On September 21, Aron Eisenberg passed away at age 50. While perhaps little known elsewhere, in science fiction circles the diminutive Eisenberg stood larger than life. Across the 1990s, he took what might have seemed a thankless role as an obnoxious teenager in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and helped craft it into one of the most memorable aspects of a series that many now regard as the best in the franchise. As the adolescent Ferengi Nog, Eisenberg reminded viewers that strength of character can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

The Star Trek universe isn’t always kind to actors depicting children. When Gene Roddenberry tried to create a young version of himself for his family-friendly Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the result was Wesley Crusher, the role that would haunt actor Wil Wheaton for years (until The Big Bang Theory allowed him to exorcise those personal demons). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the third “canonical” series, and the first to emerge after Roddenberry’s death. It was a different direction from the previous shows, with more serialized storytelling, and its place on a less mobile setting—the eponymous station, Deep Space Nine—gave the writers a chance to look at individuals who, though still in space, were more grounded in a sense of place.

From second-rate would-be entrepreneur to courageous, self-sacrificial (yet still vulnerable) hero, Aron Eisenberg’s portrayal of his character’s journey retains value.Fundamental to this understanding was Avery Brooks’s Commander Benjamin Sisko, the first African American Trek lead, and the first commanding officer we got to see who was also a father. A single parent to young Jake (Cirroc Lofton), Sisko took on a domestic role that was seemingly unthinkable for Captains Kirk or Picard, married as they were to their respective ships. Jake was on the cusp of young adulthood, and the writers needed his dad to wrestle with the consequences of a potential “bad influence” in the less-regulated frontier environment of Deep Space Nine. That influence came in the form of Eisenberg’s Nog.

In portraying a Ferengi, Eisenberg was already starting in a contentious situation. Star Trek: The Next Generation had initially set up the large-lobed, crooked-toothed Ferengi to be the primary nemeses for the Enterprise-D, now that the once-hostile Klingons had become uneasy allies of the Federation. Gene Roddenberry’s Trek vision in the ’80s was more UN–cosmopolitan than his distinctly American-flavored take in The Original Series, and so the avaricious capitalistic Ferengi started as the go-to villains. But despite a mysterious build-up in the early episodes, they proved more comic than menacing. The Next Generation would ultimately move on to more threatening adversaries, such as the scheming Romulans, the fascist Cardassians, and, of course, the ruthless Borg.

Deep Space Nine became the nexus of an attempt to nuance audience perception of the Ferengi, rather than simply discarding them or using them solely for comedic purposes. This came first in the form of Quark, Nog’s uncle and a bartender on Deep Space Nine’s civilian promenade. Quark was played by Armin Shimerman, who had starred as one of the first Ferengi ever seen in the early Next Generation days. While Shimerman and DS9’s writers allowed Quark a fully three-dimensional character arc, he remained at heart a “true” Ferengi, dedicated to profit-seeking according to his people’s religious scripture, the Rules of Acquisition. It was in Quark’s brother Rom (Max Grodénchek) and Rom’s son Nog that audiences began to see how much more the greedy Ferengi could be capable of.

In the early seasons, Nog was still used largely for the sake of comic relief, as he and Jake got each other into trouble. This trouble often came in their attempts to emulate their role models, Jake trying to follow in the footsteps of his father the Starfleet officer, Nog trying to show off his would-be business acumen. Their scenes were almost always part of a subsidiary storyline, but worked in part due to the natural chemistry between Lofton and Eisenberg. This was particularly remarkable given the surprising age gap—though the ever-growing Lofton quickly shot up past six feet, he was almost a decade younger than Eisenberg (who remained five feet in height across his adult life).

Loyal Deep Space Nine viewers will remember when everything changed: the third-season episode “Heart of Stone.” Once again, it was supposed to be just another B-plot—the primary storyline focused on what was itself a pivotal moment, when the forlorn Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois) confessed his unrequited love for Major Kira (Nana Visitor). Yet for many fans, this significant event was eclipsed by what seemed a surprising and almost ludicrous development: Nog’s insistence that he wanted to join Starfleet. I suspect that as “Heart of Stone” played out, plenty of viewers shared my own initial reaction—skepticism. Surely this was just another one-off subplot, designed to mine Nog’s psyche a bit further but not to effect lasting change. Surely Nog didn’t really want to be in Starfleet; the writers wouldn’t let that happen… would they?

