DISCLAIMER: This piece contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery
There’s a certain delicious irony the first time T’Kuvma intones his rallying cry.
tlhIngan maH taHjaj
— Star Trek: Discovery (@StarTrekNetflix) August 25, 2017
So… what’s the irony?
“Remain Klingon” is really a huge Qu’vatlh guy’cha b’aka! to all the naysayers who wrote off Star Trek: Discovery after seeing the visually arresting Klingons in their new, dramatically more alien, appearance.
This loud section of fandom is (consistently) resisting any changes to their established headcanon. They, more than anyone, would want their Klingons to remain Klingons.
But it’s a well-documented fact that the Klingons depicted in the original series from the 1960s were limited in their appearance by budget and time. This turned out to be a boon, for the Klingons’ simplistic makeup meant they conveniently became Captain Kirk’s most recurring threat.
When Star Trek became a series of motion pictures, the budgets grew bigger and makeup techniques grew more elaborate. Soon after, a Klingon, Worf, became the Star Trek character with the most appearances. As a result, the Klingon visual identity is most associated with him. But the truth is, Worf’s appearance, just like the other Klingons, never stopped evolving with each new iteration of the franchise. Some changes were subtle, others much more significant.
Discovery, then, while arguably being the most drastic change since 1979, is keeping that evolutionary trajectory consistent, taking the best ideas of the Klingons’ physical appearance and developing them with today’s technology and with one of the special makeup effects industry’s best, Glenn Hetrick.
The phrase tlhIngan maH taHjaj, “Remain Klingon”, has never been more true. That despite their jarring physical appearance, these characters in Star Trek: Discovery are, without a doubt, the most Klingon they’ve ever been.
Right from show’s first minutes, we are treated to a monologue, uttered almost completely in the Klingon language.
The most Klingon Star Trek’s ever been
The Klingons’ enduring popularity meant that a dedicated section of fandom committed themselves to organically develop a Klingon subculture. They were helped along by the publishing of various officially endorsed resources such as The Klingon Dictionary and The Klingon Way. These books were written in the late 1990s by linguist Marc Okrand, who is arguably the biggest contributor to the fictional language.
At the time, the Star Trek franchise was enjoying a huge surge of popularity, coming off the series finale of The Next Generation, the critical and commercial hit that was Star Trek: First Contact. as well not one but two ongoing TV series, Deep Space 9 and Voyager. It was a great decade to be a Star Trek fan, and for Klingon-philes, the fan-run Klingon Language Institute (KLI) was a fantastic community for and by people who wanted to express themselves in the language.
It would have been only too easy for the people behind Star Trek: Discovery to ignore this group of people who have made the effort to learn and teach the Klingon language. But instead, the show features the efforts of two KLI veterans, Robyn Stewart and Lievan L. Litaer. Stewart is the show’s Klingon language consultant, while Litaer was solely responsible for writing the Klingon subtitles for all 15 episodes of Discovery‘s first season on Netflix.
And just in case it wasn’t obvious from the first two episodes, there’s going to be a LOT of Klingon vocabulary in the season. As it turns out, almost all the Klingons’ dialogue is in Klingon!
That’s huge! It’s an incredible affirmation that this show respects and fully intends to build upon the efforts of dedicated fans, and not just ignore them or take them for granted. And that is how you “Remain Klingon”.
But what makes these Klingons does not end with the language
There is an almost-reverent dedication by the crew of Star Trek: Discovery to ensure that these Klingons are very much at home in Trek’s 50 years of established canon.
The imposing Klingon leader T’Kuvma (played by Christopher Obi) is obsessed with Kahless, the Klingon messianic figure who is more myth than legend. He seeks to unite the fractured Klingon Empire by pitting them against a common enemy, the United Federation of Planets, citing his displeasure with a skirmish that was mentioned in an episode of the Original Series decades ago.
T’Kuvma is also obsessed with ritual and mummifies the dead. This is a seeming contradiction with the established Klingon belief that the body is but a shell, and that the Klingon death ritual is to simply open the eyes of the deceased followed by a bellowing roar by all present.
And then you remember that this is a prequel, and who is to say that beliefs don’t change in a hundred years? And then, as if the writers knew that fans would have this discussion, concludes by having T’Kuvma complete the Klingon death ritual with the familiar opening of the eyes and subsequent bellowing.
But what should we feel about the mummification? It turns out, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home establishes the trivial fact that Klingons did have mummification pictogram. Weaving connections through these little bits of trivia is something that many Star Trek fans appreciate, and I truly have nothing but respect for the writers of the show.
But let’s also address the Fek’lhr in the room, shall we?
The extremist, isolationist agenda of the Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery has not gone unnoticed by reviewers. tlhIngan maH taHjaj, “Remain Klingon” as a rallying cry is an almost on-the-nose allegory of the political state of affairs in the US today.
T’Kuvma is a condescending, single-minded, fanatical leader who rejects the pluralism of a growing Federation and believes that Klingons should always put themselves first. He throws around words like “crusade” and “self-preservation” to a rapt audience. He wants to unite the Klingons to build a great Empire once again.
The parallels are so obvious that CBS had to issue a statement explicitly rejecting speculation that the Klingons were essentially based on Trump supporters.
And here’s why CBS would be right.
The truth is, Star Trek has always taken great pains to ensure that most alien species don’t come across as evil. When they present problematic behaviour, they are always written with justification for their actions, as misguided as they might be. Every side of an argument is given its time in the sun.
I believe that, over the course of the next 13 episodes, Discovery will show us that there is a nuance to the Klingons. That there are different reasons why they feel like a part of the T’Kuvma’s “crusade”. Already we’ve seen some of it in the first two episodes.
A clear example is the albino Voq, who is outcast in Klingon society because of his genetic makeup. However, seeing no conflict with his views on Klingon purity, T’Kuvma accepts Voq as his successor. But not everyone is pleased, this elevation of the outcast disgusts another Klingon leader, Kol, whom we’ll most certainly see more of.
All indications point to the fact that the Klingons are going to be the main antagonists of this first season. But I’m convinced that since so much effort has gone into ensuring that they’re not two dimensional, we’ll definitely see them in a better light by the season finale. They’ll remain Star Trek’s most enduring alien.
Star Trek: Discovery is now showing on Netflix. The third episode drops October 2nd.