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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Emissary (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Emissary is one of the stronger episodes from the tail end of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s second season. An interesting meditation on heritage and race, as well as an insightful character piece for Worf, The Emissary is an interesting exploration of Worf’s relationship to his culture – and how his experience is far from universal. It’s the sort of story that The Next Generation should have been producing on a more consistent basis, but it’s better late than never.

Bonded by blood...

Bonded by blood…

Once again, The Next Generation positions itself as an exploration of a post-Cold War world. With the definition of the Ferengi as out-of-control capitalists, the revelation that the Klingons and the Federation now coexist in peace and the general portrayal of the Federation as a largely stable (and relatively unthreatened) geopolitical power all point to the fact that the writers and producers of the show realised that the Cold War had had its day.

The Berlin War would come toppling down in November 1989, although that was the end of a long process now described as “the Peaceful Revolution”, and served as the climax to a turbulent year for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviet Union itself would dissolve in December 1991, marking the official end of an ideological conflict that had been raging for almost half a century.

Playing his cards right...

Playing his cards right…

At the same time, it was hard not to read the writing on the (Berlin) wall. The war was over. The United States was de facto at peace. There would be a spate of minor military engagements through the nineties – Iraq, Kosovo, Somolia, to name the higher profile instances – but the world was increasingly unipolar. And The Next Generation tends to reflect that. So, we’re presented with a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire are at peace. Indeed, if you believe Samaritan Snare, a future where the Klingons have joined the Federation.

(This is one of the more interesting continuity snarls from the first two seasons of The Next Generation, as the show is completely unsure what to make of the Klingons. While Samaritan Snare is the only episode to make an explicit comment on the possibility of the Klingons joining the Federation, it is part of a general pattern during the show’s first two years. Wesley’s comment is arguably – and barely – compatible with Heart of Glory and almost certainly contradictory of A Matter of Honour.)

The glove goes on...

The glove goes on…

The Emissary does nothing to openly conflict with the possibility that the Klingons could be members of the Federation. The Klingon government (“Klingon High Command”) is only mentioned twice. Once when K’Ehleyr mentions that the T’Ong sent a message “directed to the Klingon High Command. It said only that the ship was returning home and was about to reach its awakening point.” Later on, the captain of the T’Ong informs Worf, “You dare not destroy us. We are on a crucial mission by order of the Klingon High Command.”

The Klingon High Command is not directly involved in the plot of The Emissary. It is only evoked by the T’Ong, so it’s entirely possible that it is defunct or outdated. Sure, the Klingons apparently maintain their own fleet. We saw a ship in Heart of Glory, Riker served on one in A Matter of Honour and another is on an intercept course here. The phrase “Klingon Empire” is only used twice as well. Once describing the conflict that was brewing when the T’Ong was sent on its top secret mission, and again by the captain of the T’Ong. Like “Klingon High Command”, there’s no sense that the “Empire” is an on-going concern.

Worf gets to play dress-up...

Worf gets to play dress-up…

Rather pointedly, K’Ehleyr is not a Klingon ambassador. She doesn’t seem to serve the Klingon government in any official capacity. She is described as “a Federation special emissary.” And yet she remains the Klingon attaché on this particular mission. It’s quite easy to argue that The Emissary was written to fit with the vision of human and Klingon relations suggested in Samaritan Snare, the old adversaries who have now become Federation members.

Of course, that view doesn’t hold. It’s flatly contradicted in Sins of the Father and the rest of the Star Trek franchise runs with the idea of the Klingon Empire as an on-going concern. One of the strengths of The Emissary is that it keeps all this ambiguous enough that it still fits with what we later learn about the Empire’s relationship with the Federation. Sure, you’d imagine the Klingons would probably want to be more proactively involved in the attempt to stop the T’Ong.

Worf sure does seem a clingy Klingon, doesn't he?

Worf sure does seem a clingy Klingon, doesn’t he?

