Star Trek: Discovery Klingons (and Part I of a History of Klingon Foreheads…or lack thereof)

Star Trek: Discovery is coming…sometime soon. The above image is a first look at the new show’s Klingons, and as you can see they are quite different from those who have come before.

Changes in Klingon appearance are nothing new; even those with a passing familiarity of Star Trek are aware that the Federation’s adversaries-turned-allies look drastically different after The Original Series. That clip from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations” (in which the DS9 crew travels back in time to the TOS era) pokes some fun at the change and the decades of fan speculation that resulted.

Like any change to the Trek Universe, this update of the Klingon look will most likely be met with much wailing and gnashing of Trekkie teeth. The internet lit up with bitching following the release of the teaser trailer for Discovery (which we took a detailed look at a while back), if you want some examples go check out any Star Trek-message board or the comments wherever the teaser is posted. I generally avoid such places like The Phage, and I sure hope the show’s creators do as well. What do you want, nerds? You have been given everything, and you hate all of it. Do you really want everything to be re-hashed in the exact same way, forever? No new takes on anything?

Let’s take a closer look at these ridged hooligans:st-disc-klingons-2

There is a lot more Kling on these people, they’ve got a full head of dinosaur-esque ridges. They may also have pointed ears that go way back along the sides of the head. Is it interesting, and a neat update of an old idea? Yes. Is it an appropriate look for Klingons? Absolutely. Is it fresh? Well, not terribly so. It doesn’t depart a whole lot from other prosthetic aliens/monsters in onscreen sci-fi/fantasy. The head shape made me think of a lot of aliens seen in the background of Deep Space Nine:

The makeup + costume bring to mind the Uruk-hai from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The armor is a liiittle busy for my tastes, and it’s kind of silly for the armed forces of an advanced space-faring civilization to be wearing it (this may be my 21st century human chauvinism, though). I have the same complaint with the armor used from the TOS-era movies up through the end of the TNG epoch…but I think that’s mostly because I got so sick of seeing it. These suits are cool but don’t stand out notably from dozens of similar designs seen in TV, movies, games etc.

ST-Disc klingon armor.png

To be fair, the show’s designers are in a bit of a time-loop trap (like the Enterprise-D in that TNG episode with Kelsey Grammar). The redesigns of Klingon makeup/costumes in the movies and The Next Generation are so iconic and embedded in the sci-fi zeitgeist that they have influenced so many “warrior alien” designs, and any attempts to freshen them up come off as derivative. Isn’t the trope of an honor-obsessed, all warrior culture done to death in space-opera, anyway?


But I don’t mean to sound like a Duras Downer, I really do dig the look and am glad they have changed it up (though I would have been happy with the use of the J.J.-verse costumes, I really love those). I’m sure when seen in motion and with proper lighting they will look fantastic. While we wait to watch Star Trek: Discovery illicitly on non-U.S. based streaming websites (c’mon, no one is paying for CBS All-Access), let’s take a look at the history of Klingon makeup and costumes.


Klingon posse.jpeg

When we first met the Klingons in Star Trek: The Original Series, they were a devious USSR analogue that rivaled the United Federation of Planets and clashed with them for control of the local region of the galaxy. Though clearly a people with martial prowess, there was little of the blind devotion to honor that they would show later in the TNG-era. Essentially they looked the same as humans…swarthy humans…uhh, yeah. The main Klingon antagonist in their first appearance in TOS: “Errand of Mercy” was Kor, played by John Colicos (well known for also playing Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica). Colicos had a hand in the creation of the makeup, consisting of big eyebrows, a mustache, and makeup to darken his complexion…this probably wouldn’t have flown today.


Like many TOS designs the Klingon uniforms were an exercise in elegant simplicity. Golden “mail” tunics were worn over a simple black shirt, and sparkly pants tucked into knee-high black boots completed the ensemble (while checking out a lot of Klingon legs as research for this post I learned they were actually sparkly mesh pants worn over regular ones). Officers wore cool gold baldrics that displayed what may have been the symbol of the Klingon Empire at the time; this same style was later rocked by Worf in early seasons of The Next Generation.

