Star Trek Discovery's Klingons: New Design, Old Racial Caricature

Curator's Note

Of all the canonical Star Trek species, the Klingons are routinely portrayed as "humanity’s" Other, positioned on the primitive extreme of the show’s central binary: antagonism and peaceful coexistence. They are territorial, tribal, and driven by unchecked appetites – as opposed to the Vulcans, who are guided by logic, suppression of emotion, and hopes for a peaceful universe governed by calculated reason. Whether the Klingons are denounced as barbarians or reluctantly praised for preserving their ancient honour system, Federation characters continue to stare with a mixture of awe and dismay at what they see as the Klingons’ stubborn cultural backwardness. They wield ceremonial swords more comfortably than futuristic weapons, and their bulky ornate armour makes for decidedly unergonomic space uniforms. In Star Trek: Discovery, the much-discussed Klingon redesign demonstrates that they persist as a key source of spectacle –  of visceral fascination and repulsion – that plays out on the surface of their skin, turning their bodies into a projection of colonial fears and desires.

Discovery’s "new Klingons" may ultimately get more screen time and more complex storylines than their predecessors, but – thus far – every aspect of production design promises that they will remain a spectacle built around entrenched racialized iconography. The show maintains the Orientalist impulse behind the original Klingon design and supplements it by borrowing heavily from the playbook of colonial black caricature. Their original moustache tendrils (derivative of Fu-Manchu) and bare foreheads framed by heavy manes (a nod to the Samurai) have been replaced by large bald heads, whose darkened skin shades – onyx, purple, ash – glistens in the dim light of their cavernous halls. Makeup and lighting emphasize newly widened noses with flaring nostrils. The camera dwells on large bulging mouths with menacing teeth, while they snarl in Klingon, language forming slowly and with effort. Their former uniforms, inspired by Japanese armour, now evoke skeletal costumes made of gilded bone and talons. These latter cannibalistic cues are not subtle: whereas former Klingons delighted in shocking Starfleet officers by serving them writhing delicacies, the new Klingons afford a taste for their enemies’ flesh. Perhaps Star Trek: Discovery will trouble the neat moral structure of earlier franchise iterations. But no shades of grey will erase what remains persistently and stubbornly a white-and-black design, in which the enemy appears as a spectre of menacing blackness.  

 

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Alla Gadassik's picture

Recommended Further Reading

Richard Dyer, “The Light of the World” in White: Essays on Race and Culture (Routledge, 1997).

Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Open University, 1997).

Adilifu Nama, Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (University of Texas Press, 2008).

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