Let’s make a wager. You can take all the Sith Lords and even Jedi Knights you can find, and put them up against my squad of Klingons, and prepare to lose your money. That’s because you won’t find any tougher, more well-trained and honorable warriors in sci-fi than Klingons. They are, as the saying goes today, totally badass.
Star Wars vs. Star Trek
The new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is blowing the doors off theaters all over the world, setting box office records and closing in fast on the all-time champ, Avatar. I plan to see the movie this weekend with son Jim, who will be visiting us from Milwaukee for the holiday. I’m sure it will be an enjoyable film, and from all accounts it is well done and exciting.
But it won’t be Star Trek. The two science fiction universes are similar in many respects but, well, light years apart in others. I’ve seen all the Star Wars films, beginning with the first one back in 1977 that my brother Brian and I saw down in Dubuque, Iowa, just as my sophomore year in college and his seventh-grade year were ending. By then I’d been a Trekker—that’s the serious Star Trek fan–since the original TV series premiered in 1966. In fact, my first memory of watching a Trek episode can be pinpointed to the exact date: November 24, 1966. It was Thanksgiving, and I was at the home of my cousins Mike and Steve Udelhofen in Platteville, watching their color TV. That was an event in and of itself, but especially this night, because we got our first glimpse of one of early Trek’s most iconic one-shot characters, the Orion Slave Girl, and she was green.
This was most definitely not like Lost in Space, which was the other sci-fi series popular on TV at the time. I was hooked.
Forty-nine years, hundreds of TV episodes spread across six series, and twelve movies later, Star Trek is still going strong. A new movie is due next summer, and CBS will have a new TV series beginning in January 2017. The argument can be made that the brainchild of the late TV writer/producer Gene Roddenberry has become one of the most popular cultural phenomena in the history of American entertainment.
And a large part of the credit has to go to the Klingons.
The original bad guys of Star Trek.
One of Roddenberry’s writers on the original series (abbreviated as TOS), Gene L. Coon, came up with the Klingons. The original Star Trek series needed an adversary for Captain Kirk and the crew of USS Enterprise, and Coon named them after Lt. Wilbur Clingan, who had worked with Roddenberry in the Los Angeles Police Department. Although Coon and Roddenberry said they did not intentionally insert political overtones into the series, the Klingons quickly became the Soviet Union to the Enterprise’s United Federation of Planets, who were the good guys. The Klingons were militaristic, ruthless, and generally lacking in any redeeming qualities. Physically, they resembled Asians more than Europeans, and this was intentional; in the mid-sixties, memories of America’s struggle against Japan in World War II were still fresh, and of course we were in the midst of the Vietnam War.
That started to change when the first movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, premiered in 1979. With a much larger budget, the producers decided to re-make the Klingons, even though they had only a small part in the film. Their uniforms were much more elaborate, their hair was longer, and their faces featured the now-famous vertical ridged brows. Even though events in the movie were taking place only a decade or so after the time of TOS, the changes in the Klingons were never explained. In fact, it would be another 36 years before fans were told what had happened.
The Klingons had a central role in the third movie, The Search for Spock (1984), but they were still the bad guys; in fact, they murdered Kirk’s son. It wasn’t until the 1987 debut of the next live-action TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (abbreviated as TNG), that we started to learn more about them, at least on screen; Trek novels had been popular since the end of the original series, and in many of these the authors were given rein to explore the Klingon society. The first to do this was Star Trek: The Final Reflection, published in 1984 and written by the late John M. Ford. In the book, Ford paints a vivid picture of the Klingons as a vibrant, complex race, with their own concept of honor that turns out to be very much like ours, or at least like ours used to be. Ford’s novel paved the way for the creation of Lt. Worf, the first Klingon crewman of a Starfleet vessel, in TNG.
Worf was born–or will be born, if you prefer–into a prominent Klingon family in the Earth year 2340 (on February 8, to be precise). At age five he was living with his parents in a Klingon outpost on the planet Khitomer when it was attacked by the Romulans, Trek’s other adversarial species (the Romulans had a hard time getting along with anybody), and Worf was one of the few survivors. He was rescued by an Earth crewman from USS Intrepid. The officer, Sergey Rozhenko, was an ethnic Russian and native of Belarus. Rozhenko and his wife Helena raised Worf as their adopted son. He became the first Klingon to graduate from Starfleet Academy and seven years later was assigned to USS Enterprise-D, under the command of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Over the course of TNG, its parallel series Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (DS9) and the movies, we get to know Worf and his people very well indeed. Originally adversaries of the Earth-based United Federation of Planets, the Klingons gradually became uneasy allies, thanks in large part to the Federation’s response to the Khitomer massacre. The events in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country lead to the founding of the alliance.
The Klingon way.
The Klingon home world is Qo’noS, located in the star system known as Omega Leonis, about 112 light years from Earth. Although similar in size to Earth, its environment is much harsher, with wild fluctuations between the seasons. No wonder, then, that it produced a race of humanoids as strong and as hardy as the Klingons. Biologically, they have many redundant organs and their metabolism enables rapid healing from injury or illness. Their world has only one very large land mass, which helped in the development of one dominant culture, rather than the several we have on Earth thanks in part to our separate and diverse continents.
Their culture has similarities to ancient Sparta and feudal Japan, with an emphasis on physical training, personal combat and a strong sense of honor. A Klingon who dies in battle is guaranteed entry into their heaven, known as Sto-Vo-Kor, where combat and feasting are eternal, but unlike radical Islam, there don’t appear to be any virgins waiting for the Klingon warrior, male or female. If, however, a Klingon dies of any other cause, he or she goes to Gre’Thor, a place of eternal torment, similar to our concept of hell. But all is not lost for the condemned Klingon; surviving family members can undertake quests that can result in their loved one’s spirit being lifted up to Sto-Vo-Kor.
