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  • Writer's pictureAaron Fonseca

Star Trek's Different Klingon Designs, Explained

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The Star Trek saga spans six decades and over 800 hours of storytelling on television and in film. While the universe created by Gene Roddenberry is vast and dynamic, the Klingons have appeared in every iteration of the franchise. Yet, since their debut in Star Trek: The Original Series in 1966, the Klingons' character design has changed over time. From regular humans with brown makeup and stylized facial hair to the intricate alien prosthetics on the characters in Star Trek: Discovery, there's more than one way to skin a Klingon.

Save for the odd standout like Khan Noonien Singh, heroes and starships are more important in Star Trek than its many villains. Instead, the alien antagonists that menace Starfleet explorers are mostly known by their species, like Romulans or the Borg. This is true of Klingons, which are immediately recognizable, though casual fans may not know General Chang from T'Kuvma. It wasn't until the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Klingon bridge officer Worf that the franchise truly started to examine the culture of this war-like race. Thanks to his appearances in both Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Picard Season 3, Worf has appeared in more Star Trek episodes than any other character. He also laid the foundation for storytellers to create an in-narrative reason for the disparity in Klingon appearance. In the real world, the simple answer for the many different Klingon character designs comes down to money and technology.

The Klingons in Star Trek: The Original Series Were Simple on Purpose

The Klingons were, effectively, created by Gene L. Coon, often called "Star Trek's other Gene." He conceived of the characters as an allegory for the Soviet Union, according to the special features on the DVDs for Star Trek: TOS. Intended to be just one-off antagonists for the Season 1 episode, "Errand of Mercy," writer David Gerrold brought them back for Season 2's classic "The Trouble with Tribbles" episode. Crafting that story made the producers realize the Klingons could be the ongoing antagonist for Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise crew they'd been looking for.

Despite being an expensive series, Star Trek: TOS was always struggling with budget and time. Makeup supervisor Fred Phillips worked with actor John Colicos to design the characters' look. However, outside of raised eyebrows -- similar to both Vulcans and Romulans -- and stylized facial hair, the Klingons were mostly defined by their glittery uniforms with a gold sash. The makeup process for The Original Series-era Klingons often took less time than even affixing Spock's Vulcan ears each day. The character design for early Klingons was simple and effective for TV, but that soon changed.

The Klingons Look From Star Trek: The Motion Picture Through The Next Generation Era

Nearly a decade after The Original Series went off-the-air, Star Trek: The Motion Picturedebuted and introduced fans to a new kind of Klingons. With significantly more budget and time to work with -- the Klingons appeared in only a single scene -- Fred Phillips wanted to make the aliens truly alien. The production of the first Star Trek film was fraught, so if Gene Roddenberry had any objections to changing the Klingon character design, he had bigger battles to fight. The Klingons appeared in each successive film save for The Wrath of Khan, and while their appearance was altered slightly, they maintained the same look.

However, it wasn't until Worf was added to The Next Generation cast that Roddenberry and the writers really began to think of them as a people rather than allegorical Soviets. Now that a Klingon was a hero character, he felt it was an injustice to the characters to reduce them to just being a warrior race. "I take the fact of their fictional existence very seriously," he said in the Star Trek 25th anniversary issue of Cinefantastique. In an interview in the special features of Star Trek: TNG's first season, actor Michael Dorn noted that Black actors were routinely cast as Klingons to simply save time in the makeup chair. Over the next 18 years, makeup supervisor Michael Westmore had to create dozens of distinct Klingon characters.

In Enterprise Season 4, the writers addressed the incongruity of the Klingon appearance in Star Trek: TOS with the second-wave era. A storyline was introduced about a genetic modification experiment that went awry. In order to cure a deadly, multi-species virus, Klingons were given a treatment that "smoothed over" the cranial ridges and teeth added to the design to make them look more alien. Yet, even the Klingons not affected by this mutation still looked more human than not. When former Star Trek: Voyager producer Bryan Fuller wanted to redesign them for Star Trek: Discovery, making them more alien was the goal.

The Design for Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery Was Very Controversial

During episodes of the now-defunct After Trek webseries during Star Trek: Discovery's first season, the Klingon redesign was an often-discussed topic. The cranial ridges and teeth Fred Phillips added during the first redesign were extended to seemingly cover their entire body. They were given longer, clawed fingers and evolutionary characteristics that were more avian or reptilian than humanoid. The hope was to make the Klingons even more alien and frightening, but the design change proved to be a bit too drastic. By Season 2, the makeup artists gave them hair again. They also introduced a number of different skin tones beyond just brown.

Yet, by Strange New Worlds Season 2, the Klingons looked more like they did during the second-wave era. Unlike Enterprise, there was no in-narrative reason or the different look. The Klingon Empire is an interstellar society with hundreds of billions of citizens. Fans can easily explain away the difference as Star Trek's continued commitment to Roddenberry's motto of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Klingons are also able to reproduce with other Star Trek species, which could equally explain the difference.

In both cases, the redesign of the Klingons was meant to highlight their alien nature and take advantage of state-of-the-art makeup and prosthetics. The Discovery design may have been too successful, and franchise producers seem to have reverted the iconic antagonists to their Star Trek: TNG-era design. Still, no matter what they look like, Klingons are integral to Star Trek. They are enemies who became allies, which is the lesson Roddenberry always wanted his show to teach humanity.

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