Solving the Klingon dilemma on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’
Let’s get this out of the way first: I love the Klingon redesign in Star Trek: Discovery, I find it ornate and almost tangible, evoking marble statues, rhinos and dinosaurs to the point I want to caress their skulls. (Certainly the advances in make-up and cinematography that make their bones look less like pastries helps.) I wish they were still as hirsute as previous incarnations, even if that means covering up the sensory pits on their heads, but ultimately it’s up to future filmmakers to decide if they want to harmonise the old and new designs.
The question the new make-up raises though, is whether Klingons from other Star Trek series, like Worf and B’Elanna Torres, “actually” looked like this? It’s presumably the producers’ intent, and similarly, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry always explained the difference between the original Klingons and those after the first redesign in 1979 was that improved production values simply showed what Klingons “always” looked like.
It was easy to assume as much until the 1996 Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations”, where the Defiant crew are transported back in time to the events of the classic episode introducing the titular furry critters, and Worf is forced to acknowledge the disparity in appearance:
Eventually the 2000s series Star Trek: Enterprise, which takes places a century before the original series, revealed the Klingons’ simple, brownface look from Captain Kirk’s era was the result of an attempt at creating Klingon versions of superhumans like Khan Noonien Singh (that madman gets everywhere).
Long story short, the introduction of human DNA in the Klingon population causes many of them to lose their cranial ridges, though it’s hinted the Klingons will resort to surgery to restore them, explaining how members of the species from the original show showed up in subsequent series with the characteristic Klingon make-up.
Discovery, which takes place a decade before the original Star Trek, has not shown any Klingons with a human appearance. Which is not to say they don’t exist: in fact it adds much to the show’s story that Klingons fearful of the Federation’s impact on their society have already been “contaminated” by humanity.
The simplest explanation is the very same one that Discovery apparently ignores. The Klingons from the films and other TV shows are out there, inhabiting major population centres like the homeworld of Kronos, while the Klingons on the show, who are obsessed with remaining Klingon, are scattered across the galaxy. Enterprise’s Klingon make-up is best regarded as anachronistic, just like the use of Romulan and Reman costumes from Star Trek Nemesis on the show.
Imagining Star Trek as a dramatisation, rather than actual footage of events from the future is a great idea, and it’s one Roddenberry enjoyed pondering, as anyone who has read the preface by “Admiral Kirk” to the novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture can attest. It’s reminiscent of the way Sherlock Holmes writers leave us to ponder how much “Watson” embellished his recollections of their adventures, and reminds us that we’re debating fiction at the end of the day.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter what the Klingons look like: what matters is what they, and the rest of Star Trek, represent and reflect about the world we live in. It’s those themes, not dated or resource-strapped visions of what aliens would look like, that have enabled Star Trek to live long and prosper.