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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.13 Before They Were Famous

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Sleeping Dogs

BukaH, and her perfectly-executed forehead topiary.
A moment of appreciation for Klingon eyebrow game.

This is a tale of conditions that have no cure. Of infections you can’t fight, and so must wait for them to flare out.

Kitchens Of The Killer Klingons

One of the dangers that arise from writing a prequel series is a temptation to be too clever. References to a future the audience has experienced are a bit like salt. Add in a little and your food tastes better. Put in too much, and the dinner is ruined. It just gets too easy to mistake references for actual, you know, ideas. An episode like this, which focuses on Starfleet’s first prolonged contact with one of the franchise’s most well-explored races, runs the risk of flinging itself face-first into that particular bear-trap.

It’s clear the snare’s jaws at least graze the cheeks, here. Watching Reed get excited at the mention of photon torpedoes, for instance, reminded me of nothing so much of Mitchell and Webb’s (may his name be a curse) Lazy Writers, and their explanation of how they wrote Thatcher: The “The Bits That Haven’t Been Done Yet” Years:

When you’re writing something set in the past you can make lots of references to things that you know are going to happen. People love that. It makes you look really clever and witty without actually having to do a joke.

And it’s not just brief nods to the future that can cause problems. The franchise had already given us multiple Trek episodes focussed on the experience of Starfleet officers on Klingon ships, from Riker’s time on the Pagh to Worf’s tribulations on the Rotarran and Ch’Tang. By following those episodes with a story in which the Starfleet personnel involved have never seen the inside of a Klingon vessel, there’s a real risk of stretching dramatic irony to breaking point. Simply put, it’s difficult to make a haunted house scary when the audience already knows what’s lurking in the shadows.

Amazingly, though, “Sleeping Dogs” makes it all work. From little touches like the crew grabbing for their pistols in a panic when Hoshi recognises Klingon writing, to T’Pol’s warnings of the danger the crew is putting themselves in, there’s real tension here. Even the opening moments of the episode, in which the crew listen to the literally otherworldly sounds of the gas giant’s “sirens” that so frightened Mayweather as a kid, help generate the atmosphere of unease, one that’s impressively at odds with (much of) the audience’s familiarity with what they’re seeing.

The spoopy highlight, though, is the slow, tense crawl through the gallery of the Somraw. It might not make a huge amount of narrative sense – apparently Reed’s dehydration is important enough to interrupt the repair work that might save their lives, but not so serious there’s not time for honing Hoshi’s meditation technique – but it’s certainly effective. Much of that is down to excellent lighting work and smart direction, turning what could easily have been underwhelming into something that’s genuinely affecting. No small feat, considering both how commonly the unsettling kitchen trope is made use of, and the difficulty of pushing through the level of familiarity many viewers will have with the Klingons and their culinary choices.

While the ghoulish galley provides a visual and atmospheric high-point to “Sleeping Dogs”, though, it’s simply the most obvious example of the episode’s overall aim, and the clearest proof of its success. This is about making the Klingons threatening again.

It’s entirely about time.

Friends Tell Friends The Truth

So far, I’ve not had much opportunity to discuss the Klingons. We’ve yet to come across them in The Original Series, and the Duras sisters’ cameo in Deep Space Nine is more or less all we’ve seen of them in the Bajor system. We’ve met B’Elanna and Worf, of course, but with both of them raised in the Federation, they don’t really provide much opportunity for detailed discussion of the culture that (most of) their parents hailed from.

Really, the best opportunity I’ve had so far to discuss the Klingons was “Broken Bow”. I had a lot of charges to level at the Vulcans at that point, though, so I let the children of Qo’noS off the hook. I’m not going to allow that to happen a second time. Not when the Klingons might be even more problematic than the Vulcans are.

I’m sure a lot of my problems with the Klingons will be obvious to regular readers. The violence, the obsession with upholding toxic masculinity, the appalling classism and ableism, the rank hypocrisy of a culture that claims to have a strict moral code that nevertheless just ends up following the most profligate murderer, irrespective of how “honourable” they are.

