Armin Shimerman appears for the first time in Trek, playing Letek. He will play another one-off Ferengi, Bractor, before landing the role of Quark on Deep Space Nine. Shimmerman has said that one of the reasons he took the role of Quark was to undo some of the damage done to the Ferengi concept in this episode.
The Ferengi ship drops out of warp in a nearby star system, and Picard follows suit. Unfortunately the Enterprise is suddenly disabled by a mysterious energy draining effect, all weapons and defence completely incapacitated. Whilst Picard discusses the Federation's limited knowledge of the Ferengi with Data, Geordi and Riker devise a plan to escape; the field holding them counteracts anything they do, but there is a slight lag between their actions and the counteraction. By putting the engines into reverse and then suddenly slamming into full warp speed, they hope the ship might be able to escape.
Unfortunately, the attempt fails. Seeing no other option, Picard reluctantly contacts the Ferengi to offer his surrender - only to have the Ferengi beat him to it and offer their own capitulation! Picard realises that both ships have been incapacitated by some alien force, and locates its origin on the nearby planet of Gamma Tauri IV. According to legend the planet was an outpost of the Tkon empire, a vast power which ruled this area of the galaxy some six hundred thousand years ago. The Tkon became extinct after their Empire collapsed as a result of a supernova.
Picard offers the Ferengi the chance to take part in a joint away mission to investigate the planet, an offer which is accepted. However, on beaming down the Ferengi instantly betray the Starfleet officers and attempt to capture them. The fight is interrupted by "Portal", a Guardian of the Tkon Empire who appears to the away team demanding to know their intentions. It becomes clear that Portal has been in a state of hibernation for eons, and does not know that his Empire has fallen - he believes that the aliens are there to petition for membership.
The Ferengi again attempt to betray the Starfleet officers, trying to convince him that the Humans are barbarians who should be destroyed. Riker manages to impress Portal with his courage and honesty, whilst Data convinces him of the truth about his forgotten Empire. Portal frees the two ships and offers to destroy the Ferengi for them, but Riker declines. Portal resolves to return to his hibernation and wait the chance to test another species.
Unfortunately, the Ferengi sucked. On a simple surface level, how could we possibly be expected to take these guys seriously as a threat? They're like four feet tall! Trek - and indeed much science fiction - has a history of enemy aliens who are much more physically powerful than Humans. I suspect that TNG considered that this might have been a bit of a cliche and decided to go in the opposite direction. In theory it could be an interesting and different approach to have an enemy that is actually less physically impressive than Humans... but in practice it comes across as just silly. Similarly, the Ferengi mannerisms were probably intended to come across as different and alien but in fact they just make them look foolish and absurd.
On a deeper level, what the Ferengi represent is basically us - present day Human philosophy as regards capitalism. TNG's attitude to capitalism is one that has inspired a great deal of discussion amongst fans; people who have no problem with faster than light travel or sentient androids flat out reject the idea that a culture could develop to a point where money is no longer necessary. I tend to think that it could be done, though it probably won't anytime soon (by which I mean anytime in the next thousand years or more).
However, even accepting TNG's anti-capitalist message as a valid one, the Ferengi are no great shakes in this department. Their depiction of capitalism is so over the top that it isn't even a caricature; it's beyond that and well into the territory of the truly surreal. There's not one ounce of subtlety about them, not one moment in which they are anything but ridiculous. Combined with their appearance, it makes them impossible to take remotely seriously and it damages the episode. Very, very badly.
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