The View from My Chair: Klingon Ridges and continuity

My Buddy Berin Kinsman recently had a question about Klingon head ridges.  For the uninitiated, in the original series Klingons had no head ridges.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture showed minor head ridges on the Klingons.  The Klingon make-up evolved throughout the movies and TNG until we have the bumpy heads we’re familiar with today.

The real world reason for this apparent discrepancy is the fact that budgets for make-up during the original series run was miniscule.  Make-up budgets for the movies was a lot higher.  Make-up techniques and budgets had improved enough by the 1980’s that a weekly TV show could afford what a cash-strapped TV show in 60’s could not.  When a TV show as long-lived and as successful as Star Trek is internally inconsistent it can drive fans of the show just a tick crazy.

Trekkers have often wondered about the visual discrepancy between Klingons as depicted in the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s as these differences were never addressed on-screen.  Theories abounded that there were two main races of Klingons, bumpy and non-bumpy headed.  Other theories stated that Klingons had themselves surgically altered themselves so they could better infiltrate the dominate facial structure found in the Alpha Quadrant.  Gene Roddenberry himself stated that Klingons “always” had head bumps, it was just the there wasn’t enough resolution in the cameras of the 1960s to capture the details.

Roddenberry’s theory seemed to be borne out in the Deep Space Nine episode “Blood Oath”.  In this episode the three main Klingons from the original series; Kang, Kor, and Koloth (Kor is shown above in bumps and no bumps) show up on DS9 in full modern Klingon makeup.  The theory of there being two different races of Klingons was shot down with this episode giving the edge to Roddenberry’s explanation.

The producers of DS9 thought about keeping the actors in the makeup they used in TOS but decided not to so as not to “confuse the audience”.  Micheal Ansara (Kang) asked why his (and the others) makeup was different then it had been in the 60s.  He was told that Klingons were very long-lived and the head ridges were a natural part of the Klingon aging process.  Nice theory, except that Worf’s son, Alexander was shown with ridges.

Up until this point there was nothing that required a convoluted explanation.  Roddenberry’s theory is still the best.

Now, in the name of showing something cool, Star Trek producers start digging a hole for themselves regarding the Klingon ridges.  In honor of Trek’s 30th Anniversary, Deep Space Nine decides to visit the classic episode, ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’.  ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ sends the crew of DS9 back in time to the actual events of the classic episodes.  Was this cool?  Yes.  Did I enjoy the episode? Yes.  Did it complicate matters for the Klingon ridges?  Yes.

O’Brien, Bashir, Worf, and Odo are sitting in the bar looking at all the Klingons.  The waitress mentions the Klingons.  Odo, Bashir and O’Brien ask, “What Klingons?” and then look at Worf.  Worf explains that Klingons do not talk about the changes in appearance from the 23rd to the 24th century.  Roddenberry’s theory of camera resolution is dealt a fatal blow as the characters themselves bring up the difference in appearance.

OK what we are now left with (if we are assuming that the Trek universe is internally consistent) is a single genetic appearance for Klingons.  This single appearance changed at some point between 2268 (Trouble with Tribbles) and 2273 (ST:TMP).  Worf states that the Klingons hunted down and eradicated the tribbles as a species.  Tribbles do not like Klingons.   Worf emphasizes that Klingons considered tribbles an ecological menace.  Could the Klingon ridges be the result of a genetic mutation caused by Scotty’s disposal of the tribbles to the Klingon ship at the end of the episode?  Speculation across the internet at the time favored this theory.  The theory fit the facts as known at the time.  Fans were happy.

Once again, continuity raised its ugly head.

Star Trek Enterprise bursts into millions of homes.  The setting is the 22nd century.  The first image we see is a bumpy headed Klingon running through a cornfield in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.  “What th****?” millions of Trek fans ask.  Why does the Klingon have bumps?  Braga, the man who hates continuity and Trek fans, and doesn’t give rats patoot about maintaining an internal consistency mandates that Klingons on Enterprise will HAVE bumps.  Why? because he assumes the audience will be confused by smooth headed Klingons.

