the time of his life in the role. Jeffrey Combs, who also recurred on Deep Space Nine as Weyoun, subsists on a diet of scenery alone when playing Brunt. Both Andrea Martin and Cecil Adams played "Moogie," the mother of Quark and Rom in a storyline meant to advance Ferengi culture past its horrifically sexist ways. Unlike his first attempt at defining Ferengi, Shimerman succeeded in everything he wanted to do.

The Legacy Of The Ferengi In Star Trek Is Down To Quark

Since Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi have been used sparingly in Star Trek. There was a one-off episode on Enterprise, trapped by continuity that said Starfleet and the Ferengi didn't officially meet until the 24th Century. Discovery included a background Ferengi Starfleet officer, and Star Trek: Picard introduced (and promptly killed) a vile Ferengi crime lord. But, thanks to Lower Decks, the Ferengi are officially members of the United Federation of Planets. (Which is still more than can be said about Deep Space Nine's Bajorans.)

Despite all the incredible work done on DS9 to rehabilitate the Ferengi, they will never become the antagonist Roddenberry wanted them to be nor should they. Reducing them to Federation antagonists would work towards undoing the evolution of the aliens as characters done on Deep Space Nine. If the Ferengi began as an allegory to the worst parts of 1980s American culture, in true Star Trek tradition they've grown as an individual group and a member of the galactic community. Though how their love of gold-pressed latinum fits into the Federation's money-free society is a question best left to fanfiction or the Star Trekextended universe.

Wherever the Ferengi go next in the future of Star Trek, Armin Shimerman can take solace in the new foundation Quark and his fellows laid in Deep Space Nine. Those initial appearances were regrettable, but from that mistake came a character and stories that wouldn't have otherwise. Thanks to Shimerman's dedication to the craft and the duty of care he felt to the character, the Ferengi can take their rightful place among iconic Star Trek alien species.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is streaming in its entirety on Paramount+.

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