Still, there’s something quite striking about a bunch of old Klingon warriors waking up from their “cryogenic sleep” ready to continue their age old war with the Federation. Even the nature of their stasis is a witty pun on their status as “cold warriors.” The past waking up and threatening to destroy the present, relics from some ancient part of history. Klingons from the original Star Trek waking up on the wrong show. You could argue this is an example of The Next Generation asserting its differences from classic Star Trek, by featuring an artifact (warlike Klingons) from that part of the franchise’s history.

Still, the T’Ong is a secondary concern. The Emissary is a character-driven story, as if the third season had arrived early. Michael Piller famously argued the key to a good Star Trek story had little to do with the universe or the technobabble, but the characters. It’s not hard to imagine The Emissary airing early in the show’s third season, perhaps with a little more world-building on the side, and more focus on Worf rather than K’Ehleyr. Again, like Q Who?, there’s a sense that The Next Generation is finally working out what it needs to be in order to work.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

Worf has quickly established himself as one of the more interesting members of the regular cast, despite the fact that he was a late addition to Encounter at Farpoint. Indeed, Worf’s first character-centric episode – Heart of Glory – came late in the first season and he seemed a little redundant until Denise Crosby decided to depart the show. And yet, despite these rough beginnings, Worf has rapidly become one of the more striking members of the ensemble.

The truly successful members of the Next Generation regular cast are those that come with some hook or interesting dynamic. Picard is played by Patrick Stewart, who is one of the best actors in the history of the franchise. Data is really the only character with a clear arc that is obvious from these early seasons – it’s clear that Data wishes to learn what it means to be human. Even Worf’s character arc isn’t quite obvious from theses early episodes. However, while Worf lacks a clear arc, he is really the only member of the main cast with an internal conflict. Which is handy, because that sort of conflict makes generating stories easy.

Howling at the moon...

Howling at the moon…

(It is worth noting that Riker really should have a conflict – between his comfort in as Picard’s second-in-command and his own ambition. However, Gene Roddenberry’s hyper-evolved human sensibilities won’t allow for that sort of conflict on the show. So Riker’s potentially ambitious side gets slowly smothered in episodes like The Icarus Factor and Peak Performance. The conflict only really comes to the fore in, and is neatly resolved by, The Best of Both Worlds.)

Still, Worf’s status as a perpetual outsider – the warrior serving on a vessel of peace, the Klingon living among humans – is inherently interesting. It really drives a lot of the franchise’s stronger Worf stories, and powers the eventual character arc driven by Ronald D. Moore. Worf is a paradoxical Klingon. He only knows about his culture from books and computers, and yet he longs to live a life according to those lofty ideals.

Making a stab at this whole relationship thing...

Making a stab at this whole relationship thing…

The beauty of Ronald D. Moore’s approach to Worf is that Worf’s ideals of Klingon culture are shown to be romantic fantasies, creating another conflict – between the Empire as it is and the Empire as Worf really wishes that it were. Still, we’re a year away from Ronald D. Moore joining the writing team. However, it’s easy to see where those seeds developed from. The Emissary is a fascinating exploration of how Worf views his Klingon heritage.

Interestingly, The Emissary chooses to explore this through a guest character. Although K’Ehleyr would return to the show in Reunion, it’s hard to imagine that she could have been created during Michael Piller’s stewardship of the show. She’s very much the focal point of The Emissary, and not just a character who exists to highlight Worf’s own character arc. K’Ehleyr is very much the main character of The Emissary.

Worf and her will get along like peas in a pod... er... probe...

Worf and her will get along like peas in a pod… er… probe…

While it’s hard to imagine K’Ehleyr as a guest character in the show’s third season (and, when she does return in Reunion during the fourth season, she is very much secondary to Worf’s arc and Michael Piller even instructed that she be killed off to motivate Worf), she is an absolutely wonderful creation. Part of this is down to the decision to cast the wonderful Suzie Plakson in her only recurring character in the entire franchise. Plakson has played three once-off characters across three shows, and it’s telling that two of them went on to have a life of their own in the tie-in materials.