And yes, all of that is bad. The Klingons are awful. None of that is actually my real problem, though. My true issue is how cosy the Federation is with them, and by extension, how much we as an audience are supposed to buy into their culture. Aren’t these interstellar pseudo-Vikings a tonic? Look how drunk they get! Check out them headbutting each other for a lark! Wouldn’t you love to have mates like that? IMAGINE THE SPACE-BANTZ.

Well, how about no? I mean, if Klingons want to carry on like that exclusively within groups of like-minded fellows, then fine. Fill yer ludicrous hobnail spike-boots in the most pits of the future. But that’s not actually feasible, is it? The Klingon approach to life can’t help but spill out past the boundaries of willing participation. Even if they hadn’t poisoned their own society with their bloodstained mono-culture, you can’t be a race of conquering warriors without someone to war against and conquer. You can’t have an empire without colonialism, and therefore oppression. The Federation might be powerful enough to make trade more attractive a proposition than warfare (and the culture from which actual Vikings hailed was perfectly capable of peaceful commerce when it was to their advantage). As “Way Of The Warrior” demonstrates though, the Klingons haven’t stopped being a people who’ll happily invade and murder people they consider weaker than themselves.

(Plus, as that same episode shows, they’re more than happy to turn against their friends in order to do it.)

But somehow all of this is ignored by our supposedly enlightened Starfleet officers. Apparently, so long as their Klingon drinking buddies aren’t personally oppressing someone right that second, the more general issues are better off not discussed. It might be rude. This is as abhorrent as it is horribly familiar. How many of us have, or have had, friends who we know hold unpalatable views, but who we hang out with despite that fact, because they’re fun? Because we like them. Because they’re always nice to us.

As usual, the personal is also the political. It’s never difficult to find a dozen recent example of people willing to ignore – or even defend – the despicable comments or policies of their political allies. “He’s not a racist!” they say, after he complains too many foreigners are entering the country. “He’s a man of great principle!” they say, after he votes for poor people to lose access to healthcare. This extends to the international stage as well. Somehow, somewhere, the decision was made that when a friendly government behaves despicably, that friendship should compel us to support their crimes, or at least pretend to not see them. The very position that would give our condemnation teeth is somehow supposed to render that condemnation unhelpful. Inappropriate. Impolite.

Which, to all appearances, is the situation our Federation heroes end up by the 24th century – in an alliance with a transparently despicable superpower who are utterly shameless regarding their reactionary politics and aggressive colonialism. But hey, they throw a great party. Who cares who they’re bombing, their keggers are the bomb!

The Klingons are terrible people, and the putative moral voices within the franchise barely seem to care. The closest we ever come to an in-universe critique of Klingon culture (as far as I’m aware – there are plenty of Voyager episodes I’ve still not seen) is Ezri Dax taking Worf to task in Deep Space Nine’s final season. Which a) comes after over ten years of

Federation/Klingon chumminess (with the obvious intermission of DS9 season four), and b) is more about Klingon political hypocrisy than the fact their culture is crappy at and on every conceivable level. Even then, despite the obvious accuracy and comparative mildness of the critique, it leads Worf – the least Klingon Klingon ever, we’re told – to get sulky and stupid and defensive. What are we possibly supposed to feel for Klingons, other than revulsion mixed with pity?

I think that’s my case made. Before we move on to actually discussing the episode again, though, I wanted to ensure I’m not going to be misread. Ordinarily, I’d want to be extremely careful to not accidentally imply we should hold individuals responsible for the actions of their governments. I’ve no sympathy for those who argue terrorist strikes against citizens in democracies are justified because those citizens could always vote out their leaders (this is not a straw man, either – I’ve had that said to my face). The idea that individual Jewish people should be forced to take a public stance on the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians before they can be considered in some sense “acceptable” to the rest of us is nakedly anti-Semitic.

In the specific case of Klingons, though, the link between the governmental and the individual can be defended. This is partly because the Klingons are fictional, but more importantly, it stems from them being portrayed as essentially a mono-culture. There simply exists no distinction between the desires and deeds of the High Command and those they represent. In theory, anyway – there are Trek stories about how High Command are failing to live up to the trust afforded them by their people. Even then, though, as demonstrated by Ezri’s comments, the idea the High Command might not be actually acting in a way their people should be happy with is treated as a bigger problem than the horrible ideals upon which Klingon happiness is predicated.