The theory that Klingons got the bumps from Tribbles has now been discredited.  What the producers (ie Devil-man Braga) have forced on the fanbase is a race of aliens with a single defining characteristic.  This characteristic is lost at some point before 2268 and it starts to re-emerge in the early 2270s.  Braga wasn’t going to debase himself to those he despised and explain it.  He left it to someone else to clean up his convoluted mess.  When Manny Coto took Enterprise’s reins during season four we finally got an explanation.  It took an episode arc that tied the whole business into the eugenics wars.
Something that could have been explained away easily got convoluted because the producers A: thought the audience was not smart enough to handle the differences and B: some producers didn’t care about the continuity.

What does this mean?  If you’re going to produce a continuity heavy TV show, never assume your audience is stupid.  Also if you’re going to be the executive producer of said series, don’t hire a day-to-day producer that despises your fanbase.

As my fellow Klingons would probably say, “Continuity, pfah.  Let us do battle.”


  1. Klingon augment virus

    The Klingon augment virus was a modified form of Levodian flu that threatened to wipe out the Klingon race in the mid-22nd century. It was inadvertently created by Klingon researchers who were attempting to bio-engineer enhanced warriors using DNA from genetically-modified human embryos left over from Earth’s Eugenics Wars.

    In 2154, Klingon scientists working under the direction of Antaak recovered some augment DNA from a destroyed Bird of Prey that had earlier been hijacked by Human augments created by Arik Soong. Fearful that Humans would create augments and overwhelm the Empire, the scientists attempted to create their own augments to counter the perceived threat.

    The effort failed dreadfully. The augments created did develop enhanced strength and intelligence, but they also began to show Human characteristics, from the blatant to the subtle. These included personality alterations and loss of the characteristic forehead ridges. Ultimately, the subjects died agonizing deaths when the incompatible DNA resulted in neural system breakdown. While working to stabilize the process of augmentation, the scientific team augmented a test subject who was, unknown to the team, also infected with Levodian flu. The flu virus in some manner incorporated the augment DNA, turning a carefully controlled experiment into an epidemic. In as much as the unstable augmentation process always killed the subject, this epidemic threatened the Klingon race with extinction.

    Antaak before

    Antaak after

    The Klingons attempted to capture Arik Soong to help them develop a cure, but their efforts were thwarted by Soong’s high security detention. The Klingons next arranged to kidnap Doctor Phlox using Rigelian intermediaries and with the assistance of Section 31 agents. Phlox was forced to work with Antaak to stabilize the augment virus. Antaak’s goal was to create a stable method of creating Klingon augments, while Phlox’s goal was to cure the plague before the Klingons died as a species. Ultimately, the goal achieved lay somewhere in the middle: a method was created that stabilized the process in the early stages – after the cranial ridges dissolved and some minor neural re-ordering had occurred (which caused personality changes), but before the fatal neural pathway breakdown. Because afflicted Klingons’ DNA had been altered by the virus, these traits were passed onto their descendants. (ENT: “Affliction”, “Divergence”)

    Evidently, the Excalbians only knew of affected Klingons, as they depicted Kahless himself as affected. This may, however, have been attributed to reading the minds of humans who, at that point in history, only had dealings with Klingon augments. (TOS: “The Savage Curtain”)
    It would be over a century before they discovered a method of restoring all Klingons to their proper appearance. It is unknown if all the damage done has been reversed, evidenced by the change in color to Klingon blood. (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: The Next Generation)

    The Klingons were apparently so embarrassed by the fallout from their failed attempt at genetic enhancement that they refused to discuss the incident with outsiders. Due to the secrecy of the Klingon Empire, knowledge of the change became lost over time to the general population of the Federation. By the 24th century, the reason for Klingons having smooth foreheads was not widely known outside the Empire, and questions were generally met with a brusque answer along the lines of “we don’t discuss it with outsiders”. (DS9: “Trials and Tribble-ations”)

    Background Information

    This storyline, seen in the Enterprise episodes “Affliction” and “Divergence”, was intended in part to explain why Original Series Klingons had a more human-like appearance, and later Klingons did not. The writers also hoped the two-parter would shed some light on the change in the Klingons’ temperament and disposition between the TOS and TNG eras.
    For years, unofficial explanations had appeared in Star Trek literature to explain the difference between the Klingons from the 1960s series and those in later productions. The idea of genetic engineering was explored heavily in several publications licensed by Paramount Pictures, among them the Roleplaying Game published by FASA, several Pocket Books novels (such as “Rules of Engagement”), and the reference book “The Worlds of the Federation” by author Shane Johnson.

