How Star Trek: Discovery Reinvented the Klingons

Star Trek: Discovery brought the Star Trek television franchise back to life after more than 10 years of dormancy. Discovery's first season was set a decade before the original Star Trek. It told the story of the Federation-Klingon war, putting the spotlight on the franchise's most famous antagonists.

But Discovery's Klingons were different than the ones Star Trek fans had known, at least at first glance. There were physical differences, but more interesting were the changes and additions made to the Klingon culture of the time. Discovery introduced the Torchbearer, the Ship of the Dead, and never before seen Klingon ships attire of new and intricate design.

Mark Worthington was the production designer during Discovery's first season. He worked with co-creator Bryan Fuller on Discovery's Klingon culture. Speaking to over the phone, Worthington says Fuller sought to "reinvent" the Klingons.

"For a long time, the Klingons, through almost all of the canon, had been, obviously, the primary adversaries, but they had been — this is my opinion — seen through the lens of, initially, Cold War politics," Worthington says. "They stood in for the Russians in TOS obviously. They still stand-in for the Russians as late as Star Trek VI. Star Trek VI was really about the fall of the Soviet Union and what happens afterward, the Klingons standing in again for the Russians in that position. That movie, which I actually think is the second-best Star Trek movie, almost for the first time the Klingons become sophisticated. They're intelligent. They're quoting Shakespeare. They're a species to be reckoned with. If there's a flaw in Star Trek that might be it, is that to some extent they're our adversaries, but they're not equals, in a way."

Fuller wanted to rectify that. According to Worthington, they sought to put more focus on Klingon culture, adding more attention to detail.

"He wanted to see them as a distinct culture that had its own development, evolution, and it had to be respected for who they were," Worthington explains. "Yes, they might be warlike, but why are they warlike? It's something they evolved, it's not because they necessarily made a choice. In other words, there's a certain cultural imperialism that's implied by the Federation in a way. I think you see that in Discovery to an extent, that we don't take the time to really understand who they really are culturally."

Klingon Ship of the Dead
(Photo: CBS)

Worthington took inspiration from the medieval era with his approach to the Klingons. That touchstone carried over into the new designs of Klingon starships.

"The Klingons, rather than moving into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, retained a medieval political structure," Worthington says. "Many people seem to think that medieval times and the Middle Ages were unsophisticated, but if you look at the cathedrals that's hardly an unsophisticated design. We have to see a little more complexity if we see them in that light, that they moved on and developed spacefaring technology but retained certain aspects of culture that we might recognize, like a medieval political structure or faith structure. We also said that they didn't make a division as we did in the Enlightenment where we slice off the rational and the logical from faith and from those ideas. That's still retained as one idea. That's kind of the way the Klingons developed. That shift, in a way, is also like a cathedral. It's not just a technical expression or a military expression. It's an expression of faith and culture all in one. Their whole society developed that way.

"Using that as a template, we started designing their world with that in mind," he continues. "Interestingly, with that pretty strong base, that design came rather quickly out of a set of logical ideas. One of our illustrators came up with an image of the ship very early on in the process that didn't end up being really what we saw as much as I would have liked, but it's pretty much the template for what we finally saw on screen. It's interesting. You have some things you think are going to be very difficult iterate pretty quickly, and other things you think might be easier do not. It was a mixed bag, I guess, but a really interesting process"

Fuller left Discovery after working on the pilot, and Worthington left after the first season concluded. The show's second season revealed how the Klingons became more like those of The Original Series era. The Federation-Klingon War was a turning point for both sides of the conflict.


What do you think of Discovery's Klingons? Let us know in the comments. The first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery are now streaming on CBS All Access. Discovery's third season is now filming in Toronto