“Just as there are different races of humans, there are different races of Klingons, and the Klingons seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture are not the same race as the ones we saw on The Original Series.”
—Gene Roddenberry, The Great Bird of the Galaxy
“I wanted to lend a little more ferocity to their overall appearance, so I asked Rick Berman and Gene Roddenberry to let me try something different from what ‘had gone before.'”
—Michael Westmore, The Next Generation Make Up Artist
Star Trek: Discovery offered up a different look for the Klingons than audiences had previously been exposed to, causing an uproar in some factions of the fan community. Their proclamation—Discovery isn’t canon and it doesn’t take place in the Prime Timeline (i.e. the universe that the previous Trek TV series occur in).
“Not my Trek!” is the oft-used battlecry.
Truth be told, this isn’t the first time there have been multiple types of Klingons. For 25 years the difference between the smooth-headed Klingons in the original series and The Motion Picture cranial ridged Klingons went unexplained on film and TV—with only an acknowledgment of the differences in the Deep Space Nine episode, “Trials and Tribble-ations.” The explanation was simple, its execution flawless. “We do not talk about it with outsiders!” said Mr. Worf, Son of Mog.
Not a Merry man.
So, why the change?
“Gene Roddenberry wanted to redesign the look of the Klingons. That’s the real reason for the change in appearance.”
CH-CH-CH-CHANGES. The Klingon makeup has been altered or redesigned for The Motion Picture, Star Trek III, The Next Generation, and Star Treks V and VI before Discovery. All of these show different types of Klingons than the Original Series did, and all are considered canon by Star Trek’s masters. This essay explores what it means to be prime universe Klingon over five decades of Star Trek.
NORTHERN KLINGONS vs. SOUTHERN KLINGONS. Roddenberry himself once famously joked that the ridgeless Klingons were “Southern” Klingons and the ridged ones were “Northern” Klingons. That comment alone shows how much of a non-issue he felt it was. He later stated, “the original show had simply never had the budget and makeup technology to envision the species as it should have been seen, so the apparently new Klingons were just Klingons as they were always intended to have been.”
Essentially, the advice of Mystery Science Theatre 3000: “Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
RUFFLES HAVE RIDGES… BUT THEY DON’T FALL DOWN. The ridged brows on the Klingons were inspired by the alien race called the Kreeg as they appeared in Gene’s failed pilot ‘Planet Earth.’ Just like engineers love to change things, Gene loved to recycle them.
The bald and more reptilian look of the Discovery Klingons, as well as their layered armor, comes from Robert Fletcher’s extrapolation of the Kreeg designs for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Planet of the Titans. (more on that aborted Star Trek film in the link above). Indeed, it was Gene himself who suggested that the Klingon ridges wrap around their skulls as extensions of their spinal cords, just as former showrunner Bryan Fuller chose to explore on Discovery.Fletcher’s design vs. Discovery Klingon T’Kuvma. One of these things is much like the other.
THERE IS NOTHING IN THE DESERT, AND NOMEN NEED NOTHING. Another possible inspiration for The Motion Picture Klingons may have been the Borellian Nomen from the 1978 sci-fi television series Battlestar Galactica. The Nomen were part of a fierce nomadic warrior tribe and came replete with bushy beards on their faces and bony ridges on their foreheads. They had customs, codes, and rituals that were integral to their aggressive culture, and physically looked to be the missing link between the Original Series Klingons and their Motion Picture compatriots.
Battlestar alumni, actor and novelist Richard Hatch (Captain Apollo) also played Klingon Commander Karn in the Star Trek independent film project, Prelude to Axanar. Diving into the Klingon culture for the part, he often commented that he believed the Nomen and Klingons to be conceptually linked in appearance, culture, and demeanor. Whether or not it was a conscious choice made behind the scenes on Star Trek or was just a coincidence is unknown for sure. SFX wizard John Dykstra, illustrators Andrew Probert and Ralph McQuarrie, and other production crew all worked on both Trek and BSG in the 1970s, so—to quote Spock—it is, “a distinct possibility.”
REFLECTIONS OF THE FASA FUSIONS. Sources such as the excellent Trek novel, The Final Reflection, by J.M. Ford, and the also excellent FASA Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game, explained the Klingon differences as the result of genetic experiments designed to help the Klingons face off against their various racial foes. There were Imperial Klingons, Human-fusion Klingons, and even a Romulan-fusion Klingon subspecies. According to these sources, such things eventually became frowned upon by the Empire, and the experiments were discontinued.
The appearance of classic Klingons Kor, Koloth, and Kang in DS9—sporting cranial ridges they never had in The Original Series—dispelled that theory, however.
The same three Klingons, twice. Second set of pics taken on a bad hair day.