    These works indicated that the “Klingons” encountered during the Original Series era were “Klingon-Human fusions” intentionally created to make infilitration into Federation space easier. The true nature of Klingons was revealed during the emergency transmission of the IKS Amar as depicted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

    In addition to the “fusion” explanation, the producers of Star Trek: Enterprise had heard many pitches over the years for stories aimed at explaining the change in the Klingon appearance. Additional theories included that the Klingons seen during the Original Series were from another race than those of later eras and also that some sort of disease was to blame. The Enterprise writing staff mirrored the fan community in that some felt it might be fun to account for the change, while others thought it was probably best to ignore the entire situation. The topic came up again when writer Manny Coto was named showrunner during the series’ fourth season.

    At first, the producers were only interested in a story with one or more “ridgeless” Klingons who had infiltrated Starfleet for the purpose of intelligence gathering. It was thought the story might involve a surgically-altered Klingon operative aboard the Enterprise, someone like Arne Darvin a century later. Around this time, the writing staff had recently concluded the three-part Augment Crisis arc, and it occurred to them that some of the genetically-engineered embryos might have survived the destruction of the Bird of Prey, and that the Klingons might use these embryos to bio-engineer their own version of “Klingon supermen”. This seemed to be a way into a story dealing with the origin of human-like Klingons. More to the point, the Enterprise producers thought it was simply “too cool” an idea to reveal that Kor, Kang and other Original Series Klingons may have had the DNA of Khan inside them.
    While some fans clamored for an explanation for the “smooth forehead” Klingons, “Affliction” teleplay writer Mike Sussman hoped to do more – account for the apparent change in Klingon culture between the 23rd and 24th centuries. As depicted in the first Star Trek series, Klingons were notoriously savage, crafty and at times even cowardly, putting this characterization at odds with the more noble and honorable Klingons seen in The Next Generation. The “minor neural re-ordering” noted by Phlox was intended to suggest that the augmented Klingons were not only “cursed” with a more human appearance, but that they also inherited many human weaknesses as well. In “Divergence”, the female Laneth, newly infected by the Augment virus, claimed that she “felt fear for the first time since I was a child.” Her fellow augmented warriors had “become like (humans)… weak, cowardly.”

    The Enterprise writers’ explanation for the change in the Klingons did not – and could not – satisfy every Star Trek fan. Gene Roddenberry himself reportedly believed any “explanation” was unnecessary; the makeup seen in the films and the later series would have been too expensive during the 1960s. Roddenberry felt it was best to simply imagine that Klingons always had ridges (although this preference was perhaps tossed out the window when the change was noted by the DS9 crew in “Trials and Tribble-ations”). Still, the Enterprise writers felt that the “dramatic convention” explanation was and is still valid, if a viewer prefers it. If one accepts Roddenberry’s suggestion that TOS-era Klingons always had ridges – and that the DS9 reference was merely a joke by the episode writers – then perhaps the Augment virus had no lasting effect on the Empire: the disease may have been cured relatively quickly following the events seen in the Enterprise two-parter. After all, there was no reference to it in the “later” series (which of course were produced years before Star Trek: Enterprise).

    This background information was contributed in part by former Enterprise writer/producer Mike Sussman, a member of Memory Alpha.


