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Star Trek – The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual (FASA) (Review)

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

The sheer wealth of supplemental material which exists for Star Trek is often quite stunning. While nowhere near the marketing juggernaut that Star Wars is, the depth of the Star Trek brand can’t help but seem impressive. On top of the television show and movies, there are novels and comics, but it goes even further than that. Models, blueprints, Christmas decorations, action figures, and even china dinner sets. It is occasionally awe-inspiring, but also quite intimidating.

Still, it’s interesting to witness how this extended material has come back to influence the “core” of the franchise. It’s not unheard of for spin-offs and tie-ins to help develop a core property. Kryptonite and Jimmy Olsen were added to the Superman mythos, for example, following their popularity on the radio show. Here we have some background material prepared for the FASA Star Trek role-playing game that was popular during the 1980s. As with a lot of this sort of stuff, it’s not really “canon” or “continuity” in anyway that seems to count.

However, The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual is interesting because it world-builds the franchise, explicitly in reference to John M. Ford’s vision of Klingon culture in The Final Reflection.

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Much like the Romulan culture featured in Diane Duane’s Rihannsu novels, the version of the Klingon Empire developed by Ford wound up radically different from what appeared on screen. It’s inevitable, due to the demands of writing a cross-media franchise like this, and it doesn’t diminish any depiction of the race. Still, even if the version of the Klingons developed on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine came to differ significantly from these early portrayals in tie-in media, the influence was keenly felt.

Ronald D. Moore admitted that The Final Reflection was a major influence in his early work on Klingon culture. Eric Burns would argue that Heart of Glory also owed a significant debt to Ford. “The only thing Heart of Glory lacked was Ford’s name,” he argued. “It was a significant lack.” (Incidentally, I also suspect that Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally was an influence on Moore’s handling of the Romulans in The Defector.)

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Ford was a successful and popular science-fiction writer on his own terms, but he was also an avid RPG gamer. He contributed significantly to the Generic Universal RolePlaying System as devised by Steve Jackson Games in the late eighties, aiming to allow players more freedom of choice in tailoring their own RPG experience. That fascination and interest carried over to Ford’s other work.

You can see his interest in games in The Final Reflection. The notion of “the Perpetual Game”, the underlying philosophy of the Klingon culture, seems designed to evoke not only the strategic thinking associated with game theory, but a suggestion that science-fiction world-building involves some measure of role-playing. A central theme of The Final Reflection was the idea that the best way to explore a culture is through its games. Ford uses the example of chess and poker as games that reveal a lot about humanity, but the implication is quite clear.

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So it makes sense that Ford would have consulted on this handbook issued with the role-playing Star Trek game produced during the eighties. FASA went out of business in 2001, and the license for these games has since been passed on to other countries. The guidebooks and resource materials for FASA’s extensive RPG have since fallen out of print. They were readily available on-line for those looking to engage in their own Star Trek RPG tournaments. Although recent rumours suggest that Paramount has begun to enforce its copyright over the material.

Either way, the guide to the game’s Klingon culture is insightful. It was written with the cooperation and assistance of Ford, who seemed to relish the opportunity to flesh out his portrayal of Star Trek‘s most iconic bumpy-headed aliens. The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual is an interested and extended glimpse into the culture as envisioned by Ford. There’s something quite clever about an RPG handbook written about a culture who consider their very existence a game.

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“Always assume that the other player is the enemy and the next move is a trap,” an early quotation advises readers. The book suggests it is a Klingon proverb, but it seems more like a sly wink at the players. The Klingons are – we’re repeatedly informed – always playing games. So playing a game playing as a Klingon playing a game adds a fascinating level of reflexiveness and self-awareness to. It’s a clever way of winking at the audience.

Indeed, Ford seems to almost prefigure fellow RPG-player George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, suggesting that the Klingon Imperial Throne is just a coveted as the Iron Throne. “Selection of an Emperor – in fact, of any leader – is based on the komerex zha, the perpetual game,” we’re informed. “Not everyone plays… or do they? To some theorists, it is impossible NOT to play. Yet, denying that one is a player at the game of society is a valid tactic, if you follow that.”

st-klingons-fasa3I like the idea of imagining the politics of the Klingon Empire as similar to those of Martin’s Westeros, with various internal machinations, sinister scheming and intricate plotting. It makes a significant change from the relatively banal “everybody gets along” politics of the Federation. It’s also a nice way of relating the game theory subtext to a real-world scenario, turning the practical politicking for control of the Empire into just another expression of the Klingon ethos.

However, the booklet is also a worthy extension of Ford’s work in The Final Reflection, because it suggests a measure of cultural relativism. It offers a culture that is more than just a bunch of generic stand-ins for the Soviets with dodgy goatees and bumpy foreheads. The booklet starts from the ground-up and suggests a culture which is fundamentally different from own, right down to something as simple as language construction.

