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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins of the Father (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.

Sins of the Father is another watershed moment for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek as a whole. It’s really the first time that the franchise has invested in proper long-form world-building, rather than treating continuity as something that occasionally built up by sheer narrative momentum. It’s an episode that ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting more to come. It’s also an episode that nails down a lot of Klingon culture and tradition.

In a way, it’s the logical conclusion of a narrative style that has been building since The Enemy and The Defector earlier in the season; creating a sense that The Next Generation isn’t just the story of the crazy adventures that or crew have week in and week out, but a window into a much larger fictional universe. There’s a sense that the adventures of the Enterprise are set against a much larger and vaster universe, and Sins of the Father really gives us a glimpse at that.

It broadens the scope of The Next Generation, in terms of subject matter and also in terms of narrative possibilities.

Picard gets his Palpatine on...

Picard gets his Palpatine on…

There is a very weird structure to Sins of the Father. The episode is primarily well-known for its handling of Klingon culture and society. It is our first trip to Qo’nos, even though the episode does not refer to it as such. Instead, the Enterprise sets course to “the First City of the Klingon Imperial Empire.” Which is a wonderful piece of Star Trek redundancy, just in case the audience at home didn’t get that the Klingons were an Empire. However, there’s a rather weird set-up required to get us to that point in the script.

The episode doesn’t open with the allegations against Worf’s father, as compelling a hook as that might be. Indeed, the episode takes quite a while to actually find its footing. It opens with a three-minute teaser that climaxes on Kurn order the Enterprise to go to impulse. Sure, he says “execute!”, but it’s hardly the most compelling of episode hooks. Indeed, it’s surprising just how forgettable the opening sequence is.

Who would have thought it would be unsafe to walk the tunnels of the First City by night?

Who would have thought it would be unsafe to walk the tunnels of the First City by night?

Sins of the Father really opens as a very different episode than the one it eventually becomes. It seems like something of a sequel to A Matter of Honour, the episode that saw Riker serving on board a Klingon Bird of Prey. Having Kurn  transfer to the Enterprise “to return the recent visit of Commander Riker to the cruiser Pagh” is a nice piece of internal continuity, and a thematically appropriate way to open an episode that will lead to one of The Next Generation‘s strongest threads of continuity, but it still feels slightly strange knowing where Sins of the Father is going.

Indeed, the episode opens like something of a comedy of manners. The basic plot structure seems obvious from the first scene of the first act, with Geordi and Wesley complaining to Riker about Kurn. Geordi is complaining about Kurn’s style. “Yeah, but this isn’t a Klingon vessel,” he insists. “He’s going to have to loosen up, Commander.” When Riker tries to offer Kurn advice, and tries to remind him that this is not a Klingon ship, Kurn responds, “If it were a Klingon ship, I would have killed you for offering your suggestion.”

A commanding presence...

A commanding presence…

So the character arcs seem rather obvious. Kurn will inevitably learn to respect the Enterprise crew, and they will learn to appreciate his own different system of values. We even get a nice awkward meal with Kurn and the crew, in which Kurn rubs some of Picard’s secret caviar stash on his chicken and politely tries to blend in. Managing an awkward smile, the Klingon promises, “I shall try some of your burned replicated bird meat.” It’s a less tense version of the dinner scene that would feature in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

And then, very sharply, Sins of the Father takes a bit of a left turn. Suddenly, Kurn is revealed to be Worf’s secret brother! Worf’s deceased father is being accused of treachery! The Enterprise must set a course to the Klingon homeworld! All of a sudden, we’ve shifted from a kooky social comedy about different people learning to respect one another into high-stakes galactic politics and heightened melodrama!

Oh, brother!

Oh, brother!

It is a completely insane plot twist, and it completely changes what Sins of the Father is. Even today, watching the first act of the episode is a disconcerting experience, as the show sets up a rug under the viewer and then pulls it out from under them. If Sins of the Father didn’t commit so completely to the “fish out of water” set up of Kurn’s plot, it would feel like a cheat. However, it seems like the episode starts going one direction, and suddenly (and spontaneously) thinks better of it.

