“The House of Quark”
(Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 3, Episode 3)
Despite being known for its alien characters and races, Star Trek is generally very human-centric. The casts of characters in all of its shows are mostly human, and many of its stories are centered around the human experience – reflecting on it, as well as imparting that wisdom to other aliens (or artificial beings). Deep Space Nine happily bucked all of these trends – the cast featured the most diverse, non-human characters of any Trek series, many stories devoted a lot of attention to alien perspectives, and it broadened and explored the cultures of alien societies both new and old. Compared to The Next Generation, we had very, very few storylines where the human experience was prioritized over a non-human’s. Star Trek bills itself as exploring the frontier, but in the very first episode Kira is deeply offended (and rightfully so) when Bashir refers to Bajor that way. To use a tired cliche, this is not your (human) dad’s Star Trek.
What’s charming and refreshing about “The House of Quark” is that humans are sidelined completely from the story, leaving the Ferengi and Klingon characters (and ultimately, their peoples’ respective and fundamentally incompatible cultures) to deal with each other on their own terms. There aren’t any humans dropping in to settle the conflict or smarmily impart some obvious Peter Brady-esque wisdom to get these kooky aliens to come to their senses. By leaving humans out, the episode lends both alien cultures a heightened respect that grounds a very solid and entertaining comedy hour.
When I was re-watching this one, I realized that it marks the point at which Deep Space Nine seems to truly, officially come into its own in terms of style and tone. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been many great, competent episodes up until now – many that are objectively better and weightier stories. But this one really solidifies the irreverent charm and humor unique to DS9, as well as its deft ability to juggle long-running plot lines in the foreground and background. It’s still Star Trek, but this episode has such a DSNiney feel that’s totally its own. And it’s great.
What makes the main story work is that it treats both Klingon and Ferengi cultures with approximately equal amounts of respect. Neither of the peoples end up being the obvious butt of the joke; it’s well-crafted situational comedy that uses the foibles of both the proud warriors and cowardly profiteers to maximum effect. If anything, the noble Klingons end up looking more ridiculous, with Quark being put in the position of level-headed straight man, something he almost never gets to be.
Centering the story on a culture clash between the Ferengi and Klingons is inspired and results in some genuinely hilarious moments, and is again, so very Deep Space Nine. I’ve talked about my appreciation for how well the show played with established Trek elements with an almost childlike glee, and looping in Gowron and the Klingon High Council is fun stuff.
Backing up, we get some immediate references to the ever-present Dominion threat at the episode’s start. After the intense three preceding episodes that focus on the new Big Bads, it’s smart to do a light-hearted comedic episode, but subtly acknowledging that the threat is still around and is having real effects on station life that factor into both plotlines. People aren’t very eager to visit Deep Space Nine now, and many are leaving. This leaves Quark with fewer customers and Keiko with practically no students left. We’ll see the danger of the Dominion jump to the forefront and recede into the background as needed by the writers throughout the rest of the series. It’s a nice fire that propels a lot the stories on the show, whether it’s blazing hot in the front or just simmering in the back.
On a slow night in his bar, Quark runs afoul of a drunken Klingon who’s had one too many blood wine spritzers. The two get into a scuffle, and comedy ensues, by which I mean the Klingon accidentally falls on his own knife and dies. For a franchise that normally affords great respect to all life, this is a shocking, darkly funny turn (and it’s not even the only slapstick death on Deep Space Nine). That the guy turns out to have been a drunken asshole who ruined his family morally tidies the act, although Quark is completely unconcerned with Kozak’s death on an ethical or emotional level. Seeing the crowds gathered outside during the investigation immediately gets his profit wheels spinning, and he decides to cash in on everyone’s morbid curiosity to take gleeful responsibility for killing the Klingon in combat. It’s kooky, and so far outside the bounds of Star Trek’s themes and storytelling up to this point (in a good way).
Because the twists and machinations of the plot are focused on two alien cultures and their accepted customs, there is an enticing mystery as to how things unfold. The story plays on that in the expectations of its characters, both Klingon and Ferengi, and they bounce off each other in pleasing ways. Nervous about Quark’s deception, Rom questions what will happen if Kozak’s family comes looking for him, and Quark assumes he’ll be able to just tell them the truth and weasel out of responsibility or buy them off, as any good Ferengi would.
A furious Klingon named D’Ghor, claiming to be Kozak’s brother shows up and bullies Quark into maintaining his fiction so as not to tarnish the honor and reputation of his slain family member. In a subsequent twist, Kozak’s widow Grilka shows up and quickly deduces that Quark is a liar. She then kidnaps him, takes him to the Klingon homeworld, and marries him. Obviously. There’s a lot of plot minutiae to set up the conflict, but to its credit, the episode handles it efficiently and with comedic aplomb. It turns out D’Ghor isn’t Kozak’s brother, but his greatest rival that is hoping to annex Kozak’s house’s assets now that he is dead and the house has no male heir (even though Klingons aren’t the most enlightened people, the sexism of this detail is still disappointing).
