Trek Trivia Tidbit – the Klingons were named after one of Gene Roddenberry’s fellow officers during his time in the LAPD; a Lt. Wilbur Clingan.
yI’el (sg) pe’el (pl)! qaleghqa’mo’ jIQuch (“Welcome! I am glad because I see you again!” in the Klingon tongue)! A while ago we examined the new design of the Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery, and also explored the history of the aliens’ depiction in Star Trek: The Original Series and its sequel films. On this voyage, we’ll focus our scanners on the Klingons of the 1990s-2000s Star Trek television series.
The Next Generation Era
The first appearance of a Klingon in Star Trek: The Next Generation was Lieutenant Worf, portrayed by Michael Dorn. Worf was the first Klingon to serve in Starfleet (aside from Konom in DC’s 80s Star Trek comic series…but that’s a story for another time). In TNG we learned that Worf was an infant when the colony his family lived on was attacked by Romulans. His Klingon parents were killed in the attack, and after he was rescued by a Federation ship he was adopted by humans and raised on Earth (in Russia, specifically). Somewhat of a stranger in both worlds, Worf distinguished himself as a Starfleet officer and became involved in various intrigues in the higher echelons of the Klingon Empire, eventually becoming its leader (I think that’s what happened…I need to re-watch Deep Space Nine). Michael Dorn’s makeup evolved over the years as he portrayed Worf on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. He holds the record for most appearances by any actor on Star Trek.
The first few seasons of TNG were produced alongside the last of the TOS movies, but the show went with a different approach for its Klingons. The foreheads were bonier and more prominent, and the ridges on the nose that were present in 1979’s The Motion Picture were added back in (sometimes). The costumes stayed exactly the same, even though the new shows were set almost a century later. Yes, I know television has this thing called a budget, but man, did I get tired of seeing that same set of armor. They kept using the same rayguns that had been around since The Search for Spock as well.
While Klingon heads in the TOS films were very uniform, the TNG forehead bones varied greatly from Klingon to Klingon, like fingerprints. Check out the differences between two prominent Klingons below; the sleazy, conniving Gowron (Robert O’reilly, left) has a very distinctive cranium, while the honorable one-eyed General Martok (J.G. Hertzler, right) rocks a more subdued style. Gowron also has a nose bifurcated at the tip, another feature that varied from Klingon to Klingon.
Distinctive forehead bones were also shown to be family traits, such as the turtle-head noggins of the Duras Family. These ne’er do wells bedeviled Worf and the crew of the Enterprise-D several times:
The TNG-era also introduced us to some human/Klingon individuals; most notably B’Elanna Torres, Chief Engineer of the USS Voyager on the eponymous TV show (Roxanne Dawson, left) and Ambassador K’Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson, right), Worf’s best gal on TNG until her untimely death at the hands of the devious Duras:
Of course, the idea of humans and organisms from another world mating and producing viable offspring is ludicrous. Genetically speaking, a human would have more in common with a banana than a Klingon. Star Trek: TNG handwaves this with those Ancient Humanoids from “The Chase” who seeded the primordial oozes of countless worlds with the “building blocks” to make humanoid-looking life…but surely the biochemistries and “fine details” would probably be completely different (and Klingons canonically have, like, multiple hearts and other weird anatomical traits). But I digress, this is another topic for another time.
Throughout the airing of the 90s Star Trek shows the debate in fandom raged on; what was the deal with the forehead change? Deep Space Nine threw fuel on the fire when the episode “Blood Oath” featured the return of three Klingons from The Original Series, Kang, Kor, and Koloth (Michael Ansara, John Colicos, and William Campbell – left to right, TOS above/TNG below).
This was the first time the same Klingon individuals were seen in both Trek eras. You could still speculate “they always looked that way,” but the airing of DS9: “Trials and Tribbleations” quashed that theory. The DS9 gang traveled back in time to the events of the TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” (to celebrate Trek’s 30th anniversary) and definitely noticed the difference…
Now let’s keep it real; the above clip was clearly intended by the DS9 showrunners to poke fun at the Klingon forehead debate, and was not intended to be taken seriously. But Trekkies take everything Star Trek related very, very seriously.
Speculation intensified, with the old theories dusted off again:
- Mass genetic engineering (maybe to aid in infiltration of Federation territory)? You’d figure it would still be taught in Federation schools years later. O’brien may be a tech-head with no interest in history (aside from the history of the Irish in labor unions, per DS9: “Bar Association”), but Bashir is a genius physician with a wealth of knowledge in alien biology/anatomy! Not to mention Bashir himself is a product of (illegal) genetic engineering, and would probably be very interested in something like this.
- There are two Klingon races? The smooth ones may have lost the upper hand in the Empire after The Original Series (a common explanation from the spinoff material, such as in Chris Claremont’s excellent comic Star Trek: Debt of Honor). Then explain Kor, Kang and Koloth changing faces between TOS and DS9. You could say they got cosmetic surgery and were still well-regarded in the Empire for their heroic deeds, but that’s kind of a dumb, sloppy solution.