It’s not the most fluid plotting in the history of Star Trek. It’s very strange, from a structural point of view. And yet, it mostly works. The Next Generation is a show that can get a little too comfortable with itself, and can very easily settle into autopilot. The fact that it’s easy enough to deduce Kurn’s character arc from one act of the teleplay suggests that it is possible for the show to trade in cliché. Even if pulling a first act bait-and-switch like this feels a little cheeky, it does suggest that The Next Generation is changing things up.

Thing are going to be run a bit differently around here...

Thing are going to be run a bit differently around here…

Of course, there is a practical reason for this strange structure and the somewhat disconnected opening teaser and first act. As Ron Moore explained in the commentary, Sins of the Father was actually a synthesis of two different ideas and scripts that he was tasked with blending into a single story:

This one of the first projects I was handed by Michael Piller when I came aboard the staff in the third season. The other project they gave me eventually became Yesterday’s Enterprise. This was actually two scripts. There was a script by a writer named Beth Woods which was actually called Our Brother’s Keeper, and there was a script by Drew Deighan which was called Brother to Dragons. And, essentially, I combined the two to make this show.

Beth Woods’ script, Our Brother’s Keeper, was all about Kurn. Kurn came to the Enterprise as part of an officer exchange programme, became first officer and secretly (or not so secretly in her draft) he was Worf’s brother. So he came there and had a whole conflict with Worf while the Enterprise was investigating a colony distress signal. The Klingonbs got upset because they thought the Klingons had kidnapped Kurn and that was the action part of the show. But it was really an episode about Kurn being Worf’s brother and their backstory and Worf’s struggle culturally to be either a Klingon or a Starfleet officer.

The other script, Brothers to Dragons, was about Worf’s father. The Enterprise was called to the Klingon homeworld by the Klingon High Council because Worf’s father had been accused of being a traitor and betraying all the people who were at the Khitomer Outpost to the Romulans. So that’s where the trial structure of the episode came from and the charges and a lot of the structure of the show. The first section of the episode as it is is pretty much taken from Beth’s script, more or less intact. The courtroom stuff and the investigation of Worf’s father is all taken from the other script. My job was to sew them together.

Again, this gives a sense of just how chaotic the third season of The Next Generation had been. Yesterday’s Enterprise was written over Thanksgiving. The Offspring was given a page-one re-write five days before shooting. Sins of the Father was stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

A tactical decision...

A tactical decision…

It’s to Moore’s credit that it works as well as it does. That weird tonal shift at the end of the first act is really the only substantial problem with the episode, and it’s not really a problem so much as it’s a rather jarring upset of audience expectations. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Still, nobody really remembers that opening act when they talk about Sins of the Father. They remember all the fantastic stuff that happens in the rest of the script.

There is a lot to love about Sins of the Father. For one thing, it feels like the first time that televised Star Trek has properly committed to world-building. In the eighties, books like The Final Reflection or My Enemy, My Ally or Spock’s World added a bit of wider context to the Star Trek universe. They offered a glimpse at alien cultures in their own context, rather than as allies or adversaries of the Federation. However, Star Trek on television or in film had never really tried that.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was really the first time that the franchise grappled with the politics of the wider universe, dealing with the Klingons as an interstellar power with their own agenda rather than generic stand-ins for Communist Russia. Even then, the franchise never tried to offer a holistic view of Klingon culture. Heart of Glory gave us rebels reacting against some abstract decay in larger Klingon culture, but with little insight into Klingon society as a whole. The second season of The Next Generation was very fond of throwing Klingon rituals into episodes, but there was no sense of a larger cultural context.

