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A grid of images of Klingons from Star Trek The Original Series, Discovery, Deep Space 9, The Next Generation and Strange New Worlds, all with slightly different looks Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: Paramount

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Star Trek has never known exactly what Klingons look like, until now (maybe)

As Strange New Worlds shows us, whatever you think Klingons look like, you’re wrong

Apart from the benevolent pointy-eared Vulcans, there’s no fictional alien species more iconic than the Klingons — not only in Star Trek, but in pop culture at large. The spacefaring warriors have evolved over half a century from generic Cold War antagonists into a complicated and spiritual culture that evokes both medieval Vikings and feudal samurai. There is a complete, functional Klingon language studied and spoken by fans around the world, who routinely don the familiar armor and forehead ridges at fan conventions. Most people who are even casually familiar with Star Trek would recognize a Klingon should one pass by on the street (perhaps in Las Vegas, this or any August), and even applaud the remarkable accuracy of their makeup and attire.

And yet, there is not, nor has there ever been, one definitive Klingon makeup design. Despite fan uproar practically every time a substantive change is made to the craggy foreheads and wispy beards of the space conquerors, their look has been in flux from the beginning, and will likely continue to evolve along with the production technology behind Star Trek itself. In honor of the return of a more familiar appearance in the season premiere of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, we’ve taken a deep dive into the rocky history of science fiction’s most famous forehead, from 1966 to today.

The brownface era

A close-up of Kor (John Colicos) in his Klingon makeup, which includes brownface, Spock-like eyebrows, and a Fu Manchu mustache, in a still from Star Trek the Original Series Image: Paramount

The Klingons were introduced during the first season of Star Trek, in the 1967 episode “Errand of Mercy.” Writer/producer Gene L. Coon used the story’s conflict between the United Federation of Planets and the rival Klingon Empire over a non-aligned planet as an allegory for Cold War proxy conflicts, but — according to the exhaustively researched book These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season One by Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn — offered only the barest physical description for the new antagonists. In the terse and insensitive parlance of a 1960s television producer, Coon referred to the Klingons merely as “hard-looking Asian types.”

It fell to makeup artist Fred Phillips and actor John Colicos (who had been cast as the episode’s lead Klingon, Kor) to decide what the character — and species — would look like. Colicos takes credit (or blame) for the Klingons’ original look, asking for a “vaguely Asian” makeup effect patterned after conqueror Genghis Khan. At Colicos’ direction, Phillips applied bushy eyebrows, a Fu Manchu, and a heavy layer of greenish-brown makeup to Colicos’ face to make him appear “not of this world.”

Though this became the accepted canonical 23rd-century “TOS-era” look, the Klingons’ appearance actually fluctuated over the course of the series. In season 2’s Klingon stories, “Friday’s Child” and “The Trouble with Tribbles,” no false eyebrows or dark makeup were used on the (exclusively white) Klingon actors, only short beards, some of them very obviously prosthetic. The brown face paint would return in season 3, and all Klingons who appeared in its short-lived sequel, Star Trek: The Animated Series, would have a brown or orange hue to their skin. This includes individual Klingons who had previously appeared without dark makeup.

There are two major takeaways to any study of the early history of Klingon makeup design. First, that there has never been a point when the look of the Klingons wasn’t changing, and second, that we’re very lucky it did. Ardent Star Trek canonistas rail against any change to Star Trek as a production that cannot be easily explained in-universe, and for almost 40 years, the ever-changing Klingon forehead was exactly that. But maintaining the canon — either through offensive makeup or typecasting — is a dicey proposition.

In short: Change is good.

Enter the latex

A Klingon commander sits and looks at something in red light in a still from Star Trek The Motion Picture Image: Paramount

When Star Trek made the leap to the big screen for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, advances in makeup effects and a much larger budget allowed for the Klingons to receive a complete visual overhaul. Costume designer Robert Fletcher drew the first sketches of the new Klingons, adding a single knobby ridge that extended from the spine to the bridge of their nose. Fletcher wanted the Klingons to look as alien as possible, like a moloch lizard, but according to Fletcher, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry strongly disagreed with this and wanted the Klingons to appear mostly human. The two came to a compromise, which Fletcher calls “a hairy crustacean.” Fletcher considered the Klingons’ forehead ridges to be the vestigial remains of a species that once had a rigid exoskeleton, a concept that was also incorporated into their costume design.

This concept was translated into a latex makeup design by Original Series makeup artist Fred Phillips and future Oscar-winner Ve Neill, along with a team that included makeup assistant Rick Stratton. By some accounts, it was Stratton who suggested that the Klingons should also have gnarly dental prosthetics, a suggestion that he claims was made mostly to assure himself an extra day’s paid work. Stained, jagged teeth would remain a constant.

Fletcher was called upon to further refine the new forehead design for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. From here on out, rather than having the appearance of a single, thick spine that wrapped all the way up their necks and down to their noses, which obscured most actors’ faces beyond recognition, Klingons would appear to have a bony but less pronounced plate under their foreheads. The Search for Spock also established the idea of Klingon men growing out their hair.

