Deep Space Nine premiered thirty years ago. Although it divided fans as it was very different from prior Trek, the evolution of the Ferengi from semi-feral aliens to a species that was meant to satirically reflect the audience is widely considered one of its major contributions to the franchise. In particular, the evolution of Nog from young troublemaker to the first member of his species to join Starfleet was one of the greatest character arcs of the series. The loss of his leg in battle and the resulting PTSD pushed Nog’s characterization even further, exploring PTSD, something Trek had barely covered before. This year, Aron Eisenberg, who played Nog, would have turned 54. In honor of him and the 30th anniversary of DS9, an examination of the first Ferengi in Starfleet is in order.
Nog’s early appearances did not hint at the evolution his character would undergo. He constantly got himself and Jake in trouble by pulling pranks, disrupting life on the promenade, and continuing his Uncle Quark’s habit of annoying Odo by flaunting or breaking the rules. Some of the worst examples of Ferengi misogyny came from him, including a scene where he told a woman he was dating to not speak unless spoken to, and to cut up his food for him like Ferengi women are expected to.
However, the changes that would make Nog a beloved character soon began to emerge. With Jake’s help, Nog learned to read Federation written language and his Ferengi business acumen turned slightly more to the charitable side as he helped several of the Federation crew obtain objects they needed by bartering instead of asking for latinum. While Nog never truly abandoned all his Ferengi cultural values, he, like his paternal grandmother Ishka, would challenge Ferengi society, although Nog did it by seeking a life outside of business.
Following a run in with the Jem’Hadar on a trip for a school project, Nog comes to Sisko with a stunning request: he wants to join Starfleet. Wary of this request, Sisko gives Nog a chance to prove himself by completing an inventory single handedly. Nog’s speed and thoroughness prove his determination so Sisko asks Nog why he wants to join Starfleet. Although his sudden desire to join Starfleet was not obvious from prior episodes, Nog’s plea made sense, as he explained to Sisko that he wanted a better life. Nog spoke about how he feared ending up like his father, Rom, stuck trying to find a place in Ferengi business society, but lacking the lobes of Ishka, thus doomed to fall short of societal standards. Nog’s clear distress at the idea of maybe getting a chance at inheriting Quark’s in the far future prompts Sisko to recommend Nog to Starfleet.
Nog’s time in Starfleet seems to submerge most of his stereotypical greedy, misogynist Ferengi traits. Almost like an over-eager puppy, Nog fully dedicates himself to living up to Starfleet standards, excitedly hoping to be promoted to the elite Red Squad flight crew, made up of the best cadets. To see the change from early DS9 Nog to Starfleet Nog is stunning. When Sisko sees Nog’s change in attitude, he treats Nog like a surrogate son who is developing the career Sisko seems to have envisioned for Jake.
In his first two years at Starfleet Academy, Nog uses his superb Ferengi sense of hearing and skills he learned over his years of trying to become a businessman to help overcome a terrorist plot and internal corruption in Starfleet. Nor were these the only times Nog faced the consequences of the Dominion War: as part of the reconnaissance team gathering supplies to keep DS9 working, he ended up getting trapped on a distant planet then working alongside Garak to rescue Sisko and Bashir from ketacell white-deprived Jem’Hadar.
Then came “The Siege of AR-558,” where the Starfleet forces, outnumbered 3-to-1 by the Jem’Hadar, desperately fought to wrestle the control of a communication ray away from the Dominion, cycling troops out every five months. As an advance scout, Nog faced the brunt of the weapons fire as he used his hearing to guide his fellow soldiers and got shot in the leg. Nog’s almost idealized view of Starfleet is shattered as he nearly gets killed in a makeshift med area after Bashir does what he can for Nog’s wound. Quark saves him and snaps at Sisko, but the damage is done: Nog has lost a leg and no amount of Starfleet medical care can save it.
“It’s Only A Paper Moon” deals with the after effects of Nog’s amputation as his flashbacks to the battle and depression over losing his leg drive him into Vic Fontaine’s club on the holosuite. Starfleet doctors have said Nog can recover physically, but it’s his mental health that is in tatters. He misses physical therapy, which impacts his acclimation to his biosynthetic leg, is recalcitrant during therapy sessions with Ezri Dax, and for days on end replays the song Bashir had been playing during the battle when he was shot.
In Vic’s casino Nog hides himself from his friends and family, working on the club’s books, welcoming people to the club, and avoiding life outside of the holodeck as he grapples with his trauma. Eventually Vic and Ezri are at odds—Vic wanting to let Nog stay in the holosuite as he’s made progress to the point he can use his biosynthetic leg sans cane and is deeply immersed in expanding the club, while Ezri argues that Nog needs to rejoin the world outside of the holosuite. Finally at his breaking point, Vic turns off the program himself, telling Nog it’s time to leave. Nog panics, telling Vic that he can’t face the world yet: he saw how terrible war was, lost classmates in battle, and the loss of his leg made him realize how fragile his life was. Vic reassures Nog that if he stays in the holosuite, Nog will begin dying bit by bit. Nog realizes to continue healing he has to return to life outside of the casino, even if the healing of his emotional and mental health is an ongoing process.
Throughout the episode the audience is heartbroken for Nog. We see the young man who once dropped things from the upper walkways onto the pedestrians on the promenade, who then matured into an accomplished cadet finding a path for himself only to see his PTSD nearly force him to live out the rest of his life in the holosuite. It’s no wonder “It’s Only A Paper Moon” is often listed as one of the best Trek episodes and Aron Eisenberg is often lauded for his performance as he conveys the deep emotional turmoil war leaves on soldiers.
Although DS9 is often criticized for being much darker than any preceding Trek, the evolution of Nog, the young Ferengi trouble maker, into an idealistic cadet then to an amputee who is slowly understanding life with PTSD, is one of the standout plotlines. His growth as he left behind the life path expected of Ferengi and forged his own path by becoming the first Ferengi in Starfleet truly makes the last part of his character arc even more effective. Aron Eisenberg left behind a remarkable performance as Nog and he is sorely missed.