Final Frontier Friday The Last Outpost

Hello, and as always, welcome to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week we’ll be returning to the first season of ‘The Next Generation’ to revisit the first appearance of the Ferengi. That’s right. This week’s installment is ‘The Last Outpost’.

Any comics reader knows that hero is only as good as his villains, and with the launch of a new series, ‘Star Trek’ needed a new villain. And not just any villain. They needed a recurring adversary who could fill the same sort of role the Klingons had on the original series. Enter the Ferengi. Yeah, you read that right. The Ferengi. That role would eventually be filled to much greater effect by the Borg (and to an extent, the Romulans), but the first attempt was the Ferengi. And if you mainly know them from their portrayal on ‘Deep Space Nine’, well, you are certainly in for an experience!

As for their development, the idea of making the Ferengi greedy, misogynistic hyper-capitalists was a direct extension of that effort to fill the Klingon shoes. You see, the Klingons (like the Romulans before them) were created in part to stand in for the other half of a Cold War allegory (the USSR to the Federation’s USA). Using that as a springboard, writer Herb Wright took a look at the contemporary world – the eighties. In doing so, he took notice of the predatory, money-obsessed criminals that populated the financial sector (my, how times have changed…) and came to conceive the ruthlessly greedy Ferengi as stand-ins for the Gordon Gekkos of the world. And it is an interesting contrast, pitting ruthless capitalists against the Federation, a society with neither a use for nor any interest in money.

Beyond the introduction of the Ferengi, ‘The Last Outpost’ is perhaps most notable for being one of the scripts with which Leonard Maizlish was caught meddling. Maizlish was Gene Roddenberry’s longtime attorney, and by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant person (he’s credited with driving many of the original series veterans away from ‘The Next Generation’ over its first season, and you don’t have to look particularly hard to find on the record quotes from production staffers wishing ill upon him). As for his involvement with ‘Next Generation’, he had none – officially, that is.

When work began on ‘TNG’, Roddenberry was still smarting from being forced out of a position of creative control on the ‘Star Trek’ films in the wake of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. Essentially, he reasoned that he had a better chance of maintaining said control if he had Maizlish on hand, and thus arranged for his attorney to have an office on the lot. That rationale isn’t so much dripping with irony as submerged in it. For reasons known only to himself, Maizlish took it upon himself to insert himself into the production process despite his lack of official standing and often in flagrant violation of Writers Guild rules. This involved sitting in on production meetings, inserting notes purportedly from Roddenberry (Rick Berman, who was very well acquainted with Roddenberry’s handwriting, begs to differ) into scripts, surreptitiously altering scripts (including ‘The Last Outpost’) before the shooting draft could be printed and distributed to the cast and crew, and on at least one occasion, breaking into D.C. Fontana’s office.

What sort of episode does all this insanity produce? Well…

The Enterprise is in pursuit of a Ferengi vessel which has stolen an energy converter from a Federation outpost. The Marauder leads them into a planetary system and abruptly drops out of warp. The Ferengi ship seems to have suffered a power failure. They open fire, but it hardly scratches the Enterprise. Before the confrontation can escalate, the Enterprise suffers a power failure of its own, leaving it immobilized in the Ferengi’s sights.

The two ships stare each other down as the Enterprise crew scrambles to counter what they assume to be a Ferengi weapon. In engineering, LaForge and Riker devise a way to break free of the power drain by jumping straight to high warp. Before attempting the warp jump, Picard hails the Ferengi to demand the return of the converter. The warp jump fails and the Ferengi remain silent. However, Data soon notices the Enterprise’s computer records being scanned. In an uncharacteristically helpful move, Troi reminds Picard that they’ve been so focused on the Ferengi that they’ve ignored the planet below. Picard has Data pull up all available information on the planet and… calls a meeting. The senior staff discuss their options. Unsurprisingly, Worf and Yar suggest dumping every last scrap of power into weapons and going down with phasers firing. They’re immediately shot down (pun intended), and Troi reminds everyone that the Ferengi have so far only acted in self defense – the Enterprise was chasing them, after all. After a moment’s consideration, Picard returns to the bridge, opens hailing frequencies and offers to discuss terms of surrender.

