The Klingons have undergone several, distinct changes since the species was introduced in “Star Trek: The Original Series.” StarTrek.com once called the changes to the Klingons’ appearance, “the single most popular topic of conversation among ‘Star Trek’ fans.”
Though the main reason behind these changes was advancements in makeup and prosthetic production and application, the writers behind the franchise have gone to great lengths to explain the appearance changes through additions to the canon. Each Klingon face was designed for specific behind-the-scenes and in-story reasons, though some of those in-story reasons weren’t explained until years later.
Here are the stories behind each of the Klingon faces.
‘The Original Series’ Klingons
When the Klingons were first introduced in the episode “Errand of Mercy,” writer Gene L. Coon had a very specific idea of what the species represented. He set out to create a purely evil enemy for the crew of the Enterprise. According to Memory Alpha, since the series was in development during the Cold War, the Klingons became an allegory for the Soviet Union. In his script for “Errand of Mercy,” Coon simply described the Klingons as “Orientals.” He gave no other notes about their appearance.
According to Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, the first actor to play a Klingon devised how they should look. When John Colicos — who played Kor in multiple “Star Trek” series — showed up in the makeup department on his first day of filming, the lead makeup designer, Fred Phillips, asked him how he wanted the Klingons to look. Colicos responded that he saw the Klingons as a stand-in for the Soviets and suggested that he look vaguely like Genghis Khan. He envisioned Kor as a vicious, brilliant military leader, so the parallels to Khan were strong.
Phillips and Colicos decided to give the Klingons black hair, dark skin, and a Fu Manchu mustache. Colicos also suggested a slightly green tinge to the skin color to imply that his character was, in fact, an alien, not just a Soviet villain.
Many find the TOS depiction of the Klingons racist, as Aamer Rahman pointed out in an article for io9.
TOS Movie Klingons
The Klingons underwent a complete redesign for the first TOS movie, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” According to “The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” costume designer Robert Fletcher worked closely with Phillips, who returned as the lead makeup designer, to develop the Klingons’ new look.
Fletcher and Phillips came up with the distinctive forehead ridges which have come to define the Klingons. They were inspired by an alien species Gene Roddenberry had developed for a previous television pilot, “Planet Earth.” The Kreegs were a dark-skinned warrior species, like the Klingons, and they had a bony ridge down the middle of their foreheads. Fletcher and Phillips embellished these ridges for the Klingons in “The Motion Picture.”
In an interview on The Captain Logan Show in 2017, Fletcher said that he was also inspired by the exoskeletons on lobsters. He imagined the Klingons as having a rigid exoskeleton. His notes, excerpts of which were included in “The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” indicated that Fletcher envisioned the forehead ridges as an external extension of the Klingons’ spinal column. He also noted that their long hair should cover parts of the extended spinal column.
According to “Star Trek: The Original Series Sketchbook,” makeup and prosthetics had advanced quite a bit by the time “The Motion Picture” started production. The makeup department’s budget was also much higher than it had been for the series. These factors made the forehead ridges envisioned by Fletcher and Phillips possible. Rick Stratton, Mark Seigel, and Mike LaValley sculpted the forehead prosthetics by making molds of the actors’ foreheads and sculpting the ridges on top of the mold.
When the movie came out, fans were stunned by the drastically different look of the Klingons. According to “Star Trek Chronology” Phillips explained that he’d always wanted the Klingons to look this way, but he’d never had the budget.
As for an in-story explanation for the change, Roddenberry and Phillips joked that there were “Northern Klingons” and “Southern Klingons.” A serious in-story explanation wouldn’t come until “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
“The Next Generation” & “Deep Space Nine” Klingons
Almost a decade after “The Motion Picture,” Trek came back to the small screen. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered in 1987 and became the first Trek show or movie to feature a Klingon Starfleet officer. Worf started as a tactical officer on the bridge of the Enterprise and soon became the ship’s chief of security. Worf looked much like the Klingons from the “Star Trek” movies, though there were a few notable changes.