So Sins of the Father is interesting in that it’s an episode about Klingon culture and society directly. The action unfolds on the Klingon home world. The story takes us from the ruling chambers of the High Council to the alleys and tunnels running beneath the First City. There are machinations and schemes, and High Chancellors and nurses, traitors and heroes and by-standers. It’s this incredibly large and in-depth exploration of a race that have been part of the Star Trek mythos since Errand of Mercy, but have never been properly explored.

The Klingons have turned their back on Worf...

The Klingons have turned their back on Worf…

While by no means the most high-profile memo of Michael Piller’s first year managing the writers’ room on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ronald D. Moore was tasked with drafting a two-page memo on Klingon culture for the for the rest of the writing staff. The responsibility had fallen to Moore as the designated “Trekkie” on the writing staff, but Moore has admitted that he simply made most of it up.

(Still, the memo makes for an interesting read – particularly interesting is the suggestion that most “subject” planets of the Empire are happy with the Empire’s iron fist rule, a nice piece of cultural relativism which reveals the universe does not necessarily conform to the Federation’s value system. It’s quite uncomfortable to think of a stable system of tyranny and oppression, but it also serves to make the Klingons feel genuinely alien.)

Long live the Empire...

Long live the Empire…

Sins of the Father is very much a product of this approach to Star Trek, the one that veiws alien cultures as built from the ground up rather than existing at the whims of a given narrative. In a way, it’s Michael Piller’s approach to Star Trek taken to its logical conclusion. Piller rather famously insisted that Star Trek stories should be built around character. Sins of the Father suggests that not only must the characters feel real and grounded, but the universe they inhabit must also feel tangible and “real.”

Sins of the Father feels quite different from what we’ve come to expect from Star Trek. It is very much focused on the stories unfolding within Klingon culture than it is in anything involving the Federation. The Enterprise is not threatened with destruction. K’mpec doesn’t even threaten the peace treaty with the Federation until the final act. Even then, it’s an act of desperation rather than the climax of the episode. Although Picard and the Enterprise do get involved, Picard’s primary involvement is as Worf’s Klingon lawyer and the Enterprise is mostly a source of exposition. The real drama is on Qo’nos, involving Klingons.

Tabling this discussion for later...

Tabling this discussion for later…

Moore has acknowledged that The Final Reflection was a massive influence on his early work with the Klingons, but it’s also quite telling that he cites Frank Herbert’s Dune on the commentary track to Sins of the Father:

Also, in general terms, Dune was very influential. The Great Houses and the way that that society was all about the Great Houses and the  conflict between the Houses and their kin and that kinship. How that culture was depicted in Frank Herbert’s world was also very influential in how I designed the Klingons.

Dune is this wonderfully immersive and expansive space opera involving all these grand mystical themes and heightened melodrama and plans-within-plans. It’s radically different from what audiences had come to expect from Star Trek, and so Sins of the Father represents a pretty dramatic shift.

Making a stab at an action sequence...

Making a stab at an action sequence…

There’s a decidedly Shakespearean style to all of this,as Michael Dorn admitted in the Resistance is Futile documentary:

When I look back on the episodes, I mean this is Shakespearean in dimension. We talk like Shakespeare. Everything is just so eloquent. And I thought the writers were incredible, especially Ron Moore. He wrote some just incredible stuff about who the Klingons are and how they talk and the things they believe in. He wrote some just amazing stuff.

Star Trek has always had a very theatrical quality to it, but the larger-than-life character of the Klingons and the “let’s talk about the fate of the Empire in these small rooms” aspect of Sins of the Father makes the comparison feel quite apt.

Mogh problems...

Mogh problems…

On the audio commentary for The Offspring, writer René Echevarria discusses what makes a good Star Trek actor. He contends that those actors with theatre experience tend to fare better. “It’s a period piece,” he contends. “So the language isn’t current. It’s slightly formal, like a period piece set in the past – it just happens to be set in the future.” And you can really see that at work in Sins of the Father, particularly in Patrick Massett’s performance as Duras. His body language is a decidedly theatrical and exaggerated, which makes the whole thing feel somewhat over-the-top and absurd, but in a way that fits.