After a tense moment, the Ferengi respond. The crew is dumbfounded when DaiMon Tarr agrees to discuss surrender, but not an unconditional surrender. Realizing that the Ferengi are as trapped as they are, the senior staff meets once again, this time focusing on the planet. As Data briefs them on the star system, he fiddles with – and gets stuck in – a Chinese fingertrap left in the observation lounge by some children. The system was once under the control of the Tkon Empire, an ancient space federation that died out when its sun when supernova. The fingertrap bests Data, and Picard releases the android just as a probe returns readings that confirm the Tkon planet as the source of the power drain. Picard intends to investigate on the surface and decides to propose an alliance with the Ferengi.

With hailing frequencies open, Picard prepares to offer this alliance. Tarr, however, has already seen through his bluff – a Ferengi probe has yielded the same information about the power drain. He nonetheless agrees to cooperate, though he remains belligerent. The two commanders agree to send a joint expedition down to the surface, with Picard sending Riker, Yar, Data, Worf, and LaForge. The team members beam down only to find themselves scattered across the area. Riker manages to track down Data and LaForge before the three encounter a trio of Ferengi who incapacitate them with energy whips.

Back on the Enterprise, matters are getting worse as the power drain begins to affect life support. Meanwhile, the Ferengi have also captured Worf. They begin plotting to double cross the Starfleet team and examine their, equipment, wondering if that’s real gold on the commbadges (it is). Riker regains his senses as a thunderclap leaves the Ferengi writhing. Worf, Geordi, and Data soon recover, and a brawl breaks out. It ends when Yar arrives, phaser in hand, and the Ferengi are instantly fascinated by this armed – and clothed – woman. Fed up with their antics, Riker gives the order to stun the Ferengi, but the phaser beams are instead drawn into a series of tree-like crystalline structures. Smugly, the Ferengi return fire with their energy whips, only to face the same result. A new figure materializes, seemingly coalescing from the gathered energy.

The entity – which identifies itself as Portal 63, a guardian of the Tkon Empire – demands to know who will “meet the challenge” and asks the teams if they seek entry into the Empire. The Starfleet crew tries explaining to Portal that the Tkon Empire is long gone, that he has been asleep for millennia. Ever the opportunists, the Ferengi try to curry favor, casting the humans as deceptive.

Portal puts Riker to the test, quoting Sun Tzu and attacking him, leaving his blade mere inches from Riker’s face. Portal is impressed by Riker’s composure as he ignores the blade and responds with a quote of his own. He and Portal begin to bond over their mutual admiration of Sun Tzu (based on what Portal was able to draw from both Riker’s mind and the Enterprise’s records), and the Tkon Guardian releases the ship. Portal offers to destroy the Ferengi vessel, but Riker insists that they be set free as well. The energy converter is returned to the Enterprise, which “thanks” the Ferengi ship by beaming aboard a box of fingertraps before warping out of orbit.

So ‘The Last Outpost’ is, to echo Data’s experiments with slang, “nothing to write home about.” The underlying story has merit. How do I know that? Because the show itself recognized as much. It’s the same basic plot (two enemy starships being drained of power, each blaming the other until realizing that the true culprit is a relic of an ancient civilization) as the second season installment ‘Contagion’, which featured Romulans in place of the Ferengi and overall executed its premise much better. Here, though? Well, it’s a VERY “early ‘Next Generation'” type of story, and as such is rife with the sort of goofiness that characterized those early installments, particularly when the show tried to channel the original series. The ending is a particularly good example of this, as the situation is resolved and the day saved when the alien of the week takes a liking to Sun Tzu. There are also the weird digressions about Uncle Sam and Chinese fingertraps (that particular part of the ending is lifted straight out of ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’), tough I must admit that I never tire of Season One Picard’s exaggeratedly Chekov-esque Frenchness.