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There’s an entire section of the book dedicated to the different ways that various cultures express the concept of death, suggesting that something as simple as idioms offer an insight into the mindset of a particular world. It’s quite interesting that the Andorians apparently use the word “pink” for “dead”, which lines up quite well with Shran’s use of the phrase “pink skin” as an isult during his appearances on Star Trek: Enterprise.

Words give way to concepts, and concepts express ideas. Ford’s Klingons feel distinctly alien and challenge our values because they hold a system of beliefs definably alien to Western cultural norms. The distinction, for example – between Klingon definitions of “slave” is quite telling, suggesting that there’s more shame in the strong surrendering to slavery than the weak complicitly accepting their perceived place in the order of things. It seems like a technical distinction by reference to our own norms, but it expresses Klingon ideals well.

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A particularly nice touch of The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual is the idea that knowledge and experience are not universal. While interactions between the three major powers are covered in depth, it’s also repeatedly stress that the Federation has knowledge of species unknown to the Klingons (the Gorn or the Tholians), while the Klingons have been engaging in their own shadow campaigns against enemies referred to as “the ‘Unknowns'”, an alien species Starfleet has no knowledge or history of.

The portrayal of the Klingon species as adversarial and warlike has generated no small measure of controversy in academic discussion of the franchise, with various commentators suggesting the use of Klingons as potential stand-in for various ethnic or social groups is tantamount to racism. Portraying the “other” as inherently savage or barbaric seems contrary to the general philosophical thrust of Star Trek, the notion that various cultures are worth respecting and appreciating on their own terms.st-klingons-fasa6

The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual tries to balance this out. It is written as a collection of papers and observations from various characters, allowing for a variety of viewpoints on Klingon culture. The reader is invited to form their own opinion of the validity of various views. (Those written “in character” as scientific and academic figures tend to be more relativist, while those written from a military perspective are somewhat less tolerant in their depiction of Klingon culture.)

At it’s heart, though, The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual attempts to contextualise the portrayal of Klingons as savage and barbaric in the early Star Trek episodes, prefiguring at least some of the later attempts to develop their own identity. Indeed, the booklet even tries to avoid some of the unfortunate connotations of Star Trek‘s “essentialist” approach to alien cultures. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it’s nice to get the acknowledgement.

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“There is no ‘average’ Klingon, any more than there is an ‘average’ human,” we’re assured, with the somewhat half-hearted evidence that Klingons run the gamut from “very aggressive” to “only mostly aggressive.” It’s hardly the most nuanced way of dealing with the franchise’s essentialist attitude towards alien cultures, but at least it acknowledges the show’s tendency to assume that all member of a culture acting and thought in the same way.

Of course, this raises interesting questions about cultural relativism and fictional species. Is it racist to imagine a culture so radically different from our own that conflict becomes the default mode of relating to the universe? “To a Klingon, conflict is a positive mode for expressing the desire for recognition and advancement and the individual’s right to exist and prosper,” we’re told. “Conflict not only identifies friend and foe, but also advances the fittest for the good of the social order. Finally, Klingons enjoy struggle for its own sake.”

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The difficulty and controversy arises if one accepts Klingons as stand-ins for exist racial or ethnic groups, as they were clearly intended in Errand of Mercy. (The script described them as “Oriental”, John Colicos asked to be made up to resemble Genghis Khan and internal memos described them as “Ho Chi Minh” kind.) I think that Ford’s work really helped push the Klingons beyond a mere communist analogue, although traces do remain. Even The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual still alludes to the origin of the species, making it clear that Klingons live in a state that shares similarities with despotic communist regimes:

A Klingon never feels completely autonomous. There are the ever-watchful eyes of fellow linemembers, subordinates, and superiors, as well as other Klingon individuals eager to advance their own aims at the expense of another. This produces an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Daily routine is monitored, conversations are recorded, and every Klingon action is subject to analysis, all in the name of maintaining the unity of one’s ship, one’s command, one’s line or the safety of the komerex.

Of course, this is a rather overt reference to Kor’s dialogue from Errand of Mercy, so it’s hard to fault. I think that the “Klingons as Russians” metaphor really ended with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and you can already see the franchise beginning to push past that. While traces of it remain, there’s a clear effort here to give the Klingons their own identity.

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The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual is an interesting glimpse into the way that certain licensees expanded and extended the universe hinted at in Star Trek, a demonstration of world-building and expansion which really became part of the franchise’s DNA following Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the film which explained that the events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan weren’t happen in a vacuum, and even introduced a proper Klingon language. (Coincidentally, 1984 also saw the publication of other world-building works like My Enemy, My Ally or The Final Reflection. It was a big year.)

It’s a big universe out there, expanded or otherwise, and The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual proves that.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

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