Full disclosure: I grew up watching the original Star Trek in re-runs. Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted the first year I went to university, and it was a major disappointment in many ways, but especially for how it handled Klingons: how they behaved and whom they represented.
Mostly they behaved as obnoxious, single-minded, bloodthirsty brawlers, to be avoided and feared, mostly artless and without sophistication, and to be laughed at for their pompous seriousness and quaint and disgusting customs. Despite growing up among humans, Worf is such an idiot that with august earnestness he calls prune juice a “warrior’s drink.” He’s so violent and stupid that in the Next Generation pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint” he aims a phaser pistol at the bridge viewscreen when the bad guy Q appears on it because he apparently doesn’t know what TV is.
Another Klingon is so egotistical and stupid that he attempts to headbutt Data, an nearly indestructible android, and knocks himself unconscious. Klingons are so gross that they eat worms and drink blood wine. They are obsessed with killing and dying. In other words, on a show whose fans like to claim it as universalist and anti-racist, the writers spent a great deal of time depicting Klingons in a way that, had they been Chinese, Nigerians, or Mexicans, would have been instantly dismissed as racist.
And that’s the other thing. Whereas the Klingons in the original series were a completely obvious analogue for the Soviet Union, and were all played by European actors, in the Next Generation era, Klingons were partially post-glory-days Russians, but also Muslims… and also African-Americans, especially Worf, who was not only not raised by Klingons, but raised by White Earth people, kind of like Arnold Jackson from Diff’rent Strokes or Webster from Webster.
Now I’m not saying that every member of the audience saw Worf that way, but clearly plenty did, and actor Michael Dorn is an African-American, and so were a disproportionate number of the other actors who played Klingons, that parallel seemed all the more available. So while the show was a bonanza for African-American actors seeking work, depicting the Klingons as violent, subhuman morons became an ever bigger problem.
So I might have chucked the whole enterprise, so to speak, except for a first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Heart of Glory.” In that episode, written by Maurice Hurley, Herbert Wright, and D.C. Fontana, Worf breaks out as the single most provocative character on the series. While confronting renegade Klingons, he must confront his own place as the most alienated crew member on the USS Enterprise. Worf must decide whose kinship matters to him most, and why—and while the deck is stacked against the Klingon renegades, they are treated as characters with dignity, and so is Worf.
While The Next Generation thrived during its peak seasons three and four, again and again the shows featuring Worf stood out as, for me and many others, its most fascinating. After TNG wrapped production, Michael Dorn and his character joined the production of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where again many of my favourite episodes focused on the galaxy’s loneliest Klingon. The always-excellent Dorn also brought subtle and dry humour to The Next Generation which sorely lacked it.
Around 1992 in Edmonton, I met Michael Dorn at a science fiction convention, and my friend Fish Griwkowsky was there to photograph the chance-encounter and the interview that followed. I say “chance encounter” because I was making a call to my friend Steve Notley from a payphone near the parkade just as Dorn was walking in. I said, “Michael?” He looked up and boomed “Yes?” and I hung up on Steve and asked for an interview. So in today’s episode you’ll hear that interview, and also the reflections of several writer friends on what Worf means to them, including:
Along the way you’ll hear excerpts from a supercut by YouTuber tarnationsauce2 called “Worf gets DENIED again and again on Star Trek TNG” which will help demonstrate how often the writers and producers failed to use Worf properly, casting him as the security chief who constantly gets beaten up and whom pretty much everyone overrules about everything, every time.