Klingons have their own “messiah,” known as Kahless the Unforgettable. The legend is similar to that of Jesus Christ, although there are very important differences. Whereas Jesus was a man of peace and did not seek to overthrow any earthly government, Kahless was the mightiest warrior in Klingon history and brought radical, across-the-board change to his planet. Some 1,500 Earth years ago, Kahless overthrew a tyrant and became the first Klingon emperor. He fashioned the iconic Klingon weapon, the bat’leth, known as the Sword of Honor, taught his people the principles of honor and then left, promising one day to return.
Can you speak Klingon?
As the Star Trek series and movies rolled along, we heard more of the languages spoken by its two most prominent alien races, the Vulcans and the Klingons. We first hear Klingons speaking their native tongue in The Motion Picture, and it was basically gibberish that was suggested by one of the actors, James Doohan, who played the Enterprise’s chief engineer, Scotty. It didn’t take long for Trekkers to jump on that one, though, and within a few years an entire Klingon language was developed. In 1985, American linguist Marc Okrand published The Klingon Dictionary. Okrand was commissioned to develop the language by Leonard Nimoy, who played the Vulcan officer Spock and directed the third and fourth movies.
Okrand’s doctoral dissertation was on the grammar of Mutsun, a dialect of an extinct language once spoken by Native Americans in California. He’d worked with Nimoy on the second movie, The Wrath of Khan, to develop some lines in Vulcan, and so was a natural to come up with Klingon. I’m sure he never anticipated what would happen.
Since Okrand’s pioneering work thirty years ago, much classic English literature has been translated into Klingon, including Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the works of William Shakespeare. There is an entire organization devoted to the Klingon language: The Klingon Language Institute.
Klingons love opera, so it was only logical, as the Vulcans would say, that a Klingon opera would be written and performed here on 21st century Earth. Titled ‘u’, it premiered in the Netherlands in 2010 and is about the life of Kahless. (I’ve been to the Netherlands a few times and can understand why the Dutch would do the opera, as their own language sounds a lot like Klingon to me.)
For the 2009 premiere of the movie Star Trek Into Darkness, the folks at Bing added Klingon to their online translator, both transliterated into English letters and in Klingon script, known as kronos. You can access the translator here: English-Klingon translator.
There are sites that list common Klingon words and phrases, just as you would see for German or Dutch or any other Earth language. And it’s helpful to pick up a few, to impress people at parties or to end an argument. An aggressive human is usually stopped in his tracks when you tell him, “Hab SoSli’ Quch!”, which translates as, “Your mother has a smooth forehead!” That’s one of the worst insults a Klingon could hurl at another, so use it carefully.
All right, so what’s with the foreheads?
As mentioned above, Klingons in the original series looked a lot like humans, but within ten years had evolved into the more alien-appearing species we know and admire today. The changed appearance was never even alluded to until a DS9 episode aired in 1996. In it, some members of the 24th century-based space station go back in time a hundred years to prevent the assassination of Captain Kirk by a Klingon using a booby-trapped tribble, which was a cuddly little alien animal much beloved by Trek fans. The episode cleverly used footage from a couple TOS episodes, which of course featured the original smooth-forehead Klingons. Upon returning to their present time, one of the humans asks Worf about this, and his reply was, “We do not discuss it with outsiders.”
This was never explained until the series Star Trek: Enterprise (abbreviated ENT), which premiered in 2001. It was a prequel, set in the mid-22nd century, a hundred years or so before TOS. Klingons also had the ridged foreheads in Enterprise, at least until an episode arc in 2005, during the series’ fourth and final season, in which Klingons experimented with Earth-based genetic engineering techniques that were originally designed to enhance humans so that they could compete physically with Klingons and other species. But when the Klingons start using the process on their own people, it backfires: the test subjects actually devolve and become physically weaker, with their forehead ridges disappearing. The virus spreads quickly among Klingons, and even though a cure is formulated by the Enterprise doctor, it takes several generations for the virus to burn itself out and Klingons to return to normal.
Why I like Klingons.
There was not much to admire about the Klingons in TOS or the earlier movies, and that was by design. Back in those days we were in the very early stages of space exploration, and it was assumed that when we finally reached the stars we would find sentient species that might be like us, or might not be. We still have that assumption, for that matter. Some have said that any species that is technologically-advanced enough to develop something like Trek’s warp drive–which our scientists are working on today, by the way–and travel between the stars would naturally be highly-advanced ethically, as well, and therefore would be peaceful and altruistic. But others have pointed out, correctly I think, that it would be foolish and even dangerous to assume that. After all, the first European explorers to reach the Americas were far more advanced technologically than the natives, and look how that turned out.
Roddenberry needed an adversary for Kirk and came up with the Klingons, but the one-dimensional portrait we saw in a few TOS episodes has been re-drawn into a multicolored tapestry that portrays a complex culture which relies heavily on the concept of honor. I’m a big one for honor, as readers of this blog surely know by now, and so it should be no surprise that I like Klingons, a lot. Not to the point of dressing up like them for any of the numerous Star Trek conventions that are regularly held, but I do have one Klingon-related item on my bucket list: Some day, I will get my very own bat’leth, and I will learn how to use it. I train regularly in Earth-based martial arts weapons, and it only stands to reason that adding an alien weapon to my repertoire would be, as Spock would say, logical. Perhaps my wife will get one, too, since she trains in weapons alongside me.
And then we will say, proudly, “tlinghan Mah!” We are Klingons!