Of course, pairing up Michael Dorn and Patrick Stewart is a stroke of genius. Even when the show wasn’t giving Dorn a lot of material to work with, the actor was knocking it out of the park with his wonderfully deadpan delivery and willingness to go a little over the top. Patrick Stewart is an actor who always elevates his material, and also a performer who relishes being given something to do. So allowing Picard to verbally chastise the High Council and fend off an assassination attempt in one episode is rather wonderful. It pays off dividends.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

Although it clearly wasn’t envisaged as the start of something expansive and epic, Sins of the Father hits on quite a few themes that Moore would develop and expand upon during his tenure on Star Trek. It’s quite frequent to hear the Klingons dismissed as one-dimensional or bland, an absurd culture built around war and violence and destruction and death. (“Where are the Klingon architects and scientists?” this line of reasoning asks, something the franchise has touched upon repeatedly.) This criticism is understandable, but rather short-sighted.

Although the notion of a warrior culture is a science-fiction cliché that has attracted a fair amount of (justifiable) criticism, Moore’s portrayal of the Klingon Empire feels like a clever twist. The Klingons aren’t so much a generic warrior culture as they are a subtle deconstruction of a warrior culture. From Sins of the Father, it is made abundantly clear that the Klingon Empire is in a state of cultural decline.

Duras assess the "traitor of Kling"...

Duras assess the “traitor of Kling”…

This would become more obvious over the course of the series as the Empire implodes in peace time, collapsing into civil war as the system of family autocracy and a society built around war prove unstable in times of peace. The cliché of “honour” becomes a comforting lie as the Empire engages in a series of interstellar wars in order to maintain internal stability. While all this lies in the future, Sins of the Father is built around the idea that Klingon honour is a lie.

Worf’s father is blamed not because he has done anything wrong, but because it is convenient. Ja’rod’s guilt is concealed because of political and practical concerns. “His family is powerful,” K’mpec tells Picard, trying to justify the cover up. “If the truth were known, it would shatter the Council, most certainly plunge us into civil war.” Rather pointedly, the Klingon who proactively prosecutes Worf, and who so vigourously attacks Worf’s right to call himself Klingon (“you will not wear the emblems of our people”), turns out to be the traitor. It is all a farce, a sham.

Brothers at arms (length)...

Brothers at arms (length)…

That’s the wonderful irony of Worf’s character arc. Worf tries so hard to live up to Klingon ideals. He returns home to affirm his cultural identity. “I have not forsaken my heritage,” he assures Duras. “I am Klingon. My heart is of this world. My blood is as yours.” While K’mpec and Duras conspire to hide their crimes, Worf’s reflex is to lay down his life for the good of the Empire. Even after the conspiracy has been exposed, Worf offers, “I will die for the Empire.”

Despite being raised in exile, Worf is consistently portrayed as one of the few Klingons to meet his own standards of honour. It lends Moore’s work on the Klingons a decidedly poetic quality, a wonderful sense of irony and scale. The Klingon Empire, it turns out, is a culture built on romantic falsehoods. However, the fact that Worf has bought so completely and thoroughly into those falsehoods remains a cause for optimism and hope.

Picard wears a sneaky robe, (Kah)lest he be discovered here...

Picard wears a sneaky robe, (Kah)lest he be discovered here…

Picard rather explicitly calls K’mpec out on his hypocrisy. “You admit the truth and yet expect him to accept punishment?” he demands. “What does this say of an Empire who holds honour so dear?” Interestingly, and perhaps unintentionally, Moore seems to be mirroring one of the more important developments in The Next Generation. The Measure of a Man saw the show coming into its own when it was willing to have Starfleet officers question the government’s moral authority, and to fight for the rights of the individual against the state.

