Discovery Klingons and Star Trek's Continuity
Star Trek Discovery reimagines or redefines many staples of Star Trek. The total redesign of the Klingons is the arguably most dramatic among the many deliberate visual changes in the series. The species doesn't only lose the hair, but essential features of the Klingon body look totally different than the established appearances of TOS Klingons or TMP Klingons. In addition, their whole styling and technology, including starships, architecture, equipment and clothing, was altered beyond recognition.
Considering that its creators tell us that Discovery takes place in the Prime Universe, it is not possible to simply overlook the radical visual alterations made for the series. Without an official blessing, it is not possible for fans to dismiss Discovery and slap a "total reboot" or even a "non-canon" label on it, even if it is effectively a reboot and disregards essential parts of the canon. So even though much about Discovery feels wrong (not to say *is* wrong), EAS has to take care of issues like the Klingon redesign in some fashion. However, that still doesn't mean that EAS will cobble together speculative theories to make Discovery fit with canon.
The producers as well as some fans argue that the Klingons were changed before, when the so far human-looking make-up of TOS made way for the TMP appearance with the forehead ridges. And even the TMP Klingons were not totally visually consistent, so some don't think it is a big issue if everything is changed yet again. Many pretend that the new DIS look is close enough to the old (TMP) look, the only real difference being the lack of hair. Another rationale brought forward is that the DIS Klingons, and particularly the House of T'Kuvma on their sarcophagus ship, could be a so far isolated sub-species of the Empire that for some reason becomes powerful in just one decade, only to vanish again or to undergo a mutation, which may still be addressed in Discovery. It is often cited as an explanation for the new look that there are 24 Klingon houses with different looks, although all Klingons of the series are "new" ones. Finally, a drawing of a hairless Klingon with an exoskeleton by Robert Fletcher for TMP was unearthed as a rationale for the redesign, as if a pre-production sketch discarded 40 years ago suddenly overruled the canon Klingon appearance in more than 400 episodes.
Speculation and wishful thinking doesn't help to make sense of the DIS Klingons, so let us stick with the facts. The following analysis shows how much the Discovery Klingons were changed and whether or not it could be possible to make them fit with canon.
Comparison of "Classic" and Discovery Klingons
We may want to add to the list that Discovery Klingons are unwieldy, compared to any of their predecessors of classic Star Trek. They also speak slowly, and with distorted voices.
Options to Explain Discovery Klingons
(Most) Klingons mutated in this order: TMP appearance to TOS to DIS to TOS to TMP
(Most) Klingons mutated in this order: TMP appearance to TOS to DIS to TOS to TMP
The beginning of the 100-year isolation of the Klingons mentioned in DIS: "The Vulcan Hello" corresponds to the time of ENT: "Divergence" when the Klingons began to mutate from the TMP to the TOS look. This period (in which no human has seen any Klingons?!) may serve as a loophole to explain the new mutation in a later episode.
- We should rule this out from the outset because it is so obviously ridiculous, even if it may not be a hard rule that all Klingons underwent all stages of the many metamorphoses.
- Where is the amazement about the new Klingon look? Burnham is just unfamiliar with the Torchbearer, but no one seems to have a problem with T'Kuvma's appearance.
- Also, would T'Kuvma's people celebrate their current, mutated state as the "pure" Klingon appearance? Totally unthinkable.
DIS Klingons were an isolated sub-species that vanished after DIS
Maybe we see only T'Kuvma and his closest allies in Discovery. They all share the rare traits, while the majority of Klingons are what seems to be a minority in Discovery.
- This theory would necessitate the appearance of a sufficient number of "old" Klingons in the series besides T'Kuvma's sub-species, but Discovery doesn't show any. The 24 other houses all share the look of T'Kuvma's, the distinguishing mark being the styling (less heavily decorated costumes and weapons than T'Kuvma's house, for instance), rather than the biology.
- The gray-skinned DIS Klingon Kol is a member of the House of Kor (and an enemy of T'Kuvma). We can take for granted that this is the same house that Kor of TOS: "Errand of Mercy" belongs to. Kor underwent a metamorphosis (back) to his original Klingon look between TOS and his appearances on DS9. Could his relative Kol belong to a still completely different looking sub-species? Very implausible.
- Where were the DIS Klingons before DIS and where will they go after DIS? There is a slim chance that it will be addressed in season 2. It may have to do with the sub-species being isolationist, but may not be explained well enough to be credible. The DIS Klingons would not simply disappear without a trace, and with never being referred to again.
(All) Klingons always looked like in DIS
The official policy, as by the repeated affirmations of the producers, is that Discovery is set in the Prime Universe and adheres to canon. If this is true, they have exempted visuals from canon, so Discovery is a reboot, but "only" on the visual side. In other words, we have to imagine that all Klingons always looked like in DIS. No kidding, this is the current state of the affair, this is what we ought to believe!
- The Klingon look of TOS was already iconic when TMP was produced. Many fans, as well as many people working behind the scenes, would have been upset if TMP had invalidated the look of TOS, even though it was the obvious choice for many years. Then DS9: "Trials and Tribble-ations" came along and set a standard: Visuals must not be ignored. If Klingons looked different in the past, so be it. If that doesn't fit with canon, we can and maybe have to try to corroborate its canon status, in this particular case with the ENT double feature "Affliction" and "Divergence". Not everyone may like this retcon, but it is how Star Trek used to work.
- Do we want Worf to look like in DIS? Or any other prominent Klingon? That would be totally unthinkable.
- Hybrids like K'Ehleyr and B'Elanna may not even exist, seeing how non-humanoid the DIS Klingons are.