So I’m happy in this particular case to argue that the bone-deep problems inherent in Klingon culture should lead to individual Klingons being shunned, unless they can demonstrate they’ve distanced themselves from their culture (which could easily done by just not being a loud drunken git 24/7, really, so it’s not that high a bar to clear). That’s a despicable position to hold with respect to any actual culture out in the real world – “prove to us you’re one of the good Muslims!” – but that’s not what we’re looking at here. In point of fact, the idea that such cultural homogeneity can actually exist in the first place is itself racist. It’s also baked into the vast majority of science-fiction and fantasy, of course, and as such not something I want to pick apart right now.

Familiar Old Worlds

Given the scale of the Klingon problem, then, it comes as a considerable relief to see how hard “Sleeping Dogs” pushes against it. Everyone is clearly nervous about the very idea of having to deal with them. It’s particularly nice for the episode to show Hoshi having overcome her fear of space travel – via the metaphor of her discomfort with EVA suits – as a form of levelling up, so that when her time in the Somraw sends her into a tailspin it implicitly holds the Klingons up as a level of threat above anything the crew has encountered so far.

And the episode goes beyond reminding us of the threat the Klingons have pose to Archer’s crew, too. Their entire attitude comes into question. Major elements of Klingon culture and attitude receive unsympathetic examination, from their refusal to accept rescue or countenance escape pods, to their failure to take adequate precautions when necking alien booze, to Bu’kaH’s total unwillingness to accept that framing the Enterprise as a corsair vessel responsible for her crew’s illness makes absolutely no sense. When Tucker suggests that the best way to engage with the Klingons is to not engage them, the humour comes not just from knowing that won’t happen, but from how well this episode demonstrates he’s absolutely right.

This tearing down of the Klingon approach comes to a head in the final moments, where Archer gapes with furious disbelief at the Klingon captain’s bellicose stupidity in threatening the ship that saved his life, and which he cannot possibly defeat. The overall effect is to (accurately) paint the average Klingon crew as so unfriendly, suspicious, ungrateful and - above all - violent, that sneaking onto their ship and firing off all their photon torpedoes should be standard practice whether it’ll save the ship or not. It’d be risky, but it’d make it a lot harder for them to board another ship and steal another pile of booty. For sure it’s a damn sight better praxis than getting drunk with them.

The overall effect is not just to make the Klingons threatening again, but to re-examine everything about them. “Sleeping Dogs” doesn’t just demonstrate the dangers in making a Klingon your enemy, but how risky it is to call one a friend. Indeed, the references here to Reed’s cold (which apparently we still can’t cure in the 22nd century) and the infectious agent in the Xeranteen ale seem to reflect the depiction of the Klingons themselves – as something you really can’t do anything with other than avoid where possible, and suffer through when not.

As with my note above, it needs to be clarified that comparing any actual culture to a transmissible illness would be utterly appalling. With the Klingons operating as walking expressions of a horrifying mindset, however, the comparison is sound. Some philosophies really are akin to viruses. Like the common cold, or food poisoning, there is no cure to Klingon aggression. There is only avoidance.

If we need Trek prequels at all (and neither Enterprise nor the first two seasons of Discovery convinced me of that fact), this is what they should be doing – taking the opportunity to inspect the franchise’s most fundamental elements with fresh eyes. It wouldn’t have to end up with so damning an indictment as the Klingons receive here – much of what the franchise rests upon is far less rotten, after all. I'm happier the franchise is much more forward-looking now than it was four years ago, when I first wrote this essay, but Picard's odd preoccupations and the immanent arrival of Strange New Worlds demonstrate that the desire to repeatedly return to the franchise's own past is still very much in play.

So we might as well do some good with it.


3. Faces

4. Sleeping Dogs

Series Ordering (so far)

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Voyager

3. The Next Generation

4. The Original Series

=5. Enterprise

=5. The Animated Series

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