Later in the series a new emblem was introduced; this striking, vaguely Nazi-ish insignia would be used as the official symbol of the Klingon Empire in the future:


Klingon makeup was not consistent even within The Original Series; in Season 2 episodes like “The Trouble with Tribbles” or “Friday’s Child” they didn’t bother with the eyebrows and dark makeup. Captain Koloth (William Campbell) bore an uncanny resemblance to the superbeing Trelane from “The Squire of Gothos,” for some reason.

Season 3 brought back the original (racist) look. “Day of the Dove” introduced us to Captain Kang (Michael Ansara) and his wife Mara (Susan Howard), the first female Klingon on Star Trek (she was also his science officer). This episode is notable for the fact that Klingons are not portrayed as complete SOBs; they have families, believe they are fighting against a tyrannical Federation, and they work together with their Starfleet enemies to defeat a monstrous alien entity. The episode is also the only time in the original show that Klingons are shown fighting with swords, and then only in an unnatural scenario created by the alien entity to manipulate them into fighting Kirk’s crew. There is no “bringing a knife to a raygun fight” behavior that becomes common in later Trek outings.


According to backstage scuttlebutt the Klingons were never intended to be a recurring menace, but the ease of applying their makeup made them perfect (cheap) adversaries to throw up against Kirk and the gang.

For the sake of completeness, here are some Klingons from the animated series:


Klingons were considered for use as villains in some of the fizzled-out Star Trek projects proposed in the mid-70s, such as the movie Planet of the Titans and the cancelled Phase II series (which eventually morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture). They appeared in spinoff novels and in Gold Key Comics’ Trek series, where their first few appearances were decidedly off-model. To be fair, the Italian artists of this series had never seen the show and were working from photographs of the cast/props/starship, and may not have had pictures of Klingons until later. The Gold Key Star Trek series is awesome, partially because of the unfamiliarity the creators had with the source material:

Gold Key Klingons.jpeg

from Star Trek #14 (Gold Key Comics): “The Enterprise Mutiny” – art by the amazing Alberto Giolitti and words by Len Wein (!)


When Klingons did finally appear onscreen in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture they were not the primary adversaries, but their short appearance completely flipped the script:

Man, that Jerry Goldsmith score is fantastic. Like his other music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, these cues would be used time after time in future Trek productions (this piece specifically for the Klingons). Actually, EVERYTHING about this prologue sequence would come to define Klingons for decades.

The TMP Klingon look was sketched out by artist Robert Fletcher, and brought to life by makeup artist Rick Stratton. The inspiration was a makeup from a failed Roddenberry TV pilot in the early 70s called Planet Earth which featured a race of mutants known as the Kreeg as adversaries in a post-apocalyptic world. I found this out just days ago while researching for this post and it boggles my mind:

Fun fact; the man playing the Klingon Captain in that scene is none other than Mark Lenard. Lenard had previously played the unnamed Romulan Commander in TOS: “Balance of Terror” and Spock’s father Sarek in “Journey to Babel” (a role he later reprised in the Star Trek movies and The Next Generation). This may make him one of the only actors to portray the three major alien species of the TOS-era; Vulcan, Romulan, and Klingon.


The makeup for the TMP Klingons is distinct from what would come after. Each performer has a very high, lobster-tail like ridge that runs down the middle of the forehead and onto the nose. The hairline sharply recedes to showcase this feature, which doesn’t vary much between members of the group. No explanation was given onscreen for the change; behind the scenes rationale was that “they had always been this way,” or that there were multiple races of Klingons. The ensuing speculation would be a major feature of Trekkie culture for decades, cementing us as the most nerdy, pedantic fanbase of any science-fiction franchise. Trek-lit usually went with the “multiple races” theory, or speculated that the smooth Klingons were some kind of “human-Klingon fusion,” bio-engineered to interact with humans and infiltrate them with greater ease (this is the explanation offered in the excellent Star Trek: The Worlds of the Federation reference book by Shane Johnson). The style of armor worn by the crew of the Amar in The Motion Picture would be re-used in nearly every ensuing Trek production until the prequel series Enterprise.


