After an encounter with the wormhole aliens, the Grand Nagus rewrites the Rules of Acquisition in favor of altruism.
Plot Summary: Quark’s ear massage and attempted swindle is interrupted by the arrival of Grand Nagus Zek, who takes over Quark’s quarters, forcing Quark to move in with Rom, then announces that he has rewritten the Rules of Acquisition. Expecting a brilliant new scheme for profit, Quark is horrified to discover that Zek has instead taken up altruism…and sold all of Quark’s furniture to raise money for a new charity, the Ferengi Benevolent Association, of which Zek puts Rom in charge. When Quark learns that the Nagus is at the station to give a gift to the Bajoran people, he sneaks onto the Nagus’s shuttle and finds that the Nagus has acquired a long-lost Orb of the Prophets. The Orb gives Quark a vision of Zek receiving wisdom from the Prophets, whom Quark decides to confront about Zek’s changed attitudes. As these events unfold, Bashir learns that he has been nominated for the Carrington Award – the Federation’s most prestigious medical prize – and is somewhat embarrassed because the usual winners are elderly doctors nearing the end of their careers. Taking Zek into the wormhole, Quark confronts the aliens, who explain that Zek tried to use their knowledge of the future for profit. They reverted Zek to a time when Ferengi were less aggressive and plan to do the same to Quark, but Quark lectures them about how greed leads to ambition to better oneself and warns that if he, too, changes, more Ferengi will come to find out why. The aliens agree to stop interfering in Ferengi affairs so long as no other Ferengi visit them, and Zek returns to his previous avaricious state, though not before Rom embezzles a small fortune from the Benevolent Association. Meanwhile, the crew and Bashir learn that he has not won the Carrington Award, and he must put on a brave face for the rest of the crew.
Analysis: When I first reviewed “Prophet Motive” the night it aired in 1995, I called it the nadir of the series, making the Prophets and by extension their followers look stupid just after a terrific episode about the importance of the religion of Bajor. Until this week, I had not rewatched the episode since. I’m not sure whether time or South Park has mellowed me on the idea of ridiculing someone else’s gods, but I didn’t find it offensive this time around, though that wasn’t what struck me as interesting about the episode. It was a subplot so forgettable that I didn’t even remember it had been there – the filler bit about Bashir’s nomination for the Carrington Award – that fascinated me this time through, because when it first aired, none of us (presumably including Siddig and the writers) knew that Bashir had been genetically augmented as a child, which would later prove to be the reason for why he feels so strongly that he has something to prove and fears becoming successful enough for someone to go digging into his past. It’s fascinating how perfectly his reactions upon being nominated for this prize fit into that later canon, as if Bashir and his colleagues already suspected there might be a reason a major award might be so gratifying and terrifying to him all at once. The scene in which he and O’Brien play darts while O’Brien assures him that he has no chance of winning the award – which annoys Bashir but also seems to come as a relief to him, a fact demonstrated by his apparent inability to aim his darts successfully – is particularly poignant in hindsight, since Bashir will later admit that he could land a dart perfectly every single time if he wanted to. His combined gratitude and resentment toward Dax, his eye-rolling at a rather out-of-character gushing Kira and an even more out-of-character gossipy Odo, his discomfort around a proud Sisko all make so much more sense knowing that Bashir fears he is a fraud.
I still don’t like the Ferengi storyline, but that has more to do with how it’s written than with the issue of whether the writers are ridiculing anyone with respect for a religion they invented. I’ve never loved the comic Ferengi episodes, many of which have a mean-spirited underpinning to their humor, and though the actors playing the series’ major Ferengi characters are all terrific, they’re often given material so much the same from one story to the next that they start to seem like caricatures rather than real people. The Grand Nagus here is used entirely as a joke; Quark insists to the Prophets that he’s the respected leader of billions of Ferengi, but we never see him in that role, only as a sort of crazy uncle figure to Quark and Rom. His initial foray into altruism sounds like a poor rewrite of the end of A Christmas Carol, with Quark’s rebuttals coming a bit too close to the anti-Semitic allegory of that Dickens tale, and since it’s played out almost entirely in claustrophobic discussions between Quark, Rom and Zek, it’s not interesting to watch. The story doesn’t really get going until Quark realizes the wormhole aliens are involved, at which point Zek becomes irrelevant to his own story because Quark is the Ferengi to be reckoned with. Rather than trying to learn something about the Prophets, considering that he lives and works on a space station with many Bajorans, Quark goes racing off to give them a piece of his mind…and because this is a very silly storyline, the Prophets listen to him. It’s akin to having Stan Marsh tell off Jesus Christ for using performance-enhancing drugs, which admittedly makes me snicker, so I am embarrassed that I found the mockery of the Prophets so distasteful in the first place.
But the episode still sets up ethical and theological problems that it doesn’t begin to address, getting preachy without actually offering any new or interesting perspectives. We have never been expected to take Ferengi “religion” seriously since greed is their creed, but the flippancy with which the characters address the rewriting of the Rules of Acquisition, which has the status of the Bible in Ferengi culture, is hard to believe. The new Rules are a fine comic balance for the old ones, and how hilarious that Rom, who has no head for business, rejects them so thoroughly that he’s stealing from the Grand Nagus even before the old greed-is-good philosophy returns. It makes perfect sense that someone would sneak into the wormhole to try to see the future, though we’re never told how Zek managed this – covert Dominion allies? How did he know so much about the wormhole aliens in the first place? I never thought much about it before but not only every con man in the galaxy would want a chat with aliens who’ve seen the future; every Cardassian seeking to retake Bajor, every Klingon wishing to become the head of his house, every evil alien thinking he’s doing what’s best for Starfleet with a preemptive strike against the Borg would be poking around in there. To discover that the Bajoran Prophets are nothing but meddling fools who need Quark to set them straight (that the Bajorans in essence need a Ferengi god instead of their own) is bad enough. But not to deal with the full implications of this discovery – that not only the Emissary but any foreigners who approach the aliens may experience sweeping changes in themselves or their societies – is a cop-out, cheapening such huge series-changing moments such as when Sisko convinced the Prophets to intervene to save Bajor from the Dominion fleet. I prefer to look on the entire incident as an Orb vision experienced by the Grand Nagus, not something that really happened on the series.