A DIVERTING AFFLICTION. Ford and FASA’s theory was a pretty good one, and one that was accepted behind closed doors for decades. It would be modified for the purposes of the final explanation of the Klingon change in appearance, offered during the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘Divergence.’ The Klingon race as we have mostly known it—let’s call them the Imperial Klingons—were the victims of a genetically mutated virus in the 2150s. The virus was accidentally created when ambitious Klingons got their hands on Human augment DNA—yes, the same stuff of Khan—and used it to try to create Super Klingons. It would have wiped out the entire Klingon Empire if not for the fast work of Dr. Phlox. Unfortunately, the cure had side effects—the familiar ridge-headed Klingons were genetically altered to look like the Klingons from The Original Series. Their cranial ridges dissolved and they became a little bit human and a lot less than Klingon. Phlox’s cure saved the race from annihilation but was an embarrassment for certain.
As was suggested in the episode, it would be a long time until the Klingons could figure out a way to restore their Imperial appearance—and their offspring would likely be born with the same affliction. It was suggested that cranial ridge reconstruction might become a thing.
Ridged Klingon is ridgeless. Thanks, Space Obama.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW. Where does that leave us with the previously mentioned Discovery looking Klingons? You can take them as a visual reboot, which is pretty much what Discovery’s producers were going for, or you can sprinkle some sci-fi magic in to ease your canonical woes. Here are a few theories this humble author has hypothesized (that fit with the overall Trek universe) to maintain what some fans consider precious visual continuity.
Ceiling Klingon is judging you.
HYPOTHESIS No. 1: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE NEANDER-KLINGON. After the Imperial Klingons were altered by the virus to assume a human-like appearance, they were seen as less than Klingon. At this point, what was previously considered a lesser offshoot of their race—the Proto-Klingons, as seen in Discovery—begins to gain power. Considered the Klingon equivalent of Neanderthals, the Proto Klingons had previously been occupying comparatively menial roles in the Empire—such as mining or maintaining outposts on harsh worlds in the Klingon sector equivalent of Siberia.
The reason for my use of the term Proto-Klingon: Visually, Discovery Klingons fit as a missing link between the Prehistoric Klingon creature seen in the TNG episode ‘Genesis’ and The Imperial Klingons we have come to know.
Prehistoric, Proto, Imperial—a Study in Klingon. Evolution’s a fickle bitch, am I right?
The irony in this scenario is that the Proto-Klingons are now more Klingon then their previous lords—the Imperial Klingons that had been altered by the human augment virus. This offshoot rises in dominance because their genes were in fact pure. Disgusted by the fact that a human virus (nevermind that the Klingons had tried to use it on themselves and almost killed their entire race with it) had changed the purity of the Klingon line, the Proto-Klingon battle cry of “Remain Klingon” became their rallying point.
MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAI—er, I mean, REMAIN KLINGON!
HYPOTHESIS No. 2: GENETIC MANIPULATION RUN AMOK. The time again is post Enterprise. Not knowing when to quit, Klingon scientists begin developing a retrovirus to restore Klingons to their once glorious appearance. It doesn’t exactly work correctly, however, and the Klingon race who are treated are accidentally reverted to a proto-Klingon appearance. The Empire goes into seclusion for almost 100 years because of this. Still, being proto-Klingon is better than being a Klingon altered with human DNA. Because of propaganda, Klingons like T’Kuvma see the virus as the Federation’s attempt to make the Klingons more like them. Hence, an alternate explanation for the rallying cry, “Reman Klingon!”
I like this armor. Someone is going to be pissed I used a Kelvin Klingon here. Just you see.
HYPOTHESIS No. 3: DIVERSITY IN KLINGON. The simplest one. The Klingon Empire stretches over at least hundreds of worlds over a vast amount of space. There could very easily be species of Klingon we haven’t seen yet. We have never seen all 24 houses. As Gene suggested at one point, it’s possible that variant species of Klingons are spread across the Empire. In fact, rumors abound that future issues of Star Trek magazine might confirm as much.
Smiles, everyone. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and today is a good day to die.
WHICH WAY DID THEY GO, GEORGIOU? So, why no Proto-Klingons in the other Trek series? After the Proto-Klingons—whether the result of Hypothesis 1, 2, or 3—cause the war with the Federation and lose abysmally, they fall into disgrace. The altered augment Klingons reclaim control of the Empire. But where do the Protos go?
The Klingon Empire is not beyond genocide.
Proto-Klingons, say hello to our little friend…
DARWIN WAS RIGHT. The Imperial Klingons could have decided that this subspecies was dangerous, and wiped them out by the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—the same time the means were discovered to undo the damage created by the augment virus and restore Imperial Klingons to their rightful appearance.
Battle of the Binary Stars. The Feds face an armada of atypical Klingon proto-crewed ships.
This would also explain the discontinuation of the ship designs the Klingons use in Discovery and the return to Imperial design lineages. The amazing Trek resource site, Ex Astris Scientia, has compiled a size chart of the Proto-Klingons’ ship designs. You can see that chart on that site. As for some insight into the difference in design philosophies…
A tale of two Birds of Prey: gothic vs. classic—Proto-Klingon vs. Imperial. Who will win?