It turns out that there was a psychological factor involved—Nog wanted to avoid the failures of his father, a genius held back by his naturally obsequious temperament and a Ferengi culture that undervalued his skill-set. But the writers didn’t see these personal motivations as cause to dismiss Nog’s desires, and in the end, Commander Sisko did indeed recommend him. I was more than a little surprised at the result, but not as shocked as I might have been, for one simple reason: Aron Eisenberg’s performance.

What Eisenberg brought to the table was a ubiquitous earnestness. When portraying Nog early on as a younger teenager, Eisenberg never let audiences forget what we adults so often do—how serious the minutiae of adolescent life seem to adolescents. Everything from a childish prank to a quest in search of self-sealing stem bolts seemed to be of preeminent importance. Even their fun was serious—this was, indeed, part of the humor. But never before had Eisenberg so thoroughly marshaled that gift for representing high seriousness—these were the same emotions, yet somehow different. Nog, we knew, really meant business.

Eisenberg was concerned that “Heart of Stone” meant he’d be out of a job, his character packed light years away on Earth. But eventually, the opposite proved true: as a cadet, and later as an ensign, Nog served under Sisko in the unfolding Dominion War saga. Eisenberg and Lofton began depicting characters who stayed friends even as their lives crossed opposite paths: Jake Sisko eschewed Starfleet to become a civilian writer, while Nog abandoned his culture’s obsession with profit for duty and sacrifice in the service during combat.

That development allowed Deep Space Nine to explore topics never before truly broached in the Star Trek universe. Gene Roddenberry had been reluctant to allow his writers even one episode to explore the trauma Captain Picard faced after his assimilation into the Borg in The Next Generation. But ever the darkest Trek incarnation, Deep Space Nine explored even more brutal territory in “The Siege of AR-558,” when Starfleet “explorers” truly became soldiers. In this episode, Nog’s duty led to serious injury, and his leg had to be amputated. The emotional and psychological consequences of his PTSD became the subject of “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” in which Nog sought to avoid his fears by avoiding reality in the virtual reality realm of the holosuite.

Never before have Star Trek’s producers truly wrestled with such intimate and challenging material. And they did it through the eyes of Nog, because by season seven, we had watched him grow up, from an especially annoying youth to an adult with adult responsibilities and adult pain. That only worked because of Aron Eisenberg. Distractingly small, covered in bulky, absurd makeup, forcing his high-pitched voice through a tangle of false teeth, Eisenberg still made us believe in the authenticity of his agony and his fear.  Indeed, Nog’s path to healing was (yet again) supposed to be a B-plot, one of three storylines in “Paper Moon,” before the producers made the risky decision to focus entirely on his arc—even though Eisenberg was officially a guest star, not a regular cast member. He would later recall that actual combat veterans would write approving letters to him: “That was the best compliment.”

I do not know the spiritual state of Aron Eisenberg at his death, which, on the interpersonal level, is of course a significant question. What I can know of him comes from the cultural artifacts he left behind, and more than anything else, his appearances on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine represent his artistic legacy. There is only one gospel, yet the virtues that flow from that gospel and that should animate Christian behavior derive from a goodness of God’s character that is embedded in our very cosmos. And whether or not we acknowledge that source, Christians can celebrate manifestations and embodiments of that goodness, those virtues, wherever we see them.

Such virtues were often evident in Eisenberg’s Nog, and through seven seasons, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fans could watch the process of their cultivation. From second-rate would-be entrepreneur to courageous, self-sacrificial (yet still vulnerable) hero, Aron Eisenberg’s portrayal of his character’s journey retains value. It is easy to show heroes ready-made, and trendy to show heroes abdicate their heroism. To show the gradual, halting, painful process by which those qualities may take root in unexpected places? That is hard work—the work that Aron Eisenberg was able to accomplish.

1 Comment

  1. I wasn’t aware he had died until I stumbled onto your site (which I’m glad I did). DS9 was a meaningful show to me during my later teen years. I binge-watched the whole series with my older sister before binge-watching was even a phrase. I wrote a cultural analysis paper in an Apologetics course on DS9. And I still call my mom Moogie. There’s so much about that show that made the time spent watching it worthwhile, and I don’t really have anything to contribute other than to just share my experience of and love for the show. Thank you for this thoughtful post!

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