Plakson has a wonderful larger-than-life presence which really brings K’Ehleyr to life. In an interview with Cinefantastique, Jeri Taylor credits the character as an inspiration in the creation of B’Elanna Torres for Star Trek: Voyager. Worried about repeating Worf’s character arc, the creative team opted for a female character “a little more like K’Ehleyr.” That’s quite a testament to K’Ehleyr as a character and Plakson as an actress.

I've never thought about it before, but doesn't Geordi's visor give him a bit of an advantage in poker?

I’ve never thought about it before, but doesn’t Geordi’s visor give him a bit of an advantage in poker?

K’Ehleyr is the franchise’s first Klingon-human hybrid, and – as such – she provides an interesting avenue to explore racial identity. The issue of people of mixed racial background was not particularly novel during the eighties. Indeed, James Weldon Johnson’s fictional Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man had controversially covered some of the ground in the early years of the twentieth century – dealing with the attempts to integrate made by a young biracial man.

At the same time, the eighties and nineties came a generation after the civil rights movement. The Emissary aired more than two decades after the Supreme Court had identified anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional. New eras brought new challenges. The Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA) was founded in November 1988, designed to represent the changing demographics of modern America.

The crew worried that Worf had taken casual Friday a little too far...

The crew worried that Worf had taken casual Friday a little too far…

In his testimony before the Subcommittee on Census, Statistics and Postal Personnel of the U.S. House of Representatives, President of the AMEA Carlos A. Fernáandez argued that they were just part of the changing face of modern America:

We represent on of the fastest-growing populations in the United States. (According to the Population Reference Bureau, children born to parents of different races went from 1 percent to 3.4 percent of total births from 1968 to 1989; from 1970 to 1991, the number of mixed-race couples excluding Hispanics increased from 310,000 to 994,000.)

As such, K’Ehleyr feels like a logical development – a child of two different cultures trying to determine her own identity and place in the world.

"I'm fairly sure that most of the senior staff have felt that way at one point or another..."

I’m fairly sure that most of the senior staff have felt that way at one point or another…

And The Emissary is fascinated by K’Ehleyr’s struggles with her heritage. She boasts about getting her sense of humour from her human mother. When Troi asks about her Klingon side, K’Ehleyr responds, “That, I keep under tight control. It’s like a terrible temper. It’s not something I want people to see.” K’Ehleyr’s experiences feel somewhat familiar. While her cranial ridges might restrict her capacity to “pass” as human, she seems to struggle with her racial identity.

This is a common theme in stories about interracial characters. Perhaps the most famous example is Fannie Hurst’s classic novel Imitation of Life, which received two high-profile film adaptations. The novel tells the story of Peola, a young black girl with European ancestry who tries to pass as white. K’Ehleyr is clearly uncomfortable with her Klingon heritage, and is more keenly interested in exploring her human side.

Partners...

Partners…

This is an uncomfortable situation, evoking all manner of complicated racial politics and potentially controversial issues:

Throughout history there have been attempts by mixed people and people of color to be considered white in hopes of gaining access to white privilege. Other times a label of “white” has been imposed upon people. Since the start of the colonized United States, blacks have been assigned a subordinate status to whites. In addition, the racial designation “black” was placed upon anyone with “one drop of black blood.” However, now that the social construction of race is more widely accepted, the one drop rule is losing ground. Racial categories have developed and changed over time as white scientists have coded certain physical differences as belonging to distinct types of individual.

These are issues that Star Trek: Voyager explores a bit more thoroughly through the character of B’Elanna Torres, but they are still broached here.

The Enterprise's support is on life support...

The Enterprise’s support is on life support…

When K’Ehleyr tries to dismiss her sexual fling with Worf as meaningless, Worf accuses her of ignoring her Klingon heritage. “That is a human attitude!” he protests, as if K’Ehleyr has no choice in her own cultural identity. “I am human!” K’Ehleyr responds. Surely K’Ehleyr has the right to determine her own racial identity, and it is not Worf’s place to correct her own self-identification?

