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‘Star Trek: Discovery’: How A Klingon Expert Was Essential To Creating The Most Authentic Portrayal Yet

Executive producer Alex Kurtzman, star Kenneth Mitchell, and "the best Klingon speaker in Canada" reveal the level of detail that went into every moment the warrior race was on screen.

Star Trek Discovery Klingons

CBS All Access

When IndieWire got “Star Trek: Discovery’s” official Klingon translator on the phone, we thought it’d be fun to greet her using the Klingon word for “hello.” However, as Robyn Stewart explained, that was technically impossible.

“One does not say ‘hello’ in Klingon,” she said. “One simply gets to the point. If I were to answer the phone in Klingon, I would probably say–” she barked out a guttural string of words “–which means roughly, ‘What do you want?’ And then you’d launch into the interview. It’s a Klingon thing, that you don’t say, ‘Hi, how are you, how’s your mother?’ The Klingon is getting enraged in that conversation. He’s like, ‘Are they setting me up?'”

It’s this sort of cultural insight that Stewart brought to CBS All Access’ new iteration of “Star Trek,” one which doubled down on ensuring a level of authenticity that perhaps only the most loyal of fans might appreciate, but was immensely important to the production.

“We Can’t Get It Wrong”

Since the earliest days of “Star Trek,” the Klingons have been an iconic opponent of the Federation, and also a source of fascination for fans. While ostensibly enemies of Kirk, Picard, and beyond, the warrior race has attracted devotees intrigued by their culture; a culture which “Next Generation”/”Deep Space Nine” writer/producer Ronald D. Moore (who was instrumental in developing the Klingons during the “TNG” days) has said was inspired by “samurai and Vikings.”

For “Discovery,” executive producer Alex Kurtzman said that once the team had decided to make war with the Klingons a major part of the series, the next decision they had to make was how they wanted to represent the enemy.

“For me, at the core of ‘Star Trek’ is the idea that Starfleet’s mission is to understand the other, or what is perceived as the other. To use a word that may seem ironic, our approach was to humanize the Klingons, meaning we know a lot about them,” he said. “In a moment when we are living in a world where ideologies are so polarized and polarizing, what I did not want to do was just make them the bad guys. I was not interested in doing that version of the show.”

In addition, Kurtzman said that they didn’t want to pull what he referred to as a “Red October” — a reference to, in his words, “that great brilliant moment in ‘The Hunt for Red October’ where you’re watching the Russians speaking in the submarine and the camera moves in on Ramius, and he switches from Russian to English, and now you’re watching the Russians speak for the rest of the movie in English.”

Mary Chieffo and Chris Obi, "Star Trek: Discovery"

Mary Chieffo and Chris Obi, “Star Trek: Discovery”

CBS All Access

As well as the device worked in that film, the team didn’t want to mimic it. “It would’ve felt very inauthentic, and I think people would’ve been upset by the idea that we were having the Klingons speaking in English,” Kurtzman said.

So, that meant the Klingons were going to speak Klingon, in lengthy scenes which aimed to develop these characters and this culture beyond typical bad guy tropes. “We know that Klingon is a language that has evolved for over 50 years. People are married in Klingon. They speak Klingon to each other. Which means we can’t get it wrong,” he said.

“We all looked at each other and embraced arms and said, ‘Fine. We’re going to do this. We’re going to write long scenes in Klingon, and we’re going to ask the audience to read the subtitles. And we’re going to need someone like Robyn to translate.'”

Next: The Best Klingon Speaker in Canada

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