AN EMPIRE TORN. Something else that will likely come up in complaints is the fact that L’Rell is in charge of the Klingon Empire. In the Season One Finale of Discovery, L’Rell holds the fate of Q’onoS in her hands—-literally. She forces the Empire to call off the war, and she assumes leadership. What’s wrong with that?
Fans will point out that “Women may not serve on the council,” was stated by Gowron in the TNG episode, “Redemption Part 1.” What if L’Rell is the reason for that? She forced the empire to listen to her, and the male council may not have been too happy about that.
Women cannot serve on Coun—-oh wait…
In Star Trek VI, Azetbur was chancellor for a brief time after her father’s death, but, as was suggested in the Star Trek VI novelization by J.M. Dillard, that was likely a set up by the council who wished to have an easy patsy.
(Dillard even went so far as to include Klingon cultural touches from TNG that STVI forgot about—as soon as Kirk and company are escorted away from the recently deceased Chancellor Gorkon, Chang and the other warriors present perform the Klingon death ritual, warning the dead that a Klingon warrior is about to arrive. Originating on The Next Generation, the same ritual has been shown on DS9 and in Discovery. Incidentally, fans arguing that Klingons discard the bodies of their dead and do not prepare them for interment should check out Spock’s mention of a Klingon mummification glyph in Star Trek IV. It’s pretty clear in Discovery that more progressive Klingon factions see the body as nothing but a shell, but religious groups such as T’Kuvma’s follow older traditions and revere the bodies of the dead. When L’Rell finds that Kor has been piling Klingon corpses in the rubbish, she is horrified.)
These two acts? Same difference.
CONSULT THE FORTUNE COOKIES. As Season 2 of Discovery develops, it appears that L’Rell and the other Klingons will be undergoing yet another transformation—this one bringing them more in line with the Imperial species—and implying Hypothesis 2 as an answer (a shame, really, as I am partial to Hypothesis 1). It has been said that the Klingons in Season 1 had shaved their heads for war, although why the leaders of all shown houses heads were bald before the war started leaves me scratching their heads about that one.
Becoming more Imperial every day. Viva L’Rellvolution!
THERE’S ALWAYS SOMETHING. In science fiction, almost anything can have a workaround. All it takes is a little bit of imagination.
All images are ©2019 CBS Paramount or NBC Universal and are used for the purposes of commentary or review only unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.
I’ll leave you with a closer look at the lovely Prehistoric Klingon as seen on TNG as well as some more pertinent Klingon quotes and information from both Discovery’s production team and those who worked on Treks of old:
“If you look at the Klingons, there is something fairly gothic and art deco about them,” Rodis pointed out. “If you notice, they never wear simple, undecorated costumes; it’s all kind of metallic and leather, with piping and stuff [….] Also, even though the Klingons aren’t green, they are definitely not blue. They lean more toward gray/green.”
—Nilo Rodis, Star Trek III Art Director
“The empire is very big. They don’t all grow up on Kronos. They don’t all live on the same planets and certainly, those different planets would have different environments. So how would the cultures have evolved differently? …we tried to come up with cultural axioms for each house so each looks different and they bear a cultural patina like our cultures do here on Earth.”
“What can you say to reassure us that we’re not losing the Klingons we know and love?” a furtive audience member asked during the Q&A portion. Mitchell assured the crowd that the recent publicity still image released was of one Klingon, from one house. “We will see all 24 houses and the leaders among them,” he revealed. The houses will be explored, and the physical and ideological differences between them. L’Rell is part of two houses, Chieffo explained, and the conflicts arising therein, as well as how she is viewed by the Federation versus her own people, will be explored in depth.”
From Memory Alpha:
Fred Phillips expected that the fans would wonder about how the Klingons could possibly have head ridges newly added to their faces, he and Roddenberry came up with the explanation of there being a variety of Klingon races, even before the release of The Motion Picture. Despite this, the transformation continued to be regarded as a mystery for decades to come. (Star Trek: Communicator issue 145, pp. 71-72)
Roddenberry also stipulated that the Klingons would preemptively attack any foreign entity discovered within Klingon space, such as they do to V’Ger in The Motion Picture. (audio commentary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (The Director’s Edition))
Richard Snell was relieved that, in Star Trek VI, Nicholas Meyer gave him leeway to design the Klingons as slightly more diverse and grotesque than they had been in previous films. (Cinefantastique, Vol. 22, No. 5, p. 33)
The once and future Klingon D-7. Just sayin’.
—Andrew E. C. Gaska
An author, designer, game-writer, and graphic novelist with twenty years of industry experience, Gaska has worked as a freelance consultant to 20th Century Fox and Rockstar Games. In addition to being the Senior Development Editor for Lion Forge comics and animation, he is a contributor to both their Quillion gaming department and their licensing team.