Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek, you’ve probably heard of the Klingons. They have become as synonymous with Trek as Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise. And thanks to their name, they have also been the subject of kids’ jokes since the show’s inception. (“Why is the USS Enterprise like toilet paper?” “They both battle Klingons while circling Uranus.” Ba dum ching!)
Anyone who started watching Star Trek with the release of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture or later is used to seeing the Klingons as aliens with dark complexions, prominent brow ridges, and a fondness for blades, like THESE FINE FELLOWS. As a side note, the Klingon captain seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was played by Mark Lenard, who is best known for his role as Sarek, Spock’s father. Since Lenard also played a Romulan in the original series episode, “Balance of Terror,” Lenard achieved the very rare Klingon/Vulcan/Romulan trifecta.
While the Klingons were adversaries of the Federation in the original series and movie era, by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the two governments were at peace and a Klingon officer, Lieutenant Worf, was serving on the bridge of the USS Enterprise-D. Over the course of TNG and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which Worf joined as a main character in Season Four after TNG left the air, the Klingons were developed from villains into a species with a society build around the glory of battle and the importance of honor.
If the Klingons described above are your only experience with the species, going back to their appearance in the original Star Trek television series will be a little bit jarring. Compare the picture I linked to above to THIS. No brow ridges, better teeth, and an overall look that can only be described as swarthy.
The difference in appearance is simply due to the limitations of the original series’ budget versus that of the later films and shows. That’s not good enough for a franchise and fandom as continuity-obsessed as Star Trek. For years fans speculated that there were two different races of Klingons, one smooth-headed and one with ridges, and that at different times in their history, one or the other of the races was in charge. That fell by the wayside when DS9 brought back original series Klingons, such as Kor, but with ridges. When the DS9 crew travels back in time into the events of “The Trouble With Tribbles,” they ask Worf about the difference, and all he says is that they do not discuss it with outsiders. Star Trek: Enterprise finally provided a canon explanation involving genetic manipulation run amuck.
The Klingons were created by Gene Coon, who I talked about in THIS POST, and first appeared in the episode “Errand of Mercy.” Throughout the original series era, the Klingon Empire serves as a surrogate for the Soviet Union. They are in competition with the Federation for control of planets, and the two governments are often presented as being in something of a Cold War. It very easily could have been a hot war if not for the Organians at the end of “Errand of Mercy.” What that actually means I’ll leave for you to discover if you watch the episode.
The 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County continues the Cold War allegory into the era of Glasnost. Klingon Chancellor Gorkon is a thinly-veiled version of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the film deals with the deep-seated prejudices and hostilities that can stand in the way of lasting peace.
We have seen little of the Klingons in the new timeline of the recent Star Trek films. A plot concerning them was cut from 2009’s Star Trek, and their appearance in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness was limited to hulking warrior-types that pretty much existed only to be mowed down by Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harri-Khan (Pointless Spoiler Alert).
Really, though, the Klingons’ first appearance in “Errand of Mercy” is one of their best, and the episode stands as one of the most important in shaping Star Trek.
- Alan Decker
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