Klingons in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Klingons continued to appear in the 80s Star Trek film series. The plot of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (which originally featured Romulans, hence the cloaking-device equipped ship) escalated the Federation/Klingon conflict by throwing the Genesis Device from The Wrath of Khan into the mix. Genesis was was a mechanism made to instantly terraform a world; the fact that it wiped out whatever existed before meant it was also a weapon of mass destruction. The Klingon Captain Kruge became embroiled in a gambit with the Enterprise crew over the newly formed Genesis Planet, threatening to turn the Federation-Klingon Cold War hot. Kruge was portrayed by Chrisopher Lloyd, a fact I never picked up on at all when I was young (and I was very familiar with Mr. Lloyd; Back to the Future was another movie constantly in the rental rotation at my house). A much more subdued forehead was used for the Klingons in The Search for Spock; a flatter, trilobite-esque look that seemed more like a natural part of the skull (if it makes sense at all that an alien would look exactly like a lumpy headed human). You’ll also notice that they did away with the nose piece.

The prosthetics kept changing as the movies went on. The next two installments featured a standardized, somewhat putty-ish look, seen on the Klingon ambassadors to the Federation Council in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (first image below) and Klaa, Korrd, and Vixis from the (unfairly maligned) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (second image). Note the continued use of the armor style from The Motion Picture, also the smooth noses.


Production of the later films was concurrent with development and release of the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which featured its own style of Klingon (we’ll take a closer look at TNG-era Klingons next time).

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was the final film with the full original cast and featured a wide array of forehead styles on its Klingon characters. Chancellor Gorkon (sci-fi regular David Warner, left) has a prominent forehead, while Christopher Plummer’s General Chang (above right) has a much more subdued look (the rivets holding his eyepatch in have the Klingon symbol etched into them!). Gorkon’s daughter Azetbur (Rosana DeSoto, lower right) barely has a ridge at all. The eyebrows were toned down for a lot of the Klingons in this film.

The uniforms in ST:VI differ from the style in Treks I, III, and V, there’s more padding, less exposed armor surface. This wouldn’t last, the earlier armor was re-used for most Klingon appearances in the TNG era. I know it makes sense from a budget standpoint, but I sure got sick of seeing Klingons in nothing but that same armor, episode after episode.

Below is an interesting comparison; Klingon ambassador Kamarag shows up again in ST:VI, sporting makeup similar to his The Voyage Home appearance. Here he appears alongside a gentleman (gentleKlingon?) with the ST:III trilobite look:


Another opportunity to see differences in Klingon makeup styles across Trek productions is Michael Dorn’s appearance as an ancestor of his character Worf from The Next Generation (which had already been on air for a few years at this time). Compare the movie-style makeup on Mr. Dorn in ST:VI with the heavier appliance he wore in TNG. Like all movie Klingons after The Motion Picture, Worf’s ancestor (also named Worf) has a smooth, human-like nose:

The Undiscovered Country established some interesting (soon to be overridden) facts about Klingon biology. Following the assassination of Chancellor Gorkon, Scotty remarks that his daughter Azetbur “didn’t shed a tear!” In response, Spock explains that Klingons have no tear ducts…and yet we catch Klingons crying a few times in the TNG years. Klingon blood is cartoonishly bright purple in ST:VI to tone down the violence and make sure the movie didn’t get a more extreme rating; this would also not be reflected in the ensuing TV series.

More important to the story of Star Trek than any physical change to the Klingons was the resolution of their conflict with the United Federation of Planets in ST:VI. When The Next Generation premiered a few years prior, Klingons were shown to have become allies of the UFP. The Undiscovered County connected the dots and showed how the two feuding superpowers came to be on friendly terms, inspired by the dissolution of the Soviet Union occurring at the same time in the real world.


Klingon-Federation Peace Talks on the planet Khitomer in Star Trek VI

Making the Federation and Klingons friends after so many years of feuding is a great example of Star Trek’s message that different peoples can resolve conflicts and work towards common goals. Relations between the two weren’t always sterling after the treaty, but the threat of a war that would have devastated the two powers’ quadrant of the galaxy was vastly diminished.

Well, this transmission has run a little long and we’re not even halfway through Trek history yet! We’ll continue this later, Wagoners, with a look at the changes to Klingon prosthetics, costumes, and portrayals in the TNG years and beyond. I wish you Qapla!

Enjoy this transmission extolling the benefits of membership in the Empire:

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