Thursday, July 21, 2016

ST:TNG - Presenting the Klingons

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 1.20
Heart of Glory

Lt. Worf is a fierce Klingon warrior. Lt. Worf works for peaceable Hu-mons. Oh, the drama! Oooh, the tension! Oh, the dramaaaaaaatic tension!
Don't take my word for it. Michael Dorn's tonsils just registered 0.9 Shatners on the ham-o-stat.

Albeit still exhibiting a good deal of first season fumbling, this first viewer meet'n'greet with the Klingon race actually turned out quite bearable. The Ferengi's introduction painted them as much too buffoonish to stand as antagonists of the Federation and the Romulans' first appearance got lost in the episode's utterly unrelated subplot, but on the whole, TNG did better by its foils than its villains. Yes, foil.
Foil. It's one of 'em litter-airy terms, look it up.
In this case, Klingon aggression stands in contrast to the quiet, stoic sense of duty of the Starfleet officer. Klingons aren't evil. They're just kinda... jocks. Which is evil enough in my book, and I'll address the odd Trekkie fascination with Klingons some other time. So, Worf must choose between a couple of renegades from his own people who promise him honor in combat and remaining true to his Starfleet vows. Hmmmm, can you kids at home tell Worf what to choice to make?
Yeah, it's a telegraphed morality play. Plus, they overplayed the roaring Klingon death ritual scene, putting everything on hold for it so we get the point that this is really, really significant!!! Until making us sit through the second Klingon death roar because this is really really, really significant!!! !! !
We're so multicultural here in the future.

Then again, these are meant to be overly dramatic, chest-thumping macho men anyway. Not too far from the mark, these first Klingons rather closely approach their fully-baked personae, and the episode at least manages to present the main conflict they're supposed to embody: the difference between bravado and cruelty, or at least between bravado and sticking your head in a blender.


Seriesdate: 2.08
A Matter of Honor

Riker becomes an honorary Klingon.

Look now, I think cultural exchange programs are ludicrous enough in real life so I'll admit a certain bias against the basic plot here. Cultural exchange should grow organically out of true opportunities for cooperation, not through forced, officious bureaucratic kabuki.
I'll grant making an episode showcasing Klingon culture into one of the main characters' own exploration of Klingon customs has a certain classical "Everyman visits Utopia" kind of appeal. The Federation is engaged in an officer exchange program. The Enterprise gets itself a placid, obnoxious Benzite ensign while a Klingon ship gets Riker as acting first in command for the duration and... and...

Wait, what did I just hear? The two ships are being attacked by subatomic bacteria? Sub. Atomic. Bacteria.
Oy vey.
Words have meanings, people! "Bacteria" doesn't just mean "tiny thing" but is a classification of cellular life. That's life made of at least one cell, made of molecules, made of atoms. I just... aaaargh! The mangled technobabble, it huuuurts uussss my preciousss!
Also, Data, you of all wooden boys should know the singular of bacteria is bacterium. Seriously, who wrote this damn scene?

Aside from that, though, the episode actually flows quite well. Amusing buildup prior to Riker's visit aboard the Klingon ship, and good scene in the mess hall, though I don't know why exactly Frakes seems to be getting stuck eating bugs and worms all the time. The whole thing does a good job of establishing Klingons as slightly more than just blindly hyperaggressive muscleheads bragging about punching things. Kudos on also portraying Klingon females from the start as every bit the swaggering, overcompensating match for their swaggering, overcompensating warrior mates.

Gotta say, though, the best scene here really is the climax, not because the hero saves the day (surprise, surprise) but for Riker getting bitchslapped into next Tuesday.
I don't mean that just because violence is funny (though it is) but because it manages to move the show's definition of ethics past the morality of niceness, the morality of convenience, of platitudes and soft language and brown-nosing and manipulative concessions and condescension. Riker stands his ground. He knows he has to stand there and take the hit for what he did to restore a sense of order to the scene, despite his decision having been the right one.

Klingons likely remained so memorable from among Star Trek's various races for benefiting from a much more coherent introduction than others. They're strong, they're tough, they're mean and can be a bitch and a half to be around... and instead of trying to soften these features, to make them play with dollies in their spare time to display their softer side, they were developed around the core principles of warrior cultures. They're moral absolutists, they work hard and play hard, they don't do things half way.
Despite the incessant insistence of modern pop culture, these are not bad things in themselves, and their alternatives are not inherently good. Klingons may be an exaggerated stereotype, but in their de facto role as foils for clean-cut, polite Federation Utopianism, they expand it rather than oppose it.

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