Expert makeup designer Michael Westmore remade the Klingons for TNG. In his book “Star Trek Aliens & Artifacts,” Westmore wrote that he wanted to expand on the Klingons from the “Star Trek” movies. Instead of being inspired by lobster exoskeletons as Phillips had been, Westmore drew his inspiration from dinosaur vertebrae. He stated that each of the forehead ridge prosthetics he designed was based on a specific dinosaur spinal column.
Because the Klingons from TOS looked so human, Westmore wanted his Klingons to look especially alien. To this end, he added distinct ridges to the bridge of the Klingon nose and created sharp, craggy dentures for each Klingon actor. Westmore arguably achieved his goal, creating Klingons that looked more alien than ever before.
As more Klingons were introduced in TNG, Westmore came up with the idea that each Klingon family should have distinctly different forehead ridges, implying the shape of the ridges was genetic. Westmore designed markedly different prosthetics for each of the recurring Klingons.
The Klingon makeup continued to evolve for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Though the overall look remained the same, more recurring Klingon characters meant adding more variability to the basic design. Again, Westmore and his team created specific forehead ridges for each recurring character. They also changed up the hairstyles and facial hair for each recurring Klingon.
The look that Westmore created for the Klingons in TNG and tweaked for DS9 remained the iconic Klingon look until “Star Trek: Discovery” premiered in 2017.
The Augment Klingons
Though “Enterprise” took place a century before TOS, most of the Klingons in the show looked like TNG and DS9 Klingons, not TOS Klingons. In an interview with “Star Trek Communicator,” writer Michael Sussman acknowledged that the show had some explaining to do on the topic of the Klingons.
Though the decision to have them look like TNG/DS9 Klingons rather than TOS Klingons was simply a behind-the-scenes, aesthetic choice, “Enterprise’s” place in the Trek timeline meant the writers would have to give an in-story reason why this choice was made.
However, the show didn’t offer that explanation until the last season. Early in the season, the writers introduced the Augments storyline, a prequel to TOS’s “Space Seed” storyline. Two episodes further along in the season, “Affliction” and “Divergence” revealed that the Klingons had launched their own Augment project.
Unfortunately, the project was a disaster. The Klingon DNA didn’t mix well with the Augment DNA and the Klingons began to morph. Many of them lost their forehead and nose ridges, making them look more human. Ultimately, the early test subjects died because the Augment DNA was incompatible with Klingon DNA.
The Klingon scientists working on the project tried to synthesize more compatible DNA. However, one of the scientists was infected with a virus, which got incorporated into the Augment DNA. It became a deadly virus itself. Millions of Klingons were infected with the Augment DNA virus and died. The ones that survived developed human characteristics, creating an entire subspecies of Augment Klingons.
According to the canon created by “Enterprise,” Klingons had always looked the way they did in TNG and DS9. The Klingons Captain Kirk and his crew encountered in TOS were Augments, not traditional Klingons.
Before “Discovery” even premiered, fans got a peek at the new Klingons at the center of the show. They were stunned by the massive changes. The Klingons presented by the new series were unrecognizable, and many fans were incredibly upset.
“Discovery’s” Klingons were hairless, with forehead ridges that went over the top of their heads and down their necks. Their noses were much wider and many of them lacked the distinctive ridges on the bridge of the nose that had come to define the Klingon look.
“Discovery’s” showrunners and actors vehemently defended the redesign, citing the canon-based reasons for the changes. They said that the Klingons had always had ridges over the top of their head and down their neck, but their hair had covered them. This claim was supported by Phillips’ own notes on the Klingons he developed for “The Motion Picture.”
The showrunners also explained that these Klingons had been separated from their homeworld for centuries. So, they adhered to different traditions, like shaving their heads during wartime. Additionally, they implied that these Klingons had evolved differently due to their separation from the rest of their Klingon kin.
In short, there are three distinct types of Klingons: traditional Klingons, Augments, and “Discovery” Klingons. The Klingons have always looked like the Klingons fans recognize from TNG and DS9, but Klingon historical events — the Augment virus and the separation of the “Discovery” Klingons — created two distinct subspecies of Klingons. These subspecies explain why the Klingons in TOS and “Discovery” look so different.
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