This became the basic blueprint for the iconic Klingon, with makeup effects from this era being reused for years to come. But even during this era of limited revisions, there was a great deal of variation. According to Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ book The Art of Star Trek, Star Trek V director William Shatner encouraged makeup supervisor Richard Snell to make every featured Klingon’s forehead “as unique as a fingerprint.” As Star Trek had recently returned to television with The Next Generation and would continue to introduce new Klingons by the dozen, with the new set of forehead prosthetics designed and maintained by the legendary Michael Westmore. Westmore made an effort to create unique forehead ridge designs for every Klingon guest star, a decision he came to regret as more and more of them appeared on the show.

Over the next decade of stories, it became implied that forehead patterns were inherited traits, which reduced that workload somewhat. For instance, Worf, his brother Duras, and his son Alexander all share a similar set of forehead ridges, while the rival Duras family has their own unique “crest” of sorts. Westmore would remain in charge of Star Trek’s makeup effects department throughout the entire run of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, plus the four feature films released during this era, which cemented his version of the Klingon makeup design as the one most accepted by fans.

Head canon

Kurn (Tony Todd) talking to his brother Worf (Michael Dorn) in profile in the Enterprise bar Image: CBS
Worf (Michael Dorn) and a smaller Klingon child in Wild West garb Image: CBS

The Motion Picture’s opening scenes introduced viewers to big-budget Star Trek, beginning with the new-and-improved Klingons. This radical redesign of The Original Series’ most iconic villains was merely a consequence of this production’s superior resources, and was never meant to draw attention to itself. However, the rest of the film’s first act is preoccupied with the unveiling of the “almost entirely new” USS Enterprise, emphasizing that the characters are aware of the ship’s top-to-bottom, inside-out refit. Viewers were told to ignore the first aesthetic upgrade but to make a big deal out of the rest of them. This is arguably the moment that broke Trekkies’ brains forever.

For the next 17 years, Star Trek productions successfully evaded the “Klingon forehead problem,” continuing to treat their change in appearance as a retroactive, behind-the-scenes alteration rather than a canonical event. A 1994 episode of Deep Space Nine even brought back the three most popular Klingons from The Original Series, all portrayed by their original actors but sporting the modern craggy foreheads and long, wavy locks. The message was clear: This is how the Klingons look, and how they have always looked. Don’t worry about it.

In 1996, however, Deep Space Nine celebrated Trek’s 30th birthday with “Trials and Tribble-ations,” a comedic time-travel story in which the DS9 crew revisits the events of the 1967 classic “The Trouble with Tribbles,” splicing the modern crew into scenes Forrest Gump-style. By this point, Klingon Starfleet hero Worf had joined the DS9 cast, and since “The Trouble with Tribbles” employs Klingons as its central antagonists, this meant showing both TOS and TNG-era Klingons on screen at the same time. This would force the writers to acknowledge the discontinuity, which Deep Space Nine’s writers weren’t interested in doing. Rather than make an issue of it, writers Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria decided to play it for laughs, with Worf reluctantly admitting that yes, those are Klingons, there is a story behind why they look different, and no, he’s not going to talk about it. That’s because in the writers’ eyes, no story could have possibly made sense.

“There’s not a single explanation that is anything less than preposterous,” Moore said in a DS9 DVD featurette.

Eight years later, Star Trek: Enterprise dedicated two full episodes to a preposterous explanation as to why Klingons look different. From the very beginning of the prequel, set a century before The Original Series, Enterprise honored the new Klingon makeup effects, which had been in use for decades and were familiar to a new generation of fans. This was in line with an overall creative decision not to allow the limitations of a 1960s series to dictate how storytellers in the 2000s depicted the distant future. However, during Enterprise’s fourth and final season, the show became more fixated than ever on the franchise’s past, leading to the two-part episode, “Affliction” and “Divergence,” in which a genetic augmentation turned virus mutates most Klingons to more closely resemble humans in both appearance and temperament. Only a handful of old-school, “mutated” Klingons appear in the episode, and though there’s no documentation on how it was applied, the makeup certainly looks faithful to the original (read: not great).

It is implied that the Klingons spend the next century working on a cure, after which they purge all evidence of this shameful event from their history. This two-parter would turn out to be the Klingons’ final appearance on Enterprise, as the series would be canceled shortly thereafter. All future Star Trek productions would employ some variation on the bumpy-headed Klingon design that Trekkies had come to know, though not all attempts proved to be very popular…

Baldly going

The Klingons greeting Uhura (Zoe Saldana) by standing and looking imposing with helmets on in a still from Star Trek into Darkness Image: Paramount
A close up of a Klingon commander in Star Trek Into Darkness
Klingons, with yet another new redesign, hiding yet another new makeup design, which you can see on the right.
Image: Paramount

The cancellation of Enterprise in 2005 brought an end to the continuous 18-year run of Star Trek on television under executive producer Rick Berman, but the franchise was almost immediately revived under new management, with director J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production company at the helm. Now rebooted as a blockbuster feature film series, Trek once again received the benefit of a fresh start on the big screen, equipped with the latest production innovations and a new set of creative contributors. Though teased behind helmets that obscured their faces in scenes that were shot for 2009’s Star Trek that were ultimately cut for time, the next iteration of the Klingon makeup design was unveiled in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

This new design, created by makeup effects artists David LeRoy Anderson and Neville Page, had to hold up under the unforgiving eye of IMAX cameras. They were sculpted digitally and then 3D printed as reference for the final latex sculpts. While many of the background Klingons had long manes and beards under their helmets, their leader, portrayed by Sean Blakemore, is totally hairless. This allows him to show off not only a triangular ridged forehead but a central, spine-like ridge that wraps all the way from his brow to his back, harkening back to the original Motion Picture revamp.

