Originating as a stylistic choice in modern theatre, the fourth wall is a relatively recent concept in the realm of performance. Whereas ancient Greek or Shakespearean plays would be filled with soliloquies and audience asides, the idea posits that actors perform in a four-walled room, with the audience peering through the imagined ‘fourth’ one. It is a trope that conventionally separates reality from fiction, but also creates something which can be played about with, stretched or, in some cases, broken.
Not known for its stylistic inversions or deconstructions of form, Star Trek is a franchise that relies on the fourth wall a great deal in order to create the escapism that the Utopian Federation embodies. That’s not to say that it can’t cheekily wink, or even wave, at the camera from time to time though, and with 50 years of history, and plenty of self to reference, there’s more than a few times that the crews have gone boldly through that wall and right into your living rooms.
10. Dealing With Ferengi - The Price (The Next Generation: Season 3, Episode 8)
Before they came to be the greedy little intergalactic clowns we all love, there was a time where Gene Roddenberry genuinely thought the Ferengi would be a legitimate threat to follow the Klingons. Although their ultra-capitalist worldview does indeed put them at odds with the post-money ethos of the Federation, their diminutive stature and slightly goofy appearance made taking them seriously as a villain particularly difficult.
Sure enough, following a disastrous introduction in season 1, subsequent Ferengi appearances in TNG had them demoted to bumbling secondary villains and comic relief. When a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant (no not that one) opens up near the planet Barzan II, and delegations are sent to procure rights to its use, the Ferengi are naturally at the table. Characteristically bullish in their negotiations, the Ferengi employ bribes, aggression and even poison in their bid for the wormhole.
Captain Picard eventually finds himself at the receiving end of DaiMon Goss’s ire, and reacts the only way a sane man can: with an exasperated look, directly down the camera lens. While some may argue that this is just a mistake as opposed to a fourth wall break, it’s worth noting that Patrick Stewart is a very highly regarded Shakespearean actor, and logic would state he’s professional enough not to look at the camera during takes.
Furthermore, this isn’t a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but a full stare, ‘Parks and Rec’, style at the kind of idiocy with which he is forced to suffer. Call it a slip up or a fourth wall break, whatever the case, we’ve all been there.