That said, it’s worth noting that K’Ehleyr’s attitude towards the Klingons borders on internalised racism. She’s quick to dismiss any possibility of peaceful settlement with the crew of the T’Ong. “There is nothing to understand,” she protests. “These are Klingons. They’ll attack. In their minds, we’re the enemy, and there’s no way we’re going to talk them out of that!” She is unable to fathom a peaceful solution to the situation, as she assumes that the crew of the T’Ong are beyond reason.

A cut above?

A cut above?

This is a little bit uncomfortable, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, in the case of K’Ehleyr’s characterisation as a metaphor for the mixed race experience, it’s hard to dismiss the association of Klingons with African American culture – as explored in, for example, Peter A. Chvany’s Like Ferengi Capitalists? Klingon Ethnicity and Whiteness. While this argument isn’t entire convincing on its own (Klingons have been stand-ins for lots of different cultures and concepts), it does feel uncomfortable when brought up in the context of K’Ehleyr’s mixed ethnicity.

Still, in The Final Reflection? A Mirrored Empire? Klingon History and American History, Lori Maguire argues that K’Ehleyr’s attitude has less to do with race than it has to do with the combination of race and gender. Indeed, Maguire identifies this as part of a general trend within Star Trek.  “Worf has mixed feelings about his Klingon heritage,” we’re told, “but women of Klingon origin within the Federation are generally fiercely hostile to it.”

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

Maguire clarifies:

The difficulties experience by biculture and biracial characters like Worf and B’Elanna reflect American concerns about immigrants from cultures that are not traditional sources of immigration. For example, the problems Klingon women have integrating into human society mirror the reality of many girls from immigrant backgrounds. Much attention has been focused on this question, particularly with regard to women in the Islamic world. Most dramatically, the “honour” killing of Palestina Isa in 1989 in Missouri brought the subject to national attention. The paradox is that Klingon women are both more aggressive than their human counterparts and more oppressed than their Federation counterparts (in the series, no woman can sit on the High Council, and we never see a Klingon woman commanding a ship). Although Klingon men living among humans experience the same prejudice, they have fewer problems adjusting after their boyhood.

This is still a potentially problematic reading. Most obviously, the murder of Palestina Isa took place in November 1989, after the episode aired, so it’s hard to read The Emissary as a response to that, even if it was playing on unconscious anxieties around those sorts of issues. Then again, given the way that Worf treats K’Ehleyr (and expects her to defer to him), perhaps there is some weight to the argument.

"By the way, you used birth control, right?"

“By the way, you used birth control, right?”

While the fact that the role of Klingon women remains ambiguous supports an assumption about institutional sexism in the Klingon Empire, we haven’t yet seen enough of Klingon culture to make a judgement one way or another. The “no women on the High Council” rule is only implied in Redemption and made explicit in House of Quark. While we have to wait until Star Trek: Generations to see a Klingon woman commanding a ship, 1994’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country would feature a female Chancellor leading the Empire.

So K’Ehleyr’s attitudes are uncomfortable, but perhaps they are meant to be. It’s worth noting that her attitudes conflict directly with those of Worf. Worf is a regular cast member. We know him better than K’Ehleyr, and he will continue to romanticise Klingon culture long after she has departed the show. So K’Ehleyr’s attitudes provide a contrast to Worf’s idealism and fetishism. Her cynicism invites viewers to question Worf’s rather simplistic attitude towards his heritage. If K’Ehleyr is unfairly dismissive of her Klingon roots, perhaps Worf is unduly reverent to them.

Blood is thicker than water...

Blood is thicker than water…

Either way, the relationship between Worf and K’Ehleyr is fascinating because it inverts the traditional gender dynamic. K’Ehleyr is the flirty and cynical one, the partner who is afraid of being tied down or commitment. In contrast, Worf is immediately fixated on the idea of marrying K’Ehleyr. It’s not too hard to believe that Worf has his dream Klingon wedding already planned out, right down to the cutlery.