This also came up in The Offspring, where Picard refused to hand Data’s child over to Starfleet authorities. One of the most important things that The Next Generation did was to allow Picard to challenge Roddenberry’s utopia, realising that a truly worthy society must be willing to allow introspection and criticism; it must not be willing to sacrifice individuals or families for mere convenience. It was a vital part of the show’s evolution, a necessary step in growing up.

Seeking Council...

Seeking Council…

The Klingon Empire, as seen in Sins of the Father, is presented as a sharp contrast to that growth and development. It is a society unwilling to question itself. Where Picard would not break up a family to satisfy his superiors, K’mpec is willing to forsake Worf’s family for political security. “The Empire will not be destroyed for one family’s honour,” he vows. In light of Picard’s refusal to compromise Data and Lal’s rights in the previous episodes, the implication is obvious.

The Federation’s willingness to embrace self-criticism and to admit mistakes, and Picard’s refusal to be blinded by the chain of command is a good thing – the willingness to question is part of what makes the Federation so progressive and so strong. The fact that Klingon culture is not willing to ask those same tough questions, and that it is so willing to sacrifice Mogh’s honour and Worf’s life for “the greater good”, explain why the Klingon Empire is a culture in decline.

Making a stand...

Making a stand…

Instead of dealing with problems and making necessary changes, the Empire instead tries to cover up and compromise. It is willing to make all manner of compromises in order to maintain appearances, and so it ensures that the broken system will never get fixed. The Klingon Empire is stagnant, this system of corruption and decay self-perpetuating. This is proven in the grand scheme of things, but it’s also hinted at quite heavily here.

The Klingons have been used as a stand-in for the Soviet Union since they were originally introduced in Errand of Mercy. That plot thread was taken to its logical conclusion in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where the Klingons made peace with the Federation just as the Cold War was coming to an end. Indeed, the more relaxed attitude towards the Klingons in the era of The Next Generation was undoubtedly an expression of détente.

Kurn about intruder...?

Kurn about intruder…?

However, there’s also a sense that the portrayal of the Klingon Empire in Sins of the Father reflects contemporaneous attitudes towards the USSR. Broadcast before the release of The Undiscovered Country, Sins of the Father was written and aired before the wall came down. However, it was also the product of a time when the Soviet Union seemed increasingly weak and feeble. After decades being built up as “the Evil Empire”, and a world power that could barely be restrained behind the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, a hungry animal yearning to consume the free world, Russia was suddenly a lot less of a mythical enemy.

Although the Soviet Union would not officially dissolve until 1991, the writing had been on the wall for quite some time. Throughout the late eighties, notable observers and commentators had been remarking on the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the most high profile predictions came from economist Judy Shelton, who published The Coming Soviet Crash in 1989, arguing that the the Soviet Union was living on borrowed time – running up deficits that it officially denied.

The Evil Empire?

The Evil Empire?

These were just the more obvious signs in the late eighties and nineties. US President Ronald Reagan had made similar arguments in his 1982 address to the British House of Parliament:

It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and is less than half of what it was then. The dimensions of this failure are astounding: A country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people. Were it not for the private sector, the tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture, the country might be on the brink of famine…. Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resource into the making of instruments of destruction. The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people. What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones.

The Soviet Union was no longer an enemy to be vanquished, but a once great nation rotting from the inside. Even the Soviet Union itself could only deny these accusations so much. In May 1985, Gorbachev was forced to admit the slowing of the Russian economy, a political reality that arguably forced the late eighties policies of perestroika and détente. (Appropriately enough, Ronald Reagan would visit the Great Hall set the following year for the filming of Redemption.)

Circle of judgment...

Circle of judgment…

Moore seems to suggest that something similar is happening to the Klingon Empire. The culture had built up this image of itself that was impossible to maintain. (Indeed, The Undiscovered Country reveals the Klingon economy underwent a similar collapse.) The race that had once been mortal enemies to the Federation, and a viable threat to the expansion of Starfleet, were now living on borrowed time – pantomiming through the motions of honour and valour.

