The Klingons are the most recognisable alien race in the Star Trek universe. Those distinctive skull ridges, deep brown skin tone, goatee beards for the men and snarling countenances for both sexes are what immediately spring to mind.
Yet down the years the Klingons have undergone a number of updates – some relatively subtle, others pretty extreme – and as Star Trek: Discovery catapults us into a new era of Star Trek, we’ve seen some of the most radical changes yet.
Here’s a rundown of the most significant stages in Klingon evolution, followed by a look at how in-universe theories and canonical decrees have attempted to make sense of those changes…
The original Klingons
If you’re not au fait with Star Trek The Original Series, you may not be aware that the first Klingons were basically humans with unhealthy spray-tan addictions, an aversion to plucking their eyebrows and droopy moustaches to denote their villainous tendencies.
The classic Klingons
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first big-screen outing for the franchise, introduced the basic template for the Klingons we know and love/loathe today. In that film, their relatively featureless skull plates were dominated by a well-defined central ridge, which gave way to the classic brow morphology seen in both the later movies and – as above on Lieutenant Worf and friends – in TV series Star Trek: the Next Generation.
While minor elements, such as the extent of the ridges on the nose, have fluctuated over the years, this has more or less been the standard model ever since. Until now…
The new/old Klingons
Enter Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Trek TV for well over a decade, and we have a redesign that is quite a significant departure from the classic Klingon and has almost nothing in common with the Original Series version – despite the fact that Discovery is set just ten years before it.
First up, these new/old Klingons appear to be completely hairless (although admittedly we haven’t see what’s under those rather fetching uniforms), meaning no luxuriant Samurai-style locks and – most radical of all – no beards or moustaches.
Their skull ridges, meanwhile, seem to be much more integrally connected to their prominent, cartilaginous-looking noses and, rather than dark brown, their skin tone varies from grey through purplish to a bluish black.
They’re more alien than any Klingon we’ve seen before, with a definite hint of rhino to them and, frankly, they look hard as hell.
How do we explain the changes?
In the real world, the answer to this is a mixture of budget constraints, advances in prosthetics and designers’ natural instincts to re-invent. But explaining the changes to Klingon physiology within the Star Trek universe itself is another matter – especially given the respective points in history that they appear.
Star Trek fans came up with numerous theories to deal with the difference between Star Trek OS Klingons and their later counterparts, including… the OS versions had their ridges removed for social or strategic reasons; or they were humans raised as Klingons; or they were hybrids.
In 1996 Deep Space 9 episode Trials and Tribble-ations, Worf at least acknowledged the issue, saying simply “we do not discuss it with outsiders”. But it wasn’t until a 2005 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise that the show offered an explanation – that an attempt to create enhanced soldiers using a mix of Klingon and human DNA had led to a viral pandemic that conveyed human physical characteristics on infected Klingons and their offspring.
That could also account for the radical difference between the OS Klingons and those we see in Discovery ten years earlier (presumably pre-virus). What it doesn’t explain is the differences between Discovery Klingons and the rest.
There are some relatively simple ways we might deal with the hairlessness – perhaps it’s a military edict of the time, like a buzz cut in the army, maybe these Klingons are part of a specific cadre or cult, or maybe it’s just fashion.
The rest remains something of a puzzle but, arguably, doesn’t go too far beyond the kind of character redesigns we accept every time a show is relaunched (think the Zygons in Doctor Who, for example). They are, after all, more or less recognisably Klingon.
Time will tell as to whether Discovery offers an explanation – but as long as they don’t start messing with Vulcans’ ears, we can probably let it go.
Star Trek: Discovery begins streaming on Netflix UK from Monday 25th September