    In “Against Their Nature”, the first installment of the IDW Comics “Klingons: Blood Will Tell” series, it is suggested that, while Phlox’s cure removed Augment strength and Augment intelligence, those affected did retain Augment ambition, and as such they were largely responsible for the expansion of the Klingon Empire between Enterprise and TOS, and were able to take control of the High Council.
    In the novel Forged in Fire, it is revealed that the virus did not solely affect Klingons; the ridged Trill witnessed in “The Host”- as opposed to the spotted Trill seen in later episodes- are the result of a strain of the Augment virus that managed to infect a Trill colony through visiting Klingon traders. However, the Trill seemed not to be interested in working on methods of restoring the original Trill look, with this ‘sub-group’ having recently (at the time the novel was set) being re-accepted back into Trill society. The novel also reveals that the appearance of The Albino – who is not only Klingon but is in fact Kor’s cousin – was an unintended side effect of pre-natal genetic engineering intended to cure his bloodline of the virus.
    In Star Trek Online, the cure to the Klingon Augment Virus is revealed. By way of the Guardian of Forever, a group of Klingons travel back to 2270 shortly after capturing Miral Paris, daughter of Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres. At the conclusion of the mission, Miral’s unqiue DNA is used to cure the Klingons of the Augment Virus.

  2. That’s really interesting stuff, Stev. This is something I’ve always wondered about but never dreamed there was a real explanation, let alone half a dozen explanations.

    I’m not really a Trek purist so I have to say I prefer Worf’s “We don’t talk about that” excuse from “Trials and Tribble-ations”. That’s such a fun episode and watching him shuffle his feet in embarrassment, as it were, makes for a great scene.

    Nice research. 🙂

  3. @Adm qe’San – Thanx for the details that I alluded to. It’s appreciated.

    @Xose – Thanks. I always thought that the “Tribble Theory” was the best one. Brannon Braga might be a good writer, but he’s a lousy producer.

  4. The beautiful thing about the Augment virus story is that it still fits things like Worf’s comments..

    It was apart of their history and a part they wanted to keep there… i.e. “we don’t talk about that!”

  5. It still doesn’t explain why O’Brien and Bashir didn’t know that Klingons used to look different.

    It would be like a member of the modern US Navy traveling back to World War 2 and seeing that the Japanese of the time were 10 feet tall, blue with 3 heads. But now they look exactly like they did 200 years previously. And not knowing that there was ever a time when they looked differently.

    How could Starfleet have kept that a secret? There were civilians on the station during Trouble With Tribbles, none of them ever wrote home telling their families that they saw a Klingon up close?

  6. Its fun that a die hard fan can not accept the real explaination. The budget was low the series evolved. 😉

  7. But what about TNG 2.20, “The Emissary” (1989)? By all accounts those Klingons (who’ve been in suspended animation ever since the days of captain Kirk) should have been ridgeless but they turn out to be Klingons version 2.

  8. @Spiny sorry your post didn’t get approived sooner, I’m still suffering from acute lack-of-internetitis. Ummm the Augment virus ran it’s course while the klingons where in suspended animation?

  9. regarding comment 5…..History students today do not realize the dominance of “mexicans” in Arizona and Utah and Nevada is based a lot on the centuries of spanish and Mexican-aztec heritage. Not American -european blood lines who took control. So, why is the curiosity not understood over a million-ethnic multi-rational universe where xeno cultures would not have been dominant studies by humans. Even at Starfleet Academy…How much did Bones know of Klingon anatomy? And you ask about the engineer curiosity? Really?

  10. This is an interesting article… And I read it because I was interested in the continuity thing. BUT! You say “don’t assume the fans are stupd” [sic] Ummmm, if the fans aren’t stupid, they will realise that klingons aren’t real and make-up budgets (and possibilities) change, and they shouldn’t get het-up about it! I know, I know. I know… Yes, everything you have to say in reply is entirely valid… I’m sorry.

  11. Alex, thank you for finding this seven year old article. When have you ever known a die-hard Trekker not to get deeply emotionally involved in “their” (admittedly fictional) universe? 😎

    Live Long and Prosper

  12. FASA’s explanation remains the best: Klingon-Human fusions in TOS used to “infiltrate” and understand the Federation better – so it could be subverted. Two “races”, if you will. FASA also had Klingon-Romulan fusions.

    The picture above with Kor before and “after” shows you how ridiculous the ret-conning of the make up is. “Blood Oath” is a travesty.

    Augment virus explanation makes my head hurt.

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