- Viral mutation
- Act of Q?
The issue would be canonically resolved years later in Star Trek: Enterprise, ending one of the most long-running debates about something that doesn’t matter. Except for anything involving religion.
Trekkies were a little befuddled (ok, so they were probably frothing at the mouth and mashing keyboards) when Klingons showed up in Star Trek: Enterprise sporting the familiar TNG foreheads. Enterprise took place in the 22nd Century (one hundred years before The Original Series) and focused on the first long distance starship ever constructed by Humans, the Enterprise NX-01. Captained by a folksy, down to earth guy named Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), the NX-01 launched from Earth ahead of schedule in the premier episode “Broken Bow;” the starship’s first mission was to return a Klingon to the Empire after he crash landed in Oklahoma and was shot by a redneck.
Enterprise was kind of a mess. The producers started out with good intentions and wanted to create a fresh, new take on the Trek universe, but received orders from the network to bring in more and more familiar elements until the stories were pretty much indistinguishable from TNG/DS9/Voyager (especially Voyager).
The Klingon Empire in Enterprise was a fractious group of feuding noble houses, just like in the 24th century stories. There was no hint of the unified, disciplined force they were in TOS…which at this point seems like some unprecedented cultural revolution that later broke down again into restrained barbarism. Maybe they could have shaken it up a bit and had the Klingons of the 22nd Century be a refined, genteel society that goes through a fascist revolution by the time of TOS? Well, at least they finally ditched that tired old Star Trek III armor. Let’s take a look at the average 22nd century Klingon in the person of Klaang (Tommy “Tiny” Lister), the stranded Klingon courier from the first episode (“Broken Bow”):
Gone is the metallic armor, replaced by leathers and furs. The spikes on the boots are left over from the movie/TNG costumes, and the pants are similar (they’re probably the same costume pieces, dyed brown). It’s refreshing after years and years of the same costume, but it’s still very “90s genre television.”
The Klingons we see on Enterprise all wear this same “Viking” style of dress but there is no uniform appearance. This fits with the overall depiction of their society in the show; mostly just marauders, not holding together a vast space empire so much as cruising around and roughing up weaker aliens. There was little formal contact between the Empire and the government of Earth until the episodes “Affliction” and “Divergence” in Season 4.
The fourth season of Enterprise was its last; the show had changed producers and the Time Travel War story arc of seasons 1-2 (foisted upon the show by the network and reviled by fans) had been completely dumped. Season 3’s Xindi conflict (a September 11th/War on Terror analogue) had wrapped at the start of Season 4, and the remaining episodes tried their damnedest to shoehorn in as much TOS stuff as possible. We got Orion slave women, Gorns, Tholians, and the beginnings of an alliance that would later grow into the United Federation of Planets. There was even a Mirror Universe episode! The format of the show also changed, most stories took place over two or three episodes. It’s like Enterprise was trying to grow up and move the franchise into the realm of 21st century television…but alas it was too little, too late.
One TOS thread the show plucked was the genetically-engineered supermen left over from Earth’s Eugenics Wars, personified Star Trek’s best (and best known) villain, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban). Khan’s first appearance was in TOS: “Space Seed,” but he is far better known for his Wrath.
In the Enterprise “Augments” story arc the crew faces off against a different group of supermen, created from frozen embryos left over from the wars by a crazy scientist. The supermen uprising is quelled but in the aftermath a starship carrying the leftover genetically engineered embryos crashes on a Klingon colony.
Flash forward a few months, and a virulent plague is ravaging Klingon space. We learn that the Klingon High Council wanted to use the embryos to create genetically enhanced Klingon warriors, and had researchers adapt the enhancements for use in gene therapy. The process worked, but at the cost of dissolving the test subjects’ forehead ridges. Immediately upon receiving the treatment, the facebones “melt” down into a human-like, smooth forehead. Which makes no sense, biologically speaking….that’s not how skulls or “mutation” or whatever works.
One of the supermen test subjects was infected with a virus that mutated and became airborne, ravaging Klingon space. Dr. Phlox (Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer) and the Klingon scientist who first reverse-engineered the gene therapy manage to create a cure, but the cost is dire. Every Klingon who receives the cure for the virus (or is vaccinated against it) loses their forehead ridges:
The two images above portray the same individual, pre and post-virus cure. Apparently a way to reverse the loss of forehead ridges was found sometime after The Original Series, restoring Klingons to their classic look.
So that’s it. That’s the explanation. Not very fun, is it? Maybe all this time, the journey was better than the destination; and the good times we had speculating and debating on why Klingon foreheads changed was better than the unsatisfying, self-referential explanation that was finally offered.
Next time we’ll examine the Klingons in the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies of the 2000s, and take a closer look at Discovery’s Klingons in the trailer that recently dropped.
Until next time, Wagoners, IwlIj jachjaj! Qapla!