And then there’s the Ferengi. Saying that the more nuanced take on the Ferengi from ‘Deep Space Nine’ is a far cry from the early conception and portrayal as seen here is like saying that the Klingon props, makeup, sets, and ships seen on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ are an overdesigned mess. Sure, it’s true, but it doesn’t really do the matter justice. More than one production staffer has described ‘The Last Outpost’ – particularly with regard to the Ferengi – as a “disaster,” and they’re not wrong. Even Armin Shimmerman (who in this episode played Letek, the leader of the Ferengi away team) has said that he later took the role of Quark partly out of a desire to – in his words – “redeem” the Ferengi.

To a large extent, it boils down to a case of “What the hell were you thinking?” While the Ferengi-as-villains approach works well enough (though not without its hiccups) when it’s just DaiMon Tarr on the viewscreen, it all falls apart once we meet the trio on the planet’s surface. Thanks to a combination of the writing and directing, they’re basically impossible to take seriously, and any sense of menace they may have engendered is lost. The matter is especially not helped by the fact that – as Shimmerman recalls and Rick Berman confirmed – they actors were directed to “jump up and down like crazed gerbils.” Despite this, the Ferengi would (in the long view) prove to be one of the better additions to the ‘Star Trek’ mythos, and certainly a highlight of ‘Deep Space Nine’. But again, that has more to do with how they were handled on ‘Deep Space Nine’ than anything that’s present in their introductory episode. Or even many of their later ‘TNG’ appearances, for that matter. Here, they’re something of a microcosm for the episode as a whole: not a bad idea on paper, but executed in such an astoundingly inept fashion as to negate whatever merit there may have been.

‘The Last Outpost’ is also an oddly small-scale way to introduce your would-be Big Bad. Compare it to the way the Klingons and Romulans were introduced in ‘Errand of Mercy’ and ‘Balance of Terror‘, respectively. The former saw war break out, albeit briefly, and the latter saw an old enemy re-emerge on the galactic stage after a century with new a technology that (at a minimum) threatened to upset the balance of power in the quadrant. Hell, compare it to the later introductions of the Borg (the entire point of ‘Q Who‘ was to remind Picard that there was stuff out there that the Federation simply wasn’t ready for)  or the Dominion (which had been ominously teased all season before turning up out of the blue, telling the Federation to keep the dog off their lawn, and blowing up a Galaxy-class starship for good measure). In every case, you have stakes and a level of tension that simply isn’t present here. In fact, the Ferengi – who, remember, were supposed to be the big, recurring antagonists of ‘The Next Generation’ – are not even the primary threat in the episode that introduced them. Though our heroes believe otherwise for the first twenty minutes or so, that role here is filled by Portal 63. And he’s actually rather pleasant once you get him talking.

If there’s one thing the episode did get right with the Ferengi, it’s the energy whips, which are pretty cool. If nothing else, they’re something different from the umpteenth variation on a phaser pistol. So naturally, we don’t see them again (save for a miniaturized cameo on some of Quark’s Marauder Mo action figures) until the Ferengi made their one and only appearance on ‘Enterprise’ some fifteen years later. This was partly due to practical reasons (as cool as the whips were, the props were a nightmare to work with, and prop master Alan Sims was never able to nail down the designs to his satisfaction), but also to the fact that the producers felt they contributed to the unintentional silliness that so characterized the Ferengi at this stage.

Also of note is the fact that this marks the first time LaForge gets stuck in engineering for the first time. Though he’s ostensibly there to report back to the bridge while the comm system is down, we basically do see him acting in the capacity of chief engineer while he and Riker brainstorm. I don’t know if it would have stood out to a viewer watching these episodes as they aired, since at this point the job of chief engineer seemed to be filled by a new crewman every week, but in hindsight? Well, I don’t know it for a fact, but it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t have factored into the producers’ decision to give him the job full time for Season Two.

What do you think of ‘The Last Outpost’? Was there any serious merit to a more overtly villainous conception of the Ferengi? Was there any hope to salvaging that take after this episode? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!