This plays out wonderfully in the interactions between K’mpec and Kahlest. (It’s quite a nice touch for Moore to give the most honourable guest star a name evoking the founder of Klingon culture.) Michael Piller added the hint of history between K’mpec and Kahlest, which is just one of the episode’s delights. At the end, after K’mpec pays her a complement, Kahlest turns to the High Chancellor and remarks, “You are still fat, K’mpec.” K’mpec might dress up in fancy robes and sit in a big chair, but he’s really just a man, and Kahlest sees him as such.

Take a Chance(llor) on me...

Take a Chance(llor) on me…

It’s no wonder that the Great Hall grows gradually smaller in later appearances – in episodes like Redemption and even House of Quark. The Great Hall becomes a lot less “Great” the deeper we wade into Klingon culture and society. The more we see the pettiness and the bitterness, the harder it is to buy into the grand mythology of Klingon culture. Sure, the set shrank for budget reasons, but it’s still somewhat fitting.

Sins of the Father seems to point towards the corruption and decay that would take root in post-Cold War Russia, as political ideology gave way to greed and hunger for power. In Reunion, we witness the contest for leadership of the Klingon High Council following the death of K’mpec. Both Gowran and Duras are presented as cynical power-hungry opportunists who care little for the ideals of the Empire.

His brother's keeper...

His brother’s keeper…

In his rather wonderful The Art of the Impossible, Keith R.A. DeCandido completes the metaphor by suggesting that the House of Duras collaborated with the Romulans in order to secure their financial footing following the collapse of the economy. In the context of episodes like Sins of the Father, Reunion and Redemption, it is less explicit. The House of Duras conspires for the acquisition of power. Former ideological adversaries are simply a cynical means to an end.

Sins of the Father works absolutely beautifully, despite the problems with the first act. Moore even manages a bit of a trick with the ending. Although the actual and substantial consequences to Worf are minimal (exile doesn’t mean a lot when this is the first time we’ve seen Worf on Qo’nos), it still feels like an important blow to Worf. It still feels like Worf has taken a body blow, and that this decision means something in a way that the conclusion to episodes like The Vengeance Factor ultimately don’t.

A shadowy figure...

A shadowy figure…

Part of that is down to the show’s characterisation of Worf, and the way that his romantic attachment to his heritage has been made clear over the past couple of seasons. Part of that is simply good script-writing, with a nice bit of foreshadowing in an early conversation with Kurn. “A Klingon’s honour means more to him than his life,” we’re told, making the price Worf has paid seem all the more profound.

And the ending of Sins of the Father is striking. Yes, a modern television show might go further. Yes, it’s not too difficult to imagine a more experienced Ronald D. Moore revealing that Mogh actually was a traitor and Duras is just an ass. However, in the context of where The Next Generation was at the time, that ending was powerful stuff. Worf walks away carrying a burden, and it’s something that affects him deeply. (One of the wonders of Worf is that we know he’s so stoic that we don’t need to hear him mention it in the next episode, or the one after that. Worf carries that stuff inside, and we know that it stings.)

Riker's just glad he doesn't have a secret brother/twin/transporter clone out there anywhere...

Riker’s just glad he doesn’t have a secret brother/twin/transporter clone out there anywhere…

I’m not convinced that Sins of the Father ends with the promise of serialisation, like so many people have retroactively claimed. Moore himself has argued that even Rick Berman conceded that the thread had to be followed up. While it eventually became this big sprawling epic arc, it’s not to difficult to watch Sins of the Father on its own terms and be satisfied. The scene is certainly no more of a commitment to future exploration of these events than the end of Q Who? was in the second season.

Sins of the Father is a wonderfully bold piece of Star Trek, and proof that The Next Generation had truly become its own television show. It’s a watershed moment for the show, which seems to be having quite a few of those lately.

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

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