Anderson and Page made one major addition to the Klingon aesthetic: scarification and ceremonial piercings, not only through the ears but through the forehead ridges themselves. In a featurette included with the Into Darkness Blu-ray, Page suggests that these piercings are akin to painting icons on the side of a warplane, with each one representing a victory. Apart from this ornamentation, Anderson and Page’s Klingons were not an enormous departure from what had been depicted before, though that hardly dissuaded canonistas — who generally reviled the Abrams films — from harping on the change.

However, criticism of the Into Darkness Klingons paled in comparison to the outrage that surrounded the next iteration of the Klingon makeup design, which debuted in the opening minutes of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017. The series, which would shepherd a prolific new era for the franchise on streaming television, was as bold an aesthetic departure from the TNG era as The Motion Picture had been from TOS. There were a number of canon-fudging new elements on Discovery, but none received quite as much hate as the new Klingons, or as haters on social media dubbed them, “Klingorcs.” Where Into Darkness had been an incremental change in the Klingon aesthetic, Discovery was a total overhaul designed by Neville Page and Glenn Hetrick of Alchemy FX Studios, based on the input of original showrunner Bryan Fuller.

According to a promotional interview with CBS News, Fuller mandated that the Klingons should be hairless, leading Page and Hetrick to consider what might have been hidden underneath the Klingons’ locks. They decided that Klingons’ famous head ridges would house sensory pits that grant them a greater ability to defend themselves from ambush, and that these ridges should continue along the entire circumference of their skulls. The skulls themselves were elongated, evoking the shape of the tall headdresses worn by some pharaohs of Upper Egypt. In a final touch, the new Klingons had a variety of grayscale skin tones not found in humans.

Page credits the influence of H.R. Giger in creating this more alien and unsettling Klingon appearance. The new makeup effects employed the latest in available technology, including 3D sculpting and printing that allowed the makeup team to mass-produce forehead elements and mix and match them so that each character could have a subtly different design. The makeup was accompanied by a dramatically different costume design intended to distort the shape of actors’ bodies and imply additional organs inside their frame.

Honorable retreat

L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) interrogating a Star Fleet officer in a still from Star Trek Discovery. L’Rell is tall and gray and has a long, oblong head and forehead ridges, with a skull that resembles Geiger drawings Image: Paramount
L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) leaning into kiss someone in a still from Star Trek Discovery season 2. She now has a more regular (but still big) shaped head and long black hair with braids.
Star Trek Discovery’s L’Rell is one Klingon whose look changed drastically within the same show, from season 1 (left) to season 2 (right).
Image: Paramount

After the backlash against the new look (and the early departure of Fuller), the second season of Discovery immediately rolled back some of the show’s more aggressive changes to the Klingon design. To begin with, long hair was back in fashion (explained in-story by the end of their war with the Federation), but there were also more subtle changes, like the softening of some of the more pronounced alien facial features.

This design was better received, but the controversy seemed to make the producers of newer Star Trek shows nervous about including the Klingons in further stories. Animated shows Lower Decks and Prodigy employed the TNG Klingon designs, while the following five seasons of live-action Trek (Discovery seasons 3 and 4, Picard seasons 1 and 2, and Strange New Worlds season 1) would feature no Klingons whatsoever. When the fan-favorite Worf returned for the final season of Star Trek: Picard, he appeared with his familiar “turtlehead” latex appliance, honoring current Trek executive producer Alex Kurtzman’s promise back in 2020 that, regardless of Discovery’s Klingon redesign, Worf would always “look like Worf.”

Finally, later that year, the initial trailers for season 2 of Strange New Worlds signaled the return of the Klingons, back in the long-haired, craggy-headed flesh. Gone were the extra-bulky bodies, the implied sensor pits, and the inhuman flesh tones. The makeup itself is clearly new, but the aesthetic is unmistakably retro, reproducing the appearance of TNG-era Klingons with modern techniques and resources.

This likely signals the end of bold experimentation with the Klingon forehead. The fans have spoken, and while conceding to the demands of an audience that invariably demands more of what they already have can often be dangerous, few would argue that the online mob was wrong about this one. Still, it would be a mistake to characterize this design reversion as a return to the “real” Klingon forehead. There is no such thing, and there never will be. Like all ongoing fictional narratives (or even complete ones), Star Trek is always changing, as well it should. Attempts to innovate on established concepts and intellectual property should be applauded, even when they’re not entirely successful. Otherwise, we could end up staring into the mirror 50 years from now, embarrassed, with brown foundation and glued-on eyebrows on our faces.


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