There was a time when the Ferengi were meant to be mean and vicious, not greedy and silly.
Armin Shimerman originally played a Ferengi in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Last Outpost where the Ferengi were supposed to be very different than what they ended up being on The Next Generation and subsequent Star Trek series. “The producers were very specific about what they wanted,” he explained. “There was no mention of comedy whatsoever, rather, they said that they were like old turn-of-the-century Chinese clipper captains. They were vicious competitors, and were even capable of eating their enemies. They were envisioned as the new Klingons and of course it never happened that way. They were supposed to be evil, not comic people.”
Part of the blame for that change falls on Shimerman himself. “It changed almost immediately,” said Shimerman. “There were several factors that changed the eventual product. I’ll start with myself first: I gave less than a perfect performance, and I regret that. I didn’t do what they asked me to do. I was supposed to be vicious. The four of us were supposed to make your skin crawl, instead we had you laughing. I take most of the blame upon myself, but there were other factors that contributed as well.”
One of those other factors was the director of The Last Outpost, Richard A. Colla. “He asked us to do comedic things,” said Shimerman. “He asked us to jump up and down on these fake stones, and I remember thinking that vicious people don’t do that. A number of other things he asked us to do were less than serious.”
The makeup and costumes also helped to show the Ferengi as more comedic than vicious. “Another factor was the makeup: Michael Westmore was brilliant,” said Shimerman. “The original sketches for the Ferengi were much more hatchet-faced, much more sinister looking, but the addition of the Mickey Mouse ears made them less than forbidding. The costumes were comedic, in the sense that they were furs, like something out of Year One! That was less than formidable.”
The props didn’t help either. “They gave me this long strip of foam rubber painted blue,” said Shimerman, “and said, “Make this lethal.” It was really just a limp impotent piece of rubber! It was a difficult situation.”
But Shimerman feels that it was mostly his performance that was the main culprit in changing the Ferengi from a sinister foe to a bit of a joke. “All of those factors, but myself being the most culpable, factored into the idea that we were never going to be serious.”
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