Sep 29, 2017

Is Worf a Klingon?

6 comments

Thanks for the excellent reviews of the first two episodes. I already had so many thoughts and now I have even more! But I just wanted to pick up a minor point from the first episode review about Worf. He's genetically Klingon but raised by humans, so in what sense is he a Klingon culturally? This is a really interesting contrast with Burnham, who's a human raised by Vulcans, and tries to be culturally Vulcan despite being a human. Worf has gone the other way. He's been raised by humans, but that has made him a 'hyper-Klingon' (for lack of a better term). He tries super hard to prove how much of a Klingon he is; he fully buys into the whole 'honour, glory, combat, death in battle' thing.

But as we learn from TNG and even more so from DS9, that's a massive over-simplification of Klingon culture. They're actually astute politicians and just as inclined towards plotting and backstabbing as the Romulans are (though of course you get ostracized if you get caught engaging in such behaviour, so they do have cultural taboos about it). There are even Klingon lawyers and chefs, because of course there are, society needs such people. There just wouldn't be any room for them in Worf's version of Klingon culture, which is all about being honorable warriors.

As we learn from the Klingon storylines in TNG and DS9, though, Worf's understanding of Klingon culture is way out of touch with what Klingon culture is actually like. I always read that as being because Worf learned about Klingon culture from books, not from growing up as a Klingon. He was an outsider on Earth and didn't feel like he fitted in. He wanted to know more about 'his people', so he read about them and found out about honour etc. And then every time he meets a real Klingon he's disappointed that they don't fit his stereotype of what a Klingon (warrior) should be.

So I suppose in one sense he is a Klingon, in that represents an idealized version of Klingon culture that only exists in Klingon operas and in Worf's imagination. But ultimately it turns out he's a human who's desperate to be a Klingon because he thinks that's what he's supposed to be.

I'd love to know how this fits in with the comparison to Samurai culture and ideal vs reality there, because it's not something I know much about.

Sep 29, 2017

Thanks for the kind and generous words, Karanthir!

This is a fantastic series of observations about Worf, and I think you have nailed it. Worf is essentially a Klingon fundamentalist. His notions of Klingon culture aren't descriptive -- they're proscriptive. Much of his internal torment, his disappointing interactions with other Klingons, and especially his troubled relationship with his son stem from the inability of anyone to live up to his ideals and expectations.

 

Before I turn to Discovery, I want to bring up two other episodes. The first is Voyager's "Real Life," in which we see the Doctor's holodeck simulation of life as a family man. His adolescent son -- a biological human -- has Klingon friends and has begun adopting Klingon culture. This bothers the Doctor, and is wrapped up in this episode's depiction of teenaged angst. It's been too long since I've watched this episode, but I think it is worth reviewing for any conversation about Star Trek's philosophy of race and culture. The second episode is Deep Space Nine's "Let He Who is Without Sin," where Worf joins a stoic cult on Risa and becomes something of a terrorist. I've always disliked this episode because it doesn't really connect with the episodes around it, but it is a good morality play. So, Karanthir, my question is this: given what we see of Worf in this episode, do you think Worf would have joined T'Kuvma's cult?

 

Of course, (I'm going to do some crit-fic now) Worf developed this way because of how the writers conceived of his character over time. Initially, in the first season of TNG, he was just a Klingon guy like any other Klingon guy, which was no problem because, as Wesley tells us, the Klingons are part of the Federation now. The writers changed their minds about that pretty quickly, but were left with this Klingon character (who himself was a last-minute addition to the pilot). I think they did an awesome job with what they had, created one of the most complex and beloved characters in all of Trek, and gave us some wonderful fodder for a discourse on race, ethnicity, and culture. But I'm really excited (really really excited!) to see what our writers do with this idea when they have decided to make it a (the?) central theme of the series from the very start, addressing these questions deliberately and directly rather than accidentally and in an ad-hoc manner.

Oct 2, 2017

That looks like a perfect assessment of Worf (and the meta-development of the character) to me! It has been a long time since I saw 'Real Life' either, but I vaguely remember it. I suspect the Klingon friend are being used as a short-hand for adolescent behaviour, which presumably human teenagers would never engage in without outside (alien) influence: compare the 'perfect' Wesley Crusher to Jake Sisko with his Ferengi best friend. This also says a lot about how the writers view and use alien culture. As for 'Let He Who Is Without Sin', yeah that's a problematic episode for sure; it kind of felt like a very shallow and stereotyped reading of Worf's character. But Worf has yet to appear in my current re-watch of DS9, and it's been a while since I last saw the episode, so I may have more thoughts when I get to it.