(Indeed, one of the smarter aspects of Worf’s eventual wedding in You Are Cordially Invited is that it maintains this weird gender reversal. Dax is the fun-loving party animal who couldn’t really care all that much about the ceremony, while Worf has been dreaming about the wedding since he was a little boy. It’s a rather fun bit of consistent characterisation that works because it subverts so many gender norms.)

I suspect this is another moment that Worf has been dreaming about since he was a little boy...

I suspect this is another moment that Worf has been dreaming about since he was a little boy…

Worf is presented as a decidedly conservative figure. K’Ehleyr is much more sexually liberated. “Why didn’t we do this six years ago?” she muses to herself, all but confirming that we just missed Alexander’s conception – as strange as that chronology must be. “We were not ready,” Worf suggests. Which is an interesting way of subverting traditional masculine gender roles. It seems quite possible that Worf was a virgin until this point. “I was,” K’Ehleyr confidently replies.

As an aside, that scene does a handy job demonstrating just how weirdly asexual The Next Generation actually is. K’Ehleyr and Worf clearly just had a vigorous “calisthenics program” together. And yet neither of them has a hair out of place. Given what we’ve heard about Klingon mating rituals, it is surprising that nobody is bruised. No clothes are torn. Nobody needs zipping up. The only real suggestion we get that either of the pair was out of uniform is the fact that Worf’s sash is on a nearby rock.

Worf! Put your sash on! You look positively indecent!

Worf! Put your sash on! You look positively indecent!

For all intents and purposes, it looks like K’Ehleyr and Worf just conceived a child, and all Worf had to do was remove his sash. Given that this was the way that The Next Generation approached the issue of sex, it’s no surprise that episodes like Justice fell flat on their face. The Next Generation is many things, but it is definitely the least sexy Star Trek show. (Which makes sense, given it aired at the height of the AIDS scare.) Even the borderline creepy teenage-viewer-titillating Star Trek: Enterprise seems more confident in its own sexuality.

Anyway, it’s interesting how Worf goes straight from getting laid to proposing marriage. It is perfectly in character for what we know of Worf, a character willing to get repeatedly jabbed with cattle prods because his culture says he should. “And now we must solemnise our union with the oath,” Worf instructs K’Ehleyr, in a matter-of-fact manner. If this is the way that Klingon men behave, and expect Klingon women to obey, perhaps K’Ehleyr’s attitudes do make a great deal of sense. “I’m not going to become your wife!” K’Ehleyr bluntly informs him. Worf replies, rather possessively, “You already are.”

Pulling alongside...

Pulling alongside…

There is a decidedly creepy undertone to Worf’s badgering of K’Ehleyr, as much as it is in character for the Klingon. When he argues that their sacred traditions require that he marry K’Ehleyr, she responds, “They’re not sacred. They’re absurd! Marrying you is out of the question for a million reasons.” Worf rather coldly responds, “None of which stopped you earlier.” It sounds like the worst sort of sexist attitude – the one designed to shame women for daring to be sexually active.

Then again, that’s part of the beauty of The Emissary. It respect’s Worf’s romantic attachment to Klingon tradition without asking us to condone or accept it. These attitudes are presented as part of what Worf believes to be his cultural heritage, and it is his imperative to believe them, just as it is K’Ehleyr’s imperative to reject them entirely. This is the sort of cultural relativism that The Next Generation really needs to reinforce – a willingness to accept and explore differing values, as much as they may conflict with our own.

Feeling that old familiar K'tingle...

Feeling that old familiar K’tingle…

Worf’s romanticism of his culture is excessive, but so is K’Ehleyr’s internalised racism. But both characters must be free to believe what they will – there is beauty in diversity and it’s daring to have Worf express views that so sharply conflict with accepted liberal norms. It’s another one of those wonderful internalised conflicts that really makes Worf gel as a character – it’s the kind of thing the show would touch upon again with The Enemy.

The Emissary is one of the strongest episodes in this stretch of the second season because it dares to challenge the viewer, and because it’s willing to let characters conflict with one another. It’s something that The Next Generation has been gradually getting better at over the course of the season, and The Emissary feels like a real character study rather than false drama.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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