Thus the disruptor shotgun wedding to Quark, who Grilka immediately shoves before the Klingon High Council during their deliberations. The Next Generation introduced the modern conception of Klingon society and government at its highest levels, and this outing is thematically consistent with those depictions, albeit much, much lighter in tone. Placing Quark (and Rom) in the hallowed Klingon Great Hall that Picard and Worf once occupied in some of The Next Generation‘s most intense Klingon-centric episodes is delightfully nutty, and the inclusion of Gowron (his first, but definitely not last, appearance on DS9) is awesome and highlights the show’s continuity in the larger franchise. We also see that corruption and hypocrisy over honor and tradition is still alive and well in the Klingon empire. Grilka is a proud and noble woman, but she is hopelessly naive in coming to terms with D’Ghor’s years-long financial subterfuge against her house. Quark is shrewd enough to figure out his Ferengi-like schemes, and the scene of him hopelessly trying to explain it to the Klingon Council is quite funny.
Unfortunately for him, the Klingons have never met a problem they couldn’t solve with a duel to the death (or a punch to the face), and Quark quickly finds himself set up in a duel to the death with D’Ghor. Grilka catches him and Rom trying to escape, and is shocked and disgusted at his cowardice. The situational nature of the plot and characters is very well done, and the episode typifies Deep Space Nine‘s theme of diversity. Its characters are a disparate mixture of races, cultures, backgrounds, and values, often at odds with each other – Quark and Grilka inhabit completely different cultural and moral universes. When Quark is accused of being a liar, Grilka can’t fathom how he can just run away instead of defending his honor publicly as any good Klingon would. Quark thinks dying over an insult is nuts and is only concerned with saving his life. There’s a lot of groundwork Trek has laid with the Klingons and Ferengi that allow us to completely understand both perspectives on a character level, and the story is able to effectively split the difference by giving both of them their credence. Quark honors Klingon customs to a degree by showing up to the duel, but with Ferengi ingenuity, wit, and a strong sense of self-preservation to win the day.
As Quark tosses away his weapon and surrenders, he accurately points out the farce of the situation. We’ve seen many times that Klingon honor isn’t often that honorable, and in this case it’s merely a ceremonial excuse to execute a defenseless man who has been maneuvered into the slaughter by others. It’s procedural, judicial bloodlust, and Quark once again assumes the role of outside observer to cut through the B.S. He gambles on the shame of the situation defeating D’Ghor and is victorious (thanks to Gowron staying the dishonorable pah’tak’s hand).
The scheme of shamelessly exploiting the accidental death of Kozak is on the surface a money-making enterprise for Quark, but we learn a more nuanced reason behind his machinations that will become a central part of his character: pride, and the desire for respect as a Ferengi. Ferengi are usually the butt of the joke, and we can see that frustration in Quark. In his own deceptive way, he feels that he’s striking a blow for all Ferengi by claiming to have killed a mighty Klingon, and we’ll see him fight for his people’s reputation in future episodes. That’s a big part of what drives him to bravely show up at the climax to defend his house’s (and Grilka’s) honor. In doing so, he earns the respect of the Klingon Chancellor, Grilka, as well as his own brother, which is a quite a tidy sum. Rom continues to develop as a likable character, and him wanting to hear the proud tale of Quark’s “battle” (told in exaggerated Klingon fashion) is very cute.
Miles and Keiko’s storyline is also very well done and provides some much-needed warmth and nuance to their relationship that is often sorely lacking. O’Brien’s attempts at cheering up his wife are sweet and well-intentioned, but doomed to fail as Bashir (who is now officially charming) points out. His insight about careers vs. hobbies is exceptionally deep and correct. It’s a delightfully mature idea for Star Trek to present in a normally fantastical and action-packed franchise. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved in marriage, and we can feel the weight of guilt on O’Brien’s conscience for Keiko having sacrificed so much for him over the years. He repays her by giving her his blessing to pursue her career on Bajor, and it’s nice to see her hesitant to back out of her promise to him. It’s the most likable they’ve ever been, which is a little unfortunate in itself.
There’s a subtle thematic parallel between both plotlines – that of imprisoning your partner with your expectations. Grilka does it literally by kidnapping Quark and forcing him into a marriage while he’s still groggy from her knockout juice. She’s been trapped herself throughout her marriage to a drunken PoS husband. Grilka’s played the part of good Klingon wife and seems tired of it; she’s now out to get hers and live her best honorable life. The demands of O’Brien’s career have imprisoned Keiko to a certain extent by not allowing her to be the botanist she worked hard to become. By the end of the episode, all parties are released to pursue their own passions by an act of generosity from the other. Ain’t love grand?
Some seriously funny moments:
- Quark banging his cup on the table like a tough guy, followed by wide-eyed horror as Kozak rises to his feet to confront him.
- D’Ghor: “Q’apla!”
Quark: (exhausted sigh)
- Grilka spitting up (literally, she hocks one) to get the taste of Quark out of her mouth after marrying him.
- The Ferengi sexism is delightfully almost nonexistent here, but him slyly placing his hand on her leg and her sweetly threatening to break every bone in his body is great, as well as the raucous, forced laughter. I like the Ferengi as shrewd and clever business nerds, not so much ass grabbers.
- Rom getting dragged in, then meekly: “Hello, brother.”
- Quark: “D’Ghor, son of… whatever.”
- Grilka giving Quark the Ol’ Klingon Divorce, which I’m going to try and say more often.
- “Q’apla to you too…!”