 

Would Worf join T'Kuvma's cult? Based on everything we see of him across the franchise, I would say 'No'. He may be a fundamentalist, but he ultimately believes in peace between the Klingons and the Federation. And he's had Federation morals instilled in him by his upbringing, even if he prefers his idealised Klingon morals. I think this conflict between Federation and Klingon morals and the subconscious attempt to square them is another interesting element of the character (though it's very much sub-text as far as I can recall), and one that's completely missing from 'Let He Who Is Without Sin'. Based solely on that episode, perhaps he would be tempted to join T'Kuvma's cult. But I like to think what we'd get instead would be a great story about him wrestling with his morals, and maybe having some self-realisation about his attitude towards Klingons before rejecting his Klingon heritage in favour of his Federation upbringing.

Oct 2, 2017

Hey Karanthir!

 

I wanted to hop on into the discussion and address a point that you made in your first post. Perhaps it's worth reposting your comment?

 

"As we learn from the Klingon storylines in TNG and DS9, though, Worf's understanding of Klingon culture is way out of touch with what Klingon culture is actually like. I always read that as being because Worf learned about Klingon culture from books, not from growing up as a Klingon. He was an outsider on Earth and didn't feel like he fitted in. He wanted to know more about 'his people', so he read about them and found out about honour etc. And then every time he meets a real Klingon he's disappointed that they don't fit his stereotype of what a Klingon (warrior) should be."

 

I think this could add a lot of nuance to our reading of Michael Burnham, especially given what we learn in "Context Is for Kings." Here we have a human who was raised culturally as a Vulcan, and whose only real understanding of human culture comes from a book: Alice in Wonderland. We learn that her takeaway from Carroll's text is that humans think and act illogically, and that they do so precisely because logic can only explain so much about the world. Her Vulcan culture taught her that "up is up," but Carroll taught her that "up is sometimes down," or at least that humans are open to a worldview that allows for that possibility. Just as Worf "over-corrected" for his lack of Klingon cultural upbringing by adhering stringently to one, black and white understanding of what it means to be Klingon, so too, perhaps, does Michael over-correct for her lack of human cultural upbringing by adhering stringently to an understanding of humanity that might go something like this: "Vulcans are purely logical. Humans are purely context-driven, non-linear, and reactive in their approach to the world." This might explain why Michael continues to take every attempt at human interaction just a little bit too far. She might not be properly versed in identifying the boundaries to reactive thinking that would have been taught to her had she been raised human.

Oct 20, 2017Edited: Oct 20, 2017

This is a really interesting thread. When it comes to Michael, part of me is like "she wasn't just raised by Vulcans, she was also raised by a human foster mother, Amanda - so why is Michael still *this* conflicted?" Lol I guess child psychology may provide answers; perhaps Michael, on a subconscious level, felt abandoned by her human parents, which helped put a distance between her early childhood upbringing and her more Vulcan adolescence and adulthood.

 

As for Worf, I keep trying to look to real world analogues for his situation. Naturally there are no close ones, because all we know of as of 2017 are foreign countries, not alien worlds. So take my friend Chuck, who came to this country as a baby when his family immigrated from Korea. Chuck is "American" because, obviously, he was not only raised here from the age of five months, but he is a formal citizen of the USA. Our current culture, though, may also refer to him as "Asian American" or "Korean American," in a nod to his ethnic origins. So perhaps Worf would be called a "Klingon Terran." And just as my friend Chuck, who's naturally inclined to cooking, has decided to bond with his roots by exploring Korean cuisine, perhaps that's why Worf has picked the warrior lifestyle of (at least many types of) Klingon culture, in an attempt to bond with his roots. Maybe another Klingon Terran character would have chosen to explore Klingon opera, instead. In which case we are lucky we got Worf.

 

This planetary monoculture thing with Star Trek is definitely kind of narrow-minded. I get why it's happened - with so much of Trek's storytelling actually being thinly-veiled morality tales for how we see other races and cultures here on Earth. But yeah. I'd love for the Discovery crew to come across a society of Vulcans who speak a language besides "Vulcan" - or maybe a moon of Qonos where the Klingons don't wear clothes and are super mellow and they're all about making furniture.

Oct 20, 2017

That's a really great interpretation, BionicDave. I love the idea of seeing Worf as an immigrant trying to shape an identity for himself that can straddle both of his cultural heritages. And we can add to that the element that he is essentially a war orphan raised by a foster family in an alien culture. That can't have been the easiest childhood.

Oct 20, 2017

It's interesting that both Worf and Burnham are war orphans raised by foster families in alien cultures, but they've had completely opposite reactions to their situations. Burnham has fully embraced the "alien culture" and now struggles with her human side, whereas Worf is desperate to be as Klingon as possible, and doesn't seem to have much time for the "alien culture".

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