Here's why the Klingons look different in Star Trek Discovery

The new Star Trek: Discovery show has slowly been revealing itself to the world and one thing’s got everyone’s attention: the new look Klingons. They’re not your usual bumpy headed aliens with anger management issues, and some are not happy about it. This is what people expect: 

And this is what Star Trek: Discovery has given us: 

It’s got a lot of people confused because, well, look at him. 

It’s worth pointing out, before we look at what might be going on, there is a historical provenance to the new design. They’re actually based on concepts that were never used for the first Star Trek movie. This is the original sketch from the late ‘70s:

That’s definitely our guy. So now we know where the style comes from, it’s time to try and work out the why?

It’s not the first time the Klingons have changed, the species has already had to deal with a famous retcon from one series to the next - and it’s something that might explain the new look here. In the original show they had a much more human appearance: 

This has been explained/retconned by the Klingon’s stealing the augmented human DNA used to make super humans like Khan (as in The Wrath of Khan). They tried to create their own enhancements, worried that Earth’s experiments might create a threat to the Empire, but it backfired and only succeeded in creating a mutagenic virus that changed their appearance - adding things like a more human face. Oh, and killing them. That was probably more of a concern at the time. 

The augmented DNA experiments took place in 2154 and were featured as part of the Enterprise TV show. In that case, the Klingons kidnapped the ship’s doctor, Phlox, to help with a cure as the virus decimated Klingon planets. Phlox ultimately defeated the disease, but it left those affected still in possession of the more human appearance, and able pass it on to their children. That’s why we have those Klingons in the original series. Eventually, over time, the effects slowly bred out to give us the more familiar Klingons of the movies and Next Generation.  

Now, Discovery is set around a decade before the original show, which would put it at 2250-ish and between Enterprise and the original series (although much closer to the latter). That means we should be right in the window where the Klingon Empire was still affected by the virus, giving us some 60’s style smooth-headed alien action. 

The virus didn’t affect all Klingons so it’s possible that we could just be seeing what unaffected Klingons looked like before all the messed up DNA, but the original series only ever showed humanised ones, suggesting we should be seeing the same here. However, there’s an interesting clue in some leaked concept art from way back in February. It gave us a design for something called a ‘Sarcophagus ship’. 

That name has many fans speculating that this is some kind of tomb ship - a relic of some kind from the Klingon past, filled with older, different looking, Klingons. 

Check out this, from the most recent trailer: 

That’s a very coffin like object being lifted up. Or maybe a hibernation pod on a ship full of Klingons that have woken up with faces and tech from the past? 

The timing of Discovery in Star Trek canon, the Sarcophagus naming of that ship, and that coffin like pod suggests we could be looking at some kind of Klingon ark. A ship filled with purebred Klingons sent into space, or returning from it with a different variation of the species. Maybe a collective of Klingons, isolated to preserve the bloodline, and that have diverged from it while away. In the Enterprise episode where Phlox was kidnapped, we see traditional Worf-style head ridges so it doesn’t make sense that these are ‘original’ Klingons as some are suggesting. 

They could also be an entirely different order or sect in some way that we’ve not encountered before. Traditionally Klingon ships and tech are fairly brutal and functional, which is a far cry from the ornate, Gothic approach in Discovery. There’s a very religious feel to the craft, which is not something Klingons are known for - the main story about Klingon gods talks about their equivalent of Adam and Eve killing their creators almost as soon as they were made. That doesn’t match up with with a ship full of flaming torches, alters and ceremonies. 

Of course it could just be that the showrunners fancied a new look. There’s a lot we don’t know about some areas of Klingon history. “We do not discuss it with outsiders,” was Worf’s reply in Deep Space 9 when asked about the facial differences. Who knows what else they don’t discuss? We’ll likely find out for sure when the show airs this Fall on CBS in the US and Netflix in the UK. 

Leon Hurley
Managing editor for guides

I'm GamesRadar's Managing Editor for guides, which means I run GamesRadar's guides and tips content. I also write reviews, previews and features, largely about horror, action adventure, FPS and open world games. I previously worked on Kotaku, and the Official PlayStation Magazine and website.