- In TNG: "Birthright II", Worf discovers that Ba'el has pointed ears, unlike the other Klingons, because she is a Klingon-Romulan hybrid. This plot point would be invalidated if all Klingons have pointed ears anyway, and much more alien than either humans or Romulans.
- We would have to "overlook" any hair on Klingon heads in over 400 Star Trek episodes - because it would cover their sensory organs running down the back of the head.
- Likewise, we would have to ignore any mentions of and stories about Klingon hair, such as Worf's visit to Mr. Mot in TNG: "Schisms" (Worf is worried that he may cut off too much), Worf's statement that "to a Klingon, a beard is a symbol of courage" in TNG: "The Quality of Life", Picard's remark that Worf's hair has grown under the influence of the Ba'ku planet in "Insurrection" and the legend that Kahless forged the first bat'leth from a lock of his hair in TNG: "Firstborn".
- The canon story of the ENT episodes "Affliction" and "Divergence" would be rendered absurd, as we would have to see in our minds something very different than what appears on screen. Since it is unbelievable that the DIS Klingons could profit from human genes and might mutate to human-looking Klingons, perhaps it would be better to abandon this whole ENT story, and ultimately the whole idea of human-looking TOS Klingons. Discovery would effectively become an incompatible reboot, not only visually.
- Mudd's description of the new Klingons as "pointy headed bastards" further corroborates their different look and jeopardizes the idea of a visual update we may be able to ignore.
DIS is a total reboot with no ties to the old Star Trek
Well, that is a conclusion we may draw for ourselves. But it is not supported by the official canon policy, which dictates that Discovery is "only" a visual reboot.
Summarizing, Discovery fails to do two substantial things to justify the total redesign of the Klingons: give us a sufficient number of "classic" Klingons, and serve us some explanation why key figures of the Empire of the 23rd century (and their ships and styling) don't look familiar at all. The series has chosen to show only Klingons that look like T'Kuvma, L'Rell and Voq, by which Discovery implicitly declares itself a (total or visual) reboot, irrespective of all affirmations to the contrary.
Visual continuity has always been a quality mark of Star Trek, and an important part of its canon. With the extreme redesign of the Klingons and of everything related to them, Discovery has abandoned this longstanding principle. The purported reason is that the producers of the series wanted to appeal to a "modern audience". But does this mean a total visual reboot was inevitable?
It is clear that Discovery couldn't have been made with the crude visual effects of the 1960s, with sets consisting of colorfully illuminated cardboard and with moustached TOS Klingons. There are wonderful fan-made TOS revivals such as Star Trek New Voyages and Star Trek Continues, but hardly any fan would honestly demand from a modern TV series to look like that (although this is a frequent strawman used in an attempt to discredit my actual position). In fact, we already have an awesome and well-established Klingon make-up and styling since "Star Trek: The Motion Picture". There was nothing wrong or dated about the iconic look of the TMP Klingons and about their almost equally famous ship designs, like the D7/K't'inga or the Bird-of-Prey. They used to be the arguably most recognizable aliens of any science fiction series. Even casual fans and people with otherwise no ties to Star Trek were fond of the Klingon looks.
Still, the makers of Discovery decided to throw this legacy away. They replaced our beloved Klingons with a clumsy race that is barely capable of clear articulation and whose styling is ridiculously overblown. I could feel a little bit better about the unwarranted redesign of the Klingons if it were successful. The USS Enterprise NCC-1701 suffered the same fate in Discovery, but the visual reboot in "Will You Take My Hand?" is at least aesthetically pleasing and still looks like an Enterprise.
It is true that Star Trek had plenty of inconsistent visuals already before Discovery, and few people have cared more for them than me. But with the new Klingons and some other questionable design decisions the makers of the series cross a line. We're not talking about the Trills, a race that appeared just once on TNG before it was decided to alter their appearance for DS9. We're not talking about make-up updates thanks to new techniques, like the moving antennae of the Andorians on Enterprise. We're not talking about something that may ever make sense in canon or only in our headcanon, like the previous changes to the Klingons. Discovery is and will always be visually incompatible with everything that came before.
What's worse, Discovery does not try to extend the painting the way that all previous series did, including Enterprise. It paints over the canvas of the existing Star Trek. Setting the series in the 2250s was the first big mistake because canon problems are inevitable once new stories are shoehorned into an era that is already taken by an old series.
The second mistake, the visual redefinition, may have been more tolerable in a series set in an unclaimed era. It may have even been possible without any harm to the old Trek, in a 25th century series that could have passed off the new aliens as a race not yet encountered instead as Klingons. In a "historical" in-universe context, however, it only adds insult to injury. It is like the redesigned Klingons, ship designs, clothes and interiors speak to us, saying that the look of the old Star Trek was crap and that only the latest visual update is endorsed. I don't want to imply that the Discovery producers and production designers hate the style of the existing Star Trek and wanted to get away with it at any rate. They may have done their best to make the design of the series work for themselves. But whatever their self-perception is, they failed to pay the old Star Trek the due respect. From now, watching the old Star Trek with the old Klingons is impaired by the knowledge that the manufacturer has ended the support for this legacy product.
The Klingon Forehead Problem - the history of the legendary continuity problem until Enterprise
The Evolution of Klingon Foreheads - fairly complete gallery and commentary
The Visual Continuity of Star Trek - examples of if and how visual continuity was maintained through the generations
Thanks to Chris for the hint about the STID Klingons with hair and to Charles Eavenson II for the mentions of Klingon hair and claws.